How do Germany and Japan think about World War 2 (WW2)? Why are some of my friends not visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo? This is my attempt to sort out the information I received about the 2nd World War, and observations how people think about that time period today - in Germany and Japan.
East German views on WW2
As most probably know, Germany had been separated after the war. I grew up in East Germany, under guidance of the Soviet Union it was a Socialist republic. From the East German school system I received my first education about World War 2 (WW2): the Russians had fought down the German Nazi regime (along with also America and other Western countries). This allowed then the creation of the Socialist German Republic.
This picture got extended by my parents: my hometown Mühlhausen is located in the middle of nowadays Germany, with East and West combined again. Towards the end of WW2, the allied forces were nearing from the west, and Soviet forces from the east. Initially, the Soviets took Berlin, and the allies took my hometown. The citizens were happy: not only about the end of the war, but also that the allied marched in and not the Soviets. The concerns regarding the Soviets were based on stories of what happened so far in occupied areas, along with many years of propaganda which showed Communism as the evil itself.
The allied were not happy about the Soviets getting whole Berlin, further agreements were signed which led to the allies pulling out of big areas, including my hometown - which got taken by the Soviets. In exchange the allies got parts of Berlin, the well known separation of Berlin into sectors happened.
While people were not happy with that initially, the socialist East Germany got founded, and people made the best out of it. The Soviet bloc by itself looked at Germany on one hand as a strategic buffer in case America/Europe would start an attack. On the other hand they were aware that it was also nicely located in Europe, likely to see frequent visits from West Germany and other countries: so quite some resources did go into restoration of East Germany, to show “what Socialism can do”. West Germany was rebuilt much faster with America and others helping via the Marshall plan, but also East Germany was doing better than many other Socialist countries. Details are in Memories of East Germany and the German Unification.
West German views on WW2
Around 1989, Germany got approval to reunite again. In many aspects this was more “East Germany joining West Germany” than equally combining both parts. Up to 1989, East German citizens were thinking of Soviets as brothers, were learning Russian as first foreign language in school, we had pen pals in countries of the Soviet bloc, and so on. With the German unification, the views of the West were completely taken over - an impressive experience for me. Nothing on the facts of the life in the past dozens of years in East Germany had changed, but over night the Soviets were no longer the brothers, but were said to be “these suspicious creatures over there, who probably were just waiting to invade us”.
My education changed, school topics were now dictated by the west. I was in the last school year learning Russian as first foreign language, but now English got first foreign language. Also views on WW2 changed: while acknowledging that Russia had also been in the war, it was mostly the allies who freed Germany from the Nazi regime. As I later realized, Germany’s views on WW2 are matching with Americas views, in the aspects I can think of.
My knowledge on Japans role in WW2 over time
After the German unification I learned about Japans participation in WW2. Japans motivation to enter the war is not investigated in depth: pupils learn about Japans assault at Pearl Harbor, and entering the war with the goal of extending the Japanese imperium.
After moving to Japan, I learned more about the Japanese views on WW2. Nowadays, Germany as well as Japan are forbidden to own nuclear weapons. Both heavily rely on the USA as an ally for protection, Japan even more than Germany - which additionally can rely on the European Union.
Starting with the year 1633, Japan implemented a policy of isolation from the rest of the world. Under the isolation, trade and contacts with other countries were at a minimum. While the world unfolded, Japan further developed arts, tea ceremony, and so on.
This period ended around 1852 with the arrival of the “Black ships” (黒船来航), led by Commodore Perry from America. The rest of the world had advanced their military and Perry forced Japan now to open up their country. In towns like Hakodate one can see traces of the “back ships” event, at these occasions it’s shown as a very positive event. The opening did lead to the Meiji restoration, a period of industrialization and with many changes.
Japan looked at Asia at that time: most other countries had been occupied by western countries and had become colonies. Simply doing nothing, Japan would also be likely to end up as a colony - so extending to other areas could also be seen as a way to prevent that. The bigger the own territory and own resources, the more likely it is that attempts to be colonized can be fought off.
Japan did incorporate Hokkaido, the big island in the north of the main island. Okinawa also got included into Japan.
1894/1895: the first war between China and Japan, resulting in Japan extending its territory over the Korea area.
In 1895, Japan invaded Taiwan and extended its territory.
In 1904/1905, Russia and Japan were at war, ending in a victory for Japan: Korea, Sachalin and some ports in China now became territory of Japan.
Interestingly, Japan is keeping also this view on history active, they can be studied for example at the Yushukan museum in Tokyo.
Interesting fact: also for Japan, dividing the country was discussed like for Germany: North to Russia and South under American influence. This was overthrown eventually. Okinawa, the big island in the south of Japan, was until 1972 under American administration.
The role of Germany and Japan in the world
Germany is nowadays deeply embedded in the European Union. It’s one of the financial heavy weights of the EU, also having much voice due to this. Neighboring countries do not really carry grudge from the WW2 time - but the topic comes up from time to time. For example, when the Greek financial situation did not fullfill European expectations some years ago, Greek also asked Germany for financial reparations which allegedly were left from WW2.
Japan is an island, and also politicly more isolated. It’s not in some kind of EU, and feeling in danger of attacks from North Korea and China, Japan relies heavily on America. In exchange, America uses various places in Japan as military bases. Japan also fears that it might be pulled into a conflict between mainland China and Taiwan.
After invading Korea and China before WW2, both of these countries give Japan the feeling of “unfinished business”. From time to time, both countries ask for “official apologies”. It seems like Japan has offered these, but they were not accepted by China/Korea, maybe because the countries want to keep the current state of “unfinished business feeling”.
On top, there are disputes with Korea, China and Russia about islands. When the Ukraine invasion started, Japan apparently felt like Russia was busy right now and started to remind of the islands they feel are part of Japan.
An interesting fact is that Taiwan, one of the countries who got invaded by Japan, is favorably looking at this. With China, both countries also have a common opponent. China (Xi) has ‘promised’ to invade Taiwan at some point, and Japan feels strongly that it would be pulled into this invasion.
Dealing with / thinking about the war
Some war related aspects are especially interesting.
Air Raids and anime
In WW2, Japan had experienced many air raids. These have been reflected in anime movies, Joachim Alt has presented on these in slides and video (all in German). Joachim looked at various anime around the topic and sees a gap between history and memories:
- actual war: aimed at expansion of territory, using 3.5mio soldiers
- memories: more defensive, remembering the air raids on 60mio civilians in Japan
- most important memory about the war at the home front: the air raids
The Diaries of Anne Frank
These are very well known in Germany: they are often read in schools. An example for people standing up against the oppression of the Nazi regime. Germans read this and remember that previous Germans did this, and it must not happen again.
In Japan, the diaries of Anne Frank are also known, and also available as manga (comic book). The interesting part is that Japan manages to read the diaries, and see itself in the role of Anne Frank, oppressed by the opposing military forces in WW2. The western mind sees this and sees a strong contradiction here, as Japan was on the side of Germany (the oppressors of Anne Frank) in WW2.
The Yasukuni shrine
The Yasukuni (literally “peaceful country”) shrine is located in Tokyo. It is dedicated to those who died in the service of Japan, including war criminals.
The Japanese prime minister is in official mission not visiting the shrine, if he does then it provokes voices from China and Korea. I have friends from China who oppose to visit the Yasukuni shrine. The Yashukan, with explanations on Japans war history, is located next to the shrine. After recent renovations, many explanations are also in English.
In Germany, the public display of various Nazi symbols is forbidden, most known symbol is the Hakenkreuz, a type of swastika symbol. In contrast, swastika are since ancient times used all over Asia, mostly rotated in the opposite direction from the Hakenkreuz. With the Nazis using the symbol, there have been activities to purge the symbol from some maps in Japan, to “not put visitors at discomfort”.
In Germany, it was until recently forbidden to own/buy/sell Hitlers “Mein Kampf”, to prevent the spreading of propaganda which is opposing the German constitution. Some sources seem to report it as allowed now.
On Japan, the “rising sun flag” (red dot in the middle, sun beams into all directions). The flag has been used since many hundred years and was not just introduced around WW2. Many Japanese right wing parties use the flag nowadays, it is not forbidden but seen critically.
The 2023 movie “Oppenheimer” is about the development leading to the nuclear bomb. Japan was the only country to experience 2 nuclear bombs, so while the movie was released all over the world in 2023, it will run in Japan in 2024.
EDIT: After the initial version, year of the start of isolation, and of the invastion of Taiwan were fixed.
Last modified on 2024-01-13