Nanking Massacre is the forgotten holocaust of World War II, which stands in sharp contrast with the widely-known atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For people who love Japan and its unique culture, who admire Japanese’s perseverance, orderliness and dedication to perfection, getting to know this ugly chapter of Japan history might be an uncomfortable experience.

The Author

The Nanking horrors first came to Iris Chang’s notice from her family. Her parents, a professor of physics and a microbiologist, told her how her Chinese grandparents had fled the Nanking as the violence began. Yet the subject had been almost completely lost to history and she could not find much about it in print.

“Throughout my childhood Nanjing Datusha remained buried in the back of my mind as a metaphor for unspeakable evil”

By conducting an intensive research, Iris Chang was able to uncover a certain amount of material ranging from interviews with Chinese survivors, Japanese soldiers’ journals, eyewitness’ diaries, government documents to newspaper accounts. The insights found their way into the text and helped to describe the indescribable.

A man views the vast wall of files in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, each for a victim of the massacre. (Photo Credit: Koan Collection)

“The Rape of Nanking” spent 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and close to half a million copies have been sold. It also got translated into 15 languages and earned Iris Chang international fame, financial freedom and the recognition as one of the most promising historians in America. Unfortunately, she died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 36, leaving behind a husband and young son.

Strenuous book tours, countless all-nighters, fear of Japanese right-wing extremists, depression from multiple miscarriages, psychological debilitating when researching into brutal war subjects, side effects of medication all contributed to her mental collapse. In the epilogue for the 2011 version, Iris’s husband Bretton Douglas shared that Pride was another important factor that led to her suicide.

“It is far better that you remember me as I was – in my heyday as a best-selling author – than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville”

If each of us is born with a mission in life, I believe Iris Chang’s sacred duty was to attract publicity for the least remembered and perhaps the most gruesome horrors of the Second World War, to demand proper justice for hundred thousands of war victims and to caution future generation against repeating history.

“This book was written with George Santayana’s immortal warning in mind: Those who cannot remember that past are condemned to repeat it”.

There are several important things to know about Nanking Massacre: the path to Nanking, the scale of casualties, the nature of atrocities, why the incident remained neglected and Japanese’s attitudes and actions in post-war period.

1. The Path to Nanking

Japan’s colonial empire and new status as a great regional power was a legacy of Emperor Meiji. In 1894, after nearly a decade catching up with advanced Western nations, Japan joined them in the competition for Asian colonies by conquering Korea and declaring war to China.

Growth of Japan Empire (Photo Credit: Global Security)

Having the advantages in the brief war fought (Sino-Japanese War 1894 – 1895), Meiji forced The Qing into signing the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki. The victorious war further enhanced Emperor Meiji’s prestige and evoked national support for military expansion.

However, to prevent Japanese territorial encroachment in Manchuria, Russia, France, and Germany banded together in an alliance called the Triple Intervention. Japan was in no position to militarily resist three major European powers simultaneously and it felt compelled to accept the modified treaty (in which Liaodong Peninsula got returned to China) in exchange for a substantial indemnity of roughly 450 million yen.

Realised that the country was strong enough to exert influence over Asian neighbours but not yet strong enough to resist pressure from the West, Japan’s government decided to double the efforts to achieve economic and military autonomy.

“By 1904 the nation had doubled the size of its army and gained self-sufficiency in the production of armaments”. 

In the following year, Japanese fleet launched a surprise attack at Port Arthur and forced Russia to abandon its expansionist policy in the Far East (Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905). “The Rising Sun” became the first Asian power in modern times to defeat a European force.

During WW1, Japanese macroeconomy stimulated by a sharp rise in foreign demand for military products, the country therefore entered a period of “not only military prestige but unprecedented economic prosperity”. The golden era, however, was temporary and short-term as chronic crises arose in post war period with economic competition from abroad and Global Depression 1929. Japan soon found itself facing a mounting trade deficit, gold reserve loss, widespread economic paralysis, soaring unemployment and a choice of “conquering new territory to ward off mass starvation”.

In the 1930s, Japan aggressively launched an undeclared war with China and in response to international criticism, it also withdrew from the League of Nations.

Japanese diplomats left the League of Nations building in Geneva after Japan’s withdrawal in 1933

Full scale war between China and Japan began in July 1937, following an incident near the Marco Polo Bridge. Chinese’s underdeveloped military industries with no tanks and only a few aircraft were unable to effectively resist Japanese’s modern, well-equipped army.

The first phase of the war was a blitzkrieg of Japanese victories as their forces moved swiftly along China’s east coast and Nationalist government retreated to Nanking – the capital, which was also soon to be occupied in late 1937.

2. The Scale of Casualties

Iris Chang presented different Chinese and foreign studies on the death toll of Nanking, yet with the most skeptical estimation, the number of deaths would be as high as 200,000. A message of Foreign Minister Hirota Koki sent to his contacts in Washington, D.C., which got decoded by American Intelligence in 1938, revealed that he himself believed the death toll mounted up to 300,000.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in the Chinese city (Photo Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

“It is shocking to contemplate that the deaths at Nanking far exceeded the deaths from the American raids on Tokyo (an estimated 80,000–120,000 deaths) and even the combined death toll of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the end of 1945 (estimated at 140,000 and 70,000, respectively)”

However the worst is yet to come. Historian Jonathan Fenby describes the Rape of Nanjing as a uniquely urban atrocity because of “the way the Japanese went about their killing, the wanton individual cruelty, the reduction of the city’s inhabitants to the status of sub-humans who could be murdered, tortured and raped at will”.

3. The Nature of Atrocities

The misbehavior of Japanese soldiers in Nanking was beyond any justification premised on the soldier’s post-battle psychology. While many argued that the savagery resulted from a breakdown of discipline, Iris Chang presented in this book a more widely accepted and convincing cause for the atrocities: the extensive and extreme military training Japanese soldiers went through to prepared for the war against China.

Psychologically, Japanese military recruits got subjected to intensive indoctrination in the tenets of bushido and Shinto which was calculated to produce fanatics who would sacrifice their lives without hesitation for the emperor “obedience was touted as a supreme value”. They were squelched any spirit of individualism or self-worth, and walled off from all outside pleasures, interests or influences. They were also trained to stiffen their endurance for war brutality by practicing killings “these thin, emaciated Chinese are the raw materials for your trial of courage”.

Physically, the soldiers underwent vicious and relentless training process in which “superior officers or older soldiers slapped recruits for almost no reason at all or beat them severely with heavy wooden rod”. Even for aspiring officers, they had to stay in “prison” camp with harsh living conditions “overcrowded barracks, unheated study rooms, and inadequate food”.

4. Why the incident remained neglected?

Compared to The Holocaust and the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very few people knew about Nanking Massacre (I don’t even remember whether the incident is included in Vietnamese History textbook or not). The questions of why the events of 1937-1938 were concealed for so long itself somehow can be answered by the political climate in post-WWII.

“After the 1949 Communist revolution in China, neither the PRC nor the ROC demanded wartime reparations from Japan (as Israel had from Germany) because the two governments were competing for Japanese trade and political recognition. And even the United States, faced with the threat of communism in the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to ensure the friendship and loyalty of its former enemy, Japan”

Besides, the effort of Japan’s government in suppressing any knowledge of the event by leaving the incident out of textbook and intimidating anyone who wanted to express true opinions contributed further to the isolation of Nanking Massacre out of public consciousness. Many Japanese often fail to understand why neighbouring countries harbour a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and 40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history.

5. Japanese’s attitudes and actions in post-war period

As much as I appreciate the author’s determination and courage to unfold the forgotten history, I couldn’t neglect a significant flaw of the book which is its inadequacy as a history.

First, Iris failed to channel her desire to convince the reader into a tone that could convey her conviction. The writing tone in “The Rape of Nanking” somehow implies a certain degree of outrage and right from the preface, I developed a feeling that the writer might not reconstruct the past objectively.

Second, Iris didn’t manage to give a balanced account even though she tried not to condemn the entire Japanese people for what occurred and mentioned the efforts of several Japanese historians and professors who spoke out about the incidents. She argued that the Japanese paid close to nothing for their wartime crimes and instead received billions of dollars in aid from the United States. I wonder if she was aware of the support from Japan towards the modernisation of China’s economy during Deng Xiaoping era.

Therefore to answer the question “Is it true that Japan finds it difficult to apologise for their past transgressions whereas Germany, whose crimes outstripped even those of Japan has largely reconciled with former victims?”, I would want to go beyond what Iris Chang presented in “The Rape of Ranking” and look for some other facts and perspectives. This is not to fence for Japan but to ensure that all the views are well acknowledged.

Besides, while it’s important for us to read the book as well as research into different sources to gain better understanding of Nanking Massacre, we should think objectively and be able to see “The Rape of Nanking” as an event that has been severely politicized and distorted from several directions. All propaganda (regardless of any party) would tell us less about the incident and more about their political agenda.

And as the frosty Sino-Japanese relationship is getting even more strained in recent years, it’s interesting to start noticing how the two countries could reconcile when Nanking Massacre still remains an open wound.

In a televised address a day before Japan marks 70 years since its defeat on 15 August 1945, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has expressed “deepest remorse” and “sincere condolences” to Japan’s wartime victims, but risked angering the country’s neighbours by stopping short of issuing a fresh apology and by saying that future generations should not be “predestined” to apologise themselves.

Articles for Reference
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Japan: WWII POW and Forced Labor Compensation Cases
List of war apology statements issued by Japan
A (very) short history of Japan’s war apologies
How the Nanjing Massacre became a political tool
The Nanjing Massacre. Changing Contours of History and Memory in Japan, China, and the U.S
Thoughts on the Nanjing Massacre
Japan threatens to halt Unesco funding over Nanjing massacre listing
Papers prove Japan forced women into second world war brothels, says China
50 Japanese scholars attack McGraw-Hill academics on ‘comfort women’ issue

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