Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Ngo Vinh-Long

Second Committee Member

Nathan Godfried

Third Committee Member

Richard Blanke


The aim of this thesis is to explore the issues caused by Japan’s war legacies, and their adverse impact on Japan’s relations with its neighbors, political influence, and role in global affairs. Japan is economically great, and yet it has persistent problems in its relations with other East and Southeast Asian nations, particularly its critical neighbors China and the Koreas, in part because in Japan, many politicians and citizens deny the full extent of their Empire’s controversial activities during World War II and the Japanese Empire (1868-1945). Issues deriving from World War II are primary, but some legacies of the prewar Japanese Empire cannot be ignored.

America considered the Cold War to be the only important reality and ignored previous activities. Japanese society rejected militarism after losing the war, but most Japanese still cannot admit the entirety of the atrocities that their military committed. The reasons Japan and America underestimate these issues may be understandable, but other nations will not allow Japan to forget. There are many books about these issues, most often about either a single issue or relationship, or focused on cultural issues such as memory and forgiveness. This paper, however, looks at all of the major issues and relationships, with a focus on nation-to-nation relations, more so than cultural issues.

The first chapter covers modem Japanese history (1868 to the present), wartime racism and the American occupation that shaped modem Japan, the Japanese postwar government, the issue of the insufficient war criminal tribunals which failed to punish. Emperor Hirohito, wartime Japan’s leader, and the trials’ mixed legacy in Japan, and Japanese relations with America and Asian nations. The core of the paper is the next two chapters, an examination of various World War II legacy issues which divide Japan and its critics. First, chapter three discusses the re-militarization of Japan despite constitutional restrictions. Chapter four covers the other issues, including insufficient governmental apology for wartime atrocities; education and textbooks which whitewashed or ignored the Empire’s history; Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s most prominent war memorial, which enshrined the worst war criminals and defended Japan’s military activities; the Rape of Nanking, where every detail is disputed between China and Japan; the issue of “comfort women,” Asian women sexually enslaved by Japanese troops, which has become important; and last, the outlying island controversies. There are also comparisons to the different path Germany and its European neighbors have taken regarding Germany’s wartime legacy.

Instead of apologizing for their actions elsewhere in Asia, Japan focuses on its own victimization during World War II when America bombed Japanese cities. Many Japanese statements on the war mentioned Hiroshima, but not their own specific acts. Other nations resented this. This paper presents the view that Japan’s World War II legacy is a difficult one that caused ongoing difficulty in Japan’s foreign relations. Japanese politicians continually raised these war legacies, denied their culpability, and threatened to retract past apologies, so the war’s legacy remained alive.