Onboard presentation on 'Dealing with the past'

From the Ship

Dealing with the Past – Germany and Japan

Feb 4, 2021

This article is the final part of a reportage series about Peace Boat’s 102nd Global Voyage, seen through the eyes of students from the University of Tuebingen who joined the voyage.

University of Tuebingen students onboard Peace Boat

by Leslie Hawener, Joshua Beer and Janna Articus

One of our most important contributions onboard Peace Boat is to give a presentation on the topic ‘Dealing with the Past', about how Germany has been dealing with war crimes of the Nazi regime in WWII, particularly what war remembrance is today, and how young Germans perceive it. After the presentation, we conduct dialogue sessions with Japanese participants, which open up very stimulating discussions on the difference between Germany and Japan in remembering their war pasts.

Quite astonished, Japanese participants frequently ask us how we can talk so openly about Germany’s war past. We try to explain that the principle of "Never again" shapes Germany across the political spectrum, and that we have an institutionalized consensus about our war past. Initial reactions upon hearing this tell us that the situation in Japan must be quite different.

In school in Germany, it is compulsory to learn about the nature of the Nazi regime and its crimes. We study this in detail, first in history and language classes, and later in political science. Remembering the war past is a crucial part of German society and the educational system. That is not the case in Japan, we learn from young Japanese participants onboard. They tell us that generally speaking, it is very difficult to talk about Japan’s war past, still a controversial issue in political and public life. As a result, they receive very little education about the role of Japan in WWII.

Photo - Auschwitz discussionExchange with participants who joined the Auschwitz study tour

We need to talk 

Both Germany and Japan had war crime tribunals established by the occupying powers. However, while Germany made a clear cut from the Nazi leaders, in Japan the imperial system was maintained, with Emperor Hirohito only giving up his political and military position but keeping his title until his death in 1989. Japan is often seen as a nation of peace, a sort of phoenix that rose from the ashes after the atomic bombs were dropped in WWII, but Japanese participants also share with us about the war crimes committed by the Japanese Army in places including China and Korea at that time.

In Germany, we learn about the Holocaust in school and visit memorial sites and former concentration camps, where we listen to the stories of the victims. We have exchange programmes with other schools and universities in the European Union, where we discuss our collective war remembrance. We find it disturbing that the Nanjing Massacre in China is still called “an incident” in many Japanese history textbooks, and that the so-called “comfort women” from Korea have not yet received full recognition and compensation. We learn that a years-long and ongoing debate on content and wording in history textbooks in Japan still limits how the war crimes of Japan are explained in schools, if they are mentioned at all.

At first a bit hesitant, but later completely at ease, many people approach us, during meals, at the bar, on the deck, wanting to talk more about war remembrance in Germany and Japan. Hanging out with Japanese students, we talk and discuss until late at night. These conversations will certainly remain special memories!

We realize in these discussions that many people on Peace Boat see Germany as a kind of role model for coming to terms with a war past. It is very strange to hear that... It is quite an unusual situation for us.

Photo - Discussion in the barDiscussions continuing after hours as well

Still work to be done

We are becoming gradually aware of what has been done for the culture of war remembrance we have in Germany, and how it differs from Japan. However, as peace researchers and children from families whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Nazi Germany, we still see a lot of work to be done, even now, many years later. 

We explain further that attacks from right wing groups on our commonly agreed war memory are currently increasing. There are young people who feel disconnected from the war past and therefore do not assume any historical responsibility to remember the Holocaust. In Germany, we have perhaps reached an admirable state of processing the past, but we have to keep in mind that this achievement must be maintained and defended at all times. Otherwise, the past will cast shadows on our future. 

We discuss many interesting and important topics with voyage participants. As a safe space, Peace Boat is decisive in even making such conversations possible. These conversations would never have been possible if we came to Japan as tourists. What an amazing voyage with Peace Boat!

Photo - Participants share their thoughtsPeace Boat provides a safe space for dialogue

This report on Dealing with the Past is adapted from the radio series broadcasted by Wueste Welle, Tuebingen.

Listen to all podcasts here (in German)

Our partners in this project: University of Tuebingen and Berghof Foundation Tuebingen