Coping with your own wrongdoings: Germany vs Japan

Davey Meelker

During the Second World War two aggressors were conquering many countries, namely Germany and Japan. Both countries were defeated in 1945 and both countries have a completely different way of coping with their war history. When we asked Japanese people about the war they try to change the subject. People, especially the younger ones, don’t want to talk about the war that led to the biggest military defeat in the Japanese history. In Germany people, again especially the younger ones, also don’t to talk about the war that often. The difference is that Germans born after the war are overloaded about facts about the war and the terrible role Germany played in it. In Japan this is unthinkable.

It is interesting to notice how both countries are coping with their defeats. In Germany a huge and impressive Holocaust museum is established, commemorating the many Jews and others who died in this terrible genocide. In Tokyo a shrine is erected were class-A war criminals are enshrined and the attached museum tells a hugely favourable story about Japan during the war. Last week the Japanese cabinet minister Jin Matsubara visited the shrine to pay his respect. What caused this difference between the two countries?

Nowadays the Japanese are friendly, extremely polite, but also very proud. Furthermore in Japanese culture ‘losing face’ seems the worst thing thinkable. As a result it is hard to admit that the many atrocities the Japanese committed were just wrong. In the Yushukan museum in Tokyo it is even stressed that although Japan lost the war that through the decolonisation process the Japanese ideals were still implemented. They claim a moral victory. Some of the older generation still have trouble admitting their military loss. An old man told us that “it is still shame that we didn’t persist in the war.” This something you will never hear in Germany. The museum in Tokyo confirms the old man’s view and stressed that after the explosions of the two atomic bombs the Japanese spirits and confidence were never been so high. Only out of the great loyalty to the emperor who surrendered did they put their guns down.

After the war the victors divided Germany, while Japan was briefly occupied by the US (until 1952). This left the Japanese the culture and policies intact, while in Germany a strict anti Nazi government was established.

But besides the cultural explanation, there is also a political one. When Japan lost the war they were apologetic towards the US, who soon became their closest ally. Nevertheless, most of the atrocities were committed against Asians. At that time other Asians countries were politically and economically weak and had not much leverage to force Japan to apologize. Japan, could easily get away with it.

Germany murdered mostly Westerners and therefore could not get away with it. Germany was conquered by different western powers (including the Soviet Union) that became the next world powers. They made the German atrocities against their fellow Westerner extremely clear: Germany was responsible for blackest pages of Europe’s modern history and had to cope with the feeling of guilt. As a consequence, children learn about the role of Germany during the war from a very young age, memorials are erected and lots of apologizes are made. Compensation is paid to survivors and relatives of the murdered.

The consequences of different ways of coping with war are shocking. First of all, there is the aspect of humanity. By recognizing the atrocities and apologizing for it, it helps victims dealing with past. Furthermore, it is a warning for humankind and a lesson to let this never happen again. Other than that, there is much more.

Because modern Germany distanced itself completely for what happened and sincerely apologized for what the country did, the country soon established good relationships and economical ties with the region. Now Germany is not only a respected member of the EU, it even has the leadership role in a united Europe. It is a great motor of the European economy.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government doesn’t recognize most of the atrocities and never distanced itself from it. Consequently, this subject obstructs relation with other Asians countries, especially South Korea and China, up till this day.

This resulted in fierce reactions of other countries in region. For example, recently South Korea and Japan were verbally fighting over disputed islands after the South Korean president Lee visited the island which Japan claims to be part of their territory.

The fact that Japan never admitted Nanjing Massacre in 1937 still bothers China and is a major source of conflict. China succeeded in mobilizing others to block the Japanese entrance to the security in council in 2005. In the same year massive protests broke out throughout China because of the publication of a new school textbook that downplays the Japanese crimes during the war. The sympathy of the region was overwhelming on the Chinese side.

Furthermore, there are also the disputes over islands. According to China some islands were taken by Japan when it colonized Taiwan in 1894 and were historically part of China. Therefore they should be returned after the Japanese defeat in 1945. This is also a big trigger for clashes. In late 2010 the Japanese coastguard arrested the captain and the crew of ship entering the waters close to the island, resulting in diplomatic crisis and a of wave anti-Japanese demonstrations. Recently, fourteen Chinese people were arrested by the Japanese coast guards when they were entering the disputed islands. As a reaction Japanese activists planted the Japanese flag on the disputed islands, causing the biggest anti-Japanese demonstrations since 2005 in China.

Germany and Japan: two different ways in coping with the war. Not only in terms of humanity is it important to condemn the atrocities, but by doing this it paved the way for Germany to be the motor of a modern united Europe. Meanwhile Japan will face a difficult future. After the war Japan didn’t invest in relationships with the region, because Japan established huge economic growth and didn’t need allies in the region since they had great ties with Washington. Now, the influence of its ally America is declining worldwide (especially in Asia) and the global power balances are shifting. China is economically growing fast and in august 2010 China replaced Japan as the largest economy of Asia. Japan could ignore the region for a long time, but it is getting more difficult everyday.

Japan en Germany: both aggressors in a cruel war, but with a different history, a different culture, a different policy and a different future.

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  1. What is really said at the Yasukuni-Jinja Museum, Yusukan « - October 1, 2012

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