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

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12