One way to learn what happened in one of history’s most noxious but disputed episodes is to ask Satoru Mizushima. After what he calls “exhaustive research” on the seizure of the then Chinese capital Nanjing by Japanese troops in 1937, estimated to have cost anywhere from 20,000 to 300,000 lives, Mizushima offers a very precise figure for the number of illegal deaths: zero.

“The evidence for a massacre is faked,” explains the president of rightwing Internet television channel Channel Sakura. “It is Chinese communist propaganda.” For support, he brandishes a book containing what he says are dozens of doctored photos. One shows a beheaded Chinese corpse with a cigarette stuck in its mouth. “Japanese people don’t mistreat corpses like that,” he says, stabbing the page for emphasis. “It is not in our culture.”

The world will soon have a chance to assess these claims when Mizushima’s movie, “Nanking no Shinjitsu (The Truth About Nanjing)” hits cinemas. The documentary is supported by more than a dozen lawmakers [see sidebar] including Nariaki Nakayama, an LDP member of the House of Councilors and an education minister under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and a panel of academics, including Shudo Higashinakano, a history professor at Asia University in Tokyo who provides much of its thin intellectual gruel. Courts in China and Japan recently ruled that Higashinakano libeled two survivors (Xia Shuqin and Li Xiuying) of the massacre in two books that documented their experiences of atrocities in Nanjing as fantasies.

Arguments over what occurred in Nanjing began almost as soon as Imperial soldiers marched into the city on Dec. 13, 1937, and have only grown in ferocity since. They are played out for the digital generation on YouTube, where hundreds of clips, including “Who Witnessed Nanjing” and “China Could Not Prove Nanjing Massacre Happened” (sic), are posted, along with racist comments.

Undigested history poisons relations

While the details and the number of deaths continue to be debated, most historians agree that the Nanjing Massacre — also known as the “Rape of Nanjing” — was an atrocity, in which 80,000 or more Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers were killed (the International Military Tribunal on the Far East in 1946 considered credible a figure of 200,000) and tens of thousands of women were raped following the Japanese capture of the city.

Despite compelling documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts — including some by Japanese soldiers — and photographic evidence, Japanese revisionists reject charges that war crimes and atrocities occurred there.

The country’s undigested war history continues to poison one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships. Recent anti-Japanese riots in China have forced Beijing and Tokyo to set up a joint education panel to narrow major differences of interpretation over wartime events.

Some on the Japanese side argue that Nanjing has become so politicized — particularly the often-cited figure of 300,000 deaths — that measured academic discussion has become almost impossible.

“It is very difficult indeed,” says Shinichi Kitaoka, a law professor at Tokyo University who is part of the Japanese delegation to the panel. “But we have to find some way of narrowing the gap between us.”

Neonationalist scholars such as Higashinakano and Nobukatsu Fujioka oppose such discussions, arguing that Japanese academics have nothing to gain by talking to their Chinese counterparts.

“There is no point in talks,” says Fujioka. “The Chinese government has decided there was a massacre — so what good can come out of them?”

Higashinakano and Fujioka are the leading figures in what critics have called the maboroshi-ha (illusion school) of Nanjing and Pacific War research, which rejects all allegations of war crimes in the taking of the city and, indeed, the 15-year Sino Japanese War. Higashinakano says that about 30,000 published photos of events from the massacre are faked. The two professors’ work is opposed by many academics in Japan and even by some within the revisionist school, who say that while the casualty figures remain disputed, their research lacks credibility.

“There are a lot of crazy people on both sides who collect around the Nanjing debate,” says Ikuhiko Hata, a history professor at Nihon University who wrote the widely read 1986 book “Nankin Jiken (The Nanjing Incident).”

Hata argues that roughly 40,000 Chinese died in the taking of the city, although he disputes the application of the term “massacre” to the simultaneous killing of captured soldiers and says wartime Chinese propaganda inflated the casualty figures.

These smoldering disputes are finally set to cross over into mass “entertainment” on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, with nearly a dozen new movies backed by U.S., European and Chinese money set to pick again at Nanjing’s scabs. Most are still being filmed or are in postproduction, but whatever the end result, one thing is certain: Japanese neonationalists have little hope of winning the propaganda war second time around.

Mizushima’s reputed $2-million budget for “The Truth About Nanjing” (funded by a network of 5,000-odd private Japanese donors) is dwarfed, for example, by the $53-million “Purple Mountain” (named after the picturesque peaks around the east of Nanjing) currently filming in China. Adapted from the best seller “The Rape of Nanking” by the be^te noire of Japanese conservatives, Iris Chang, the U.S.-Chinese production is aiming for nothing less than an Asian version of “Schindler’s List,” director Simon West (of “Con Air” fame) told Variety magazine in the summer.

Japanese actors Teruyuki Kagawa and Akira Emoto will appear in “John Rabe,” a German-made movie also starring Steve Buscemi and Ulrich Tukur (“The Lives of Others”) as the eponymous Nazi who helped rescue thousands of Chinese civilians in the Nanjing Safety Zone.

Rabe is also the subject of another German documentary, “John Rabe: The Schindler of Nanjing.” “We tried to sell the movie to NHK in Japan,” codirector Annette Baumeister says. “They said that they would make their own movie about this subject. And maybe they will, someday (laughs).”

The $35-million “Nanking Xmas 1937,” helmed by Hong Kong art-house director Yim Ho, meanwhile, will depict the efforts of the small community of foreigners in the wartime city to protect civilians from rampaging Japanese troops. Then there is “Nanking! Nanking!” starring other big names in Chinese cinema, including Liu Ye and Feng Wei.

That the Chinese state is involved in these productions will fuel the suspicions of neonationalists here that this is a Beijing-steered plot designed to drag Japan through the international mud. Some are already muttering about what Mizushima calls Chinese “black propaganda.” But the directors and writers behind these Chinese-made movies say they were forced to tone down content by nervous censors fretting about their impact on relations with the country’s biggest Asian trading partner.

The makers of “Nanking! Nanking!” for example, reportedly endured months of vetting before getting permission to shoot — and then only on condition that the state-owned China Film Group be allowed to jump aboard. “The movie touches on the sphere of diplomacy,” director Lu Chuan recently told the Associated Press, hinting that his script was shuffled across the desks of the Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department before getting the green light.

Beijing faces a tricky balancing act. Nanjing occupies a central place in the foundational myths of post-1949 China and the success of the Communists in defeating both the Japanese invaders and the nationalists who failed to protect the country from them. The government hopes — quite legitimately — to ensure an event that was for decades all but ignored in popular culture is not forgotten, while harnessing it to its own nationalist ends. At the same time it must avoid damaging bilateral ties just as its growing power in Asia butts up against a declining Japan.

Only time will tell if it succeeds. But one sign that the horrific events of December 1937 to March 1938 are no longer only a bilateral issue is the growing interest of foreign filmmakers. Oliver Stone is reportedly in script development for a movie about Nanjing, and James Bond director Roger Spottiswoode is in postproduction with “The Bitter Sea,” about a British journalist who witnesses the massacre. The movie, which stars Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy”), is scheduled for release in March next year.

The powerful documentary film “Nanking,” directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (“Twin Towers”) premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The movie will make extremely uncomfortable viewing for deniers: It is constructed entirely from archive footage of atrocities and witness accounts of survivors narrated by actors such as Woody Harrelson and Muriel Hemingway.

“I know about the book’s controversy in Japan,” says the film’s producer Ted Leonsis. “We hired 38 people who spent 18 months all over the world doing research. Our conclusion was that we should have no point of view, to just document what happened.” Leonsis says the movie has already become “the No. 1 best-selling documentary in Chinese history.” The film has yet to find a Japan distributor.

Most frustrating of all for Mizushima and co., however, is a documentary by Canadian husband-and-wife team William Spahic and Anne Pick. “The Woman Who Couldn’t Forget: The Iris Chang Story,” focuses on the author of the book credited with dragging what she called “the forgotten holocaust” back into daylight and igniting a movement to remember the massacre among the Chinese Diaspora in North America.

Chang, who committed suicide three years ago, is the inspiration and unofficial patron saint of most of the new movies, a galling development for her enemies in Japan. Her book was picked apart by conservatives here who accused her of exaggeration, sloppy research and — the biggest sin — failing to distinguish between the truth and wartime Chinese propaganda.

She also largely ignored the work of courageous Japanese scholars and journalists such as Katsuichi Honda, who authored a 1970s Japanese best seller based on interviews with survivors and witnesses, and Akira Fujiwara, until his death the dean of Nanjing scholars.

Japanese publishers cite her errors as the reason why the book, released in 1997, has never been translated into Japanese. The damage runs deep, say historians. “Iris Chang reopened the issue and brought it to the attention of the international community,” says Mark Selden, research associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University. “But her careless research and overstatements opened the way for neonationalists to discredit (in Japan) not only the book but — guilt by association — much of the solid scholarship that Japanese researchers were producing.”

Whatever the book’s faults, it did dig up a stinking political corpse that had been buried for years, and it drew attention to the overlooked diaries of John Rabe, another key source for many of the new film projects. “The Nanking holocaust was swept under the carpet by all concerned for geopolitical reasons,” Spahic told journalist Thomas Podvin this year. “Her book more than any other event changed that forever.”

For better or worse then, Chang has helped push the issue out of academia and into popular culture, where its impact will be far less predictable or manageable. At the very least, anti-Japanese sentiment is likely to be inflamed in China, where nationalist passions are already high. A tsunami of bad publicity is also certain to come from Europe and America, as Tokyo is fully aware.

“It is a delicate issue so we hope filmmakers will not create negative emotional reactions,” says government press secretary Mitsuo Sakaba. He expects a joint academic committee [see sidebar] set up with China to study the issue in a “nonpolitical way” to clarify what happened in Nanjing. “We expect much of this study group, so we hope the movies don’t make the work of the experts difficult.”

That seems unlikely. Few of the millions who will see the movies are likely to appreciate that much of the most sophisticated research on the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during World War II occurs in Japanese academe, although only a tiny fraction appears in English. Or that decades of official censorship and fudging have left many young Japanese woefully ignorant of what took place. No doubt the movie makers will retort that Japan is reaping what it sows by allowing a small clique of ultranationalists, emboldened by support from government bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, to hold sway over the debate about Nanjing.

As for Mizushima and other deniers, how will they react to taking such a beating in the propaganda war? “I think that it will reinforce their siege mentality,” says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University. He says that many of the people behind Mizushima’s production overlap with those who took out a full-page paid advertisement in the Washington Post in June this year, rebutting accusations made against the Japanese government on the sex slaves issue.

Revisionist lawmakers

The following lawmakers are listed as supporters of Satoru Mizushima’s film “The Truth About Nanjing” on the Sakura Channel’s Web site:

House of Representatives:
• Shingo Nishimura (independent)
• Jin Matsubara (DPJ)
• Toru Toida (LDP)
• Atsushi Watanabe (LDP)
• Masaaki Akaike (LDP)
• Eiichiro Washio (DPJ)
• Hirofumi Ryu (DPJ)
• Yohei Matsumoto (LDP)
• Tomomi Inada (LDP)

House of Councilors:
• Shimpei Matsushita (independent)
• Yasuhiro Oe (DPJ)
• Nariaki Nakayama (LDP)

“They seem to think that they are the sole possessor of ‘truths’ and ‘historical facts’ under siege (by the anti-Japan Chinese among others) and that those ‘truths’ will prevail, if only they are widely and correctly disseminated in the international community, particularly to the American audience. Of course, they are only deluding themselves, and they end up digging themselves a deeper hole.”

Will any of these movies be seen in Japan? As yet, none are scheduled. A spokesman for a major distribution company, who wished to remain anonymous, said releasing them here would be “difficult,” though not impossible. “It will depend on the impact they have abroad.”

Sakura’s Mizushima, meanwhile, says his movie does not have an official release date, although the company plans to show the first two-hour installment to invited journalists in mid-December. The documentary is one of a three-part series, starting with the disputed Tokyo Trials and the 1947 execution of seven war criminals by the U.S. occupation, including Iwane Matsui, the man accused of orchestrating the Nanjing invasion.

Mizushima was filming the executions in a Tokyo studio this month. “It is very emotional. I hope this will make the Americans regret what they did,” he said. “But I don’t suppose it will.”

What might we expect from parts two and three? He gives some hints in his reply to a key question: Was the Imperial Japanese Army guilty of any war crimes? “None,” he replies. “In war, atrocities will always be carried out by a small number of individuals, but did the Japanese Army systematically commit war crimes? Absolutely not.”

Tomoko Amakasu contributed research to this article.

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