The Chinese claim 300,000 people died in Nanjing at the hands of the Japanese military in December 1937 and January 1938. That’s three Melbourne Cricket Grounds, four Old Traffords, five Saitama Stadiums or 15 Madison Square Gardens: an enormous agglomeration of humanity. Could the Japanese expeditionary force of 50,000 reasonably have gathered, restrained, moved, executed and disposed of that number in a mere six weeks? If the logistics seems implausible, consider also this: Why would the civilian population of Nanjing have left itself exposed to the oncoming Imperial Japanese Army?

The Japanese march on Nanjing had broad similarities with the advance of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans in 2005. Those with the means to evacuate had ample opportunity to do so, those that could not took shelter in a designated facility, and some, for reasons of their own, chose to remain in their homes. The facility to which the poor of Nanjing fled was the international settlement, a substantial expanse of dwellings and land that had been declared a safety zone. By way of comparison, Nanjing was around 70 percent the size of New York’s Manhattan Island, with the 3.4-square-km international settlement being slightly larger than Manhattan’s Central Park.

After Nanjing fell, a contingent of Chinese soldiers rampaged, discarded their uniforms and attempted to merge with the local population. Around 10,000 to 20,000 strong, they were controversially accepted into the settlement by John Rabe, its German-born leader, before being rounded up and executed by the victorious Japanese.

It is almost certain that a considerable number of military-aged civilian men were either mistakenly or opportunistically included within their ranks, but there has never been suggestion of mass-scale crimes against the civilian population that was sheltering in the zone. The bulk of the civilian component from the 300,000 alleged deaths, therefore, would need to be found among those who chose to remain in the city.

What percentage of a population facing a dire threat would defy a mandatory evacuation order, which the leaders of both Nanjing and New Orleans decreed, and opt to remain in their home? In the case of New Orleans, around 18 percent, but needless to say, there was considerably greater contingency for those Nanjing-based Chinese.

It should therefore not surprise that in a letter to the Japanese Embassy, dated Dec. 17, 1937, Rabe claimed that on the night of Dec. 13, when Japanese forces entered the city, he had “nearly all” of the remaining civilian population of “200,000” gathered “in the zone.” It should further fail to beguile that the official complaint presented to the League of Nations by the Nationalist Chinese government in February 1938 decried the slaughter of not 15 Madison Square Gardens, but one: 20,000 people.

The official stance of the Chinese government is that the 300,000 figure is not to be contested. The issue was debated during a Japan-China history project originated under the initial one-year tenure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Unable to substantiate the 300,000 figure, the Chinese historians were left to assert it “correct” that the verdicts of the postwar Nanjing Military Tribunal and the Tokyo Tribunal, 300,000 and 200,000, respectively, be accepted.

The consensus opinion of historians and commentators from the West is that as the execution of the Chinese soldiers who sought shelter in the safety zone is not in dispute — a massacre incontestably occurred. Therefore they believe the Japanese should accept the “gist” of the Chinese complaint and be done with their incessant denials.

The Japanese are unsurprisingly reluctant to accept such claims and might choose to retort that there are two annotations of history.

First, there is the “gist” interpretation of China and the West in which numerical totals of 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000 can be taken to mean “a great many,” “a considerable number” or “a lot.” Second, there is the “facts matter” culture of Japan in which numerical tallies are to be accepted for what they objectively are or can reasonably be asserted to be. Would the Western historians and commentators accept such as summation? No, they would not.

On a further issue of contention between China and Japan, the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is reputed to have declared that the matter best be left for wiser generations to resolve. One suspects that despite the passing of more than 80 years, we may still be a generation or two from a mutually acceptable accounting of the Nanjing controversy as well.

Paul de Vries is a writer and educator based in Japan. His book “Remembering Santayana: The Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” is available at Amazon.

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