How Do the Japanese Teach About WWII?

Regarding the reception of World War II, especially within the educational system of countries that participated in the war, one would expect that many broad facts are common knowledge and, as happens with most all wars in history, each nation biases things a bit to make themselves look better in their own history books, regardless of what actually happened. As we recently covered, however, the Germans and WWII are a rather interesting exception to this rule, see our video How Do the Germans Teach About WWII? This all brings us to a top voted question from that video- How does one of Germany’s chief allies in that war, Japan, teach about WWII and their country’s part in the historic conflict?

This is seemingly asked as, while perhaps not to the scale of Germany, the Japanese military was notorious for its behavior as an occupying army and its extreme use of force leading to enslavement of parts of populations and widespread massacres. The scars this period left in the formerly occupied countries are felt to this day, not only in history books but also in works of art and literature (such as ‘Dragon Seed’ by Pearl S. Buck).

More specifically, these war crimes resulted in deaths of between 3 and 14 million people and include systematic extermination, such as the massacre at Nanjing in late 1937/38. At the time, Nanjing was the capital of China, and the death toll is estimated at between 50.000 and 300.000 people. Sometimes, specific groups were targeted, such as the Hui people. Furthermore, virtual enslavement of people took place: as laborers or in forced prostitution. For example, the use of sex slaves known as “comfort women” was systematic and widespread in Korea, China, Thailand and many other countries under the yoke of the Japanese at the time.

Additionally, captives were used for experimentation. Most notorious is Unit 731, a military unit established by an imperial order that conducted experiments on civilians. Building from the ashes, literally, of a previous program, the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army” (Unit 731 for short) was authorized in 1936. Bases were established at various places in China, including at Pingfang and Hsinking.

Referring to their victims as maruta, meaning logs, the researchers experimented on, apparently, anyone they could get their hands on: Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Mongolians, Pacific Islanders, other South East Asians and even a few American prisoners of war all fell victim to the doctors at the camps.
Taking the scientific method to new lows, the researchers in unit 731 conducted a variety of experiments:

For example- Effects of Lethal Diseases. Victims were purposely infected with fatal, contagious diseases like the bubonic plague so researchers could learn exactly how the diseases affected the human body; because they feared that decomposition (which begins immediately once a person dies) might corrupt tissues, they dissected their victims alive. Likewise, because they worried that drugs might blemish their findings, the victims were given no anesthetic. Rather, they were vivisected while fully conscious of what was happening.

Next up we have Limb Amputation The scientists wanted to learn the limits of the human body, and, so, conducted a number of tests on their victim’s arms and legs. Sometimes, the limbs were frozen and thawed in order to study how frostbite and gangrene developed. At other times, limbs were cut off and sewn back onto the other side of the body. In a few experiments, when the limbs were removed, researchers just observed the loss of blood.

Moving on from there, many victims had all or part of their organs removed, and some even had organs detached, then re-attached, in unique ways nature never intended. Experiments were also conducted with high pressure, poisonous chemical exposure, centrifuges, burning, blood infusions from animals, burying and x-rays. Of course, since the purpose of these tests was to determine how much a body could withstand, the experiments would generally continue until the test subject was dead.

Given all of this, it may or may not surprise you to hear from people raised in Japan that they hardly learned 20th century Japanese history in class. For example, in a BBC report from 2013, it is noted that one major Japanese school’s history book contains only 19 out of 357 pages dealing with events between 1931 and 1945, with, for example, the Nanjing massacre occupying only one line. As Historian Stephen E. Ambrose noted, “The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us”.

But is this actually an accurate summation or simply cherry picked examples by the victors?

To really dive into it, it’s necessary to understand a little bit about the school systems of Japan.

It turns out what you learn as a student in Japan can be directly related to which school you attend, but also in which decade you were born. In Japan – unlike, say, most EU countries – the books used in schools are issued by private companies instead of a central authority. The Ministry of Education’s role is limited to the approval of the various books. Subsequently, each school district can then choose a book from the list of approved material. This system was initially thought of as a beneficiary step in the aftermath of the World War, as it represented one aspect of spreading American capitalistic views of privatization in Japan. It also, at least on the surface, prevented the interference of the political system in education, which at the time seemed like a good idea, since this political system was born and raised within the recently defeated Japanese Empire.

However, as previously alluded, the government still has a say in the process, since a special board within the Ministry of Education carries the task of approving the content of the textbooks before making them available on the book-list. At this step, it has used its power to reject drafts for reasons that are seen as controversial. Allegedly, simply mentioning wrong-doings committed by the Japanese Empire before 1945 has in some instances constituted enough reason for exclusion from the school textbook lists. These cases are found not just in the 1950s but also in the 2000s. An important note, it is not the mere mention of massacres – such as that of Nanjing – that could cause the exclusion of a book, but the use of negative tone regarding the way the Japanese Empire acted in general at the time. So, although the government is not officially denying the crimes, it does not seem to actively discourage the wave of war crime deniers, even from members of the parliament.

This seems an odd choice, especially when compared to other defeated nations of the same war, again such as Germany, where – as in 17 other European countries – denying the holocaust is explicitly against the law. Furthermore, in the education system of these countries, the war crimes are dealt with in excruciating details, and not only in history class, but extending to almost all other subjects, maybe only maths and physics aside.

As for directly after the war, unlike the Nazi regime in Germany or the fascist administration in Italy, the defeated leadership of Japan could not be used as an easily isolated political scapegoat to attribute all of the nation’s crimes to. In fact, the leadership of Japan did not seem to change as dramatically as in other axis countries after the war. The figurehead of the Emperor Hirohito for example remained in place, although deprived of many of his powers, and abdicating his “Godhood”. The result is that the newly formed democracy had many links to a period which the Japanese wanted and perhaps still want to be proud of. In contrast to the European axis powers, the Japanese Empire did not have a predecessor which could be used as a basis for a new – or re-established – system of government.

Furthermore, although the U.S. forces (occupying Japan under General MacArthur between 1945 and 1952) led many accused war criminals to military tribunes, many of the high ranking officials allegedly guilty of war crimes escaped judgement.

That said, after the war, the Japanese officially issued many apologies and reached settlements with former colonized countries, such as South Korea in 1965 but at the same time, as mentioned, the generations raised after the war tended to learn very little of the atrocities committed in the war.

One of the many reasons for this was the entanglement of the Cold War policy with that of teaching history. In July 1955, two years after the end of the War of Korea, textbooks containing the atrocities of the Japanese army were condemned by the Japanese parliament. The stated reason for this was that textbooks should not aid in presenting the now communist countries in a favourable light. The invasion of China and the occupation of Manchuria were to be omitted when possible. Textbooks explicitly dealing with Japanese wrong-doings against countries that used the war as a way to attack the “capitalist Japanese”, and therefore enforce policies that could be seen as communist were characterized as “red textbooks” within the rising Cold War tensions.

The new requirement formed was that the wars Japan was involved in during the 30s and 40s were not to be criticized. This movement escalated, causing the banning of more than a quarter of the books used in schools at that time. One solution to avoid the ban was for authors to skip this period entirely, or focus on it only in a very summarizing way.

So it is not surprising that history books would have more pages regarding the Pleistocene epoch than the Pacific War….. Moreover, the entanglement with Cold War policies might explain why the Americans were ok with this and didn’t really push for anything different in the aftermath of the war.

Going forward in time, the Cold War would not remain the major factor behind this view towards history. And indeed, in many cases Japanese citizens would seek out learning opportunities about the war, despite the dark aspects of their country’s past, if not always through school itself then by other means, such as exposure to western media.

But nevertheless, the controversies have not ceased, in large part due to the rise of nationalism on both sides. As you might imagine from this, despite this all having occurred many decades ago when even many of our grandparents were still in diapers, the lack of a full education on these matters and the reasons behind them can cause a series of tensions.

For example- Japan and South Korea, To an outside observer, the two countries, from a geopolitical and strategic view, should have been close allies. They are, broadly speaking, similar in their political institutions, commerce, and industry mentality, and face similar challenges in trade and politics for example with respect to North Korea, China and Russia. Despite this, the two countries show a strong antagonism, sometimes with intentional sabotage of each other’s industry, a policy which has been dubbed a trade war.

The reason seems to stem in part from the tensions surrounding the Japanese-Korean history, as can be clearly seen in news tabloids. Stances as those mentioned previously regarding denial of the war abuses are met with harsh critique, which in turn is sometimes answered. One example is the Korean Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 in favour of victims (or their surviving families) on the issue of seeking reimbursement for work done during their enslavement that benefited Japanese industry. Such a possibility would hit many Japanese companies hard. Indeed for Japan, any talk of monetary reparation was considered to be over following the 1965 agreement, which ended in more than 2 billion dollars being paid to the Korean government as compensation, which in fact was an admission of guilt. Although the two countries have come to an agreement since, the tension in principle remains unresolved.

In contrast, as a result of Germany and Germans taking collectively responsibility for their actions during the war, their alliance with countries such as France, with whom a harmonized relationship of cooperation developed post-war, occurred relatively quickly, despite the fact that centuries-old rivalry existed even aside the occupation during the Second World War. Would it have been so if Germany hadn’t immediately chosen to take such extreme responsibility for its actions during the war?

In the end, almost all nations tend to view a period in which they were the most powerful favourably. It comes as no surprise that this period of power is most often linked with some kind of military expansion, accompanied by a we-are-better-that-the-others view, which almost inevitably leads to the feeling of national superiority, intolerance and varied acts of cruelty, sometimes in a widespread and horrific form – in short, the abuse of the so recently gained power.

Japan is not the exception, but rather the rule in this regard, as almost all nations of the world tend to follow this trend more or less with their own histories.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References
Japanese Textbook Controversies, Nationalism, and Historical Memory: Intra- and Inter-national Conflicts. JapanFocus. (
“Sex slave history erased from texts; ’93 apology next?“ The Japan Times. 2007-03-11 (
Kathleen Woods Masalski. 2001. Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies (
Stephen Ambrose, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, 112.

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