Arguing over history, memory and politics


THE MAKING OF THE “RAPE OF NANKING”: History and Memory in Japan, China and the United States, by Takashi Yoshida. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 265 pp., $55 (cloth).

Since Iris Chang published “The Rape of Nanking” (1997), the Japanese have taken a beating about their alleged collective amnesia regarding this and other wartime atrocities. Nanjing has become a potent and divisive symbol for Japan’s war conduct and war memory, but it was not always so. In this superb and evenhanded book, Takashi Yoshida examines how Nanjing has evolved as a subject of scholarly discourse, media hype, national politics and public memory and explains why the debate has become more polemic.

Yoshida clearly shows that the monochromatic depiction of Japan evident in Chang’s flawed account is wide off the mark. The notion of a monolithic Japan where the brutal excesses of war are systematically whitewashed has considerable currency overseas, but overlooks the shifting and vigorous debates among Japanese about the Pacific War. Japanese scholars have been at the forefront in uncovering and elucidating the full gamut of atrocities in publications that are widely available.

However, owing to media hype, conservative scholars and politicians in Japan have disproportionately shaped perceptions of Japan’s willingness to accept responsibility for its wartime rampages. These “revisionists” have rejected what they term a “masochistic” view of history focusing on Japan’s misconduct and have asserted a valorizing and vindicating counternarrative.

In summarizing the fault lines that divide scholarly debate and public memory, Yoshida examines the range of estimates and points of contention that animate the Nanjing discourse. His goal, however, is not to provide the definitive version of what happened, but rather to help us understand through the prism of Nanjing’s tragedy the dynamics of historical interpretation.

Ironically, as Yoshida writes, “Japanese revisionists, that is, those commentators who have downplayed, excused, or even denied the atrocities in Nanjing have performed a pivotal role in publicizing Nanjing beyond national boundaries. Had there not been intense challenges from the revisionists, the history and memory of the Nanjing Massacre might have remained a domestic issue rather than becoming an international symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.”

In a similar vein he writes, “Whereas Chang’s book itself left much to be desired, the ensuing flowering of Nanjing scholarship in America would never have taken place without it.”

In Japan, Nanjing touches upon national identity and notions of “pride, honor and shame.” Yoshida argues that “Nanjing crystallizes a much larger conflict over what should constitute the ideal perception of the nation: Japan, as a nation, acknowledges its past and apologizes for its wartime wrongdoings; or . . . stands firm against foreign pressures and teaches Japanese youth about the benevolent and courageous martyrs who fought a just war to save Asia from Western aggression.”

In China, the Communist Party has turned to history as a means of shoring up its tattered legitimacy, especially since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. However, in promoting a “patriotic education that underlined Japanese evil and inhumanity,” the government has stoked anti-Japanese sentiments to dangerous levels. Yoshida laments that as Nanjing has assumed greater symbolic significance, “it became more elusive as a subject of objective discussion.”

In the United States, as in China, there has been a “blanket assessment that Japanese were trying to forget the past and that most Japanese were ignorant of the nation’s wartime atrocities.” During the occupation of Japan 1945-52, the U.S. “fostered the integration of Nanjing into Japan’s official history,” but it fell off the U.S. radar screen until the 1980s.

In the favorable climate of the Cold War, Japanese conservatives succeeded in toning down textbook descriptions of Japanese aggression in Asia. However, the debate became internationalized in 1982 when China protested alleged changes in Japan’s textbooks that downplayed Japanese aggression. Yoshida examines the controversy and notes that the specific accusations were inaccurate. However, he confirms that the government had been pressuring authors and publishers to tone down descriptions since the 1950s.

The textbook battles in 1982 ignited an ever escalating dispute that gained momentum with the death of Emperor Showa in 1989. The ensuing cascade of revelations about Japanese wartime excesses and more detailed treatment of these in secondary-school textbooks in the 1990s provoked a backlash among conservatives. This “intractable war of words” continues with no sign of abating.

Progressive historians are locked into a marathon version of “Whack-a-Mole,” an arcade game in which, “the player uses a mallet to strike mechanical moles that rise continually from holes in front of the player. Similarly, the progressive historian finds that no sooner has he used his mallet of facts and scholarship to ‘whack’ one revisionist than another appears with more ill-founded claims.”

Yoshida deserves kudos for an astute and dispassionate analysis that leaves readers well informed about intensified disputes over Nanjing, while leaving these revisionists well and truly whacked.