Did the 1937 Nanjing Massacre really happen? This might seem like an absurd question, but then the recently elected governor of Tokyo is on record as having denied that the looting, rape and assembly-line murder reported by eyewitnesses ever took place. The Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history, Yoshinori Kobayashi and Nobukatsu Fujioka, have penned best-selling books that seek to deny, mitigate, rationalize and minimize the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army during Japan’s 15-year rampage in Asia.
The whitewashing of history promoted by their organization of like-minded conservatives, Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai (The Japanese Institute for New History Education), has struck a chord among a surprising number of Japanese who resent and resist dilatory efforts to wean the nation from the collective amnesia approach to the “troubled past” propagated by the Ministry of Education in the post-World-War-II era. They have attacked efforts to include more forthcoming accounts of the atrocities committed in the name of Emperor Showa in textbooks, arguing that the evidence is inconclusive.
Iris Chang, author of “The Rape of Nanking” (1997), reignited the Nanjing debate and even provoked the Japanese ambassador to the United States into an ill-considered broadside that seemed to lend credence to some of the egregious caricatures served up in her book. The decision earlier this year not to proceed with a translation of her work has kept the controversy in the limelight.
In writing such a flawed and sloppy work, Chang inadvertently provided ammunition to the denial camp, allowing them to sidetrack the debate into arguments over details, numbers, dates and locations that attempt to distract attention away from the overwhelming evidence of widespread atrocities. She also ignored the substantial body of scholarship and writing by Japanese who have struggled to promote awareness of the ignominious truth of what happened in Nanjing.
The translation project was killed because the publisher wanted to include an extensive critical commentary by one of these writers. The intention was to clarify the current state of Japanese scholarship on Nanjing and thus pre-empt efforts by ultranationalists to sidetrack the debate. Unfortunately, cancellation of the translation has been interpreted as evidence of censorship and intimidation.
Katsuichi Honda, a former journalist with Asahi, covered the Vietnam War and reported excesses committed by U.S. troops. Out of this experience, he decided to look into the conduct of Japan’s military in China between 1931 and 1945. This timely translation of his research on the Nanjing Massacre offers conclusive evidence that raping, looting and mass murder did occur on a grand scale in Nanjing. More importantly, he provides proof that military authorities sanctioned such excesses and they do not represent the errant behavior of rogue troops.
In following the route taken by Japan’s 10th Army from its landing just north of Shanghai at Hangzhou Bay on Nov. 5, 1937 until its capture and occupation of Nanjing in mid-December 1937, Honda finds that Japanese troops consistently committed atrocities from the outset of their invasion until the orgy of mayhem in Nanjing. He argues that the blood lust was partially motivated by the desire to exact retribution for the heavy casualties suffered along the way.
It was expected that the troops would live off the land, meaning that they would “requisition” food from the farmers, taking the opportunity to ravish daughters, wives and even grandmothers as the spoils of war. Many of these victims were then murdered as a way of eliminating witnesses.
Honda also argues that military authorities wanted to send a message about the consequences of resisting Japan’s version of “liberation.” The brutal scorched earth policy was intended to sap the will and capacity of the Chinese Nationalist forces to fight, but unintentionally served to create a symbol for unifying and strengthening Chinese resistance.
Honda bases his account on his interviews with many Chinese survivors, the eyewitness accounts of Japanese soldiers and journalists and the reports from Europeans living in Nanjing at the time. There are some differences and discrepancies, but overall the various accounts from a wide range of sources paint a gruesome picture of incomprehensible brutality and carnage.
Honda points out the difficulties in exactly determining the number of those raped and murdered, but suggests that if Nanjing is seen as the culmination of the 10th Army’s six-week campaign, the total number of victims of Japanese aggression along the invasion route number in the hundreds of thousands. Since the military authorities had much to hide, they were not eager to leave clues for future historians and engaged in a massive coverup that has prevented conclusive determination of the scale of the massacre.
This lingering doubt about the exact number has been exploited to the hilt by those who seek to deny the shameful acts exposed in mind-numbing detail by Honda. Witness after witness from village after village recount similar awful tales that jibe with accounts left behind by Japanese soldiers in their field diaries and in subsequent confessions.
Honda tellingly juxtaposes these tales of terror with contemporary media coverage extolling the victories and courage of the troops. In this way the edifice of official history collapses on its foundation of delusional hypocrisy.
One villager recalls a story that is typical of what the Chinese remember about the Japanese troops. After raping some of the village women, “The soldiers rammed a broom into the vagina of a younger woman and then stabbed her with a bayonet. They cut open the belly of the pregnant woman and gouged out her fetus. A two-year-old boy was bawling loudly. . . . A soldier grabbed him from his mother’s arms and threw him into the flames. Then they bayoneted the hysterically sobbing mother and threw her into the creek. The remaining 31 people were made to kneel facing the creek. The soldiers stabbed them from behind with their bayonets, twisting the blades to disembowel them, and threw them into the water.”
Honda realizes that many Japanese don’t want to believe that such things happened and thus quotes from, “. . . many and various accounts from Japanese soldiers themselves of how they committed rape, cut open bellies of pregnant women, and participated in gang rape and mass murder.” This makes for chilling reading. One former staff sergeant wrote, “There was another who tied a woman hand and foot between two trees, stuffed a hand grenade up her vagina, and exploded it.”
So why does it matter that the past remains shrouded in a cloud of collective amnesia? Ultranationalists and their conservative apologists in the media seem to believe that airbrushing the past leaves a better impression. Honda dis-agrees, arguing that a con-tinuing reluctance to confront the atrocities adds to Japan’s shame. Japan, “. . . unlike Germany and Italy, has not followed up on the war crimes committed by its own people. By not acknowledging these crimes, we fail to grasp the complete picture of our own national character. Lacking this understanding, we keep appealing to the world, talk-ing about Hiroshima and Na-gasaki and the nuclear situa-tion. We, therefore, gain a reputation for emphasizing our role as a victim without ever reflecting upon our own violent aspect.”
“The Nanjing Massacre” usefully elucidates the night-mare Japanese troops un-leashed on the Chinese in a manner that defies denial and will serve to remind overseas readers that the intellectual terrain here is far too varied to sustain sweeping general-izations about “the Japa-nese.” It remains troubling, however, that far too many Japanese remain receptive to the pabulum being served up by the pooh-bahs and pontifi-cators of denial and amnesia who have done so much to sul-ly Japan’s reputation.