history : Why-did-Japan-execute-many-atrocities-when-invading-China-although-they-are-highly-civilized
Answer by Harold Kingsberg:
The attention-grabbing answer is that Japan committed atrocities during the Second World War not in spite of being civilized, but because they were civilized. Bear with me, I promise I'm going somewhere not morally reprehensible with this.
During Antiquity, the Romans felt that they were the height of civilization. Theirs was a culture that did not shy away from practicing ethnic cleansing or slavery, and whose ideas of justice included mandating torture to get testimony for courts of law. Still, they thought they were civilized, and when you get right down to it, it's only comparatively recently that anyone's bothered to question that assertion – let's not forget that according to the standard line of high school history textbooks it was "Germanic barbarians" who conquered the empire.
The people of the British Empire thought that they were highly civilized. Sure, they had no problems storming into someone else's land, taking it over, pitting the inhabitants against each other and making an example of those who resisted, but they still believed themselves civilized. The Belgians considered themselves civilized in spite of the horrors of the Congo Free State. The Americans considered themselves civilized in spite of Wounded Knee and numerous other such massacres of the native population of the continent.
For that matter, cultures have often labeled each other uncivilized while calling themselves civilized – look no further than the Crusades to see some of that in action. What this means is that either all but one of those cultures was incorrect or that "civilized" does not have a universal meaning – one man's civilization is another man's barbarity.
Another aspect of "civilization" worth pointing out is that nobody ever declared their own culture to be uncivilized. People might declare the culture of the area in which they live to be uncivilized, they might declare the culture of the area they are from to be uncivilized, but they don't declare the culture with which they identify to be uncivilized. This, along with the positive connotation of the word "civilized," tells us that the word doesn't mean kind, gentle, polite or just. What it really means is "like me, and in the best possible way."
Of course, the word "civilized" doesn't make sense by itself. If everyone's like you in the best possible way, then it's not something you notice. But if people are different, then the label has meaning and value. So the people who are not like you? They're uncivilized. Other words you might use are "savage" and "barbaric."
And it's here where we get to the explanation of my opening remark. Like every other culture during history, the Japanese in the 1930's and 1940's thought themselves civilized, and in Asia, uniquely so. The Japanese of this time pointed to several things as proof of this, most notably that they had remained independent of the West and had beaten a Great Power in a war – but also that they hadn't succumbed to the scourge of opium addiction the way many other Asian countries, most obviously China, had. The Japanese had, to their way of thinking at the time, avoided this because of their morally superior and more civilized culture, whereas the Chinese hadn't because they were a bunch of degenerates who of course went and smoked opium rather than improved themselves. Obviously, this is a quite revolting idea, but it was pervasive then, and similarly disgusting ideas were to be found globally.
Not only are these ideas completely reprehensible, they're also dangerous. People tend not to treat their social inferiors particularly well but the people they find morally inferior, they tend to treat like garbage or at least not complain to any great extent when others do. After all, degenerates get what's coming to them, right? This is exactly what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, and it's what happened to the Chinese during the Rape of Nanking. The label of "uncivilized" essentially got used to dehumanize others to the point where stealing from those others, raping them, murdering them, medically experimenting on them, rendering their corpses into soap, etc. seemed okay because of the supposedly inferior and inhuman nature of those others. This also, just to be clear, explains pretty much every other example of "civilized cultures" acting in a murderous or larcenous fashion I listed at the beginning of this explanation.
So really, the interesting question is not "were the Japanese civilized," but rather "why am I answering whether or not they were civilized in the way I am?" The label says far more about the person who applies it than it does about the people he or she applies it to.
 So did others. While Joseph Conrad didn't shy away from describing the moral depravity of what happened in the Congo Free State in Heart of Darkness, he also didn't hesitate to call the native inhabitants of the region "savages" and "niggers."
 The Russians during the Russo-Japanese War.
 And if we're being honest, still are.
 The social position of Jews in Europe at the time was justified based on their supposed moral degeneracy.
 Work the register at McDonald's, you'll see it's true.
 If you heard a child was stabbed to death, you'd be horrified – we tend to view children as being innocent and fundamentally good. If you heard that the child's murderer was shanked in prison, would you care? We have a higher tolerance for horrifying things happening to people who have exhibited what we view as moral failings.