The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germany won respect by addressing its World War II crimes. Japan, not so much.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe go for a handshake during a welcoming ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin April 30, 2014. (REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz )
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This Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will give a statement designed to mark the 70th anniversary of his country's defeat in World War II. Whatever he says, Abe's wording will be scrutinized in Japan and abroad. Many have suggested that Abe might try to water down the official line on Japan's guilt in the conflict, part of what is perceived as a broader effort to remilitarize Japan.

The interest in Abe's speech stands in stark contrast with the situation in Germany, another major defeated power in World War II. While Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow in May to commemorate the end of the war in Europe and gave a statement that said Nazi Germany was "responsible" for millions of dead during the conflict, her comments faced little of the heated public scrutiny that accompanies every word that the Japanese leader says about World War II.

“Japan will never be another Germany,” Doowon Heo, a 36-year-old teacher from South Korea, explained to the Associated Press. “The number of people who have personally experienced the colonial era will continue to decline, but Japan continues to refresh our memory about what it was like then.”

However, the same poll found that an equal number of people in Japan and Germany felt that apologies no longer needed to be made, and a larger proportion of Germans (55 percent) than Japanese (46 percent) felt that apologies should continue to be made.

Another poll, conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015, found that neither Japan nor Germany viewed World War II as the most important factor in their relations with the United States. A larger amount of Japanese said that the U.S.-Japan military alliance and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami were more important than the War for relations with the United States, while many Germans say that the fall of the Berlin Wall is the most important factor. These perspectives were not shared by Americans, for whom World War II is still considered the most important event in relations with both Germany and Japan.

When it comes to expressions of regret, according to Pew, 37 percent Americans believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions. However, a further 24 percent say no apology is required. These figures are actually slightly more positive than the corresponding numbers for Germany: 33 percent of Americans say Germany has apologized sufficiently and 21 percent say no apology is necessary.

Where there's a real disparity between the two nations, however, is in their relations with their closer neighbors. The Asahi Shimbun poll found that a huge 94 percent of Germans felt that relations were good with their neighbors, despite the damage wrought by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

This seems a fair conclusion: Germany's relations with its neighbors is currently defined by their joint membership of the European Union, a continent-wide project devoted to economic and political cooperation. Any immediate threat of a military conflict between Germany and France, for example, seems virtually nonexistent.

Not so for Japan. In particular, Japan and China are involved in territorial disputes that do have the capacity to turn violent, and relations with South Korea are also heated at times. According to the Asahi Shimbun poll, half of Japan believes its relations with the neighbors it fought with during World War II are bad, and just 46 percent believe they are good.

It seems that a perceived lack of remorse over Imperial Japan's military actions may be behind this. Another Pew poll, this time from 2013, found that just 1 percent of South Koreans felt that Japan had adequately apologized for its military actions, with China only a few points higher.

What explains this discrepancy? Clearly Western Europe and East Asia are different neighborhoods, but on the surface of it there appears to be a lot of similarities in these cases. Both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan committed horrifying atrocities during World War II, for example. Both also suffered greatly during World War II – Germany in fact lost a greater percentage of its population in the fighting, but Japan suffered the ill-effects of two nuclear bombs. After the war, both countries had war crimes trials and tribunals brought against them, with wartime leaders punished. Both countries have since become important allies to the United States and Western Europe and economic powerhouses. And both countries have officially apologized: Japan has made at least four official statements that are considered apologies for Imperial Japan's conduct in the 1930s and 1940s.

The manner in which apologies have been made may be an especially important factor in explaining the different attitudes to Japan and Germany, however. Many in Europe remember the case of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor who unexpectedly dropped to his knees when he visited a memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970, or the speech German President Richard von Weizsaecker gave in 1985 when he said those who attempted to deny Nazi atrocities were “blind to the present.”

Japan has never had a similar moment of abject, emotive public remorse. Instead, official apologies from Japanese officials have been perceived as too little and too late, and often contradicted by other comments from officials that seemed to whitewash history or question whether Imperial Japan's atrocities really occurred. Part of the problem is a refusal among Japanese conservatives to allow all aspects of Imperial Japan – a period that spanned almost 80 years as opposed to Nazi Germany's 12 – to be condemned. In Japan, it's not rare to see the Rising Sun flag, for example, a flag that many South Korean and Chinese critics compare to the Swastika. Prime Minister Abe and other Japanese leaders before him have visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a shrine that commemorates all who died in service of the Empire of Japan, including a number of people considered war criminals.

After 70 years, it's hard to see Abe's speech could placate critics of Japan's wartime conduct, and he also has to balance concerns of how to appease Japan's international critics with domestic calls to put Japan's past behind it. Earlier this year, as Merkel visited Japan, she gave some veiled advice: Saying that Germany was only able to build a good relationship with its neighbors by calling "things by their name."

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