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Demonstrators drop shoes on Japanese naval flags showing the faces of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese World War II prime minister Hideki Tojo (with moustache) during an anti-Japan protest in Hong Kong on December 27, 2013.

Germany and Japan: Different Attitudes towards History

31.12.2013 - 14:42

My two years as China’s ambassador to the EU have deepened my understanding, and respect, of the European integration process. In the aftermath of World War II, the war ravaged countries of Europe and their people had such a strong desire to heal the trauma of war and build a just and lasting peace that they determined to advance European integration. Germany’s repentance and unequivocal denouncement of Nazism were an essential part of this process, which led to genuine reconciliation, stability and peace in Europe. 

On December 7, 1970, Mr. Willy Brandt, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, knelt down in profound apology at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a scenario deeply impressed the Europe and the whole world. Successive German governments have not only admitted Germany’s war crimes and apologized sincerely to Nazi victims, but have also gone out of their way to fully inform young Germans of Nazi atrocities so that they will never forget this dark chapter of history. Two years ago when I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I was overwhelmed to see the 2,711 concrete slabs that remind us that the Nazi history must never be repeated.

Japan, by contrast, has failed to take action over the past 70 years to heel the deep wounds that its aggressive and ferocious wars have inflicted on the people of Asia. In Tokyo, there is also a place reminiscent of WWII—the Yasukuni Shrine, which still enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. All of them are culprits or commanders in Japan’s war of aggression and their hands were stained with blood of Asian people. While German leaders have knelt down in penitence, some Japanese leaders have all too often paid homage to these chief war criminals by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. In doing so,they trample on our painful history and deeply offend people in China and other countries that were victims of Japanese aggression. 

The issue of Yasukuni Shrine is, in essence, about whether the Japanese government is ready to fully repent the dark episodes of its history. In Japan, some are still unwilling to accept the post-World War II international order and attempt to whitewash its aggressive past. This denial lies at the root of Japan’s long-standing tensions with its neighbours. I once asked my European friends how the people of Europe would deal with Germany if it approached its history as Japan does? Could Europe have maintained 70 years of peace and prosperity? Would the European Union have been possible?  

On December 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a calculated move, paid homage to the Yasukuni Shrine, arousing serious concerns across the international community, especially among Asian countries. It is widely noted that since Abe took office one year ago, he has strengthened Japan’s national security regime, overhauled its national defence policy, increased military spending and loosened self-imposed bans on exporting weapons. He has even gone so far as to claim that his lifelong goal is to reinterpret and ultimately revise Japan’s 1947 pacifist Constitution. Proposed changes include allowing the country to officially maintain a standing army. These dangerous moves challenge the post war order, setting off alarm bells and raising strong concerns among Japan’s neighbours and the international community. The Abe government has put Japan on a dangerous path,making it the biggest trouble-maker in Asia. As observed in the New York Times regarding his visit to the Shrine, Abe is asserting Japan’s track away from its postwar pacifism and his deeply revisionist views of history cannot inspire confidence that Tokyo can play a bigger security role in Asia.

When visiting the site of the Potsdam Conference in Brandenburg, Germany last May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said history is a mirror and only by facing it squarely, can we embrace the future. World War II was concluded at the price of millions of lives. These lives underpin an international post-war order that must be upheld and should not be subject to sabotage or denial. Any attempt to gloss over or glorify a history of fascist aggression is unacceptable to people in China, other Asian countries and beyond and should not be tolerated by peace-loving people across the world.

43 years ago, Chancellor Brandt knelt down in Warsaw to enable Germany to stand up as a normal and responsible player in Europe and the wider world. If Abe persists in denying the war-waging history, Japan will continue to kneel down under the weight of history.