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Sep 11, 2017

Why Germany and Japan went in wildly different directions after World War II

After World War II, Germany was divided and occupied. Japan was largely left alone. Now Germany is a world leader in building unity, and Japan has turned to ultra-nationalism, writes former Australian ambassador to Japan John Menadue.

For all its atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s, Germany has become an exemplar country promoting prosperity and peace. Angela Merkel stands out as a world leader more than any other. By contrast, Japan has again become a divisive country in its region and its Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has been acquiescing and promoting an ultra-nationalist cause. Germany quickly came to terms with its past. Japan has refused to.

 Both countries were reviled in 1945 for their crimes against humanity. Since then Germany has rebuilt its economy and political institutions. West and East Germany are now united. Germany has been the key country in building European unity after centuries of disastrous wars. Long may that continue, despite the folly of Brexit.

German leaders since the war knew that peace in Europe depended on fraternal relations between Germany and France. A succession of German leaders — Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and now Merkel — have led Germany in a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

Despite domestic opposition from the extreme right in Germany, Merkel has shown courage in taking the pressure off Greece and Italy as countries of first asylum and has agreed to settle over a million refugees. Oh, for leadership like that!  Merkel has correctly assessed that the Trump presidency represents a turning point in the Atlantic alliance, and she is responding accordingly. She is carefully constructing a relationship with the rising China. One disappointment however has been that she has cooperated with the US in taking NATO up to the borders of Russia despite US undertakings not to do as the price for German reunification.

What a contrast we have with Japan. Its economy has been stalled for 20 years, and Abenomics shows no sign of ending the malaise. To cover for domestic failure, worsened by population decline, Shinzo Abe has decided to placate the ultra-nationalist right. It is the old story of governments promoting fear and division. In this case, The Japanese government has promoted hostility to its large neighbors, China and the Republic of Korea. Hate speech is growing in many parts of Japan, particularly in the media and even in schools and kindergartens.

Shinzo Abe is equivocal about Yasukuni Shrine, which includes enshrined Japanese war criminals. Senior ministers deny the Nanking massacre, and “comfort women” are dismissed as scheming prostitutes rather than slaves of the Japanese army. Ultra-nationalist voices press for a more “patriotic” education system that downplays past atrocities. “Honest history” is not encouraged in many parts of Japan.

Last month the Japan Times reported Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso as saying “Hitler,who killed millions of people,was no good even if his motive was right.” That type of comment is par for the course for some Japanese ministers today.

Why this contrast between Germany and Japan; and Merkel and Abe?

I suggest there are several reasons.

What is now becoming clear is that one reason is that US occupation of Japan was a “soft” occupation. In contrast to Europe, where Germany was divided, Stalin chose not to put his armies into northern Japan and divide the occupation with the US.

A key influence in the “soft” occupation was that the Japanese Emperor was retained in position, even with reduced powers, despite his role as head of state in complicity in the push for war. This clearly gave ultra-nationalists encouragement. In the short term, it made the occupation much easier with undoubted Japanese co-operation. But some of the root causes of the war just went underground.

By contrast, the old German leadership destroyed itself and with a tough occupation, it was easier for new Germany governments to root out those who had caused such tragedy in the 1930s and the 1940s.

In the occupation of Japan, the Korean War was a god-send for many. It put an end to the purging of the ultra-right. In effect, Japan was recruited into the Cold War and past behavior was largely forgotten. A former Class A war criminal suspect, Nobusuke Kishi, who was imprisoned by the US for three years for his cruelty in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo, was rehabilitated. He became prime minister of Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That says an awful lot. Shinzo Abe is his grandson.

The US has a track record of “soft” occupations. After the civil war, US presidents and Andrew Johnson in particular (1865-69) refused to crack down on slavery and racism in the South. The leaders in the South might have lost the war, but they never accepted the result. It took Lyndon Johnston 100 years later to reverse the Jim Crow laws in the South that enforced segregation.

The 200 years of Japan’s isolation pre-Meiji (1868-1912) also meant that ultra-nationalism had become deeply entrenched in Japan with fear of foreigners and isolationist policies.

There was also another very important reason for the different paths that Germany and Japan took after 1945. In contrast to the influential Social Democrats like Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in Germany, the Japanese Socialist Party has been an abject failure. The German Social Democrats have been influential both in government and in opposition. Even today they are in a Grand Alliance with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

By contrast, we have seen almost uninterrupted conservative government in Japan since 1945. The Socialist Party has been almost always on the fringe. One result of the Socialist Party failure is that even today, the Japan Communist Party polls well over 10% of the vote. It is one of the largest non-governing communist parties in the world. This is despite the eclipse of communism almost everywhere.

Several very senior Japanese government officials told me when I was in Japan in the late 1970s that they invariably voted for the Communist Party, not because of any endorsement of its ideology, but in protest about the corruption of the Liberal Democratic Party and the incompetence of the Socialist Party.

What a contrast we now see more than 70 years after the end of World War II. Germany has become a unifying leader in its own region and beyond. Japan pursues divisiveness and hostility towards its neighbors, countries that in the past it has occupied and inflicted on them untold human suffering.

Angela Merkel offers strong leadership and encouragement. Shinzo Abe is a  problem.

*John Menadue was Australian ambassador in Japan 1977-81. He initiated the Australia Japan Foundation and the Australia Japan Working Holiday Agreement, the first such agreement between Australia and an Asian country. In 1999 he was awarded by the Emperor the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure for promoting relations between Japan and Australia.

This article was originally published at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations



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7 thoughts on “Why Germany and Japan went in wildly different directions after World War II

  1. graybul

    In times of uncertainty, economic, institutional, governance, military, civil unrest et al, now pretty much world wide; Merkel’s strong hand on rudder indeed a reassurance John. Shinzo Abe’s failure to move Japan forward of itself, is of further world, regional concern. Australia’s domestic priorities also unsettle, as do expedient international alliances challenge regional objectives. Change is inevitable. But our one and only world appears blind to concurrence of impending challenges. Not least being impacts of climate change i.e. population dislocation. Future imperatives will demand highest quality leadership.

  2. Will

    John Menadue omits to mention perhaps the most important reason of all, and that is the very different key cultural drivers involved. Germany has a deeply religious, Christian cultural heritage, and genuinely-felt guilt has been a tremendously powerful force at both the individual and national level in shaping post-war Germany. Japan has a only a weakly religious, Buddhist cultural heritage, one in which shame rather than guilt is the central behavioural driver.
    The crucial difference is that guilt is a mode of self-sanctioning, whereas shame arises only from social sanction: it is loss of face suffered for insufficient commitment to the group, with the nation state being the highest order group culturally conceivable. (One brutal illustration of this fact is the comparative WWII battlefield casualty counts: German units would typically suffer around 25% casualties before surrendering; Japanese units, which virtually never surrendered, typically suffered around 97% casualties, before simply being overrun.)
    So, where for Germans the collective act of subjecting individual conscience to the ruling state’s will during the war is a continuing source of profound guilt that shapes their politics today quite fundamentally, for the Japanese such a sense of guilt simply makes no sense, and correspondingly plays no part in their contemporary national-political motivations. (Indeed, for Japan to genuinely apologise, as demanded, for its WWII record would from this cultural viewpoint be to retrospectively shame all those who fought under her flag, a suggestion quite frankly unthinkable to the average Japanese person.) This is the real reason why right wing ultra-nationalists find such fertile ground in contemporary Japan: to call oneself Japanese and not be a nationalist (at-heart-if-not-in-mind) is a contradiction in terms. Shinzo Abe’s not the problem: he’s just the symptom. The real problem is Japan’s extreme cultural chauvinism.

    1. AR

      That’s a good exegesis of nipponess but you omitted the point that Shinto is quite different,in origins, aims & practice to Buddhism (which Burma & Thailand demonstrate is not all zenny smiles) – the two combine for a heady brew indeed.

    2. Will

      Not so much a ‘heady brew’ as a dysfunctional coupling, I’d say. Buddhism mainly provides for spiritual sustenance at the family life (in-house ancestor memorials, graveyard rituals, local shrines, etc). Shintoism serves principally to manufacture spirituality at the public – in particular national – level, hence the annual pilgrimage to Yakasuni Shrine commemorating honoured war dead – no matter that some of them were deemed by foreigners to be war criminals. But the subordination of effeminate Buddhism to macho Shintoism is typical of Japanese patriarchal nationalism. Their women do mostly hate their men.

  3. Woopwoop

    I’m not sure Greece and Italy would agree that Merkel has “taken the pressure off Greece and Italy as countries of first asylum”.
    That aside, perhaps we should look further back in history, to what sort of government each country had before the rise of Fascism in the thirties.

  4. AR

    Interesting that Menadue fails to mention, shssssh, racial purity and thus superiority as as dominant feature.
    They view the Asian landmass as the Brits do the Continent – full of wogs who need to be civilised when they get out of hand.

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