THE POLITICS OF NANJING: An Impartial Investigation, by Minoru Kitamura. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2007, 173 pp., $28 (paper)

Professor Minoru Kitamura of Ritsumeikan University raises important questions about Japan’s rampage in Nanjing in 1937-38, but sadly comes up with misleading, biased and unconvincing answers. Promises to the contrary, there is nothing impartial about his narrative. Much of it rests on innuendo and unsubstantiated interpretations he passes off as “common sense.”

As the 70th anniversary of Nanjing approaches, it is telling that what happened there remains the subject of vituperative debate and political agendas. Some Japanese political leaders such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocate a revisionist nationalism that constructs a vindicating wartime narrative in order to nurture national pride among young Japanese. This logic is widely disparaged by progressives such as Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe who wonder how misrepresenting the past and encouraging collective amnesia about war responsibility tallies with national pride.

Along with the “comfort women” and Unit 731 tragedies, Nanjing has become a symbol of went wrong in Imperial Japan. As evidence and testimony piled up, nationalists appropriated the discourse to advance various agendas, and history has clearly suffered. In the case of Nanjing, the Chinese government has asserted that the Japanese massacred 300,000, a figure most scholars outside China regard with skepticism. However, the important point is not to settle on an iconic number of deaths. What Japanese soldiers did in Nanjing was horrific by any measure and there is more than enough irrefutable evidence to demonstrate what they did. Even if they slaughtered only 10,000, it would constitute a war crime and massacre.

The discourse about Nanjing is very polarized in Japan. In one corner, you have the “Massacre School.” It acknowledges horrific atrocities were perpetrated by Japanese troops and puts the death toll at around 100,000. In the opposite corner, there are the “illusionists.” They deny the massacre happened and blame Chinese propaganda for unfairly blackening Japan’s reputation.

Kitamura describes himself as a centrist, but concedes he has an affinity for the “Illusionist School.” This raises doubts about his impartiality and conclusions.

The illusionists constitute an embarrassment because their blanket denials are easily refuted. The centrists’ strategy focuses on admitting and lamenting the excesses of war while minimizing, mitigating, shifting blame and discrediting the most extreme positions as a means to raise doubts about what is known. In dissecting some of the evidence about Nanjing, Kitamura presents often-contradictory arguments. More egregious is his suggestion, citing Chinese classics, that exaggeration is embedded in Chinese culture to the extent that “patriotic lies” have come to dominate historical discourse. Given that Japanese illusionists assert their own biases as fact, one can only infer that this tendency to prevaricate is one of China’s many cultural exports to Japan.

Kitamura does acknowledge that the Japanese executed POWs in great numbers and also slaughtered soldiers who had doffed their uniforms and tried to blend in with the noncombatant population. He condemns these killings and suggests they were in violation of international conventions. However, he then goes on to explain that there was not enough food for the POWs and that the behavior of the deserters was “shameless.” Furthermore, by arguing that both groups represented a potential threat and invoking the stress of war, he seems to justify what he abhors.

In evaluating some of the evidence, Kitamura explains that he relies on common sense. He also relies on surmise in dismissing the credibility of damning evidence while suspending his critical faculties in citing evidence that jibes with his thesis. His thesis is that the idea of a “great massacre” was constructed after the event for propaganda purposes.

Ironically, he seizes on contemporary accounts that describe the events as mere “atrocities” rather than a “massacre,” misreading eyewitnesses’ accounts to assert that a massacre could not have happened in a city swathed in normalcy.

But what about all the evidence that he ignores, misrepresents or elbows to the side? The damning eyewitness account in the diary of John Rabe (“The Good Man of Nanjing”), a German Nazi resident in Nanjing, is tellingly overlooked, as are scads of other evidence.

The problem is that Kitamura makes it seem like he is objectively weighing all the credible evidence and draws his conclusions based on this “impartial” research. So, he may dupe uninformed readers into thinking he is balanced; he is anything but that.

To his credit, Kitamura does link the widespread rapes committed in Nanjing to the establishment of the comfort women system and is not in denial that Japanese troops carried out unpardonable and shameful acts against civilians.

In a recent talk, he said the Japanese killed nearly 13,000 Chinese (10,000 POWS, 800 out-of-uniform deserters and 2,000 civilians) in Nanjing, well below the figure of 50,000 presented by the most prominent centrist, Ikuhiko Hata.

Kitamura, however, declines to describe this as a massacre because there was no intention to commit a massacre. He says the killing was a consequence of “disorder.” This certainly does not represent the intellectual center in Japan’s discourse about Nanjing.

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