World Perceptions on the Rape of Nanking

                 Nothing is pure fact in this world.  While we tend to think history to be an account based on facts, data, and past happenings, it is more often the case that it is subject to human bias, and personal interpretation.  History often molds itself to what we want it to be, based on personal interest or a one sided point of view.  If we take a journey and reflect on past “historical” events, we see that in almost every case, the interpretation, explanation, and manifestation of the event is dependent on which “side” you talk to, what part of the world you live in, and what society you belong to.  For example, the North and South still have different views concerning the Civil War of 1860, as do the different colonies and Britain during the long reign of British Imperialism. If you enter into a classroom in Japan and one in America, the historical “facts” concerning the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are very much biased towards each owns country.  In the former, Japan is seen as the victim of an unwarranted act from a stronger and bigger country.  In the latter America is seen as the defender of national security and honor after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Whether it is seen through colonial imperialism, internal civil wars, or in this specific case, the Rape of Nanking, we clearly see that based on what side you are on, your interpretation of history will often be subject to personal interest, national interest, and cultural values.

Modern Views on Nanking

To this day, Japan, America, and China have very different views concerning the Rape of Nanking. While their exist photographs, films, diaries, interviews, and other sources which depict the tremendous atrocity committed by the Japanese towards the Chinese, Japan to this day either belittles the “Nanking incident” or denies it altogether.  While China wants an official apology, and desires the world to know about the largest single city massacre in the history of the world, Japan is simply annoyed that people are still dwelling on what is to her a “hazy past.”   Yet somehow to the Chinese, the death, rape, torture, and mutilation of what some suspect to be more than 300,000 civilians and surrendered soldiers in a city of less than 650,000 inhabitants, is not so hazy, and cannot be simply forgotten and pushed into past. 

            Yet in modern day Japan, the revisionists and ultra-nationalists deny the occurrence of the Rape of Nanking, and if they do concede that something happened, they rationalize it and blame others, instead of themselves.  The revisionists within Japan bear no responsibility for the wholesale murder of civilians anywhere during the war.  They rationalize all actions to be necessary in order to ensure its own survival, and to free Asia from the grips of Western imperialism.  Likewise, the ultra-nationalists either deny the “Rape of Nanking,” or they put a definite Japanese spin to the narration and retelling of the event.  They go to such extremes to protect their version of the Rape of Nanking, often threatening those whom object or counter their argument with lawsuits, death threats, and assassinations.  Though some scholars and liberals in Japan do seek after the truth of Japanese involvement and actions during China’s occupation, they are in a minority and under heavy scrutiny and threat from ultra-nationalists and revisionists.  Even high level authorities such as the Minister of Education are in the majority and try to downplay Japanese involvement in brutal acts against the Chinese. 

            The education system within Japan is perhaps the most sinister aspect of their malaise.  Japanese education is notoriously known to be one of the most rigorous, competitive, and “study hard” system in the world.  Yet in this slippery pyramid of education, the Japanese do not provide students with an accurate account of World War II, one of the biggest and greatest influence within the twentieth century.   Not until 1994 were Japanese school children taught that Hirohito’s army was responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million Asian civilians, and allied soldiers during the war.  Critical elements such as the Japanese role in the Rape of Nanking, the forced evacuations of Chinese and Korean prisoners to labor camps in Japan, the exploitation of “ Korean comfort women,” and other atrocities are all glossed over, rationalized, or omitted from Japanese textbooks, society, and often from Japanese memories.  As Iris Chang, the author of The Rape of Nanking puts it, “Denial is an integral part of atrocity, and it’s a natural part after a society has committed genocide.  First you kill them, then the memory of killing is killed.”  Because the academic community in Japan has failed to properly research the truth on the Rape of Nanking, it has been primarily left up to those operating outside academia, such as journalists or freelance authors to present the truth of the massacre to the Japanese public.  

            When Japan opened up their national museum on World War II, the world was horrified to see they had left out Japan’s negative role in the war and solely concentrated on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the film, The Last Emperor, the films distribution company removed a thirty second scene depicting the Rape of Nanking, because it was “too gruesome,” and would not serve the moral of the country. 

 Because the Japanese were and still are very concerned with “saving face,” an Asian concept which focuses on preserving one’s dignity, integrity, and pride, they often deny and rationalize things so that they are seen in a better, more favorable light.  Yet ironically, not only do their horrific actions speak contrary to that ancient Asian philosophy, hiding and denying the occurrence of the Rape of Nanking is more shameful than anything else.

            Chang’s novel written in1997, was widely criticized in Japan. The contract to have her novel translated into Japanese, to be published and distributed throughout Japan was canceled due to opposing views on the veracity of the book.  Many Japanese scholars and high level officials denounced this book as false and fictitious, or at best, a great exaggeration.  When Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited Japan in late 1998, he succeeded in extracting from his hosts a more forthcoming, yet still grudging apology for past “misdeeds.”  In this, Jiang was trying to unite China while attempting to bring open both dormant and raging issues in Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations.  All Chinese, whether Nationalists or Communists, are united in their fight for justice, and their quest for acknowledgment of war crimes committed against them during the war. 

            The historical past has been a source of friction in China-Japan ties, and passions, resentment, and anger are easily inflamed when in the face of provocation. Unlike Japan, Chinese students are reared on tales of Japanese atrocities during the brutal time period of 1937-45, when they occupied China.  At the age of eight, school children are shown their first photograph of the Japanese bayoneting and beheading Chinese civilians in Nanking.  Therefore in the past sixty years tensions between the two nations still can run high.  After a Japanese Right-wing convention denied that the 1937 massacre happened, many Chinese voted to boycott Japanese goods.  After the conference that ironically took place in the Osaka International “Peace” Center in January 2000, where right winged Japanese derided the Rape of Nanking as a myth, computer hackers struck at Japanese government Internet web sites, taunting Japanese authorities with insults.  As the Japanese write books to counter argue Chang’s novel, and as they use media to create for themselves a better history, I believe China’s, People’s Daily puts it best when it states, “Lies written in ink, cannot cover up facts written in blood.” 

            Sadly enough, very few Americans know about the Rape of Nanking.  Many may have heard of the book written by Iris Chang, as it caused an international storm of controversy, but very few know the facts of this enormous massacre of innocent civilians and allied, unarmed soldiers.  That is why many people call the Rape of Nanking the second and forgotten Holocaust.  Who today can possibly deny the occurrence of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, who does not know of Adolf Hitler and the atrocities committed against the Jews during World War II?  Can you imagine Germany today declaring that ethnic cleansing and the killing of millions of Jews never happened, or at most that it is an extreme exaggeration of events? I think not. Thus I must ask, what has caused this vast difference in world perception of these two holocausts?

Post War treatment of Japan

            One of the reasons information about the Rape of Nanking has not been widely disseminated lies in the postwar differences in how Germany and Japan handled their wartime crimes.  While Germany has conceded that the wartime government itself was guilty of the crimes committed, not just individual Nazis, the Japanese government (those who actually admit that the events occurred) treat their war crimes as the isolated acts of individual soldiers, not Japanese society as a whole.  While the world, and predominantly the United States confiscated and microfilmed Nazi government records, created war crime trials in Nuremberg, Germany, demanded Germany to formally apologize, and make reparations to all those who have suffered at their hands, Japan was not subject to this public humiliation and repentance.  Instead, there existed a surprising dearth of primary source material available to judge Japan’s role in the Rape of Nanking.  For example, while tens of thousands of Nazis were convicted through the Nuremberg trials, fewer than 25 Japanese officials were ever brought to trial during the Tokyo War Crimes tribunals.  After the war ended, America returned all confiscated documents back to the Japanese government before they could be copied and microfilmed.  Japan was never made to formally apologize, and to this day has never given compensation or made any reparations for the crimes they committed.  On the other hand, Germany has paid individual victims, payments based on state regulations, final restitution in some cases, and money for global agreements with Israel and sixteen other nations for war damages, totaling close to $60 billion.  

            When in view of the aftermath of the war, we must take into account the views during the war. In 1937, after the conquest of Nanking, the Japanese were at first very prideful and joyous of their domination over China.  The atrocities were printed on the front page of Japanese newspapers, and people were prideful over their wartime actions.  Only until the world began criticizing Japan’s actions, did the cover up begin. Japan then began cleaning up the piles of bodies lying in pits, and the bodies that washed ashore from the river. Only then did they try to give the world the impression that all was harmonious in Nanking. Yet in 1937, like the newspapers in Japan, the monstrosities being committed in Nanking were also broadcasted on the front pages of US Newspapers, magazines, and films. But the US government did not disclose all the information it possessed during and after the war; instead, it contributed to the Japanese censorship of the truth.

Why were our post war treatments of Japan different from Germany?  It is my belief that we were politically motivated to become allies with Japan.  Japan was the sole non-Communist country in Asia, and in the midst of what would be the cold war with Russia, and the spread of communism, America felt the need to maintain Japan as a stable ally which could influence the capitalistic growth of other Asian countries.  Perhaps the United States acted out of self-interest, motivation, or gain.   Maybe the threat of Communism overpowered the need to bring war crimes to light.   If we look at history, we see that often people have personal motivations and benefits for helping others.  For example, while the US chose to intervene in Bosnia’s social unrest, we played a neutral role in Rwanda’s civil war due to our greater interests in Bosnia’s political and economic climate.

What caused the actions of Japanese soldiers?

 By researching on the Rape of Nanking, we can only speculate as to what drove the soldiers to commit inhuman crimes of such enormous magnitude.  Is it because the Japanese are inherently an evil race?  Or is it because their environment and culture affected their actions? It has been shown through Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment, Milgram’s shock experiments, and through past historical events, that when ordinary people are given great power they are prone to misuse it.  Likewise, when other people are under the influence of an entity of great power they are likely to commit crimes of obedience. 

            In the case of the Rape of Nanking, we must first understand Japanese society and realize that it is one of extreme self-discipline and obedience.  Since elementary school, many Japanese were taught to believe that Chinese were subhuman, and “no better than pigs.”  Schools were very competitive and Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” became the motto of students.  Thus students were taught to succeed at the expense of others.  Likewise, there existed much discipline and obedience within the military arena. Within the Japanese army, there existed much abuse of power within ranks, and “tough love” was the method of controlling troops.  Often lower rank soldiers were beaten and treated inhumanely all in the attempts of making them more tough, callous, and unfeeling.  Thus when given the opportunity to lash out at the Chinese, they most likely vented all anger which they’ve stored within themselves.  Suddenly, the lowest private became king over the highest level Chinese nobility, and under such extreme amounts of power, it is of no surprise that abuse of such power was rampant. The Japanese army also used “tough love” when disciplining the Chinese.  They often describe their motivation for conquering the Chinese to be one out of love.  Japanese officials often described themselves as older brothers disciplining and admonishing their little Chinese brothers who have gone astray and wayward.  Often these theories were only used to rationalize and explain away the barbarity of their actions.

Learning from the Rape of Nanking

            We need to understand the Rape of Nanking, only then will history not repeat itself.  To do this, the world needs to be educated, exposed to information, and given different viewpoints on the massacre at Nanking. They need to understand the horrors of the war crimes in order to make sure that it never happens again. To extend this beyond the scope of Nanking, we need to understand, question, and view from all different perspectives all events in history.  For it is ironic that history, a subject that is based on the premise of studying and understanding past events so that we can learn from previous mistakes can be so biased and subjective.  To make the study of history reliable and effective we need truth, and to find truth we need unbiased information.  But in the case of the Rape of Nanking, instead of learning from past mistakes and crimes, Japan hides it, or worse, denies it.  By doing so, it creates tensions within Sino-Japanese relations, it affects the world’s perception of Japan, and it prevents Japan’s younger generations from understanding the full implication of their country’s role in World War II. By not teaching the next generation of Japanese about their country’s history, it leads to dangerous naiveté, an inaccurate view of world affairs, and the possibility of recreating similar mistakes.