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Germany and Japan both committed horrific crimes against humanity in the lead up to, and during World War II. Both countries are now more or less democracies. Yet the two countries seem to have dealt with its past very differently.

Germany is very vigorous in preventing denial of the holocaust, and presumably other crimes committed by the Nazi regime. For example, it has jailed people for denying the holocaust, and it protested against Iran holding a holocaust denying conference.

By contrast, Japan is accused of denying World War II era atrocities. For example, it is accused of white-washing its history in school textbooks.

What reasons are there for the difference in how Japan and Germany has dealt with its past?

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7 Answers 7

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  1. The holocaust took place to some extent within Germany, and German Jews/gypsies/homosexuals were taken to extermination camps. There was no equivalent within Japan itself. Japanese war crimes took place in China and Korea, a long distance geographically and cognitively from people in Japan.

  2. The holocaust was separate from war. The Nazis wanted to exterminate certain people as a matter of principle. Japanese crimes took place in the context of war - they were carried out by soldiers in what was seen as enemy territory. A case could be made that Japanese war crimes in world war 2 were simply extreme cases of the type of crimes committed by almost all sides in almost all wars - massacres of civilians are pretty common.

But these two reasons alone don't seem to be sufficient, because the attitude to the Second World War in general seems to be totally different in the two countries, not just with regard to "crimes against humanity".

Germans seem genuinely shamed and embarrassed about the second world war and the Nazis. Even before the war ended many Germans blamed their own leaders for their suffering, rather than the Allied forces who were physically bombing and shooting them. To some extent this shame and embarassment is expressed by strict laws on mentioning Nazism or its ideas - the laws are not just for moral reasons, but also psychologically to prevent further shame and embarrassment.

In Japan meanwhile war is seen like some sort of natural disaster that causes great harm, like an earthquake or a tsunami. School children visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or build paper cranes, hoping war will not return. No-one seems to be blamed for the war, its causes are somehow abstract and unimportant.

I imagine the causes of this perceptual difference are rooted in the differing social and cultural histories of the countries many decades or even centuries prior to the second world war. I do not have sufficiently in depth knowledge to even attempt such an explanation.

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    Consider, also, that the Germans citizens were forced to tour the concentration camps to prevent them from denying what they did. This approach in Japan would not have been practical, given the distance they would have had to travel (China, Korea, etc.)
    – Lizz
    Apr 14, 2013 at 4:03
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    FWIW, and though this site is apparently not meant for discussion, I don't think the Japanese view of WW2 is any more skewed than that of people in countries that were on the winning side. The real world does not consist of Good Guys and Bad Guys, but shades of gray.
    – junichiro
    Apr 14, 2013 at 8:11
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    @Anixx: Prior to Operation Barbarossa, the USSR was very much an aggressor in the war.
    – dan04
    Jul 15, 2013 at 19:47
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    They invaded Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania per the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
    – dan04
    Jul 17, 2013 at 0:45
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    An additional point may be that Japan has, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two pieces of evidence of atrocities committed against Japan, while they have no evidence within Japan of war crimes committed by Japan.
    – SQB
    May 19, 2017 at 13:43
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An important factor is the posture of German versus Japanese leaders. For instance, when he was sentenced to hang at Nuremburg, Hans Frank, a leading Nazi opined: "A thousand years will pass and still Germany's guilt will not have been erased."

On the other hand, in his radioed "surrender announcement" to the Japanese people," the Emperor Hirohito said, "The war has developed, not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

Post war German leaders considered the Holocaust, and to a certain extent, the war itself, as a "crime." In Japan World War II is generally considered a "misfortune."

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    "In Japan World War II is generally considered a "misfortune."" Just out of curiosity, are there some references for that? Aug 15, 2017 at 12:06
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    Put another way, there is continuity of regime in Japan between the WWII regime and the present one. Criticism of Japan's WWII conduct is criticism of the current dynasty. The German government, in contrast, is a clean break from the Third Reich (not entirely, there is continuity of the civil code, e.g., but mostly), rebuilt from scratch, so criticizing the Third Reich isn't a criticism of the existing government.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 31, 2023 at 20:52
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Unlike Germany, Japan didn't undergo a similar procedure of de-nazification after the defeat. Due to urgency to fight off communism, US allowed many of previous fascist elements continue to play vital role in post war re-construction and Japanese politics. Naturally, these former fascist elements have grown a stronghold in modern right wing Japanese politics.

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    Fighting communism where? In Japan, Russia, or China? Was it more urgent than fighting communism in Germany and its neighbours, and if so, why?
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 8, 2013 at 7:26
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    Some analysts feared a destabilised Japan would be a breeding ground for communism. Partially why Hirohito was not prosecuted was to ensure Japan had a non-communist and strong state icon to ward off communism.
    – user2319
    Dec 25, 2013 at 17:58
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    Containing communism in Asia is quite important to US interest. US has a long tradition of being a Pacific and South-East Asia power. And it had vital business interests in those regions. Roosevelt partially received backing to sanction against Imperial Japan, before Pearl Harbour, because Japanese plan went directly against those interests e.g. Asia for Asian policy. However, practicality led US government took some former Japanese Fascist elements as latter allies, like they did with Nazi scientists.
    – user2319
    Dec 25, 2013 at 18:16
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    @user2319 if you think post-war Germany went through de-nazification you are wrong. People like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_Reinefarth responsible for executing 200,000 civilians were elected Mayors.
    – user14816
    Oct 4, 2017 at 6:22
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    "former fascist elements have grown a stronghold in modern right wing Japanese politics." Citation? Also, while Japan was an Axis power, it wasn't ideologically fascist in the sense that the WWII regimes of Germany and Italy were.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 31, 2023 at 20:54
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I would have preferred to post this as a comment, but alas, I don't have enough reputation. There are a few other things to consider:

  1. Germany is a member of the European Union, and before that other political treaties with western Europe. They were therefore held under much more scrutiny by their former enemies.

  2. The US were concerned about a communist revolution in Japan, so they (or possibly the Japanese themselves, I'm not sure on this point) initially censored some war crimes such as the Nanking massacre for fear that it would provoke sympathy among the Japanese for communism. Incidentally, the Chinese also censored the incident, as it was committed against the nationalist forces rather than the communists. These war crimes are no longer censored in Japan.

  3. Japan's neighbors (at the highest levels in politics) initially very willing to let bygones be bygones and didn't exert pressure on Japan to address these issues in the first few decades after the war. This may have been for political/economic reasons.

  4. It is also worth remembering the political context in East Asia before the war was very different to Europe as well. Most of Asia was under the control of one European power or another, and the Europeans themselves didn't have a good track record for their treatment of the people held under their dominion. The Geneva Convention did not cover actions used to suppress a rebellion (it only applied to wars between nations), so brutality and civilian massacres were not uncommon within the region. The Japanese are more aware of this than most Europeans, so in this broader context they may not see their actions as being exceptional enough to be singled out in the fashion the holocaust was.

You are also ignoring modern Japanese pacifism, which is very popular there. My impression is that the Japanese largely consider the war itself to be a crime, rather than focus on specific incidents that occur during the course of the war. There is wisdom in that.

Finally, you shouldn't take all criticism of Japan from Korea or China at face value. The "history wars" in East Asia has become highly politicized. For what it's worth, Japan's history text books are historically accurate.

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    "You are also ignoring modern Japanese pacifism, which is very popular there. My impression is that the Japanese largely consider the war itself to be a crime, rather than focus on specific incidents that occur during the course of the war." This may be an accurate description of Japanese pacifism but still I would argue that this is somehow a twisted view on war. After all war doesn't just happen but is most of the times actively pursued. We cannot all be just victims of the circumstances. Might be some kind of denial of the past. Aug 15, 2017 at 12:03
  • Note that I said "the war", not "war". Would you disagree that the invasion of China in the name of Japanese imperialism was a crime? Aug 16, 2017 at 1:58
  • Now I realize you said "the war". Still the general comments should hold true. The war didn't just happen but was actively pursued. Not all combatants were victims of the circumstances. Just declaring the whole thing a crime without any differentiation might be seen as some kind of denial of particular contributions to the war. Aug 16, 2017 at 7:15
  • It could be seen as a denial, but I don't believe that's the intention. It is a different way of looking at matters. Indeed, you could argue that the European focus on war crimes and demonizing Germany was a way of downplaying their own militaristic imperialism. However, from my experience with Europeans/Japanese, I don't believe that is the case. CAVEAT: Japan does have neo-nationalists who certainly do actively downplay Japanese WW2 aggression. They are politically influential, but are a minority of the population. Germany has these sorts of people too, but they are more marginalized. Aug 21, 2017 at 2:43
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After WWII Germany wasn't really in a position to deny anything. Like it got a defeat without conditions, the country was occupied entirely and split between 4 countries, many concentration camps were liberated by the allies themselves so they were still intact and told their own story. So unlike many other countries the deeds and their paper trail was so well conserved and available to the global audience that there was really no point in denying that.

Not to mention that both newly found German states were front lines of the cold war and were integrated into their respective blocks which had both been enemies in the war who were themselves on the receiving end of that or at least had full access to those facts, so there was no reason they should take any bullshit on that.

The allies also attempted a de-nazification, however the success of that seems to be vastly overstated. Like in the USSR occupied zone there was an emblematic narrative of "we are the antifascists", while fascism was the direct consequence of capitalism and so anti-fascism was really more of an anti-capitalism and the imagery serving as de-nazification disregarding individual involvement and consequences of that. So perpetrators became part of the resistance and fascism is a universal problem no relation to the individual.

While the western allies had a more ambitious programs (each one their own with varying grades of ambition), especially the Americans arguing with a 50 year plan to re-educate or "at least a generation of occupation", however by 1948 the U.S. had already lacked interest in pursuing the combat against latent nazism, especially the minute investigation between "follower" and "perpetrator" and instead was more occupied with the Eastern Bloc.

And after that Nazis basically rolled back all of that. Like seriously they banned the death penalty (not bad per se but dubious in context), pardoned those judged by the allies, reintroduced officials and higher ups into their former positions, passed laws that included assistance to genocide on the list of crimes with a period of prescription (so that their crimes just based the period without any legal consequences) and didn't pursue or actively discouraged processes against Nazis. Reparation largely went to German victim and those western allies which couldn't be avoided, no reparation to Eastern Europe despite the most damage being done there. While generally applying a "forward facing attitude" and an unofficial "don't ask don't tell" policy in terms of personal involvement in the Nazi regime. So in effect former Nazis were reintroduced into society as if nothing ever happened. While victims of the Nazi jurisdictions had to wait until 1998-2009 for nazi era convictions to be pardoned. Like convictions for defecting soldiers were legal until 2009 while de-nazification judgements got pardoned in the 50s and 60s.

Like seriously the list of former Nazi party members that were politically active after 1945 is long: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_ehemaliger_NSDAP-Mitglieder,_die_nach_Mai_1945_politisch_t%C3%A4tig_waren

While the processes against Nazi perpetrators came late took long and led to few convictions. With few exceptions it took until the next generation and the late 50 and a new resurgence of anti-semitism to be contrasted with first attempts to investigate and educate about the Nazi era. By the late 60s to early early 70s there was a clash between the generations and the process of dealing with the Nazi era was an important part of that and by the 80s and 90s there were already many who wanted to put an end to the remembrance of the Nazi era crimes. So anything but "de-nazification" being an overwhelming success story.

The bitter irony is that the alienation of the de-nazification process and the problem of a clear demarcation line between a perpetrator and follower, lead to serious war criminals getting grouped in the same category as actual followers creating a larger group of people with a sympathy towards amnesty as the feared personal consequences for themselves because of their history. Not to mention probably a demand of competent personnel which was hard to find without a background in Nazism. Like the former Wehrmacht and secret service who were heavily involved in the execution of Nazi crimes, mostly got a pass due to being necessary in terms of anti-communism, which also added to the picture of serious criminals getting a pass while lower level contributors being made an example.

So reintegrating and rehabilitating Nazis defused that problem, but at the price of them letting them get away scots free with a genocide and giving them power and political influence, again. Ironically it was probably also easier to accept a "collective guilt", if that meant that there is no individual guilt and no personal consequences. Though the attitude of the war generation apparently actually was to just keep going and not talk about it. So it's really more the success of the following generations that meant a break with Nazi era traditions and pushed for investigation and education.

PS: Another point why the de-nazification was probably more likely to succeed was prosperity. Like being able to rebuild and gain prosperity outside of theft and in combination with a different system probably helped to erode the conservative narrative of "in the good old days everything was better".

So tl;dr maybe a combination of the inability to deny and create a revisionist history on the spot, due to overwhelming evidence and reliance on the former enemies as partners in the proceeding decades, in combination with a new generation that demanded answer to the questions rather than proceeding with the silence?

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Something which was not mentioned in previous answers is that Germany was divided and occupied by 4 different powers. It also has suffered big territorial loses including core German territories. Germany stayed divided for more then half of a century. Nothing similar has happened to Japan. Japanese emperor was not punished and even kept his power. So different consequences for each of these countries is definitely one of the reasons. Also many Germans were treated the same way as their victims before, nothing Japanese had to face. Together with some of its former enemies and/or victims Germany is a member of EU and NATO, not good places for revisionism.

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    Japan itself remained much the same, apart from the temporary occupation of Okinawa, and the issue of the Kuril islands, but it did lose its colonies.
    – Golden Cuy
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:02
  • @Andrew Grimm Colonies are not core territory and Kuril islands are stil contested territory.
    – convert
    Jan 31, 2023 at 21:06
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Unlike Japan, Germany has already lost the First World War. After losing the First World War, Germany was much more revisionist than Japan is now. This revisionism led Germany into the Second World War, which ended in an even greater catastrophe for Germany than the previous one. Germany has learned from this that revisionism is not good. Japan has not had a similar experience.

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