Both nations brutalized continents. Both slaughtered and abused tens of millions of people. But while Germany is held up as a paragon of post-World War II reconciliation, Japan is mired in animosity with its neighbors seven decades later.
In many ways, the stunning economic and political resurrections of both countries since the war ended 70 years ago Sunday have been a windfall for their respective regions. Both have largely been generous in aid, both, for the most part, sterling examples of liberal democracies.
But talk to Europeans and Northeast Asians about Germany and Japan and you’ll often find stark differences in perception.
Some of this is linked to the Soviet threat during the Cold War, which forced Europe to work closely with powerful West Germany. No such unifying force emerged in ultracompetitive Northeast Asia.
A kneeling former West German chancellor is a European icon of reconciliation, but China and the two Koreas see Japan as having continually gotten a free pass.
Protected by U.S. forces interested in establishing a regional military bulkhead, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, the public face of the troops who ravaged Asia, was never held accountable. Nor were many suspected war criminals, including the grandfather of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There’s also criticism that frequent whitewashing of history by senior Japanese leaders, including Abe, nullifies Tokyo’s repeated attempts to display remorse.
The perceived injustice of history still rankles, and leaders in Seoul and Beijing use the resulting nationalism to cement domestic support and pursue territorial goals.
Here’s a country-by-country look at the very different ways Japan and Germany are viewed in parts of Asia and Europe today:
Perhaps the crystallization of abysmal Japan-South Korea ties can be found in the widespread veneration of Ahn Jung-geun, who shot down Japan’s former top official in Korea, Ito Hirobumi, in 1909, the year before occupying Tokyo formally annexed the Korean Peninsula.
A young, mustachioed Ahn, cradling a hand disfigured when he sliced off part of a finger as an expression of patriotism, can be seen on banners and posters throughout Seoul. A musical about Ahn’s life, called “Hero,” has been staged every year since 2009. A sleek museum tells Ahn’s life story, culminating with a lifelike diorama that shows Ahn aiming his pistol at a mortally wounded Ito.
Throughout South Korea, there is what Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University, calls an “extraordinary, and negative, fixation with Japan.”
People in both countries admire the other’s culture and recognize shared security concerns, especially about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
But the Japanese colonization — which was followed by division in 1945 by the Soviets and the Americans and the 1950-53 Korean War that technically continues today — still rankles because “Japan was essentially trying to eliminate Korean-ness,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
“Japan will never be another Germany,” said Doowon Heo, a 36-year-old teacher from Siheung, South Korea, referring to the postwar German reconciliation efforts. “The number of people who have personally experienced the colonial era will continue to decline, but Japan continues to refresh our memory about what it was like then.”
Poland, where the European war started when Germany invaded on Sept 1, 1939, is the site of one of the most powerful and unexpected gestures of German remorse.
A monument in the former Warsaw Ghetto marks the day Willy Brandt, the former West German chancellor, fell to his knees there in 1970.
Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize the next year, with officials citing his kneeling at the Jewish site in Warsaw as an example of his work “to bury hatred and seek reconciliation across the mass graves of the war.”
Such efforts by Germany have been a consistent feature of its policies toward Poland, which suffered 6 million deaths during the war, half of them Jewish.
Since the fall of communism in Europe, Germany has strongly backed Poland’s efforts to join both the European Union and NATO, steps that have helped bring unprecedented prosperity.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s backing was seen as critical in the election last year of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to head the European Council in Brussels, the first time a Pole has won a top leadership position within the European Union.
Trade flows across the neighbors’ borders, students take part in exchange programs, and most young Poles and Germans have largely overcome past grievances.
Some older Poles, however, have mixed feelings.
“Once, in a restaurant in Bonn, the owner, who was in his late 30s, came up to a group of me and other Poles and said, ‘I am so sorry we did such horrible things, please forgive us,’” said Pawel Kuczynski, a 60-year-old documentary filmmaker. “But I only experienced this once. Mostly in my dealings with Germans, I get the feeling that they still look down upon us.”
On a recent overcast day, a smattering of Chinese tourists walked across the Marco Polo bridge in southwestern Beijing, which some see as the site of the first true battle of World War II.
Japan’s Imperial Army occupied Manchuria in the early 1930s, but on July 7, 1937, after a Japanese soldier went missing in the area, thousands of troops on both sides marched in the region. Fighting and atrocities soon followed, including the rape of Nanjing by the Japanese.
China keeps the memory of Japanese subjugation and brutality raw through its education system and popular culture. Television shows regularly depict virtuous Chinese soldiers outsmarting villainous Japanese.
Anti-Japanese sentiment is also easily channeled into support for China’s assertive claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
“There is always going to be a certain amount of loathing for the Japanese,” said Cao Yongzheng, a 62-year-old office manager from Jiangsu province in eastern China. “We’ll buy their products, but we don’t like them. It’s important that young people come to these places to remember.”
Despite their grim shared wartime history, Germany and the Netherlands are now strong allies in NATO and the European Union, and are tied closely together economically.
But memories of the just over 100,000 Jewish men, women and children rounded up by the Nazis in the Netherlands and sent to their deaths are kept alive in a small annex hidden by a bookcase in a canal-side house in Amsterdam.
This is where Anne Frank lived for more than two years starting in 1942, writing her now famous diary about life in hiding from the Nazis who occupied the Netherlands for much of the war.
For years, the home where Anne hid stood empty, run down and in danger of demolition. Eventually, a foundation took over and transformed it into a museum honoring Anne, who died in a concentration camp.
The museum is now visited by more than 1 million people each year.
Japan occupied much of Southeast Asia during World War II, but its legacy is much different in China and the Koreas. Its 3 1/2-year occupation of Indonesia, at the time a Dutch colony, added momentum to a burgeoning independence movement.
One of the few reminders of Japan’s wartime presence in Indonesia is the former residence in Jakarta of Rear Adm. Maeda Tadashi, who helped draft Indonesia’s first independence proclamation. The building is now a museum dedicated to the history of independence.
The Japanese portrayed their occupation of Indonesia as the intervention of a benevolent older brother and were initially welcomed as liberators from the despised Dutch.
Japan, attempting to persuade Indonesians to join the war, gave them roles in government for the first time and steps toward self-administration.
Brutality increased in the twilight of the occupation, but resentment among Indonesians against Japan is rare today.
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