What Japan Cannot Learn from Germany
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

What Japan Cannot Learn from Germany


Reports on contemporary Japanese diplomacy usually mention and often focus on the large role that the history of World War II plays in Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors. Japan’s murderous past keeps making headlines, often through comments from politicians, public officials, lobbying groups, or historians. U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement, during his recent Korea visit, that Japan’s use of South Korean comfort women during the war was an egregious violation of human rights is but one of many examples.

In trying to understand why Japan’s past casts such a long shadow onto its present, one promising approach is to compare the country to its erstwhile World War II ally, Germany. That country’s targeted campaign of genocide still plays an important role in shaping the country’s national identity, but Germany’s past still does not weigh as heavily on its relations with its neighbors as Japan’s does. Through a difficult and arduous process of confronting, remembering, and on occasion apologizing for its Nazi past, Germany has come to terms with its history and reconciled with the victims of its past aggression. Faced with this evidence, it is tempting to conclude that the more strained, sometimes poisoned relations that Japan has with its Asian neighbors are a direct product of the way in which it dealt – or failed to deal – with its wartime history.

The most recent instance of this line of argument can be found in Jochen Bittner’s New York Times op-ed, “What Germany Can Teach Japan” published last month. Bittner argues that postwar Germany has become “normal” – defined as “earning and enjoying the trust of its neighbors” – because it dealt properly with its history of genocidal mass murder. If Japan also wants to become normal, he recommends, it should simply follow the German example.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But it is not that simple. The fact that Germany has achieved “normalcy” cannot be reduced to the way it dealt and deals with its history. Factors beyond Germany’s control, including fortunate circumstances and cooperative neighbors, played a far more important role and make Germany’s recipe for normalcy impossible for Japan. A brief glance at Japan’s postwar history reveals at least five factors which explain why, almost 70 years after the war, Germany is surrounded by friendly allies and Japan is not.

First, as unity among the Allies who had vanquished Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War Two after 1945 gave way to the competition between capitalist democracies and communist autocracies, West Germany was integrated into NATO, while Japan found cover under America’s nuclear umbrella. German dependence on a multilateral treaty system, supported by three nuclear powers (United States, Great Britain and France) gave that country some room to negotiate, and on occasions exploit, differences between its three protectors. Differences between the U.S. and France were to become particularly important for Germany’s future. Japan, on the other hand, has been locked since 1945 into a bilateral relationship with the U.S. where the latter enjoys (and shows little inclination to relinquish) monopoly power in matters of protection, leaving Japan relatively little negotiating room.

Second, while the ideological conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is commonly known as the Cold War, the term is appropriate only in the West. In Asia the conflict between the capitalist and communist camp was fought at a much higher temperature in a series of proxy wars: first in Korea, then in Vietnam (and secretly in Laos and Cambodia) and finally in Afghanistan. This did not create a climate that encouraged Japanese foreign policymakers to seek freedom from U.S. protection. The already close security relationship only grew closer.

Third, Germany borders France, a country that aspired after the war to return to the status of a “Grande Nation,” independent of superpower influence. To do that, France needed a relationship to balance her dependence on U.S. protection. What better choice than Germany, the world’s second largest economy before the war, soon to become Europe’s economic powerhouse. Certainly, the West German government deserves credit for seizing the opportunity that France offered and for developing the Franco-German relationship over the years into what today is the European Union. But this would have been impossible without France’s goodwill, initiative and cooperation. Faulting Japan for not having done something similar is short-sighted, for which country in the Far East is Asia’s counterpart to France? Most Asian countries were still colonies in the early postwar period, thus unable to formulate an independent foreign policy and form alliances with Japan. In fact, the only nation of France’s stature in Asia in the postwar period was the People’s Republic of China. Does anyone seriously believe that Washington would have stood by idly watching if Japan had sought to establish a relationship with communist China similar to that between Germany and France in Europe?

Fourth, German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” – that is, his offer of reconciliation across the Iron Curtain, memorably symbolized by kneeling in front of the Ghetto Uprising Memorial in Warsaw in 1970 – became possible only after Germany had cemented its Atlantic relation with the U.S. and begun laying the foundation for the EU. Only because Germany enjoyed the military protection provided by NATO, access to European markets, and peace in Europe did German leaders feel able to try not only more democracy, but also a rapprochement with communist neighbors in Eastern Europe. Within the U.S.-sponsored security architecture put in place in Asia, Japan never enjoyed the degree freedom that Germany exercised under Brandt. Offending U.S. interests was and remains too risky for a country that depends on U.S. protection in military affairs and access to U.S. markets.

Finally, while the end of the Cold War was experienced as a turning point for many European countries, especially in Germany, there was no corresponding watershed moment in Asia. As the Soviet Union dissolved, its republics and satellites regained true sovereignty, and Germany was reunited. In spite of the tremendous economic growth experienced in Asia, the predominant perception there is one of political stasis. Korea remains divided. So does China. Authoritarian regimes are still in place. The year 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin wall at the center of Europe, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in Asia. So is it any wonder that Japan sought and seeks to align itself more closely to its protector, the U.S., while occasionally trying to negotiate some freedom within the existing structure? As John Mearsheimer has convincingly argued, Tokyo’s recent hard line against Beijing can also be understood as an attempt to assure the U.S. of Japan’s loyalty in the unfolding competition between China and America. If one recalls the Ancient Roman precept “divide et impera,” one wonders if thorough reconciliation among Asian nations really is in America’s interest, as continued American dominance over the region is premised on division.

Given all these differences in Germany and Japan’s respective geopolitical environments, it is not really fair to explain Japan’s failure to become “normal” like Germany by pointing to the different ways in which these two countries have dealt with their past. Perhaps the question of whether Japan is normal should be decided by comparing it not with Germany, but with other nations around the world, most of which find it hard to apologize to the peoples they have victimized in the past. It took France 50 years after Algerian independence before President François Hollande admitted in 2012 that French rule over Algeria had been “profoundly unjust and brutal” – yet he still made a point of not apologizing. Has England apologized for massacres committed during its rule over India? Not yet. Have we heard Italy apologizing for its genocidal campaign in Ethiopia during the 1930s? Or Turkey for the genocide of the Armenians? Don’t hold your breath. And all the people of Vietnam have gotten out of the U.S. so far is Robert McNamara’s statement that the Vietnam war was “wrong, terribly wrong.”

The true tragedy is not that Japan has failed to face its past, but that this failure is so common among the nations of this world that it is normal.

Stefano von Loë is an international business consultant in Hamburg, Germany and has a PhD in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief