Waking Old Wounds

Waking Old Wounds


Alvin D. COOX

Every new generation, it seems, rediscovers the wheel. From the latest new generation, a 30-year-old Chinese American woman named Iris Chang has immersed herself in aspects of the Second Sino-Japanese War, specifically the tragedy that befell Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937-38. It has become her self-imposed mission, she says, to bear witness, to document and publicize the event, and even to seek restitution for the atrocities before the last Chinese survivors pass from the scene. The result is a passionate book titled The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997). Replete with gore and Japanese bestiality in narrative and photos, the account dredges up a broad array of Japanese sins and crimes and, in the process, explicitly or by implication, amasses a large number of overstatements and unsubstantiated myths. Overwhelmed by Chang's unrelenting litany of horror and unwilling or unable to conduct the necessary homework or analysis, uncritical American readers and viewers, numerous by all accounts, have raised few questions and entertained few doubts. Chang denounces her few critics for a lack of specificity in identifying errors or exaggerations. I have assembled a representative selection of myths and misstatements, and have provided a rebuttal in each case.

Allegation: Until the appearance of the Chang book, no nonfiction publication had ever covered the event at Nanking in substantive detail, and Japanese titles on the subject are scarce because publication would endanger the authors' lives.

Rebuttal: About 35 years ago, I had already treated Nanking in my full-length book Year of the Tiger (Tokyo: Orient/West, 1964), with which Chang is unacquainted. One section was specifically called "The Japanese Escutcheon Blemished." As for books on the subject in Japanese, in July 1998 I conducted a thorough computer search in Tokyo, which turned up no less than 55 titles in print--one dated 1959, one 1967, six from the 1970s, 23 from the 1980s, and 24 from the 1990s.

Allegation: Only now has it been revealed for the first time that the Nazi John Rabe, a resident of Nanking, struggled to save the Chinese in that city and in fact earnestly reported the Japanese military outrages directly to the authorities in Berlin.

Rebuttal: Thirty-five years ago, in my book Year of the Tiger, I drew upon declassified U.S. Department of State records to note, "Even the diplomatic representative of the Nazis reported from Nanking at the time of that city's martyrdom--which lasted for at least six weeks after the city had been taken--that atrocities and criminal acts were being committed by the Japanese Army, which he characterized as a 'bestial machinery' and whose troops he accused of 'inhuman activities'" (State Department telegram dated January 22, 1938).

Incidentally, a full account of the "Schindler of China" will be found in John Rabe: Der gute Deutsche von Nanking (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1997).

Allegation: The atrocities at Nanking amounted to nothing less than a Holocaust.

Rebuttal: Labeling the occurrences at Nanking a Holocaust has powerful journalistic appeal but is a semantic manipulation that detracts from the enormity of the true Holocaust--the unspeakable Nazi German barbarity. State-sponsored and deliberate terrorism and genocide did not characterize Nanking. Despite the horrors of Nanking, no Final Solution to the Chinese question was ever in mind. The English language possesses other grim words that could be used to describe Nanking without demeaning the inhumanity of the German Holocaust, such as massacre or atrocities or horrors. "Rape of Nanking" was itself a terminology in use from the days of the event, and widely understood. But none of the preceding facts justifies description of the Japanese atrocities as a Holocaust in the well-known German sense punished at Nuremberg after the war.

Allegation: The toll of Chinese dead at Nanking was of the order of 300,000 or 400,000, and consisted of men, women, and children civilian victims.

Rebuttal: Understandably, statistics concerning the dead at Nanking cannot be substantiated empirically. But to claim that as many as 300,000 or more civilians were butchered is both misleading and inaccurate. Of course there were many civilian dead but Nanking was a combat zone (never surrendered by the Chinese authorities), which exacted its main toll of still-resisting Chinese soldiers, disguised military escapees, and outright prisoners of war. The flight of the Chinese commanders before the Japanese seized the city left behind an uncontrolled rabble to confront the Japanese. Why wasn't Nanking declared an open city? Why didn't some senior Chinese officers stay behind long enough to surrender the city formally or pull out in orderly fashion? Such actions might have helped to prevent the travails that followed Japanese entry. Soon enough and inexcusably, the Japanese forfeited whatever good will they may have enjoyed at first.

The U.S. historian Bruce Cumings has said that the inflammatory figure of 300,000 dead has become a metaphor or political symbol. Others, such as Professor Allen Whiting, have aptly suggested that the statistic is intended to demonstrate that, even in the numerical sense, Nanking was a much more malevolent occurrence for China than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were for Japan. This is a cruel and highly debatable contention.

Allegation: The Japanese Emperor Hirohito was criminally involved in the Nanking event and should have been tried as a class A war criminal.

Rebuttal: There is only speculative theorizing that the emperor had any direct connections with Nanking. David Bergamini conjured up a circumstantial tale in his discredited Japan's Imperial Conspiracy: How Emperor Hirohito Led Japan into War Against the West (New York: Morrow, 1971), alleging a nefarious personal tie between the emperor and Prince Asaka, who was leaving for Central China to assume command. Those who have studied and are acquainted with Japanese decision making and the system of military orders know that such collusion would not be possible. Chang is aware of the criticisms of Bergamini, but she quotes repeatedly from his work.

As for China, which could have been expected to excoriate the Japanese emperor as a war criminal for Nanking in particular, it is known that the chief Allied prosecutor at the Tokyo Trial (International Military Tribunal for the Far East), Joseph Keenan, conferred with Chiang Kai-shek in Chungking in March 1946. At that time, Chiang apparently opposed indicting the emperor, lest political turmoil be caused in vanquished Japan. If the Chinese authorities had considered the emperor to have been directly implicated in the Nanking event, there can be no doubt that Hirohito would have figured prominently in their master list of suspects. That Hirohito was never tried as a class A war criminal is a dead issue, more than 50 years after the decision was taken by the tribunal.

Allegation: The Japanese military, from the highest levels down, pursued a deliberate, orchestrated policy of genocide at Nanking. A major purpose was to terrorize China into submission to Japanese aggression.

Rebuttal: No evidence was ever uncovered to support allegations of a Japanese policy of terrorism and genocide at Nanking in particular or throughout occupied China in general. A brigade commander from the Thirteenth Division is known to have actually tried to release Chinese prisoners but, due to confusion and misunderstanding, the captives were killed unintentionally. Individual Japanese commanders and staff officers devised arbitrary orders that did not accord with those of higher headquarters. Lieutenant Colonel Chô Isamu, whose career is replete with insubordinate actions, was responsible for such "private" insubordination at Nanking. Unruly sadists existed too, among whom the name of the Division Commander Lieutenant General Nakajima Kesago often recurs. Ironically, it is said that, whereas there had been clear-cut military objectives at places like Shanghai, the Japanese possessed no persuasive military objective for the Nanking operation after Shanghai fell. Higher headquarters were shocked by reports of Japanese misbehavior. Restraining orders were issued and military police patrols were sent out. But the orders were ignored, the patrols could not seize perpetrators unless they were caught in the act, and there was an insufficiency of MP strength. Before they reached Nanking, the Japanese forces in Central China possessed only 102 military police. At the time when General Matsui Iwane entered Nanking, only 17 MPs accompanied him. The MP commander attached to the Matsui corps, a Major Miyazaki, was infuriated later by the reports of Japanese military criminality, and he ordered the immediate arrest of anyone who had committed a crime, regardless of rank. Scenes of Japanese officers in handcuffs being taken into custody were frequent. General Nakajima objected very strenuously, however, and Major Miyazaki was transferred to Japan.

Despite the ineffectiveness and unenthusiasm of the action to punish military lawlessness promptly and ruthlessly, the prosecutors at the Tokyo Trial could not establish that Japanese higher headquarters pursued a policy of preplanned genocide at Nanking or elsewhere in China.

Allegation: The Japanese got away with their crimes at Nanking. The Tokyo Trial was a farce. The trials in China itself were inconsequential.

Rebuttal: The commanding general of Japanese Army forces at Nanking, Matsui Iwane, was included in the Tokyo docket with Tôjô Hideki and the other class A war criminals and received the death sentence. In China, Lt. Gen. Tani Hisao, the commander of the Sixth Division, was tried and executed, President Chiang Kai-shek having denied his appeal. Lt. Gen. Isogai Rensuke was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Japanese commander in chief in China at the end of the war, General Okamura Yasuji, could not be found guilty of command responsibility and was acquitted. As for Japanese charged with war crimes at the perpetrators' level, the Nationalist Chinese government was tenacious in identifying and tracking down Japanese suspects and in organizing and carrying out effective trials. The number of cases filed at the Shanghai District Court in 1946 exceeded 30,000. Eventually the Chinese Nationalists established 13 military tribunals throughout China and Taiwan. Of 883 accused who were tried in China, 504 suspects were convicted; 149 received death sentences; and 83 were sentenced to life imprisonment. A further 350 were acquitted. Despite the impending loss of the mainland to the Communist regime, Nationalist China continued the prosecution of Japanese suspects until March 1949. Presumably the trials in Tokyo and in China closed the book on prosecution. As the best Chinese general in World War II, Ho Ying-chin, the wartime commander of Chinese Nationalist ground forces, put it in 1975, "Japan should beware of surrendering twice for one defeat."

Allegation: After the war, there was a high-level Allied intergovernmental conspiracy to cover up Japanese military criminality.

Rebuttal: After the war the Allies did not coddle the defeated Japanese military for misbehavior in China. In fact, U.S. officials supervised the first war crimes trials in China, from early 1946, centering on inhumane Japanese treatment of captured American airmen. The Chinese worked closely with Americans, Australians, and British to bring the Japanese to book. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff directed, in 1946, that primary responsibility for war crimes trials in China was to rest with the Nationalist government, which assiduously prosecuted Japanese war crimes defendants, including those suspected of committing atrocities at Nanking, of course.

Allegation: A powerful right wing in present-day Japan thwarts efforts to reveal the truth of Nanking and physically threatens those who try.

Rebuttal: The "government by assassination" of the 1930s is invoked, whereas the rightist movement in Japan is in fact a distinct minority. Of course there have been some episodes of violence, but these are very few and much publicized. Japanese media experts tell me that advocates of the Chinese activist faction are the darlings of the media, and that it is their opponents who receive short shrift. Much was made of parliamentary right-wingers' support of the recent revisionist movie on Tôjô, Puraido, unmei no toki (Pride, the Fateful Moment), but the figures reveal that the clique numbered scarcely 10% of the National Diet's membership. There is now no dearth of public discussion of Nanking, Unit 731, and the comfort women. Displays of photographs dating back to 1937, similar to those that appear in Chang's book, have been shown at peace museums throughout Japan, and Chinese-made movies such as Nanking 1937 have been shown in Japanese theaters. Not all viewers are happy with what they see, but Japan is a democracy today, and ideological diversity is rarely a threat in practice.

Allegation: Japanese official apologies for Nanking are insincere, evasive, incomplete, and irrelevant. Redress is imperative. The emperor should get on his knees and apologize for Nanking.

Rebuttal: Once Japan regained its sovereignty after the postwar Occupation, it began to question the fairness of being obliged to apologize for events that occurred in the 1930s and early 1940s, especially since a peace treaty was concluded with most of the Allied Powers at San Francisco in 1951. An interesting example of the questioning of the rationale for apology occurred on the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, when there was an American effort to induce the Japanese to apologize for the attack of December 1941, and a Japanese counter-effort to get the United States to apologize for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. President George Bush refused an American apology. The Japanese wonder where the whole matter of apologies should end, and whether apologies are owed by Russia, Britain, and the United States, among others, for brutalities and misdeeds perpetrated in their colonial histories too. If a Japanese emperor should have apologized for Japanese misbehavior in World War II, it should have been Hirohito. It makes no sense to think of getting Emperor Akihito (born in 1933) to apologize for Nanking; he was only four years old when the event took place.

Allegation: Japanese school textbooks ignore or trivialize the events at Nanking.

Rebuttal: The textbook controversy extends far beyond the matter of Nanking. Pacifism and antimilitarism have long dominated the postwar teaching profession, to the extent that the prewar and wartime periods are greatly outweighed by concern for Japan's current prosperity and peaceful future. The old armed forces have been demonized, with the result that the new Self-Defense Forces have had to struggle to survive as more than an organization to cope with natural disasters and accidents. Nanking has not been singled out for inattention. It is history teaching as a whole that has been refocused on societal and social concerns, and not because of the oft-heard explanation of deliberate amnesia. The much-maligned Ministry of Education does not dictate the choice of textbooks used in the schools nationally. The textbook controversy that excited attention some years ago has been largely rectified, and the issue is now taught in the schools and is discussed openly by the impressionable students who are the hope of the future.

Allegation: The Japanese people as a whole, either spontaneously or because of brainwashing, deny that atrocities occurred at Nanking.

Rebuttal: Tremendous media coverage is given whenever a high-ranking and generally elderly official of the Japanese government is quoted as denying the existence of the events at Nanking. In every case the official has been compelled to retract his thoughtless statement and to resign. And in each instance the Japanese prime minister has castigated the speaker for his irresponsible remarks and has reiterated the Japanese government's remorse. It is unfair to charge the Japanese people as a whole with sharing the thinking of the discredited speakers. In particular, the younger generation, as ignorant of history as their counterparts throughout much of the world, cannot be accused of denying that horrible events occurred at Nanking. It took years before the Nanking occurrences were brought to public attention, due to Japanese wartime military censorship and postwar confusion caused by defeat. The preponderance of Japanese now know about Japanese military misbehavior in China and Asia and they feel shame and grief. Even if some people do not agree with Chang's fierce account of the incident, that does not erase their feelings of sorrow and compassion for the Chinese people. The Japanese of the 1990s are not the Japanese of the 1930s.


War itself is perhaps the greatest of all atrocities. At Nanking in 1937 the Japanese military, by all accounts, committed indefensible transgressions. But to hold the Japanese of the 1990s still legally responsible for the event of 1937 seems far-fetched and unfair. The implication is that another Nanking perpetrated by Japanese is a real and impending danger. The premise itself has never been accepted by reputable anthropologists or sociologists, even of the wartime school. Such a charge is also contradicted by the past half century of the no-war Japanese Constitution, and by Japan's much-criticized unwillingness to participate as an armed member of peacekeeping forces. The coalition operations against Iraq in 1990-91 would have been an ideal locale for Japan's alleged biologically based belligerency, but instead Japan pursued checkbook diplomacy and the tardy dispatch of minesweepers.

The appearance of this kind of allegation demonstrates the use of history to bash Japan and to alarm Asia. It suggests that there is a linear historical continuity between the fascist state of 1937-38 and the democratic Japan of today. The democratic dimension is downplayed in favor of an image of a country that is supposedly bent on aggression and expansion, has rearmed, is unrepentant, and adores the villains of yore. This seems to be one of the main reasons for the exhumation of the grisly story of Nanking, 61 years ago. Those who are unacquainted with the reality of today's Japan have been rather easily taken in by a slice of aberrant history.

And should verbal apologies be extended to monetary redress, realistically speaking? I am particularly disturbed by the effort to get at Japan via the United States. We Americans incurred our own share of Japanese military brutalities in World War II, which we have tried to heal with the passage of time. Why try to induce the American Congress to press Japan to apologize and make redress payments for Japanese actions at Nanking? Why not approach Japan's own parliament if such atonement is desired? In this case, Bataan and Corregidor are not to the point, whereas Nanking is.

As a work of history, Chang's book is flawed, as we have sought to demonstrate. If it is a politically motivated work of partisan propaganda, it is successful to a certain degree. But shouldn't Chang's compassion extend to the healing of old wounds rather than their revival? The Japan of the late 1990s is being bashed for the sins of 1937-38, and U.S. confidence in Japan is being eroded thereby. Japan has remained quiescent throughout, which does not help us to comprehend the larger issues, especially since Japan is an active backer of the concept of international punishment for war crimes. One wishes that Chang's talents were funneled in the direction of healing rather than retribution.