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?

  • There were no japanese version of Willy Brandt. It's amazing that noone mentioned this name in the answers on this quite interesting question. – lowtech Mar 8 '17 at 17:18
  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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    I was kind of hoping that differing social and cultural histories weren't the cause, for two reasons. 1) It means changing the situation may be more difficult. 2) I feel uncomfortable to say that people from country X are different to people from country Y. However, you thought seriously about this question before answering it. – Andrew Grimm Apr 14 '13 at 3:08
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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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 at 19:47
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    They invaded Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania per the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. – dan04 Jul 17 '13 at 0:45

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? – Trilarion Aug 15 '17 at 12:06

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? – Andrew Grimm Dec 8 '13 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 '13 at 17:58
  • 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 '13 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 '17 at 6:22

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. – Trilarion Aug 15 '17 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? – Matt Thompson Aug 16 '17 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. – Trilarion Aug 16 '17 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. – Matt Thompson Aug 21 '17 at 2:43

I suspect the answer is politics.

In the Cold War Israel became an ally of the United States while China (against whom the most atrocities by the Japanese were committed) remains an enemy.

It you consider the degree of anti-Soviet and anti-Russian revisionism in Germany and Eastern Europe you would notice that it remains roughly at the same level.

In Baltic states there are even annual SS veterans parades and military maneuvers following the path of selected SS divisions. Yet to seem politically correct they accompany it with some reverences towards Israel and the Jews (such as opening some new synagogues etc). Yet they do not try to hinder the degree of Russophobia.

In short, much of the WWII ideology remains in use in all Axis countries, with some prohibited topics, one being Anti-Semitism.

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    This answer would greatly benefit from references. Please take some time to read our FAQ, we have a "back it up" rule for answers. – yannis Apr 13 '13 at 15:43
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    Israel was originally considered (by Stalin) a natural ally of USSR and USSR recognized the state of Israel easier than USA did. Most Western countries didn't become "allied" to Israel until much later. So your second paragraph is not quite as simple of an answer as you portray. Also, South Korea also became American ally, so by your logic there should be no difference between Japanese treatment of Koreans and German treatment of the Jews as far as recognition is concerned visavi cold war alignments. – user4012 Apr 15 '13 at 19:13

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