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A difficult reconciliation process

Hans Spross / gdAugust 13, 2015

Even 70 years after the end of World War II, Japan has found it difficult to clearly distance itself from its wartime past. DW takes a look at the reasons behind it and how Japan differs from Germany in this regard.

Japan Kapitulation USS Missouri 2. September 1945
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/United States Library Of Congres

Has Japan not learned anything from its defeat in WWII and the senseless suffering it had to endure? The growing nationalist sentiment in the East Asian country in recent years and the government's penchant for revising the nation's history are increasingly raising such questions and assumptions.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statements and actions have also reinforced this view, as he appears to distance himself from apologies made by his predecessors for Japan's crimes committed during the war. Abe, like many Japanese premiers, has also visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the country's war dead, including convicted war criminals.

No consensus

The pronounced nationalism of PM Abe and some of his advisors and supporters, however, does not provide a true insight into the complex reality of the Japanese attitudes towards their wartime past. In this context, Japan experts refer to a persistent schism between the government's "politics of memory" and the social discourse.

"The whole issue of remembering the wartime past is highly controversial in Japan given the different aims and interests involved," Sebastian Conrad, a historian at Berlin's Free University, told DW. Unlike in Germany where there are no major differences in the views held by the government, the parliament and a vast majority of the public on the subject, this is very much a contentious issue in Japan.

Japanische Flagge Bild Shinzo Abe Hideki Tojo Verbrennung japanisches Konsulat Hong Kong Protest
Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in 2013 triggered protests in China and South KoreaImage: Reuters

'It takes two sides to make a success'

Japan's post-war governments have been of the view that the nation has taken responsibility for its war crimes as it has provided both economic aid and arranged for bilateral compensation provisions. And while there have been more advanced campaigns aimed at international understanding - seeking for instance to establish common school books with South Korea - "they have not come from the politicians themselves," said Gesine Foljanty, a Japan expert at Germany's Halle-Wittenberg University.

Asia expert Ian Buruma said in a DW interview that Japan also has student exchange programs and town twinning arrangements with its Asian neighbors, albeit on a smaller scale than those in Europe. But he also pointed out that "it takes two sides to make a success out of such initiatives. The Chinese and Koreans have to be receptive, and this is not always the case."

Besides, he added, it is not easy having an open dialogue with China, since opinion, on historical matters as much as on contemporary politics, is so tightly controlled. "Japan should perhaps do more to affect reconciliation, but it cannot do so unilaterally."

Oktober 1945 US General Douglas MacArthur & Hirohito Kaiser von Japan
US General Douglas MacArthur (L) and Japanese Emperor Hirohito (R) are seen in this photo taken in Manila in October 1945 following Japan's surrenderImage: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The Weizsäcker Speech

In 1949, as Germany's constitution or "Grundgesetz" was being passed, Theodor Heuss - a member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) who later became German president - said that on May 8, 1945, Germany was both destroyed and liberated at the same time. These words show that a dual view of the country's military defeat had already been held in Germany long before Richard von Weizsäcker's highly acclaimed 1985 speech, in which he referred to that date as the "day of liberation."

The Weizsäcker speech was also met with a positive response in Japan, as Conrad explains: "It was adopted in several different ways. It was translated, published and enjoyed a high circulation even two years after the actual speech. It was quoted in particular by rights activists and intellectuals aiming to encourage the Japanese government to make greater public gestures."

Deutschland Geschichte Kapitel 4 1979 – 1989 Richard von Weizsäcker Rede im Bundestag
The Weizsäcker speech in 1985 was met with a positive response in JapanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But as historian Buruma points out, such a dual view of the wartime past was not to be expected in Japan: "First of all, the history of the war itself is not entirely comparable to Germany's. There was no Japanese Hitler, or even a Nazi Party. The Japanese Empire fought a war with Western imperial powers in Asia."

Japan's fixation on the US

For the United States, Japan's reappraisal of its wartime past ended with the sentencing of the country's most important political and military leaders in the Tokyo war crimes trials. Moreover, just as in Germany after the Nuremberg trials, the US was mainly interested in having a reliable partner in the ensuing Cold War against Communist China and the Soviet Union.

However, as Conrad points out, there is an important difference between Japan and Germany in this regard: "Although Japan was integrated into the Western alliance, the country's post-war politics were closely linked to those of the United States, leading to Japan's separation from its regional context." This was different from Germany which, since the onset, took part in the "European project" driven by its friendship with France.

By contrast, "the feeling of being responsible or on the receiving end of criticism from neighboring Asian countries was absent in Japan," said Conrad. Only after the Cold War ended did critical voices from China, Korea or Taiwan start being noticed in Japan.

Leading the way

As a result, the Japanese government started to indicate its willingness to practice self-criticism and issue a public apology in the mid 1990s. Japanese prime ministers led the way with public gestures of apology in 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, and in 1998, on the issue of the so-called "comfort women."

Japan Ex-Premierminister Tomiichi Murayama
Former PM Tomiichi Murayama has urged Abe to uphold Japan’s apology for its wartime aggressionImage: Reuters/T. Hanai

However, as Conrad indicates, these gestures were neither as symbolic as German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Warsaw Genuflection nor as spontaneous. "This is why they didn't have the same impact," the analyst explained.

However, the expert stressed, there has been a change of wind in Japan ever since, with nationalist groups both in parliament and government reshaping the narrative on how the nation's wartime past ought to be interpreted.

China's assertive stance on the East China Sea dispute as well as on similar rows with neighboring countries has rekindled Japan's nationalist tendencies. Nonetheless, it's been reported that in a bid to ease regional tensions, Japan's PM Shinzo Abe will use the words "apology" and "aggression" in his upcoming speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.