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Lessons of the Nanjing debate

by Jeff Kingston

THE NANJING MASSACRE IN HISTORY AND HISTORIOGRAPHY, edited by Joshua Fogel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; 238 pp, $49 (cloth), $15.98 (paper).

Did the Nanjing Massacre really happen? In a review of Katsuichi Honda’s excellent book on this subject last year (“The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan’s National Shame,” The Japan Times, Aug. 18, 1999), I opened with the same question, but the ongoing vituperative debate in Japan suggests that it is still worth asking. Synapse-challenged politicians like Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara still argue that it is a complete fabrication, while a range of “revisionist” scholars admit that a massacre happened, but suggest numbers of victims far smaller than is commonly asserted by Chinese scholars (more than 300,000) and accepted at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (more than 200,000). Asia University’s Osamichi Higashinakano and Tokyo University’s Nobukatsu Fujioka suggest a precise figure of 47 civilian victims, while Hata Ikuhiko, one of the few credible historians in the “minimizer” school, suggests a total figure of 40,000 deaths. There are a range of estimates in between. A number of scholars who downplay the Nanjing “incident” have formed the Society for New History Textbooks.

Earlier this year, a conference at Osaka’s International Peace Center by revisionists focused on the “lies and propaganda” that have contributed to Japan’s so-called masochistic view of the Nanjing Massacre. They are reacting, among other things, against the textbooks used in junior high schools, authorized by the Ministry of Education since 1996, that either refer to the official Chinese government tally of 300,000 or suggest a smaller figure of 200,000 victims. In their view, there is no evidence to support either of these high figures, and children should not be taught history that would make them feel ashamed to be Japanese. Although they are referred to as “revisionists,” in fact they merely want to return to the whitewashed orthodox history that prevailed from the mid-1950s until the 1970s, when there was no mention of the massacre at all. They are convinced that there is an international conspiracy to tarnish Japan’s reputation by inflating the horrors of Nanjing, and like all good conspiracy acolytes they have an infinite capacity to ignore mountains of evidence while transforming shards of half-truths into a holy grail.

Iris Chang and her flawed book, “The Rape of Nanking” (1997), provided ammunition for these nattering nabobs of nonsense because her hyperbole, carelessness and monochrome caricature of the Japanese offered a perfect target. It is important to stress that Japanese scholars and journalists have produced some of the best research exposing what the Imperial Army did in Nanjing, a fact that Chang overlooked.

Takashi Yoshida’s superb chapter here on the historiographic battlefield in Japan surveys the relevant literature and comments on the respective positions, the retreat of the revisionists from complete denial and why the fight is so bitter. He points out the gaping holes in the revisionist critique and the hit-and-run tactics of these “yojinboteki chishijiken” (henchmen intellectuals), predicting that the revisionists will continue to ignore inconvenient evidence and that the debate will grow increasingly shrill.

Yoshida reports that Kaikosha, an organization of veterans and bereaved families, asked members to describe their experiences in Nanjing in a move they thought would refute the revelations of progressive scholars. However, veterans acknowledged involvement in the atrocities, and the organization published these in the mid-1980s, leading the chairman of the organization to issue an apology to China.

Undaunted by facts, the revisionists soldier on, wrapping themselves in the flag while stomping on the nation’s dignity and reputation by minimizing, denying, shifting responsibility and otherwise distorting what happened. While nobody accuses them of being erudite scholars, these hucksters of history serve up the pablum the public wants, and some count book sales in the hundreds of thousands. It is also disturbing that younger Japanese, sick of having to answer for the sins of their elders, are lapping up this history, preposterous excuses and all.

Revisionists suggest that Chinese undercover units did a fair share of the killing, shooting retreating Chinese soldiers as a way of maintaining discipline, while many others died in stampedes. Some argue that the widely reported sexual mutilation of women, carried out after they were raped, was done in a way characteristic of Chinese atrocities and thus Japanese troops were not guilty (even though soldiers’ diaries and eyewitnesses indicate that they did indeed indulge in this gruesome behavior). The Kuomintang Army is also blamed for not surrendering in an orderly fashion; presumably had they done so the killings would not have happened. The machine gunning of prisoners of war undermines this opinion, but it is argued that they were not legally POWs, presumably making it OK to slaughter unarmed, unresisting men.

What about the veterans who were at Nanjing and have told their horrible stories? They were brainwashed in Chinese POW camps at the end of the war, programmed not to come forward with their damning evidence until the 1990s. Chinese witnesses are dismissed, as are the Western missionaries and journalists who were in Nanjing at the time. No matter that living and dead Japanese participants in the rape and massacre tell stories very similar to those of the Chinese and Westerners; there are always small discrepancies that are invoked to discredit anyone standing in the revisionists’ way.

In China, historical debate about Nanjing is constrained by the symbolic importance of the massacre. According to Mark Eykholt, the Chinese are just as dissatisfied as Japanese about the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, but not because of “victor’s justice.” Chinese feel that the Japanese have gotten off too lightly and that the United States did not go after enough of the war criminals. Many remain bitter that only six Japanese were executed for crimes related to Nanjing. In contrast to Japan’s revisionists, who complain about a masochistic history, there is “a feeling that not enough has been done to recognize Japan’s responsibility, punish Japanese for the war crimes committed, and root out the real causes of Japanese aggression against China.” In this atmosphere of recrimination and vilification of the Japanese, “the half-tints and complexities have been ignored in order to reduce this event to the level of us and them, winners and losers, the good guys and the bad guys. Historiography supports this view while ceremonies ritualize the Massacre. In short, the Massacre has been transformed from a war atrocity experienced by Chinese in Nanjing on a local scale to an international symbol of suffering.”

Eykholt argues that because the massacre is so important to China’s identification as victim and useful in badgering Japan to ante up more aid, local scholars have not yet fully mined and critically examined the available archival resources to advance our understanding of the meaning and implications of Nanjing’s nightmare.

The final chapter by Daqing Yang, a native of Nanjing, also focuses on the limited historiographic depth and sophistication of the debate over the massacre. In contrast to the body of work on the Holocaust, Nanjing remains virtually at the level of who did what, when, where and how. He shares Eykholt’s assessment of the sterile level of inquiry in China and laments that the revisionists in Japan have turned the debate into an insipid and unseemly brawl over numbers of victims that at times resembles an academic food fight. Unfortunately, this plays to their strengths. They have set the terms of debate and have tried to get away with suggesting that if all the allegations cannot be substantiated with evidence they deem credible, then Japan need not take responsibility for or acknowledge any of it. The utter banality of the Society for New History Textbooks is evident in their emphasis on making the inculcation of an unreflective and unrepentant national consciousness the aim of education.

Yang’s historiographic reflections suggest how much more could be learned about and from Nanjing both in Japan and China, but it is hard at the moment to imagine a shared understanding between the victims and the perpetrators’ prevaricating defenders because they are locked in a mutually sustaining embrace of self-righteous anger. How can one rationally understand a time of insanity when the emotions and blindness persist? Yoshida seems right to suggest that the revisionists will be bleating their denials and equivocations for some time to come and in that way seek to block the more important and uncomfortable questions.

This fine volume, by stepping around their intellectual torpor, shows the way forward to a more nuanced and complex understanding of a wretched shared history.

Yet Charles Maier, a distinguished scholar of the Holocaust, introduces this volume by warning that “historical self-reflection cannot escape politics and will always be deeply affected by it because different versions of the past are so important for legitimating claims on power in the present.” In his view, “the killing spree at Nanjing at the close of 1937 has become the emblematic massacre of the Pacific War, and it remains the epitome of the cruelty and aggression that the Japanese regime unleashed. The Nanjing rampage seems all the more atrocious in that it involved not what seemed so horrifying about the Holocaust — its bureaucratized planning and mechanized execution — but the often gleeful killing of perhaps hundreds of thousands of civilians by individual soldiers using sword and bayonet as well as bullet. The killings were all the more appalling in that they were unnecessary for the military objective.”

Wanton cruelty on such a scale demands far more of us as historians and human beings than the revisionists seem prepared to face.