War and reconciliation: a tale of two countries

There's no denying the Nanjing massacre took place, but does China's Massacre Memorial show a path forward? Not quite.

by Jeff Kingston

On July 7, 2008, officers of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force visited Nanjing, the ancient capital of China, for an artillery demonstration — a visit barely mentioned in the Chinese media, even though it was the first time Japanese soldiers returned to the scene of the crime — the Nanjing massacre — since Japan surrendered in World War II in 1945.

Unlike in recent years, there were no special commemoration rites on the anniversary of the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937 that Japan used as a pretext to launch a large-scale invasion of China. Later that year, on Dec. 13, 1937, Japanese troops entered Nanjing and unleashed a reign of terror, executing prisoners of war and civilians, raping women by the thousands, and burning and looting the city. The ravaging ran through the next six weeks, leaving the once-grand capital of China a shattered and smoldering husk.

Tokyo and Nanjing are only three hours distant by plane, but in terms of public history and Japan’s war memory of what happened from 1931 to ’45, they are poles apart, and one despairs at the prospects for reconciliation over the shared history of China and Japan.

Although the political leadership in both nations has decided that contemporary relations should not be held hostage to history and are in fence-mending overdrive, several Chinese on my recent visit said that there is little popular support in their country for such efforts.

As one Nanjing-based scholar explained it, reconciliation must be based on recognition of what happened — and there are too many troubling signs that such recognition is absent among Japanese. Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is ground zero for this selective amnesia.

The narrative of what happened in Nanjing on display at the Yusuhukan Museum on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a lesson in the politics of war memory. There one can view a video of Japanese troops bellowing a collective “Banzai!” from atop the city wall that abruptly cuts to a scene of a soldier ladling out soup for the elderly and young, while the narrator helpfully explains that the Japanese troops entered the city and restored peace and harmony.

Throughout the exhibit, Japan’s invasion of China is portrayed as a campaign to quell Chinese “terrorism” — a post-9/11 narrative that demonstrates just how much the present impinges on the past. At the museum, there is no mention of invasion, aggression, massacres or atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China. Improbably, the suffering of Japanese is the only suffering on display.

Unveiled at the end of 2007, Nanjing’s newly renovated and expanded Massacre Memorial resembles a tomb; a somber structure, it is fronted by a moat and several bronze statues depicting the agonies endured by those caught up in the maelstrom.

As you go through the turnstile — admission is free after local protesters complained the museum was profiting from others’ trauma — eyes are drawn across an expanse of gravel to a bell tower and black marble wall where the iconic number 300,000 is emblazoned and incised in several languages. This is a recurrent image throughout the exhibit, one that reiterates the official estimate of the number of victims. Inside there is a chamber where visitors can hear the amplified sound of a drop of water every 12 seconds, said to be the frequency of death during Nanjing’s six-week ordeal.

Yang Xiamen, a professor of international relations at the Jiangsu School of Administration and the translator of Iris Chang’s book, “The Rape of Nanking” (1997), says, “Ironically, thanks to the revisionists (in Japan), the government spent lots of money and time to collect all of this evidence and build this museum to display it.”

In his view, one shared by five other Chinese scholars I met, efforts in Japan to minimize, downplay or obfuscate the extent of wartime atrocities and Japan’s responsibility since the early ’80s have provoked a Chinese official response and public anger about Japan’s lack of contrition. Yang suggests that the controversy over Nanjing also reflects the globalization of human rights discourse in the ’90s.

Did the Chinese government whip up a unifying anti-Japanese nationalism in the early ’80s to shore up Deng Xiaoping’s legitimacy and deflect attention away from his adoption of controversial market-oriented reforms?

Six Chinese specialists on the massacre I spoke to all deny this view, arguing that the government was not so savvy or prescient to instrumentalize history in this manner. In their view, Japanese whitewashing of the two nations’ shared history forced the Chinese government to abandon its emphasis on building a future-oriented relationship, which had been evident in Beijing’s agreement — following normalization of relations in 1972 — to renounce compensation. They blame Japanese revisionists for impeding reconciliation by igniting an ongoing bilateral battle over history with their attempts to beautify the war memory and shirk Japanese responsibility.

The Massacre Memorial emphasizes that the Japanese invasion is typical of what happens to weak and backward nations, conveying a message that is explicitly supportive of Deng’s modernization reforms. The lesson of Nanjing is thus one insisting that China must control its destiny by becoming a wealthy and powerful nation.

Professor Yang wonders aloud, however, whether the Chinese people and Communist officials truly understand the logical consequences of gaining power and the potential to wreak havoc. Will China show restraint, or will it too be tempted to use its power in ways that harm the weak and backward?

Visitors descend into the museum, first confronting a replica of the city walls assailed by the sounds of bombardment, air-raid sirens, antiaircraft guns blazing and a video of the bombers. From this auditory assault, the deafened visitor proceeds to a tranquil room with a reflecting pond shimmering with electric candles, over which projected images of victims’ faces float toward them. Above, a ceiling glows with the number 300,000 as a bell solemnly tolls.

A sign explains: “A Human Holocaust: An Exhibit of the Nanking Massacre Perpetrated by the Japanese Invaders.”

The displays of photographs, newspaper articles, diary excerpts and artifacts trace the trail of sorrow and pillage from Shanghai to Nanjing, with a video of the aerial bombing projected overhead. The horrors of what happened are richly featured, leaving visitors in no doubt about the scale of the destruction as the Imperial Japanese Army raped, looted and burned their way from the coast all the way to Nanjing.

What happened there is understood here as a culmination and concentration of the malevolence witnessed all along the invasion routes. There is an excavation of a mass burial site with several skeletons piled one upon another, grisly evidence that lay beneath the museum. In this gallery of horrors, there is a room that graphically portrays in photographs, confessions, testimony and soldiers’ diaries the means of massacre: shooting, sabering, burning and drowning.

We also learn that many of thousands of women who were raped were murdered as a standard procedure to eliminate witnesses, and we can see some of the victims humiliated as they were forced to pose for pornographic photographs by their rapists.

Toward the end of a numbing array of multimedia displays — three hours is a fast-paced tour — there is a room with a battery of 18 video monitors that show films and documentaries about the massacre. Alongside, there is a 20 × 20-meter archival wall with folders containing what information is known about the documented deaths in Nanjing. The wall insistently shows that there is much to answer for and overwhelming evidence that Japanese forces perpetrated extensive crimes against humanity, much of it drawing on the testimony and eyewitness reports of Japanese soldiers and journalists.

It is an imposing edifice that Japanese revisionists have tried to undermine unsuccessfully by pointing to small flaws, mistaken attributions and exaggerations. They try to discredit the victims’ forest of evidence by grasping at small branches. Sadly, the discourse over Nanjing has bogged down into endless debates over exactly how many civilians, combatants and POWs were killed by Japanese soldiers. For revisionists, holding Nanjing hostage to a sterile numbers debate is the best possible outcome. Since there is no way to exactly verify how many were killed under what circumstances, then — in their view — nothing can be asserted, diverting inquiry away from more important questions such as why the soldiers were allowed to run amok for so long and why the coverup has been so extensive and persistent.

Unfortunately, by making the number 300,000 such a prominent part of the memorial, inadvertently the Chinese risk facilitating Japanese revisionists’ efforts to deflect attention away from how much is known about the sacking of Nanjing.

What is clear is that an inordinate number of civilians and unarmed POWs were executed in cold blood, not in the heat of battle as apologists assert. Moreover, Japanese officers and officials at the time systematically sought to cover up the very crimes that perpetrators, surviving victims, officials and observers have all acknowledged.

Given that there is so much credible evidence, it is lamentable that the curator has included some displays that have been discredited. For example, the “100 man beheading contest” attributed to two Japanese officers was a concoction by the Japanese media aimed at stoking patriotism, public support for the troops and the troops’ morale. Allowing revisionists to cast doubt on a few exhibits helps them sow seeds of doubt about the entire enterprise, at least for Japanese seeking a less undignified history. Still, even if the contest never happened, there was no glory in the casual beheading and machinegunning of many captured Chinese soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs, the standard practice for dealing with surrendered enemies, from which the “contest” was concocted.

The final image as one emerges from the memorial is a towering obelisk inscribed with “Peace,” which flickers in the reflecting pool. It is a jarring juxtaposition to the violence and mayhem featured inside, an unconvincing accessory that fails to persuade. None of the three Chinese who accompanied me felt the message masked or matched the museum’s intentions and impact.

One young Chinese man bluntly confided that the museum left him angry, reinforcing his already hostile views toward the Japanese. He said: “Yes, we like Japanese technology, gadgets and machines, but not the people. At that time, they always referred to us Chinese as pigs, but here we see who was really an animal and inhumane.”

As a repository of war memory, this is a museum that stokes animosity and righteousness in ways that seem unrelated to peace and reconciliation. I don’t begrudge the Chinese their insistence that this memory be remembered, and accept that remembering may impart lessons, but more could be done to promote reconciliation by pointing out to visitors that the revisionists are out of touch with public opinion in Japan.

The Japanese people do not embrace the valorizing and exonerating view of the war cherished and endlessly promoted by Japan’s revisionist conservative elite. Chinese, however, uncritically accept Iris Chang’s monochromatic view of war memory in Japan that is endlessly reinforced in the mass media and suggests that a majority of Japanese are in denial about the wretched past and eager to embrace a vindicating narrative. In China, there is little recognition of the vibrant scholarship on Nanjing by Japanese researchers who have toiled for decades to present an accurate view of what happened.

The revisionists may be a marginal and discredited minority in Japan, but they cast a disproportionately long shadow in China. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Japanese people reject the reactionaries’ insistence on denying and minimizing the atrocities perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army, and most think the government should do more to acknowledge war responsibility and atone for the excesses.

The infamous textbook written by the Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history, “New History Textbook” (2001), which has garnered so much media attention at home and abroad because it downplays the “bad bits,” has been adopted by less than 1 percent of school boards around the country. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s egregious attempts to reinterpret the history of “comfort women” (a euphemism for the wartime sex slaves) and the Battle of Okinawa are part of the reason he is remembered as one of Japan’s most hapless leaders. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni were criticized by a who’s who of the conservative elite, including five former prime ministers and the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun.

It would be helpful if Chinese people were exposed to the realities of public discourse over war memory in Japan. But the Chinese media tends to sensationalize this discourse and generates misperceptions that fan hostility.

As a teacher, I have noticed how much better informed Japanese students are now than they were 20 years ago about this shared past. Only one of the more than 100 research papers submitted in my classes on Nanjing expressed anything but condemnation and contrition.

The only signs of contemporary Japanese contrition at the Massacre Memorial are mute, decorative garlands of origami cranes, which look rather forlorn piled on a shelf that visitors hurry past on the way toward the exit. A more balanced and accurate portrayal of war memory in Japan might help some visitors take home a more positive message. Though it may be scant consolation to Chinese that few Japanese actually seek to define their national identity in an airbrushed history, knowing this might be a useful step toward reconciliation.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan Campus.