NEW YORK — My businessman friend Michio Hamaji, whose avowed mission is to improve international understanding, recently brought me a Japanese book titled “Charz.” He told me it’s a childhood memoir describing a Chinese atrocity in the late 1940s. If translated into English and published in the United States, he thought, it might counter whatever ill effects Iris Chang’s book, “The Rape of Nanking” (1998), might have created in America. Without reading the memoir, I had to tell him that was unlikely.
The success of Chang’s book was due to a combination of factors inimical to the Japanese. Foremost among them is the prevailing sense in the U.S. that the Japanese have the propensity to sweep under the tatami whatever is inconvenient in their past. There is, at the same time, the long-standing sense that China deserves America’s special protection.
Also, most Americans, including big-time journalists, don’t know that the Nanjing massacre has been a subject of intense debate in Japan for the last three decades. So, when a young Chinese-American one day decided to make a splashy issue of the 60-year-old incident, calling it “a forgotten holocaust,” righteous anger was assured.
Besides, a Japanese saying at this juncture, “China did it, too,” would be taken as a particularly poor form of mudslinging.
I probably didn’t tell all of this to my friend, but it would have been unnecessary anyway. “Charz,” by Homare Endo, certainly recounts an atrocity, but the atrocity was one the Chinese committed mainly on their compatriots, not on Japanese. More important, Endo’s aim is not to expose a “forgotten” scandal in China’s history so much as to reconstruct the terrifying event she experienced as a child.
From October 1947 to October 1948, Communist leader Mao Zedong’s army laid siege to Changchun, then occupied by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army. During the yearlong siege, large numbers of the city’s residents starved to death. Beijing, which kept mum on the incident for a long time, in 1985 allowed a publication that cited a death toll of 120,000. Some Chinese survivors have put the number at 300,000. The number of Japanese victims was far smaller. But what were Japanese doing there?
Changchun was the capital of Manchukuo, called Hsinking (Shinkei in Japanese) during the Japanese puppet government’s rule. Following the Soviets’ invasion of Manchuria on Aug. 9, 1945, the Manchukuo government collapsed, as did the vaunted Kwantung Army.
The 320,000 Japanese who had moved to Manchukuo or were born there became refugees overnight. About 80,000 of them perished before reaching Japan. These numbers do not include 600,000 soldiers of the Kwantung Army the Soviets captured and sent to concentration camps in Siberia.
Not all Japanese refugees started fleeing to Japan at once. Sizable numbers of them waited for official repatriation, especially in large cities. Also, many of those we’d call “professionals” today were drafted to help the new regime, be it Nationalist or Communist. Endo’s father, Takuji Okubo, was one of them.
A devout Konkokyo convert who was at the same time an inventor and entrepreneur, Okubo owned a thriving chemical company. He had made his reputation on an antiheroin drug he invented and named Giftol ( “gift,” German for “poison,” plus “toru,” Japanese for “remove”). In China, where many people smoked heroin as others might smoke cigarettes, Giftol created an astonishing demand and Okubo became a wealthy man.
Okubo was the kind of corporate owner the heads of today’s multinational corporations could profitably emulate. Among his employees, he placed Chinese first because he was doing business in their country and Koreans second because his compatriots treated them with contempt. He placed Japanese at the bottom rung. And he toiled among them as a regular worker. His attitude would help him in the years that followed.
Events moved fast. In November 1945, a detachment of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army came to Changchun and took over the city. They expropriated Okubo’s factories and appointed him chief engineer of his own company. In April 1946, Mao Zedong’s army drove the Kuomintang out of Changchun and re-expropriated his company. A month later, the People’s Army withdrew to be replaced by the Kuomintang’s regular army. The Kuomintang expropriated Okubo’s firm anew.
Then, in November 1947, Mao’s army surrounded the city and cut off electricity, gas, water. It also blocked food supplies. The citizens began to starve. Even the occupying army, initially well supplied by the U.S., started to fight over the food dropped by airlift. The war between Mao and Chiang was on again.
In 1938 Mao had famously formed a united front against the Japanese with his enemy, Chiang, but his impatience with Chiang grew. Not long after Japan’s surrender he designated as the crucial battlefield the Northeast region that until recently was known as Manchukuo. The tug-of-war over Changchun was part of Mao’s shifting strategy.
Charz, meaning “fenced-in area,” was a particularly gruesome offshoot of the yearlong siege. It was a buffer zone fenced in by barbed wire created between the occupying army and the army laying siege. With tens of thousands starving to death in the city, desperate people started to move into the zone. Its main portions were only 600 meters wide. It was “a living hell.”
“The streets and plazas were buried with corpses,” one survivor wrote. “Dirt was put on them but as they put more corpses on them, corpses fell apart. There was no space you could step your foot in. . . . The whole place was so packed with refugees it looked black. You couldn’t tell whether there were tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of them.”
The remnants of the Okubo family were among them. The horror of living amid the dead and rotting left deep scars in the mind of the 7-year-old Homare.
The ravaged child went on to become a statistical physicist. But she had to write “Charz,” she told me. As a survivor of the horrible event, she had to find out how extreme circumstances move human beings to do “what they shouldn’t.” At the least, she had to write a requiem for those who starved to death.
For some years now, Homare Endo has been the dean of the International Student Center of the University of Tsukuba. Lately, her academic focus has been on the achievements of Chinese students overseas and their contribution to their homeland.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.