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The debate on Nanjing is now closed

by Jeff Kingston

DOCUMENTS ON THE RAPE OF NANKING, edited by Timothy Brook. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1999, 301 pp., 2,616 yen.
AMERICAN GODDESS AT THE RAPE OF NANKING: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin, by Hua-ling Hu. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000, 184 pp.

The adversity and upheaval of the 1990s has led some pundits, intellectuals, cartoonists and leaders to seek solace and inspiration in a nostalgic nationalism. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s recent comments are not really that unusual in the context of the LDP’s intellectual history and ideological inclinations as elucidated in Yoshibumi Wakamiya’s fine study, reviewed in these pages on March 28, “The Postwar Conservative View of Japan.”

It is telling that Mori’s predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, spent considerable time and energy passing legislation giving legal status to the national flag and anthem, a curious priority given the pressing need to deal with an array of urgent socioeconomic problems. The conscious manipulation of these symbols of national unity and wistful references to a glorious past, when the nation was centered on the Emperor and the people embraced proper morals based on the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), are both revealing and banal.

A miserable present often leads people of all nations to hearken back to a golden age and to seek answers in the presumed values, traditions and practices of that reified past. However, it is odd that Mori has chosen the 1890-1945 era for his inspiration and emphasizes the importance of inculcating the morals and ethics of that time in today’s youngsters.

Looking back over the 55 years when moral teachings were included in the national curriculum at the behest and in the service of the Emperor, there is certainly room for argument whether in fact this was a better time for Japanese society. The selective and airbrushed version of the past served up by conservatives is hard to reconcile with the less appealing realities that prevailed.

Before 1945, almost half the farming population worked landlords’ land under unfavorable sharecropping arrangements, causing a pervasive rural poverty that forced many families to sell their daughters into prostitution. In that era, there was a privileged peerage, women could not vote and their rights were subordinated to men’s in the patriarchal “ie” system. Labor rights were routinely trampled, the press was often muzzled and rightists resorted to intimidation, assassination and abuse of police powers to quell dissent. Glory days? For whom?

These two books on the Rape of Nanjing provide a sobering reminder about the moral shortcomings of individual Japanese at a time when society fully embraced the educational curriculum and ideological orientation Mori holds in high esteem. The problems of today’s youth and society are perhaps reflected in the recent bus-hijacking incident, but it is worth recalling that youthful zealots in 1931 hijacked an entire nation and initiated a 15-year rampage throughout Asia. Sadly, the carnage of Nanjing was not unique, and the sex slaves, forced laborers, POWs and more than 15 million victims of Japanese aggression bear witness to the dark side of Japan’s history when the language, symbols and metaphors favored by Mori prevailed in the polity.

During what the government of the day frequently referred to as “a Holy War on behalf of the Emperor,” it is worth bearing in mind that nearly 3 million Japanese also gave up their lives while their survivors endured crushing deprivation until the relief of surrender in August 1945. What can explain the yearning to revive the symbols of this era and the moral foundations that permitted such wanton cruelty and senseless sacrifice orchestrated by a self-serving elite?

Timothy Brook has rendered considerable service to students of Japanese history by compiling a variety of documents related to the notorious Rape of Nanjing. It will become even more difficult for myopic Japanese historians to go on denying, minimizing and shifting responsibility for the assembly-line slaughter that occurred, but one should not underestimate their zeal in preserving an exonerating history and overlooking or distorting inconvenient evidence.

Brook reproduces the entire collection of letters and memorandums written by the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone, composed of Europeans and Americans then resident in Nanjing; most of these detailed complaints were sent to Japanese diplomats and military officers in Nanjing.

This is an authoritative documentary record, first published in 1939, about what these international observers witnessed or learned during the most brutal days between Dec. 14, 1937 and Feb. 19, 1938. This collection of 69 letters, according to Brooks, “. . . constitutes one of the surest bodies of evidence that Japanese misconduct was widespread, that it was unnecessary (there having been no significant resistance to the Japanese once they entered the city), that Chinese soldiers were treated without respect for international rules of conduct in war, and that Chinese civilians suffered in the extremity.” It is often said that war brings out the worst in humanity and these letters confirm this proposition in searing detail.

In addition, Brooks has included the personal letters of Dr. Robert Wilson, a U.S. surgeon who treated many of those wounded by the Imperial Japanese Army and assisted in the work of the International Committee. His letters are candidly emotional, conveying the distress and anger he felt in witnessing the blood bath.

On Dec. 18, 1937, he wrote, “Today marks the sixth day of the modern Dante’s Inferno, written in huge letters with blood and rape. Murder by the wholesale and rape by the thousands of cases. There seems to be no stop to the ferocity, lust and atavism of the brutes.” Recalling the nightmare, on March 7, 1938 he wrote, “If anyone had mentioned to us on Dec. 12 that the entry of the Japanese would be a signal for a reign of terror almost beyond description, we would have laughed at their fears. . . . When the mass murder, raping, looting and arson began shortly after the entry of the Japanese troops we at first could not believe our eyes but were effectively convinced in a very short time.”

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East staged in Tokyo after World War II has long been criticized for ignoring proper judicial procedure and railroading the defendants into preordained guilty verdicts. The findings of the court regarding Nanjing are included in “Documents” as is the dissenting opinion of Radhabinod Pal. The court sentenced Gen. Iwane Matsui and Foreign Minister Koki Hirota to death for their roles in Nanjing.

The court set a precedent in determining that the failure to prevent war crimes amounted to a crime against humanity, arguing that both men knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it. Justice Pal expressed a variety of objections, including the validity of invoking the sin of omission as an indictable offense. Despite his reservations, he concluded that “the evidence is still overwhelming that atrocities were perpetuated by the members of the Japanese armed forces against the civilian population.”

Readers who saw the movie “Pride,” the top-grossing Japanese film in 1998, can be forgiven for drawing a rather different conclusion about Pal’s views concerning Japanese war crimes, since in the film his character plays a central role in exonerating the Japanese defendants.

“American Goddess” graphically confronts the reader with a lingering and haunting look at the gruesome atrocities visited upon Nanjing and the courageous efforts of one woman to stand up to the men committing them. Hua-ling Hu, former editor of the Journal of Studies of Japanese Aggression Against China, relates the experiences of Minnie Vautrin, a missionary, educator and member of the International Committee who witnessed the excesses committed by Japanese troops in 1937-38.

She was dean of Ginling College and used the campus to provide asylum for Chinese seeking protection and to care for refugees. For her efforts to shield those who lived in fear of the Imperial troops, she is known in China as the “Living Goddess.”

Drawing on Vautrin’s diary, her personal papers and other primary and secondary sources, Hu examines her time in China leading up to the tragic events and the day-to-day barbarism that engulfed her world for several months. According to Hu, the strain of caring, defying and failing to save all who sought her protection took its toll; in 1941, Vautrin committed suicide, another life to add to a Nanjing death toll estimated by Foreign Minister Hirota at no less than 300,000 in a coded cable intercepted in 1938.