After a two-year renovation, the state-run memorial to the 1937 Rape of Nanking reopens Thursday in time to commemorate the 70th anniversary of what some call one of the most horrific atrocities in modern history.
“If I were the director of the museum in Nanjing, I wouldn’t write the figure in the first place,” Cheng said, referring to a huge sign on the war museum’s exterior that simply states “300,000.”
Nanjing, the former capital of China, fell to the Imperial Japanese Army, spearheaded by the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, on Dec. 13, 1937.
The Japanese army suffered from severe food shortages and was ill-prepared to handle the huge numbers of prisoners after the battle to take Nanjing.
According to surviving battle reports of Japanese military units and the diaries of soldiers and officers, the mass executions of thousands of defeated Chinese soldiers, and possibly a large number of civilians, took place in and around the walled city.
The executions of POWs, by sword, machinegun or whatever means, violated international law and constituted the bulk of the victims of the Nanjing Massacre.
Many foreign journalists and diplomats who stayed in Nanjing also reported rampant murder and rape of civilians by Japanese soldiers. Miner Bates, a key member of the Nanking Safety Zone International Committee, wrote in one of his letters that he believed more than 8,000 rapes had been committed, according to Kasahara’s book.
In 1938, Nanking University professor Lewis Smythe carried out a survey and concluded that 26,870 farmers were killed on the outskirts of the city and another 7,450 civilians were killed in the urban center, although the accuracy of the research is still up to debate.
As Cheng pointed out, however, details of the incident remain sketchy because of the loss of historical records in both countries, so determining the exact number of victims is highly elusive.
Fearing war crimes trials, Japanese officers systematically destroyed records and documents soon after Japan’s surrender. Only a third of the official battle reports of the Japanese units that fought in Nanjing have been found.
“I’ve examined the issue for decades in hopes that irrefutable evidence will be brought to light, but it has become clear that it won’t,” said Ikuhiko Hata, author of “Nanking Jiken” (“Nanjing Incident”).
Hata has maintained that approximately 40,000 people were slain in and around Nanjing in the six weeks following Japan’s occupation of the city.
“In the end, the case remains unclear. Only God knows the truth,” Hata said.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s estimate is largely based on survivors’ accounts and the burial records of two local private charity organizations. Japanese experts question the validity of such accounts, pointing out the unlikelihood that witnesses could tally thousands of victims at a glance.
According to burial records, one of the two charity groups buried more than 100,000 bodies in April 1938 alone. Some scholars question the credibility of this data as the figure is so large for a single month.
Another complicating factor is deciding the size of the area that should be regarded as the city of Nanjing.
At the time, the Nanjing Special Municipality encompassed the walled city and its surrounding six counties. According to Kasahara, the civilian population of the walled city was between 400,000 and 500,000, and that of the six counties more than 1 million when the Japanese army started its attack.
Kasahara argues that farmers killed in the six counties should be counted among the carnage, and he estimated that 100,000 to 200,000 people, including civilians, were killed in the whole of the Nanjing Special Municipality.
But Beijing has claimed that 300,000 civilians and Chinese soldiers were killed within the walled city of Nanjing alone.
Whatever the results of heated debate over the number of victims, the Japanese government has already officially acknowledged that “acts of slaughter” took place after the fall of Nanjing, and every Japanese history textbook for junior high and high school students mentions the massacre.
Kasahara criticized the late Iris Chang’s best-selling book “The Rape of Nanking,” saying it largely ignored academic efforts and achievements of Japanese scholars, who have kept digging up historical materials on the atrocities.
Kasahara, who noted that the subtitle of Chang’s book is “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” also argued that she overemphasized the savageness of the Japanese soldiers, with little objective analysis of why they committed mass murder.
Ignoring the wishes of their commanders, Imperial Japanese Army officers on the scene lost control and forced already exhausted soldiers to advance into Nanjing right after long, fierce battles in Shanghai, he said.
No judicial department oversaw the hastily organized forces nor were there military police to enforce discipline. The lack of adequate supplies also encouraged soldiers to assault and loot local Chinese to secure food for themselves on the way to Nanjing, according to Kasahara.
“The Nanking Incident is different from the (Nazi) Holocaust. The Japanese army did not try to eradicate the Chinese people,” Kasahara said. “The Japanese army lost control and (the atrocity) was not planned in advance.”