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Instead of accepting too much of what I have read in my textbooks, I have read up a bit about WW2 on my own and have always pondered, why in the USA is the brutality and actions of the Japanese during WW2 always downplayed compared with the brutalities and actions of the Nazis? In school I remember the only thing we were taught about the Japanese was that they attacked Pearl Harbor and then the Americans dropped the A-bomb to end the war. Before that and after that, it has always been Nazis this and Nazis that. We learned everything about concentration camps, Luftwaffe, Kristallnacht, and every school child has seen Schindler's List and read Anne Frank's diary. Our textbooks and teachers didn't spend nearly the same amount of time talking about the Japanese. If you are lucky, you may hear a bit about Japanese internment camps and maybe get to read "Farewell to Manzanar".

Is this due to some cultural attitude? If the USA had no front with the Japanese, that would make sense. But the Japanese did attack pearl harbor which was bad enough to force USA to join WW2 directly. Then the USA paid the same amount of attention/resources to both fronts as far as I can tell. It's not like the Americans only focused on the Nazis during the war. So why are the history books so biased? From what I can tell the brutality of the Japanese was on par with the Nazis if not more. They had just as grand plans to rule (half of) the world. The A-bombing of Japan, disarmament and dismantling of its military, and such a strong presence of Americans still to this day in Japan (like Okinawa) makes this even more perplexing.

An annoying side effect of this is having to explain to people that Japan wasn't exactly "nice" in the war. The most recent argument was with a friend who thinks it would have been perfectly ethical to A-bomb Germans but it was perfectly unethical to A-bomb the Japanese. The way the Japanese people have turned themselves around in the past 60 years, their pacifism, high morals and ethics, and such emphasis on honor, intellectualism, respect, and high regard for a fellow human being makes my explanations seem even more incredulous.

I know this is a rather "local" question (American history textbooks) and I am new here, not too familiar with this forum's nuisances. If this isn't appropriate or if this question can be bettered, please let me know and I will fix/remove it. And BTW, I am only talking about public school education until grade 12. Everything about the Japanese and the Nazis is out there but it's just that in school, Nazis are given much more focus for some reason. I hope this isn't some weird perception error on my part.


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It's difficult to answer the question, but you may also ask why Stalin's brutality is not compared with Hitler's. I think the "problem" is that Germans killed people because of their race, so being a Jew, Russian, Polish etc. was enough to be killed. Japanese (maybe) did not kill because of being British/US/Dutch etc. Japanese did not make camps just to kill people. (but this is my shallow opinion, so voting +1 on the question I'm awaiting for answers) – Voitcus Jul 15 '13 at 9:42
Maybe it's a cultural thing. Much of Nazi victims are Europeans with western culture (including European Jews), and Americans identify better with them compared to Chinese and South-East Asians who became the victims of the Japanese. I'm sure the opposite is true, Japanese brutality would be more prominent than the German in Chinese education – Louis Rhys Jul 15 '13 at 9:51
Do you have any evidence that this trend exists? Is it just your undergrad history education, or is this pervasive across a larger environment? This question feels rather soft and local to me. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 15 '13 at 12:39
As an engineer I'm not well educated in humanities, but, for what is worth, I experienced the same failure with Italian history textbooks. As Louis said, Japanese brutalities during WW2 are/were not a Western problem because, according to an adagio we say, "far from the eyes, far from the heart", and, anyway, +1! – user2237 Jul 15 '13 at 20:21
Also, thinking about it, you see the same thing in Japanese education; bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21226068 – Kobunite Jul 16 '13 at 15:01

10 Answers 10

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Perhaps this is a generational thing? As a Gen-X'er, I grew up hearing about things like the Bataan Death March, The Rape of Nanking, and how in general the Japanese didn't feel like adhering to the Geneva Conventions, (as dramatized in Bridge over the River Kwai, among other movies and books). When I was a kid we also had lots more Pacific Theater veterans still running around, and they had a distinct tendency to be less than forgiving where their former opponents were concerned.

As for this being a public school history education, that's kind of a sore subject. In the USA, K-12 textbooks have to get approved by state boards. Often these bodies are filled with idealogues who only signed up for this otherwise dull task because they have specific things they want taught (regardless of what the facts may be). Thus grade K-12 History textbooks tend to have flat out wrong things forced into them. Uncomfortable subjects (like the intense class warfare of the 19th Century) get ignored altogether. The best I can say about the result is that teachers typically make it so dull that at least kids don't learn most of the wrong stuff being taught.

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@T.E.D. +1, my suspicions are the same as to a generational thing. I think ideally someone would scan through some of the major competing K-12 textbooks currently out there to confirm the initial claim. – kmlawson Jul 15 '13 at 23:00
Yes, i believe, the word for imposing idealogues, is propoganda – Rohit Jan 14 '15 at 15:17
I will add that many public schools in America are getting less education in the social sciences due to a legally required focus in attention on "the basics": reading, writing, and arithmetic. Thus, what a child learns regarding history is learned from media attention to it, in which the atrocities committed against the Jews have eclipsed the atrocities committed against Allied POWs and the Chinese. History, presented well, makes fascinating reading; public education should embrace that in teaching students how to read and write. – Paul Rowe Jun 18 '15 at 15:55

The nature of Nazi and Japanese atrocities is quite different.

The Japanese atrocities, when ordered from above, were "rational" in the sense that they were perpetrated to gain a perceived tangible benefit for the war effort (please do not misconstrue my words to mean that I condone these actions! I do not!) The most appalling crimes, such as the rape of Nanking, were random violence of foot soldiers unchecked by their superiors. As @Histophile put it (in a comment), the "Japanese brutality was a component of their accepted form of warfare" - the total war where no quarters is given and no quarters is asked for. In other words, the Japanese atrocities were NOT historically unusual.

The Nazi atrocities were "counterproductive" in the sense that they actually harmed their war effort and "systematic" in the sense that they were done in a top-down organized manner:

  • Killing Jews instead of putting them to work (slave labor is inefficient and even that was not used as widely as it could have been); giving higher priority to the trains carrying Jews to death camps than to trains with troops and war material; sending death squads against peaceful civilians instead of guerrillas.

  • Starving/freezing to death about 3M Soviet POWs in 1941 - instead of offering them to fight as collaborators (they started to do that later in the war, but it was far too late).

In other words, the Nazi atrocities were historically unusual.

I think that this difference (unusually "systematic" & "counterproductive" vs commonly "random" & "rational") explains the extra attention that the Nazi crimes receive over the Japanese ones.

PS. It is interesting to compare the behavior of Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war (and WW1) and the WW2. In the former Japan was striving to be accepted as an equal by the Europeans, so they meticulously adhered to the European codes of treating POW. In the latter they already thought themselves above Europe (feeling snubbed at Versaille & League of Nations) and they reverted to the Bushido approach of "surrender as the ultimate dishonor", so they treated POWs as subhumans precisely because they were POWs.

The Germans treated the Western POWs conventionally and the Russian POWs about as horribly as the Japanese treated all POWs. The basis of mistreatment - nationality vs "violation of knightly ideals" might contribute to the difference of perception too.

PPS. In response to a commenter saying "not Nazi but Germans, Nazi is not a country like Japan": this is actually a good commentary on the question itself. Nazi Germany is considered by many to be an aberration in the long and noble history of the German people. No such term exists for Japan (although the Soviet historiography talked about "Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Militarist Japan"). This reflects the general observation I made: what happened in Germany in the 1930-ies and 1940-ies was historically unusual, while the same period in Japan was much less different from the historical patterns there.

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Not sure if this irrational vs. rational thing will work that well. For example, Nanjing massacre and rape of Manila happened against orders of higher officers (which did not save their commanders in war crimes trials, nor do I think it should have), while in German case, tens of thousands of Russian, Ukrainian, and other Soviet citizens did get out of the POW camps by volunteering to fight. I suspect that if there is more coverage, the easier answer here is probably: scale and unique character of the holocaust + stronger ties to Europe over Asian experience of war. See @LouisRhys above – kmlawson Jul 15 '13 at 22:57
@kmlawson: massacres are more or less random occurrences (mostly dependent on troop discipline). They were not ordered from above. The fact that some acts of Nazies were rational does not detract from my point. I might be right or wrong, but Your objections have no bearing on that, IMHO. – sds Jul 15 '13 at 23:14
@sds - well said. I was going to answer similarly. The Japanese brutality was a component of their accepted form of warfare. The Nazi atrocities were something else entirely. – user2590 Jul 16 '13 at 0:46
Very good points, however I would like to add: Japan treated Russian POWs in 1904-05 and German POWs in the first world war with respect, but in return they couldn't even get a symbolic "no racism" clause added to the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations. The European powers then continue to view Japanese (any Asian, really) with suspicion and contempt despite Japan's major advances. So the next Japanese generation was raised in hating the European racists and wishing to "teach them a lesson". – Evil Washing Machine Jul 16 '13 at 16:29
@T.E.D. - " The Nazis were a lot more systematic about it". That's not the point, and IMO the question is ill-founded, as I commented on it: The Japanese brutality in their warfare is not at all analogous to the Nazi concentration camps and their efforts at genocide: The genocide of the Nazis really had nothing to do with their waging of war: It was a domestic policy regarding how they wanted to implement their pure 'Aryan State'. That is why it has garnered so much attention: they were butchering civilians at an incredible rate with unprecedented brutality, simply due to their ethnicity. – user2590 Jul 16 '13 at 17:51

I am fortunate in being 75 years of age. I travelled extensively during my 22 years in the British Royal Navy and have spoken over the years, to many people of various nationalities. One should remember that each country writes it's own history and therefore it is bound to suffer from at least some bias. The best education about the WW2 subjects mentioned in this thread is not found in the school classrooms, but by travel and speaking to the people who actually experienced WW2 in all it's horrors. Russian, German, Japanese, US and UK all committed WW2 "war crimes" according to the Geneva Convention then in force. Only losers get charged remember, and some countries weren't signatories to it anyway, so were not bound by it's conventions or rules. War has never had Marquis of Queensbury Rules I assure you. Some countries are more brutal or ruthless at war than others but all are guilty of excesses.

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I agree, in that if you are at all interested in WWII history, you owe it to yourself to talk to as many vets/survivors as you can. There's a wonderful group of vets here in town that do occasional classes. However, the war was 60 years ago, and every few years they have one less presenter. So if you want to hear some living WWII history, you'd better do it quickly. WWII belongs to the historians more and more every year. – T.E.D. Oct 24 '14 at 15:08

Two reasons are that the Japanese brutality was less "comprehensive" than the German brutality, and also less incongruous with the American image of Japan.

Instances of Japanese brutality against Chinese, and other civilian groups are well documented. For all that, they appeared to be at least somewhat "random." That is to say, there was no comprehensive plan to "concentrate" and eventually exterminate one or more groups of people, as was the case in Nazi Germany.

Japan was noted for its brutal treatment of prisoners of war (POW), but this was more understandable in the Japanese, than German context. The Japanese preached (and practiced) a samurai code that being captured was a huge disgrace, and that a POW was essentially a "dead man walking." At Tarawa, for instance, only 17 out of something like 2600 soldiers were captured alive (a larger proportion of civilian laborers). Thus, their maltreatment of other POWs could be dismissed as "that's the way they are; they treat themselves that way" (fight to the death or commit suicide, but are almost never taken prisoner).

On the other hand, the Germans surrendered in meaningful numbers, and sought Geneva convention treatment for POWs that surrendered to western powers (Britain or the United States). Their observance of the Geneva convention with this group, while they mistreated eastern (Polish and Russian) POWs, was seen as hypocritical.

Also, America knew pre-World War II Germany as a modern, European country with fine musicians and artist and numerous Nobel Prize winners, while they didn't know what to make of "newly arrived" Japan. Put another way, Germany had much more of a reputation to live up to (or fall down from).

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Vote up for not using Nazi but Germany as it always should be. – Lukasz 'Severiaan' Grela Jun 25 '14 at 6:34
Also the Japanese never signed the Geneva convention unlike Germany. – Anixx Jul 21 '15 at 11:57

I'm not from the United States, but I'm from Australia, which is a fairly similar country. It's a former British colony that has a majority of people of European descent.

The history classes I took (around 1990-1994) were pretty much exclusively about European history. We learnt about things like the Norman conquest, the French revolution, the Franco-Prussian war, World War I, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and World War II.

The only cases of non-European history we learnt was about European colonialism, and about Australian history. The latter would have touched upon Australia fighting Japan, but only barely. There was a lot more emphasis on the European theatre than the Pacific one.

This decision not to cover non-European history would mean that Japanese atrocities against allied POWs would be only barely within the scope of history lessons, and other Japanese atrocities, such as the rape of Nanking or the policy of "Comfort Women" would be outside the scope of history lessons.

(Our school had "Asian studies" as a subject from about the second year of high school, but it was optional, not a core course)

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Interesting. You'd think there would have at least been some coverage of the war in the Pacific, given that much of the action happened in your backyard. I suspect schoolkids in Darwin are taught at least a wee bit about it. – T.E.D. Jul 19 '13 at 14:16
This also varies from state to state, as they each have their own syllabus. Growing up in Victoria, the 20th century Australian history I was taught only covered Gallipoli and Vietnam. Were it not for picking an elective subject, I would also have learned nothing about the rest of the world in the 20th century either. – lins314159 Aug 9 '13 at 5:56
I think the Eurocentric curricula in 20th century Australia had its roots in the classic 'cultural cringe'; and an unwillingness to re-engage as an Eurasian country. I think this is changing, especially in the business sphere, but it will take time to adjust the priorities of the social-science curricula. – LateralFractal Oct 27 '13 at 23:20
@LateralFractal is Australia commonly referred to as an Eurasian country? I thought that usually refers to countries like Turkey that straddle the geological borders. – Andrew Grimm Oct 27 '13 at 23:26
I'm referring to the secondary definition of the Eurasian. Used in this context as a shorthand for co-mingling European and Asian cultures and socio-economic priorities. Naturally, Turkey was the first instance of this prior to European colonisation. – LateralFractal Oct 27 '13 at 23:42

The history of Western atrocities in China is often glossed over: this would not be possible without also glossing over Japanese atrocities in China.

The Japanese atrocities of war in the Pacific are easy to forget because of Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bookends receive much more attention than the books. It is ironic considering more Germans died in Dresden than did Japanese in either of the nukes. Stalin would be another distraction.

The Japanese downplay their vices, while the Germans crucify themselves for what their parents did. The state of Israel and the European Union are both direct responses to German atrocities in WWII that remain active in the public consciousness. Japan on the other hand glosses over its atrocities, which is easier to do in their Buddhist/Taoist culture than in Christian Germany. The Chinese are very conscious of Japanese atrocities. It is only the west that has forgotten.

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and don't forget that the Japanese smartly used a lot of Koreans (in their culture subhumans, certainly at the time) to commit their worst atrocities for them. Many camp guards, executioners, etc. were recruited from the Korea (probably pressed into service), so living Japanese can state honestly that they and their ancestors were not personally responsible because indeed they didn't themselves pull the trigger. – jwenting Aug 14 '13 at 8:28
While answer is generally insightful, the information regarding Dresden vs Hiroshima/Nagasaki is incorrect and needs removal or revision. The Dresden firebombing killed approx. 25,000 people. The Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs killed a minimum of 150,000 plus approx. 100,000 later. The Tokyo firebombing killed a minimum of 100,000 people. The lack of a land bridge to Japan incentivised "softening up" the home-front with extensive bombing before invasion. Indeed the high civilian death toll of modern wars is primarily due to bombing, as UAV operators can attest. – LateralFractal Oct 27 '13 at 23:37
@LateralFractal why would UAV operators be able to attest to this? Do UAV operators firebomb cities? Or are you making a political point about Afghanistan, ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Taliban kill far more civilians than the coalition? – rotard Aug 24 '15 at 23:21
@rotard Explosives are less selective than firearms; this is not a controversal observation and well within the awareness of each generation of pilots, from Guernica onwards. Whether the advantages of bombing offset that inherent lack of selectivity is the moral calculus of war; and a political assessment. – LateralFractal Aug 25 '15 at 1:14
@LateralFractal ...which fails to address the question of why people who use small, precision guided weapons from the other side of the planet would have any special knowledge of or responsibility for high civilian casualties, as opposed to people who practice indiscriminate bombing, roadside or aerial or people who actually target civilians? – rotard Aug 26 '15 at 14:43

Alot of good answers so far but being this is more social science than provable facts, I would like to add a not so pretty point. Please don't shoot the messenger.

Americans and Europeans due to racism never viewed the Japanese and other Asians as fellow race members, therefore their acts were never shocking and didn't garner much attention. Much like horrific crimes happening in Africa to this day which won't get as much attention as a white on white crime would. As opposed to German crimes which were so shocking due their being perpetrated by fellow white Europeans.

I don't think America would have as easily dropped the bomb on Germany as they did on Japan given the opportunity.

I am not condoning racism. Its sad reality that we need to get over. But ignoring the fact that it exists doesn't help.

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Hmmm... I think I might agree that 'Asians killing Asians' would be of less interest to a white audience at the time but I don't think there was any shortage of hatred for 'The Horrible Hun'. Propaganda had been portraying the Germans as sub-human brutes since 1914. I also don't think there'd have been any real hesitation about dropping the bomb on Germany based on racial sympathy either - Germany was a much larger threat than Japan ever was, if they'd still been an active opponent by the time the bomb was ready I'm sure they wouldn't have hesitated for a second. – Jasta Jan 13 '15 at 23:44
About the bomb: Since it was explicitly made for Germany, your point is pretty arguable. – Greg Jan 14 '15 at 4:28
Frankly, I'm inclined to believe this coupled with the large Jewish population in America biasing coverage to the Holocaust. – CGCampbell Jan 21 '15 at 3:42
@CGCampbell I think you may have a point. While the Jewish populations suffered the worst, most coverage of the holocaust would have you believe that ONLY Jews were targeted, which was simply not true – rotard Aug 24 '15 at 23:23
@Greg I would think that the fact that it was made for Germany with unknown results, and then once it's tremendous power was witnessed, it was in fact not used on Germany, but against Japan instead, serves to prove my point. – user6591 Aug 30 '15 at 22:55

I would first like to ask the OP, Fixed Point, what years you went to highschool (or whatever grade(s) was taught WW2), and if possible, what American state you learned it in?

Myself, I went to 7th thru 11th grade in late 90's early 2000's in Florida, in a very small private christian school, where every book was a Beka book (you can look up that publisher, it's known for "erasing history in the fundamentalist christian perspective").

My experience was very similar to yours. A LOT about the German atrocities were taught (and the Russian commies' too!), but almost nothing about Japan. The only Japanese brutality I can for sure remember was taught was the baton death march. Needless to say, when Wikipedia came out (2006 or so?) I was pretty unprepared.

To answer your question the way I see it: Germany's atrocities were committed throughout Europe, whereas Japan's atrocities were committed throughout East Asia and Pacifica. And keep in mind, China, Vietnam, and North Korea were enemies right after that (and still are in the eyes of the Pentagon). We also were at odds with Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. Our history books do not tend to sympathize with enemies.

And even more heinously, these regions are third world countries that the west simply does not care about as much as Europe (as measured by how much money and resources are sent there), despite the fact that these regions as a whole hold many, many more people.

Finally, do you know what France did after being liberated from the Nazis? They re-invaded Algeria and Indochina, slaughtering at least 315,000 more (and this was before USA's Vietnam War really started). Same thing with the Netherlands; just one year after the German occupation was lifted, they re-invaded Indonesia and slaughtered at least 100,000 more of them.

Ask yourself how anyone could do this after witnessing and experiencing the Nazi's treatment firsthand? I hate to say this, but race has something to do with it.

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I would suggest that Western "guilt" over the A-bomb helped to gloss over Japanese atrocities,a phenomenon not limited to the USA. I grew up in post war UK, and as a child thought Germans had horns and tails, whilst I do not remember believing the same about the Japanese.

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Well the japanese atrocities and participation in World War II were the result of centuries of japanese being instructed in European universities, this assistance to European universities was to receive instructions on how to defend the interests of Europe in Japan and create a country for influence over China and the rest of Asia, geopolitically speaking, but do not think that japan is merely innocent they knew bending the European discourse as a movement of aikido. In fact so far does. Japan was inflated by Europe economically and intellectually so far, that really kept inflated with pride. Once they created the monster, just as happens with the Arabs today, just had to stop without getting involved too, result: the atomic bomb, surely they gave the rising sun there. Currently Japan is a country dependent of the energy controlled by Western, never let them take energetic independence because they are known. they know they can not control how they want, and how Western likes to play with fire, will continue to fuel them, provoking them. Japan has an economy mired in an eternal debt, I do not think they are very happy about that. West has removed privileges to japan as having an active military force for their interests, but has not taken away the power of influence, the various products of post war as Japanese television programs and products like cars, televisions, and other products that come to create garbage in the world. It is observed that the war in modern japan, is mental and focuses on domination, I perceive a ruthless application of the psychology of domination, and when I do I realize the intentions of the West over the world, eventually the Western will learn this big experiment running by Japanese, whose objectives are primarily children, and this explain why there is so much suicide in Japan. A couple of words to define them now or maybe forever: morbidity and rape. As a result the Japanese who really rule Japan are more wicked than those of the second world war. You can not stop beings with six thousand years of formation, with simple methods. And this was entirely the fault of Europe to some extent, now has less and less control over them.

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This seems to be a rant about Japan that doesn't really address the question asked. – Semaphore Jan 18 '15 at 8:38
@Semaphore: Not to mention that it is at best playing fast & loose with historical fact. – jamesqf Jan 21 '15 at 4:39

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