Different Approaches to War Crime and Memory in Germany and Japan since 1980

Seventy Years after World War II, How Should We Remember?

Seventy years have passed since the end of World War II, and people in Germany and around the world are still asking how the history of suffering represented by the Holocaust can be kept alive. As an increasing number of the last surviving witnesses passes away, the chance to express “authentic” memory is rapidly diminishing.

Under these circumstances, surprisingly, people’s sense of obligation to remember this catastrophic history is increasing: If we do not learn from history, we cannot have a peaceful future. Because of this conviction, the devastation and evils wrought by mankind—such as the Holocaust, the Nanking Massacre, and the bombing of Hiroshima—should be reflected on and preserved in the form of remembrance. If not, the young generation will not have a chance to learn something from the “bad” history and could repeat the same mistakes.

It is therefore important that the discussion about memory culture of the “post-generation” should be more actively advanced in the perpetrators’ countries than in the victims’ countries. The history of trauma can find a way to recover on one condition: if the offender recognizes the traumatic events instead of concealing them, and tries to take responsibility fully for the past crimes and to remember these mistakes.

In this respect, we can compare Japanese memorial culture in its post-generation, which rids itself of guilt from Japanese war crimes, with that of Germany, which still shows responsibility for its country’s previous war crimes. While Germany is regarded as a well-known role model for repairing and reconstructing the past, Japan’s historical point of view is still controversial, especially in Northeast Asia.

Most recently, the “comfort women” issue exposed a Japanese war crime that has been largely ignored over the last seventy years. While a political agreement on the issue was reached, the problem grew worse because Japan did not clearly express its legal responsibility as the perpetrator. This case exemplifies the problem of Japanese memory policy and post-memorial culture. Japan has tried to find a solution in political logic and economic restitution, while it has neglected the trauma experienced by a number of victims in Asia. This Japanese way of dealing with history also makes a reconstruction of the past very difficult between China, Japan, and South Korea, and worsens national sentiment. The question of how to mourn and how to remember is still valid and directly connected with peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia.

Post-Generation and Turn of Memory

The matter of memory has been one of the most controversial issues in Japan and Germany since the 1980s. Considering the historical distortion and minimization of Japanese war crimes in Japanese textbooks, which has been fiercely criticized in East Asia, it seems that Japanese memory policy for the younger generation is problematic.

The victims, who were silenced by the ideology of the Cold War and the need for economic aid, started to speak out in the 1980s. They condemned Japanese-authorized textbooks that did not admit their war crimes as an invasion, causing an Asia-wide uproar. This was followed over the succeeding years by steadily expanding demands for compensation and apology.[1]

The response from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s cabinet to this was to push ahead, under the motto of the “end for the postwar policy,” glossing over Japan’s wartime atrocities in textbooks. The prime minister further demonstrated his stance when he officially visited the Yasukuni Shrine and paid his respects to the fallen—after he emphasized the glory of the nation-state at the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. His words were then emblazoned in the Asahi Shimbun headline: “The nation and state, let us forget the disgrace of the past and make progress toward the glory in the future.”[2]

In this speech and in his behavior, we can read the intention: as a part of the official memory policy, he wants to erase the evil past and cut the young generation off from this history. It seems Nakasone’s memory policy also aims to build the identity as “respectable” Japanese and to strengthen nationalism.

There was also an attempt to push memory work in the wrong way in Germany in the 1980s, when German chancellor Helmut Kohl joined U.S. president Ronald Reagan under the tenor of “reconciliation” between the United States and Germany in the Bitburg Cemetery, where forty-nine members of the SS-Wehrmacht were buried. This event was all the more serious because it followed a memorialization of Jewish victims: The hot issue was that they visited and commemorated the perpetrators’ and the victims’ cemeteries on the same day. It could be interpreted as putting the perpetrators and victims on equal footing and trying to nominalize the war crimes. The visit was fiercely criticized not only by the press and intellectuals, but also in public opinion.[3] But German president Richard von Weizsäcker, in his speech on 8 May 1985 at the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, eased the tensions brought about by the scandal and perceived nominalization of the Nazi past as he underlined the significance of the remembrance work in the right way:

“However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.”[4]

His speech ends with an appeal to young people: “In our country, a new generation has grown up to assume political responsibility. Our young people are not responsible for what happened over forty years ago. But they are responsible for the historical consequences.”[5]

Here he urged Germans to confront the errors of the past and to remember what they did, in order to avoid repeating those errors. The significance of memory work, which tries to keep the memory of the evil past alive across generations, is particularly emphasized. This speech was also influential in formulating discussions among a few of the Japanese intellectuals about their political and moral responsibilities.[6]

By the 1980s, both Germany and Japan were involved in national and international controversies over their official memory work on wartime crimes, and we can see that they were at two very different points. It would not be exaggerating to say that, since 1985, these two different positions on the past imprinted the fundamental direction of the post-generation’s memory policy and memory culture in both countries.

Different Approaches to Memory in Germany and Japan: How to Mourn

Post-memorial culture in the third generation after war can largely depend on memory policy, as truthful testimony cannot be heard as the survivors disappear.

Japanese official memory policy influences the remembrance culture, which commemorates the 3 million fallen Japanese soldiers rather than their 20 million Asian victims. This remembrance work is characterized by the double structure of memory and amnesia. Japanese war memorials and museums, such as Yushukan, the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine, embeds the rhetoric of oblivion and conceals the history of “disgrace.” Even the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (known as a Peace Museum) emphasizes the Japanese sacrifices and does not show the concrete historical context of the U.S.’ decision to drop the atomic bomb.

The Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots (opened in 1987 after the original small Chiran Special Attack Forces Memorabilia exhibit from 1975 was remodeled), shows another seriously distorted aspect of post-memorial work. Examples of the policy of historical distortion and reinforcement of nationalism developed since the Nakasone cabinet of the 1980s can be found in this museum. The museum commemorates Japan’s final desperate offensive in Okinawa between March and July 1945 and honors the deaths of young pilots who were willing to die for the country. But there are “no exhibits that would qualify this museum as a real ‘Peace’ museum, […] one recognizing Japan’s aggression.”[7]

Of course, people can remember the perpetrators. But we have to think about the right way to mourn and remember the dead who carried out the war crimes. When the discussion is about how to mourn the perpetrator’s “sacrifice,” it is especially dangerous to make any decision without considering the victims.

As one example, we can look at a detail in the Kamikaze pilot exhibit. The exhibit includes full-sized replicas of airplanes, photos of the naïve young pilots laughing at the camera, letters that the pilots wrote to their families and that show their courage to be ready for the attack, even though they are frightened by approaching death. The exhibits in the display stimulate the visitor’s emotions in favor of the young heroes.

In this empathy with the young pilots, the reality is overlooked: the Kamikaze pilots were a part of the Japanese Military System and acted as suicide terrorists who attacked the U.S. army. Instead, the exhibit only honors the noble sacrifices made and bravery displayed for the Japanese Empire. The most questionable aspect is whether such messages convince young Japanese visitors that war is not a desirable thing.[8] It cannot be appropriate “Trauerarbeit” (mourning) for the following two reasons: first, there is a repeated absence of historical context in Japanese remembrance culture; and second, aside from the problems of Japanese Nationalism that made young pilots’ lives “wasted lives,” Japan is, once again, making ill use of young pilots’ idealism and their deaths.[9]

In contrast, we can find in German post-memorial work a different example of how to remember the perpetrators. One of the main characteristics of German memorial works is that the moral responsibility for the victims, connected with the political responsibility, is embodied in the form of works such as the “Stolpersteine.” In Germany, there are about 2,000 memorial works, but most of them were established from the victims’ perspective. In contrast to Japanese memorial work, it is rare in Germany to commemorate both the perpetrators and the victims. Memorials for the victims of the Holocaust and the invaded countries are preferred.

In these circumstances of memory, unprecedented remembrance work was tried by the cooperation of Berlin government and civic groups in the 1980s. The project “Topographie des Terrors,” an outdoor exhibition at the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin, was planned to remember the perpetrators of Nazi history. The project had the political support of Richard von Weizsäcker, who emphasized that only memory can redeem the evil past.

“Topographie des Terrors” opened in 1987. The exhibit at one of the principal instruments of repression during the Nazi era, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in early 1945, documents the places where Nazi-led violent events happened not only in Germany, but also in other European countries in an effort to remember the history of Nazi terror. It was first planned as a temporary exhibition in 1987 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the City of Berlin. However, during preparation of the exhibit, a Third Reich dungeon showing the details of Nazi crime was discovered and displayed, and the exhibit brought unexpected success. One local editorial from the exhibit’s opening pointed out its significance and meaning:

“This is how it should stay. Even though the wall has fallen and the surrounding life heals the past, the block of death should be preserved as an open wound of the city and of the country, […] Nothing would be more fitting to prevent us and our descendants from forgetting.”[10]

Although there are many memorials and museums documenting Nazi crimes, this exhibit is special for a few reasons. First, it is about how to remember the perpetrators. According to project director Reinhard Rürup, the perpetrators cannot be commemorated, but we can “explain” them with no emotional involvement. Second, the exhibit represents Nazi crimes, and the project team has to represent them unmistakably. Third, and most important, it shows the social-historical context and remembers the victims “at the place of perpetrators.”[11]

It is the exhibit’s intention to show how to remember the perpetrator’s acts from the victims’ perspective. It is fundamentally different from the Japanese Kamikaze museum’s way of commemorating attackers. While everyone, regardless of perpetrator or victim, can be remembered, not everyone can be commemorated and honored.

“Topographie des Terrors” is based on such a realistic awareness, and shows victims’ sacrifices at the place where Nazi terror occurred. In remembrance culture, it has made it possible for the German government to achieve humanistic reconciliation beyond political agreement with its neighbors and former victims.

Memory Culture without Acknowledging History and an Unfinished Past

Japan’s memory culture is based on a distorted historical consciousness that contradicts both ethically and politically the Korean and Chinese viewpoints of who suffered from and was destroyed by the Japanese invasion. In fact, it was Japan’s culture of oblivion that damaged its relationship with its neighbors. Recently, on the matter of repairing the past, definite differences between Korea and Japan have become more serious as seen, for example, in the settlement of the Korean “comfort women” issue in December 2015.

In the agreement, Japan requests an “ultimately irreversible” political settlement for this issue.[12] In addition, Japan demands that the memorial to comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul should be removed and that international society, including the United Nations, should withhold blame of Japan on this issue. In exchange, Japan offered a billion yen in compensation. More seriously, the Japanese government requested that the Korean government abandon applying for registration of the comfort women issue in the UNESCO world memory records. Both Korean civil society and the Chinese government strongly denounced the Japanese government’s shameless request. In this case, we can see that Japan seeks to solve the issue of the past with mere political logic, while it continues to push the troubled past into oblivion in the historical perspective.

A few surviving comfort women condemned this agreement, saying to the Japanese government “you killed us twice!”[13] The Japanese government is still denying the mobilization of Korean women as sex slaves and has offered one billion yen in “compensation” without accepting legal responsibility.

The women also criticized the Korean government for making a political deal without the victims’ consent, and asked for the annulment of the agreement, because Korean civil society has shed light on this issue to other countries, who have supported the victims.

This issue exposes the problem brought about by political agreement without the ethical “Trauerarbeit” and remembrance work. At the same time, it exposed the problems and limits confronting Japan’s two-faced memory policy today.

At the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe apologized several times to Japan’s neighbors for the events of the past. It was an unimaginable attitude even two years ago, when Abe paid his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are interred. But this positive impression did not last long. Abe later remarked, “The postwar generation now exceeds 80 percent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”[14]

This message seems to tell us: I apologize as you want, but please don’t tell our postwar generation [maybe including himself] about the war crimes anymore. In this respect, his speech can be read as an intention to place a time limit on war crime accusations and raises doubts as to whether his apologies have a moral authenticity. According to one of the Japanese newspapers, at the last Japan-Korea Summit on 7 September 2016, in Laos, Prime Minister Abe asked South Korean president Park Geun-hye about carrying out their agreements, such as removing the memorial to comfort women from outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

In contrast, Angela Merkel’s speech at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz shows an approach far different from Abe’s. Most of all, she emphasized that “Crimes against humanity are not time-barred” and accepted eternal responsibility for war crimes as a German.[15]

Furthermore, the 70th anniversary ceremonies were accompanied by youth encounters. In the German instance, the young generation does not feel free from the responsibility to learn from the past because they want to create “a good future” (“eine gute Zukunft”).

We cannot find any other better reason to remember the past than that. It is the responsibility of all of us living now to squarely face the history of the past and learn from it. Japan is taking a step back from this tendency to globalized remembrance work. Under the tacit approval of the United States, Japan made a political deal and continues to still ignore the trauma of 20 million Asian victims, avoiding issuing a heartfelt apology. With this obvious historical oblivion, Japan and its “dangerous” ultra-nationalism could become one of the motives to threaten peace in Northeast Asia.


Yeon Jeong Gu was a Harry & Helen Gray/AGI Reconciliation Fellow in August and September 2016. She is a Research Fellow at the Institute for German Language, Literature and Culture at Seoul National University.

[1] See George Hicks: Japan’s War Memories: Amnesia or Concealment (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997), ix.

[2] Asahi Shimbun, 27 December 1985. Translated by Kyongyoon Kim.

[3] Pia Nordblom, “Bitburg – (k)eine Geste der Versöhnung. Zur Ambivalenz von Versöhnen und Erinnern beim Staatsbesuch Ronald Reagans in der Bundesrepublik 1985,” in Verständigung und Versöhnung nach dem „Zivilisationsbruch“?, ed. Corine Defrance, Ulrich Preil (Brüssel: Peter Lang, 2016), p. 126-128.

[4] According to Nordblom, only a few opinions out of many in the Federal Republic that were cited as an example were out of the political realm. (See Nordblom, 2016: 128). In these circumstances, it is certain that Weizsäcker’s speech had a huge impact. The original speech in German reads: “Wer aber vor der Vergangenheit die Augen verschließt, wird blind für die Gegenwart. Wer sich der Unmenschlichkeit nicht erinnern will, der wird wieder anfällig für neue Ansteckungsgefahren.” See Richard von Weizsäcker, Gedenkveranstaltung im Plenarsaal des Deutschen Bundestages zum 40. Jahrestag des Endes des Zweiten Weltkrieges in Europa , 8 May 1985, http://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Richard-von-Weizsaecker/Reden/1985/05/19850508_Rede.html

[5] In German: “Bei uns ist eine neue Generation in die politische Verantwortung hereingewachsen. Die Jungen sind nicht verantwortlich für das, was damals geschah. Aber sie sind verantwortlich für das, was in der Geschichte daraus wird.”

[6] Yukio Mochida, “War/Postwar Responsibility,” in Memory and Oblivion, ed. Tanaka Hiroshi, Yukio Mochida. Korean Transl. by Kyushu Lee (Seoul: Samin, 2000), p. 32. The original title is: 戰爭責任, 戰後責任 (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun, 1994).

[7] Roger B. Jeans, “Victims or Victimizers? Museums, Textbooks, and the War Debate in Contemporary Japan,” The Journal of Military History 69 (January 2005), p. 166.

[8] See Matthew Allen and Rumi Sakamoto, “War and Peace: War Memories and Museums in Japan,” History Compass 11/12 (2013), p. 1050.

[9] Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrer Straus Giroux, 1994), p. 225-227.

[10] Originally in German: “So sollte es bleiben. Auch wenn die Mauer gefallen ist und ringsum das Leben die Vergangenheit heilt, sollte das Karree des Todes als offenen Wunde der Stadt und des Landes erhalten bleiben, (…) Nichts könnte geeigneter sein, uns und unsere Nachkommen am Vergessen zu hundern.“ Günter Matthes, Tagesspiegel, 2 August 1987. Translated by Maria Rentmeister.

[11] Reinhard Rürup, Der langen Schatten des Nationalsozialismus: Geschichte, Geschichtspolitik und Erinnerung (Göttingen: Wallenstein Verlag, 2014), p. 151-160.

[12] Kyunghyang Daily, 30 December 2015.

[13] Kyunghyang Daily, 30 December 2015, p. 3.

[14] Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 14 August 2015, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html

[15] Ansprache von Bundeskanzlerin Dr. Angela Merkel: 70. Jahrestag der Befreiung des Konzentrationslages Auschwitz-Birkenau (26 January 2015), https://www.bundeskanzlerin.de/Content/DE/Rede/2015/01/2015-01-26-merkel-auschwitz.html. “Verbrechen an der Menschheit verjähren nicht.” In English: https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/EN/Artikel/2015/01_en/2015-01-26-merkel-gedenken-auschwitz_en.html.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.