Japan’s History Problem
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s History Problem


The “history issue” again raised its ugly head for Japan when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to get even a very brief session with South Korean President Park Geun-hye while they were both in Southeast Asia for summit meetings last week.

It is interesting to note how often discussions of “history” end with the question: “Why can’t Japan be like Germany?” A recent article in Korea’s Dong-A IlboGermany never forgets its past wrongdoings” is typical. Few stories in the foreign press about Yasukuni, the Nanjing Massacre, or the sex slaves fail to denigrate Japan for not showing as much remorse as Germany has.

By international standards, Japan’s handling of its history is actually above average. Unlike Turkey with the Armenian Genocide, the Japanese government is not in a state of denial. Nor does Japan, as the Chinese Communist Party does, put a mass murderer (Mao Zedong) on its banknotes. General Tojo’s soul shares Yasukuni with millions of soldiers and sailors in relative obscurity, but Lenin, founding father of totalitarianism, lies mummified in a mausoleum in the heart of Moscow. Western democracies have dealt with what would today be labeled crimes against humanity, such as the slaughter of native peoples in the New World and in their colonies, slavery, and other deeds, in varying ways, including ignorance, indifference and negation. A few kilometers from Washington D.C., lies a highway named after Jefferson Davis, who presided over the Confederate States of America during their struggle to uphold slavery.

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In the end, though, Japan is always judged based on how West Germany (and later a reunited Germany) has faced its Nazi past since the chancellorship of Willy Brandt (1969-1974). This contrast makes Japan look very much like an underperformer. There is no photograph of a Japanese prime minister bowing in Nanjing to match the famous shot of Brandt kneeling in Warsaw. Tokyo lacks a counterpart to the giant Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Japanese governments have taken a narrow legalistic approach to requests for compensation to the sex slaves and forced laborers of Imperial Japan, whereas Germany has generally been more forthcoming in paying for claims. German leaders do not engage in self-destructive debates about the definition of invasion. Angela Merkel would not offer tokens of respect to shrines honoring men hanged following the Nuremberg Trial. Berlin does not order its diplomats to protest against the erection of memorials to victims of the Nazis.

To some Japanese, it seems unfair to benchmark their country to Germany. For various reasons, Germany is an outlier when it comes to its relationship with its darkest era. Moreover, one of the roots of Japan’s perceptions of history is the legacy of U.S. policy. The United States did not “purge” Japan with the same intensity as it denazified Germany. Albert Speer, who ran Germany’s armaments industry (and its slaves), was sentenced to twenty years behind bars. His counterpart in Japan, Nobusuke Kishi, was quickly released by U.S. authorities, and then rose to be prime minister (when the CIA funded the ruling Liberal Democratic Party). The Showa Emperor (Hirohito) not only escaped indictment, but was even spared testifying at the Tokyo Trials. In his later years, U.S. President Richard Nixon welcomed the Emperor on Japan’s first imperial visit to America. Washington granted amnesty to the murderous physicians of Unit 731. These actions were perfectly logical at the time, but they obviously had consequences for Japanese interpretations of the Showa War. If president Eisenhower and the U.S. Congress had welcomed a former member of Hitler’s cabinet to Washington as they did Prime Minister Kishi, it would have sent to Germans the message that the Nazi era was not that bad after all.

Japan cannot escape this juxtaposition with Germany. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were Axis allies. Both were defeated by the same coalition in World War II. Due to this doomed marriage, Hitler’s Germany is unavoidably the nation that comes up when discussing Showa Japan.

This link will not go away. Posthumous divorces are not recognized in the civil code. The Japanese Cabinet’s actions in dealing with the 1931-45 conflict will always be graded on a “German scale.” Cases of partial “historical amnesia,” though they are the norm worldwide, are thus perceived as particularly odious. They also undermine Japan’s interests by needlessly increasing anti-Japanese sentiment.

Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan ([email protected]

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