Auschwitz’s lessons for Japan

Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp by the Soviet Army. As we extend our sincere condolences to the victims and their families, this occasion should also serve as a chance for the Japanese, especially political leaders including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to deeply reflect on Japan’s own wartime behavior that inflicted pains and suffering on people in the Asia-Pacific region and make a strong resolve to oppose war and discrimination, racial or otherwise.

We also need to learn from the process of post-World War II reconciliation in Europe that eventually led to creation of the European Union. In East Asia, historical issues still cause schisms between Japan, on the one hand, and China and South Korea, on the other.

To overcome this situation, education plays an important role. The government should not shy away from teaching children the reality of Japan’s modern wars and letting them consider what lessons they should learn.

About a quarter of some 6 million Holocaust victims were killed in Auschwitz, located in what is now Oswiecim, Poland. Ninety percent of them were Jews. Other victims included Poles, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses and other people of various nationalities.

Last year, a record 1,534,000 people visited Auschwitz, which became a national museum of Poland in 1947 and was designated as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979. The visitors included 398,000 from Poland, 199,000 from Britain, 92,000 from the United States, 84,000 from Italy as well as 75,000 from Germany and 62,000 from Israel.

An important aspect of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is that it is a place not only of memory and mourning but also of education, where young people from Germany, Poland and Israel together learn the history of the Holocaust. The lack of such a facility in East Asia testifies to the fact that a true reconciliation process has not yet taken place in the region.

In the postwar years, Germany has made earnest efforts to hand down its history as the state responsible for the Holocaust to future generations, as well as to receive reconciliation from countries that fell victim to the Nazi aggression. In 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down at the monument in Warsaw to victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who were killed by German troops, and sought forgiveness.

In 2000, Germany established the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation with €5.2 billion provided by 6,500 German companies and made financial compensation to 1,665,000 former wartime forced laborers and those who suffered other injustices from Nazi Germany. The foundation is also pushing history education to help young people understand the pains of victims, recognize responsibility and consider how to build a better future. Its website features interviews with 600 Holocaust survivors.

In 2010, Germany pledged to donate €60 million in five equal installments to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund from 2011 through 2015 to help preserve the gas chambers, incinerators, barracks and other buildings of the site that are in need of urgent repairs. It is also continuing investigations to bring any remaining Nazi criminals to justice.

In Berlin, there is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — also known as the Holocaust Memorial — near the Brandenburg Gate, attracting many visitors. Its underground information center has displays about the Holocaust.

When Abe visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, this week, he said, “Today, I have learned how merciless humans can be by singling out a group of people and making that people the object of discrimination and hatred. … We must continue to work toward the realization of a world free of discrimination and war, where human rights are protected.”

Oddly enough, Abe refrained from mentioning Japan’s wartime aggression and colonial rule in the past, or the frequent hate speech against Korean residents in Japan today. If Japan does not open its eyes to the negative aspects of its modern history and turn the lessons it draws from them into meaningful actions, it will not be able to achieve true reconciliation with its neighbors.

  • Richard Solomon

    If anything, PM Abe’s attitudes and policies are aimed at increasing Japan’s denial of its culpability for its mistreatment of prisoners of war, sex slaves, murder of women and children in Nanking, the refusal to teach Japanese children the truth, etc. He is so far removed from the efforts made by the Germans after WW II as to make it laughable, if it weren’t so serious. I despair over the prospects for Japan to ever resolve these issues with its neighbors as long as ‘leaders’ like Abe get elected.

  • tommy92

    Japan was a military power and colonized other countries …… Yes.

    Japanese Prime Ministers and Emperors have apologized ….. I am not trying to ignore the brutality of occupation, but they have apologized for historical wrongs ……. I do not recall an official apology for slavery from the Americans, or from France and others. Has France apologized for the occupation of Vietnam and Indochina? After the WWII Vietnam and others were returned to colonial powers … not democracy, but undemocratic rule from foreign governments.

    The colonization of Korea, brutal and undemocratic, did not last as long as the occupation of Africa and elsewhere by European powers. The Korean occupation, brutal and savage, was less successful in its destruction of local culture, language and religion than its European examples.

    The Vietnamese fought France and America longer than Japan, but we are some how to believe that Japanese occupation is worse?!?!?!

    Yes, Japan brutally oppressed opposition. But Europe and America ruled Asian nations, countries, and ports with military rule. They oppressed local religions, local culture and local ideas. After WWII most were returned to colonial (through war and military conquest) rule and not democracy.

    Japan is not innocent, but I see no reason why Japan should be treated any different than Spain, Germany, Portugal, UK, France, Netherlands or any other colonial power.

  • kyushuphil

    Action, please.

    Pro-active action means groups of Japanese students in schools writing essays introducing themselves as individuals — and how each inhabits modernity.

    Have the Japanese students discuss each other’s, then re-write, to include more-human references to fellow students around them. Also include references to key items (according to them) in Japanese culture — their Japanese culture, classic, modern, some combination thereof. Put these essays in English and send to partner school in China, Korea, or Taiwan, where students there will have started doing the same.

    When students have read the essays from the “others,” they write essays in response. Repeat whole cycle of local discussion first, then re-writes.

    Japan could take some initiative in making human contacts — thoughtful interaction with the new modernity having invaded Japan, and more thoughtful interaction with peer students dealing with similar challenges in countries where Japan has had or delivered less than happy experiences in recent history.

  • labjmh

    I was in Auschwitz two years ago and have visited many German museums. What I can say to this article is: Bravo! It’s a pity that most Japanese couldn’t read it and the other Japanese newspapers would definately not publish such an opinion. It’s not enough just to say. “I’m sorry!” If you know how the Germans commemorate their unforgivable past, you would really know what a true and profound apology looks like.

  • tommy92

    Thanks for the link.

    Took the US over 100 years to apologize for slavery, but they did apologize. They are not required to apologize again and again, like Japan.

    History is full of brutality, and genocide. Japan is not unique in its history of oppression and military conquest. Much of liberated Asia after WWII was returned to their colonial masters, and not freedom.