The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-38: Complicating the Picture, edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. New York: Bergahn Books, 2007, 433 pp., $34.95 (paper)

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, but it is not yet a time for quiet reflection about the horrors of the past. Instead, vitriolic recriminations, denials, minimizing and shifting of responsibility define and shape the discourse about this tragedy. There is little middle ground and prospects for a consensus among Japanese scholars and between Japan and China remain remote because political agendas continue to resonate loudly within the discourse.

This outstanding collection of essays detailing what is known about what actually happened at Nanjing, and overview of the historiographic battle lines, is an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the “Atrocity.” These essays provide a compelling refutation of the tired and implausible arguments typically espoused by the deniers and minimizers and also vividly portray the various atrocities committed by the Imperial Armed Forces. This collection also offers refreshing counterpoints to the hyperbole that biases — and undermines — Chinese accounts of the tragedy.

It is no longer possible — if it ever was — to cast doubts on the extent and nature of the horrific crimes Japanese soldiers perpetrated on Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in and around Nanjing. Certainly much can never be known, but so much is known and verified that any further attempt by reactionaries and apologists to minimize, mitigate or shirk responsibility for these appalling malefactions demonstrates willful ignorance.

For a taste of this ignorance readers are encouraged to visit the Yushukan Museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine; where else will one find a film clip that cuts from the scene of a triumphal collective “Banzai!” atop the city walls to a Japanese soldier ladling out soup for the young and elderly while the narrator asserts that the Japanese restored peace to Nanjing?

So what are the complications suggested in this volume’s subtitle? Well, the exact number of victims will never be known. So what? The focus on the numbers game casts a huge shadow over the Nanjing discourse, but whether it was 10,000 or 300,000 is hardly the main issue and deflects attention away from understanding the causes and consequences of this atrocity. Holding Nanjing hostage to the slippery numbers game is a gambit by conservatives to artificially constrain scholarly inquiry — we can say nothing until we know with precision everything — and ignores more important questions like why these soldiers were permitted to run amok, why did they do what they did, who was responsible and why attempts at airbrushing this atrocity persist.

Complications also arise from the spatial and temporal boundaries of the atrocity. Depending on where one draws the boundaries — the city walls, the surrounding six counties or along the invasion route from the coast — and the initial six weeks or some longer period, makes a difference in the magnitude of the crimes. It is also inconvenient that conservative historians have been right in insisting on solid empirical research based on sound historical methods rather than instrumentalizing war memory for political purposes. The horrors of Nanjing encapsulate a consummate evil that needs no embellishment.

There are 16 chapters by 11 authors, including eight Japanese or Japanese-American contributors, demonstrating that Iris Chang was wrong in suggesting that Japanese suffer collective amnesia about Nanjing.

Clearly, Japanese researchers are conducting some of the finest scholarship on Nanjing and the absurd arguments of the deniers featured in the mass media are not representative of Japanese public opinion or scholarly consensus.

Akira Fujiwara argues that the massacres were organized — not random violence — and focuses our attention on the slaughter of POWs. He concludes that “the Imperial army’s upper echelons did know that troops were perpetrating rape and violence against Chinese civilians.”

Tokushi Kasahara draws our attention to what happened outside Nanjing’s walls, citing evidence that “unspeakable crimes were especially rampant in isolated rural villages.” He estimates that 80,000 Chinese soldiers were massacred “while trying to surrender, while in captivity or in mopping up operations.” In addition 50,000 to 60,000 civilians were killed inside the city while an additional 30,000 were killed in surrounding rural areas. In a separate chapter he exposes Osamichi Higashinakano, Japan’s Nanjing-denier-in-chief, as an intellectual charlatan.

“The Nanking (former spelling of Nanjing) Atrocity” features scholarly debate among the contributors about the controversial issues. For example, David Askew presents extremely low estimates for the number of victims that are challenged by other contributors. Masahiro Yamamoto advocates a more careful sifting of the “evidence” and a more balanced and less inflammatory assessment, a position that gets him branded an apologist. Joshua Fogel argues that Chinese and Chinese Americans “exaggerate its scope in order to exploit it as a powerful symbol of shared suffering that creates an unassailable ethnic identity.”

Complicating Nanjing means promoting a narrative that comports with historical facts rather than political agendas. According to the editor, Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, the authors agree that “naked Japanese aggression is the most crucial fact of all.”

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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