Seventy-five years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the countries that were involved in World War II’s Pacific theater are still struggling to construct a historical memory of the war that acknowledges combatant nations’ roles as both perpetrators and victims.

For example, in May, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Before the visit, the media obsessed over whether he would apologize for the U.S. government’s direct role in killing or injuring some 135,000 Japanese civilians. In the end, he did not take the opportunity to incorporate Japan’s Hiroshima narrative into American collective memory. But neither did he use the visit to reiterate the United States’ image of itself as a victim of Japanese aggression. Rather, Obama wanted to tap into the history of the world’s first deployed atomic bomb to share his vision of a future without nuclear weapons.

Next month’s anniversary of Pearl Harbor likewise holds particular significance. It marks 75 years since the attack left over 2,000 Americans dead and transformed a formerly conflict-averse United States into a resolute war machine. And the iconic date of infamy is only a small chapter in Japan’s brutal, militaristic phase, which stretched from the 1930s into the 1940s. From the massacre of villagers in occupied Myanmar to the systematic rapes and murders committed in the Chinese city of Nanjing, Japan’s crimes are a laundry list of some of the war’s most hellish moments, and the countries involved in these horrific events have yet to agree on a proper way to remember these crimes, honor victims, and condemn perpetrators. 

The crux of the matter is that it’s no easy task to settle on one internationally acceptable way to remember, or forget, so much loss and terror, something Japan and the United States—both victims and victimizers—demonstrate.

A U.S. Navy seaman plays taps at Pearl Harbor, December 2011.
A U.S. Navy seaman plays taps at Pearl Harbor, December 2011.
Hugh Gentry / REUTERS


The first large-scale attempts to come to terms with Japan’s wartime legacy were instigated not by Japan but rather by the Allies. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, or the Tokyo Trials, opened on May 3, 1946. Like their Western counterpart in Nuremberg, the trials sought to punish the most prominent Japanese leaders who “had played vital roles in Japan’s program of aggression.” The Allies set up three sweeping categories of charges: Class A for “crimes against peace,” reserved for the top leaders of the war machine, and Classes B and C for “conventional war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” respectively, which could be brought against soldiers of any rank. The two-and-a-half-year trials led to 25 guilty verdicts and the execution of seven Japanese leaders. More than 5,000 rank-and-file soldiers were prosecuted in trials convened elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific. 

Far from tidily summarizing the events of the Pacific theater, the Tokyo Trials were met with sustained criticism for being a sterling example of victors’ justice. The victorious Allies, in other words, appeared free to do what they wanted to their felled foes, meting out judgment on a basis that held winners and losers to different standards. Also tarnishing the trials was the fact that the United States downplayed, and even hid, war crimes committed in the region—some that were committed by Japan, others by the United States. The decision to withhold the truth was fueled partly by the burgeoning Cold War, which made Japan a key ally in the West’s ideological battle against communism in the region. This approach, although strategic, silenced victims and indulged perpetrators. 

These long-buried crimes resurface periodically, most strikingly in 1995, when Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a blanket apology to all countries and people affected by Japan’s “mistaken national policy” during World War II. However, even after having received multiple such expressions of regret and remorse, neighboring countries remain unsatisfied, particularly when it comes to Japan’s stance on its mistreatment of foreign Asian women during the war. Despite Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s 1993 statement acknowledging the Japanese military’s involvement in establishing and maintaining a system that forced approximately 200,000 women into sexual slavery, and despite the attempt between Japan and South Korea late last year to “finally and irreversibly” resolve their dispute over the issue, Japan has yet to offer an apology that acknowledges governmental—not just military—wrongdoing and takes responsibility for these crimes committed to women and girls from other countries. Similarly, Japan has never explicitly apologized for either the infamous Rape of Nanking or the attack on Pearl Harbor, although in 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did express “deep repentance” and “deep remorse” for Japan’s actions during World War II.

At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, June 1946.
At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, June 1946.

The issue of Japan’s collective wartime memory grabbed headlines again last year when the country’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) launched a panel to reexamine its modern history, including the postwar occupation of Japan. The panel is ongoing but has already stirred up concerns that certain Japanese politicians intend to push a revisionist view of the 1940s that casts the United States as a biased and vindictive judge and Japan as the helpless innocent, powerless to refute the U.S. view of history.


Of course, Japan isn’t the only country plagued by complex war narratives. The United States’ own conduct in World War II raises questions about its dual identity as victim and victimizer. In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forcible resettlement and internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, as well as approximately 3,000 Italian Americans and 11,000 German Americans. The affected individuals were unjustly detained, their property was confiscated, their communities were splintered, and their health was permanently damaged by the trauma and poor living conditions in the camps.

Although the internment of Japanese Americans is better known than the wartime internment of Italian and German Americans, it’s still mostly relegated to the footnotes of U.S. history. There have been efforts to overcome this historical blind spot, most notably the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which Congress officially apologized to “individuals of Japanese ancestry” for the “grave injustice” that was committed against them and promised to make some sort of restitution to former internees. U.S. President Bill Clinton made good on this promise in 1993, sending a letter of apology and a $20,000 check to each surviving former internee.

In popular culture, meanwhile, Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s co-authored memoir of her childhood in the Californian camp of Manzanar, remains a classroom staple. The press also devoted a significant amount of attention to therecent Broadway play Allegiance, which tells the story of a Japanese American family’s wartime experiences in Wyoming’s Heart Mountain War Relocation Center and starred George Takei, himself a child internee. Cultural markers such as these show that the United States has perhaps made some progress in dissecting its historical ills in a way that Japan hasn’t. 

Yet both the American public and the U.S. government are far less apologetic about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although public opinion has softened over time. A Pew Research poll showed that whereas in 1945, 85 percent of Americans approved of having dropped atomic bombs on Japan, by 2015, only 56 percent saw the actions as justified. And for all that the United States prefers to remember itself as the victim of Pearl Harbor rather than the arguably unjustified aggressor of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans are averse to using nuclear weapons in the future unless nuclear weapons are used against them first.


Both the United States and Japan have a long way to go toward creating a more historically honest collective memory of World War II. Although the United States has so far avoided any push to gloss over the crimes of the past in the way Japan’s LDP has attempted recently, stateside commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor are much more numerous, extensive, and official than those held in the United States last year to mourn the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. And while it’s far easier to remember national tragedies than national crimes, giving historical wrongdoing a more prominent role in a country’s collective memory affords dignity to victims, cautions current decision-makers, and helps to heal strained international relationships. 

Learning to remember is necessarily a tricky job. Germany’s decades-long reckoning with World War II and Serbia’s aggressive reluctance to do the same with the wars in the former Yugoslavia that raged throughout the 1990s provide crystal-clear examples of how difficult it can be to capture brutality, grief, and remorse. In Japan and the United States, there’s much soul-searching still to be done to address competing yet parallel narratives of war. But doing so would be crucial to confronting the historical impunity that has come at the expense of reconciliation—within and beyond both countries’ borders.

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  • CLAIRE GREENSTEIN is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. BRANDON TENSLEY is the Advocacy and Communications Associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress and was a 2015–16 Luce Scholar in Southeast Asia.
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