Reevaluating the Rape of Nanjing

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Oded Balilty / AP

A ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre at the memorial hall of the victims in Nanjing, Thursday Dec. 13, 2007.

When I was a kid growing up in Honolulu, Pearl Harbor was a vivid, recurring reminder of Japanese wartime aggression. At 11:45 a.m. on the first working day of every month, a test of the city's air raid sirens would start up and I'd wonder what it must have felt like to hear them whine on Dec. 7, 1941. As a Japanese American, though, my feelings about the attack were always somewhat conflicted.

Ten years ago, while I was studying Japanese history in college, I discovered just how complicated those feelings could become. That was the year Iris Chang published her seminal book, The Rape of Nanking, about Japan's brutal occupation of the Republic of China's capital in 1937. After reading about the wartime genocide during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese died in a matter of weeks — events commonly referred to as the Nanjing Massacre — I felt a crushing sense of shame.

Dec. 13, 2007, marks the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, and since my college days, my sense of shame has led me to seek a better understanding of what really happened. There is much disagreement over the historical record. The massacre is the subject of at least 10 dramatic and documentary films, several of them in production now, from China, Japan, the U.S., Europe and Canada. Some of those films — like Ted Leonsis' Nanking, which is about the Safety Zone, a refuge for Chinese in Nanjing set up by foreigners — present a shocking picture of the rape, looting, and random execution visited on the civilian population by occupying troops. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the yet-to-be-released The Truth About Nanking, by Japanese director Satoru Mizushima, who maintains the massacre is a myth and who has set about to debunk it with his film.

Serious historians do not doubt that the massacre took place. But there is much disagreement over the details. Were 200,000 people killed or 300,000? Were 20,000 raped or 80,000? The whole truth may never be known. According to Samuel Yamashita, a professor at Pomona College in the U.S., details of the massacre and other atrocities were swept under the rug in postwar Japan, because the U.S. needed a strong Japanese nation on their side to counterbalance the growing threat of Communist China. "Execute a few heinous individuals and forget about everything else." That's how Joshua Fogel, a modern Asian studies historian at York University in the U.S., describes the American response to the massacre. "Just imagine if that had been the solution for postwar Germany rather than the Nuremberg Trials," Fogel says.

The seeds of doubt about what happened in 1937 have sprouted into enduring enmity between modern China and Japan. Throw in semantics, language barriers, differing collective memories, and national pride, and you start to get a sense of why the two countries cannot agree on the "facts." This lack of consensus plays into the hands of demagogic politicians. Japanese nationalists know their constituents respond to downplaying and denial of the massacre. A vocal and powerful minority, they fan the flames of other incendiary political issues, such as visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the general who commanded forces in Nanjing is honored. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders know that keeping the memory of the Rape of Nanjing alive stirs outrage against a common enemy and inspires a fervent patriotism that helps to distract the public from the Beijing government's shortcomings. In other words, the truth is obscured because the massacre is being used as a political football by leaders in both countries who are better served by retelling the more extreme versions of history.

Historical fact-finding missions involving both Chinese and Japanese specialists may eventually lead to reconciliation. Independent Chinese and Japanese study commissions were set up to mark the massacre's 70th anniversary. Meanwhile, a Harvard-sponsored joint study on the Sino-Japanese War has contributed Chinese, Japanese and English scholarship that promises to narrow the gaps between Nanjing accounts. "A joint project can socialize each side to accept that the other side is working in good faith," says Fogel. "It can also reflect on how one's own side may be basing conclusions on something other than hard data." Iris Chang may have begun the truth-finding process when, in an effort to explore her own Chinese identity, she wrote The Rape of Nanking. I'm hoping I can learn something valuable about my own heritage as that difficult and painful process continues.