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.


  • 20
    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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 9:42
  • 37
    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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 9:51
  • 7
    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.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 12:39
  • 5
    The same can be said for the curriculum in the UK as well; we cover a lot of the European war - as you would expect but very little on the Pacific War, despite the large amount of fighting we did against the Japanese in Burma/India/Singapore etc. It's a trend that has been developed, and it would be interesting to see if there is a reason for why it has developed.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 8:49
  • 5
    Also, thinking about it, you see the same thing in Japanese education; bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21226068
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 15:01

12 Answers 12


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.

  • 3
    @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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 23:00
  • 3
    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
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 15:55
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    I agree that it seems to be generational and would add that I believe that it is also linked to the generational awareness of racism. At the time of WW 2 there was a tendency to demonize the Japanese in part because of racism. Now, I believe that the tendency goes in the other direction. There is a reluctance to criticize for fear of being seen as racist. It's not the whole story by any means but I believe it is a factor. Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 7:55
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    @T.E.D. One minor quip. "Japanese didn't feel like adhering to the Geneva Conventions". Actually the Japanese never signed the Geneva Convention on July 27, 1929 which covered treatment of POWs and thus did not believe it binding upon them.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 11:06
  • 1
    I went to a fairly esteemed private high school and I wasn't aware of the scale of the Japanese atrocities until I read "Ghost Soldiers," which wasn't punished until 2001. I had family in the Bataan Death March, who of course, never spoke of it. It takes a while before people even want to discuss things they've experienced like this at all, never mind in any type of detail. I suspect this had something to do with it.
    – TomD
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:18

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 (which, of course, does not exculpate those 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 materiel; 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 Versailles & 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
    Commented Jul 15, 2013 at 22:57
  • 4
    @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
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 0:46
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    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". Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 16:29
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    @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
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 17:51
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    @T.E.D. - Continued: Brutality in war, OTOH, which is what we found with the Japanese, is something that is more or less expected, notwithstanding that the Geneva rules had been implemented by the time WW-2 occurred. The Nazis, AFAIK, were actually less brutal than the Japanese when it came to their handling of POW's etc. They were aware of the Geneva convention and with their POW's, (even the Jewish ones) they abided by its rules to a large extent.
    – user2590
    Commented Jul 16, 2013 at 17:52

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.

  • 4
    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.
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 15:08
  • 2
    @T.E.D.: How true; It's an old quote but still apropos I believe: "What keeps an old vet awake at night is not the things he was ordered to do; but the things he was NOT ordered to do." Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 22:40

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. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 6:34
  • Also the Japanese never signed the Geneva convention unlike Germany.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 11:57

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.

  • 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
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 8:28
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    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. Commented Oct 27, 2013 at 23:37
  • 1
    @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?
    – gillonba
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 23:21
  • 1
    @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?
    – gillonba
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 14:43
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    @LateralFractal You stated "Indeed the high civilian death toll of modern wars is primarily due to bombing, as UAV operators can attest". The implication that UAV operators are responsible for high civilian death toll is obvious. I am not the one stirring up controversy, I am pointing out that the assertion is wrong
    – gillonba
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 20:30

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)

  • 3
    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.
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 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
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 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. Commented Oct 27, 2013 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.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Oct 27, 2013 at 23:26
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    As an Australian, I'd disagree. I'd say I learned a lot more about Japanese atrocities against Allied POW's when I was growing up (at much the same time) than I did about the Holocaust. America has a much larger Jewish population than Australia. I'm guessing a little but I'd say a large number of Americans have some kind of connection to somebody affected by the holocaust. In Australia I'd say most people would have, or know someone who had a grandparent or the like who was a POW in a Japanese camp in WWII. True the focus was on POW's rather than events like the Rape of Nanking.
    – Jasta
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 23:35

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 Bataan 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.


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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    About the bomb: Since it was explicitly made for Germany, your point is pretty arguable.
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 4:28
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    Frankly, I'm inclined to believe this coupled with the large Jewish population in America biasing coverage to the Holocaust.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 21, 2015 at 3:42
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    @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
    – gillonba
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 23:23
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 22:55
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    @user6591 Totally false conclusion based on wrong timeline. 1) Trinity test was performed months AFTER the surrender of Germany (July 16 vs May 9), so no such decision was made what you suggest.. 2) The effect of the nukes were mostly unknown before (and even after) Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 12:36

Why, in the US, is Japanese brutality ignored compared with the Nazi brutality in WW2?

Short Answer:

Although the United States did conduct Japanese War Crimes trials in Tokyo following the war(Tokyo War Crimes Trials). A series of political decisions and global events in the 40's worked to mitigate and suppress US public knowledge of the complete scope of Japans War Crimes.

The conscious decision on the behalf of US for these actions had to do with expediency, mounting difficulty, perceived US interest, political complications, and finally the lack of domestic public interest to continue to pursue War Crimes after the compromised Tokyo Trials were concluded.

  1. When the United States decided not to try the Japanese Emperor of War crimes in order to facilitate and smooth the way for occupation, it served to limit initial prosecutions (limited events, and perpetrators investigated and prosecutions pursued). Emperor Hirohito and other Royal family members became a kind of protected class which the occupation forces including the war crimes prosecutors worked to protect. Other Royals and their crimes were not prosecuted for fear of implicating the Emperor. This served to stifle US public knowledge of Japanese atrocities.

  2. Shortly after WWII ended, The Chinese civil war re-ignited (June of 1946). This made prosecution of Japanese war crimes difficult, counter to American interests, and politically / legally more complicated.

  3. Beginning of 1949, China a primary venue of unprosecuted war crimes withdrew from the world community reducing access to important witnesses and sites of these crimes. This further served to make renewed interest in prosecutions and knowledge unavailable.

Detailed Answer

A series of political decisions and global events worked to mitigate and suppress US public opinion over Japanese War Crimes. There are a litany of unrelated reasons and motivations for this occurrence and none of them have to do with Japanese military not meriting such attention.

  1. Expediency
    Decision to not try the Emperor Hirohito, and need to shore up US public opinion
    At the end of WWII the Truman administration (General MacArthur) did something which was incredible unpopular domestically. They declined to prosecute Emperor Hirohito of Japan for war crimes. "Many historians believe" the Emperor directly responsible for many of the war crimes committed by Japanese forces during WWII. Japanese ministers were tried and executed for carrying out the Emperor's policies. The Truman administration took this unpopular step because they believed it would make Japan easier to occupy in the post WWII years. Unfortunately for the Truman administration most Americans during WWII and immediately following held the Japanese Emperor chiefly responsible for the US involvement in WWII and the primary villain of that war, not Hitler. Japan had attacked the United States not Germany and Japan was the focus of American Nationalism which transformed the country from a systemic isolationist country with an army about the size of Portugal or Belgium, into the Arsenal of Democracy. A super power with 18 million men under arms at the end of WWII. One approach the Truman administration used to combat public outrage over this decision was to downplay Japanese atrocities domestically. The Emperor was represented as a figure head with no real power over Japanese policy, not the leader who played an instrumental and visceral role in conducting these atrocities.

In order to enable this pragmatic decision the United States undermined their own Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Basically cherry picking prosecutions and war crimes events in order to not implicate the Emperor.

Japanese War Crimes
Emperor Hirohito and all members of the imperial family implicated in the war such as Prince Chichibu, Prince Asaka, Prince Takeda and Prince Higashikuni were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by MacArthur, with the help of Bonner Fellers who allowed the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the Emperor would be spared from indictment. Some historians criticize this decision. According to John Dower, "with the full support of MacArthur's headquarters, the prosecution functioned, in effect, as a defense team for the emperor"

  1. Difficulty
    The allies signed a peace treaty with Japan Sept 2nd, 1945. In June of 1946, the US negotiated cease fire between Chinese nationalist army, or the Kuomintang, and the CCP Red Army collapsed leading to an all out civil war re-erupting in China. This meant that investigators could not travel to the sites of Japanese atrocities, and witnesses were more difficult to interview.

  2. Counter to US Perceived Interest
    Japanese military and intelligence experts on China, who were principle targets of atrocity trials became invaluable American resources in this new front on the war against communism. Japan had been at war in China for a decade and their expertise and knowledge of China was tapped by the US just as German Russian and technology experts were recruited by the US after VE Day.

  3. Politically / Legally Complicated
    February 28th Incident 1947, US allied Kuomintang or Nationalist Chinese Army slaughtered 18-28,000 protesters in Taiwan. This made refocusing the American public's attention on Japanese atrocities problematic. As the American administration was trying to form American public opinion behind the Nationalist Chinese Army. Keeping Japanese atrocities alive meant risking public condemnation of America's principle ally in China's civil war.

  4. Lack of public call for prosecution after 1949.
    As China withdrew from the world stage into isolation after the Communists came to power Jan 1949. Their lack of participation in the international community also muted public knowledge of Japanese war atrocities for decades. This played a significant role in war crimes not being revisited after the Chinese civil war. That and Japan's growing importance to the US it faced wars in Korea and Vietnam each of which demonstrated Japan as an important theatre ally.


I would note that Japan was every bit as brutal as the Nazi's were in WWII to civilians and defenseless people who came under their control. That Japan crimes against civilians in China and across the Pacific merited every condemnation shown by the allies against Nazi Germany.

Nazi Germany killed as many as 18 million defenseless people. Including Jews, Russian Civilians, POW's (mostly Russian), Poles, Roma (Gypsies), political opponents, the disabled, and homosexuals.

Japan killed as many as 14 million defenseless people. These included POWs and civilians in the lands they seized across the pacific and primarily and importantly in China.

Japans war crimes include:

  • Mass Murder (up to 10 million people),
  • Attacks on neutral powers,
  • Human experimentation
  • biological warfare against civilians,
  • use of chemical weapons,
  • torture of POWs,
  • execution and murder of captured allied airmen,
  • cannibalism (systemic),
  • forced labor,
  • forced prostitution,
  • looting
  • perfidy (feigning surrender before attacking).


  • Great answer! +1
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 18:34
  • Good answer. MacArthur also went well out of his way to avoid embarrassing but not emboldening Japan in a lot of other ways, including the grinding of the Imperial chrysanthemum symbol off of rifles in case they came into non-Japanese military possession; seemingly unimportant to us now but important to Japanese at the time. The strict control of information by MacArthur out of and within Japan was a facet of that strategy and may have played a factor in general cognizance of Japanese war crimes.
    – gormadoc
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 20:35

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.


London bridge attacks with 8 killed from few weeks ago made it to the front pages in the west. Kabul bombing, which death toll reached to 150 did not.

It is all in human nature, first we care about what happens to us personally, then comes close family, followed by friends, then neighbors, people living in the same town, same country, same culture.

Also the National Socialists atrocities toward Jews are center of attention in USA, because those research were funded by Jewish community in the USA. They were willing to grant scholarships to young historians studying holocaust. Over the time those historians were getting tenures at the universities, writing books, teaching courses, influencing peers. In few decades every university have at least one professor specializing in the Holocaust.

While of course Holocaust was special, during the WW2 about 80 million died. There were also other similar events in the world history: belgian rule over Congo, Polpot rule over Cambodia, Mao, holodomor, Armenian genocide. If you put them all together they don't get even half of the acknowledgment the Holocaust have.

  • On your first point, it's not actually true that the Kabul bombing didn't make the headlines in the West. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 8:55
  • @sempaiscuba it made it to the newspapers. I haven't seen people changing they facebook status, changing the profile pictures by adding Afghan flag. I didn't see any front page at any newspaper reporting it as the story of the day. I didn't see any 'breaking news' line in the tv. No heating discussion on situation in afganistan. No live streams during the news.
    – user25367
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 9:08
  • @Tien I only live a few miles from London Bridge. I haven't changed my Facebook status or added anything for London Bridge, Grenfell Tower, the UK General Election or any of the other major recent news events. I haven't felt the need to "mark myself safe" on Facebook. To be fair, that is probably a generational thing. I first saw about the Kabul bombing as "breaking news" on the BBC (which included a live-stream from the BBC reporter in Kabul). Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 9:16
  • @sempaiscuba You can't narrow down what was happening to your personal experience, because we will get nowhere in the discussion. It's called anecdotal evidence. We are talking about the general trend, and after various terrorists attack in Europe people were doing all those things. Maybe BBC reported that (I dont watch BBC), but I am pretty sure that the awareness of the incident is significantly lower to the London bridge incident. Here you have the evidence: trends.google.com/trends/… London incident was googled 25 times more often.
    – user25367
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 9:31
  • @Tien You said the Kabul bombing didn't make headlines in the West. My point is that it did (on TV and in the newspapers). However, comments aren't intended for extended discussions. If you want to continue the discussion, I'd suggest we move it to the forum. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 9:47

Japan had "The East Asia co-prosperity zone" unlike the 3rd Reich which really did believe in all that Aryan Supremo stuff.

I've travelled throughout East Asia but not Japan. I'm talking "hippie travel" too not 5 star hotels or Government employ and lived there for 6 months.

The History is taught the way it is I think because this was truly an "honest War" with no quarter given by either side...so simply "bookending" does pretty much inform the average bloke.

If you want to know what really happened the two must reads are War without Mercy and Eugene Sledge's epochal account of what it meant to be a Marine. (Wearing teeth around your neck, skulls for candleholders....that kind of thing.)

Nimitz versus MacArthur and "divided command" is very worthy of research. My old Prof Richard Spector has written a lot on this...all of it wrong but still good reading.

From the Japanese pov I'd say Godzilla...but like I said their whole History and Culture is truly a mystery to me.

Neither Japan nor the USA wants to relive this War...and it was truly a fight to the death unlike any other so if you want to find out more imho you're on your own on this one.

  • Are your referring to E.B. Sledge With the Old Breed: At Pelilieu and Okinawa in your sledge reference? Feel free to add the link if so. Profound memoir. Commented Jun 16, 2016 at 21:39
  • @user14394 I would add "Helmet for my Pillow" by Robert Leckie which was one of the best Pacific WWII books I've ever read. I also agree with your statement about no quarter given by either side. My Caveot would be that while Japanese forces killed as many as 14 million defenseless people in WWII systemically, the United States forces offenses were focused on Japanese military. Overlaps somewhat on treatment of POW's.
    – user27618
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 17:16

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