OSAKA — The Nanjing Massacre took place more than 60 years ago, but the battle over what exactly happened continues to rage.
For the past few years, since the publication of “The Rape of Nanking,” by American author Iris Chang, international pressure on Japan to apologize and offer compensation for the Nanking atrocities has grown. In the U.S., several states, including California and Nebraska, have discussed or approved resolutions condemning Japanese actions during the war.
There have always been those in Japan who deny the massacre occurred. But since the publication of Chang’s book, an unusually large number of works have appeared supporting these denials.
The basic facts of events prior to the incident are not in dispute. On Dec. 12, 1937, after fierce fighting around Nanjing between the Imperial Japanese forces and Chinese soldiers and weeks after Shanghai fell, Japan defeated the last of Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalist soldiers and entered the walled city.
What happened next, though, is where the disagreements begin. How many were killed and by whom? Were those who died innocent civilians or soldiers in hiding? How such questions are approached and answered divides those who deny that the massacre occurred from those who stress it is history.
The main reason such questions can be raised is that evidence and eyewitness accounts, although numerous, are scant compared with the voluminous death-camp records kept by the Nazis.
The Holocaust was ruthlessly planned at the highest levels, took place over a period of years and involved the whole of Europe. In contrast, the Nanking Massacre was conducted by troops running amok over a period of several months and in just one city.
Much of the debate focuses on proving or disproving evidence and accounts. At a symposium held here in January that denied the massacre occurred, Osamichi Higashinakano, a professor at Asia University who has written several books on the issue, presented video testimony by former Imperial Japanese military officers who were in Nanjing at the time and said they saw no evidence of large-scale murder.
A polished public speaker, Higashinakano’s argument rests on four premises. First, because some Japanese soldiers claimed they saw no one in the city when they entered, mass slaughter could not have occurred. Second, although killings occurred, the victims were Chinese soldiers who had stripped off their uniforms, not civilians.
Third, the records of foreigners in the Nanking International Safety Zone do not support claims of large-scale rape or murder, only isolated incidents. And fourth, much of the photographic evidence that later appeared was faked.
“All the evidence indicates that although some killings did occur, nothing like 300,000 people were killed,” he said.
The problem with these presumptions is that they take isolated facts to support conclusions, or they are based on highly selective evidence.
For example, Higashinakano is correct when he says German businessman John Rabe, who headed the International Safety Zone, does not record seeing 300,000 people raped and murdered. But Rabe did see many Chinese killed. He estimated in June 1938, after returning to Germany, that between 50,000 and 60,000 had died.
The professor also interviewed former soldiers who denied participating in the mayhem. He does not attempt to address testimony, compiled by journalist Katsuichi Honda, among others, of Japanese soldiers who admitted they took part in the rape.
But Higashinakano has proved persuasive. So much so that a group of Japanese scholars and activists, alarmed at his growing popularity, published a book last year criticizing him and others denying the rape and for telling 13 specific lies.
“Higashinakano uses rhetorical tricks to argue that the Rape of Nanking was first brought up at the Tokyo Trials as a plot to punish Japan, that no one knew about it at the time and that the testimony from the Chinese was unreliable,” said Hitotsubashi University professor Yutaka Yoshida, one of the book’s authors, who spoke at a separate symposium countering the revisionists’ claims earlier this month.
“These claims are proved false by those in Nanking at the time and records of the Foreign Ministry,” he said.
Yoshida is referring to a cable sent by then-Foreign Minister Koki Hirota to the Japanese Embassy in Washington on Jan. 17, 1938, about a month after Japanese troops entered the city.
“Hirota tells the Japanese ambassador that reports out of Nanking say 300,000 Chinese have been killed,” Yoshida said.
Many Western historians agree that 300,000 people were killed and 20,000 women were raped. As further evidence, they cite the November 1948 verdict of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. The court concluded that at least 200,000 were killed in Nanjing proper. Historians say that when the number of those killed in outlying areas is added, the figure becomes 300,000.
But Yoshida and other Japanese who firmly believe mass rape and murder were committed have their doubts about this figure.
“The official Japanese view is that somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 people were killed,” Yoshida said. “It is not clear how, exactly, the 300,000 figure was reached.”
The number of deaths recorded in scholarly works has ranged from 40,000 to 1 million. For many years after the war, historians, including Barbara Tuchman, whose book “Stillwell and the American Experience in China,” won the Pulitzer Prize, used the figure of about 42,000 deaths. In general, source material from 1937 and 1938, including diaries and journalistic dispatches, contains estimates ranging between 40,000 and 300,000 dead.
After the war, the numbers increased to between 100,000 and 200,000 in China and the West. Japanese sources were silent until the textbook controversies of the early 1980s, where figures ranging from only a few to 200,000 were put forth by retired military officers and some academics.
The disagreements stem from the suspicious nature of some of the original testimony. For example, during the Tokyo Trials, the court accepted evidence from Lu Su, a Chinese victim. On Dec. 18, 1937, Lu claimed, the Imperial Japanese Army rounded up 57,418 Chinese and executed them. The court did not ask how Lu, hiding in a cave at the time, could arrive at such a precise figure.
Those who deny the massacre have held up such testimony as proof that Chinese claims are exaggerated. But the very debate over the numbers shows a shift in their position.
“Higashinakano has been forced to admit that killings did occur. This is different from many years ago, when those who deny the rape said there were no murders,” Yoshida said.
“What happened at Nanking cannot be denied because it is known around the world. But poor scholars like Higashinakano must be exposed for their lies and half-truths,” he added.
But as the past few months have demonstrated, the fight over how the history books will be written is unlikely to end anytime soon.