by Sammy Quach
As the name itself implies, The Rape of Nanking is no light subject. It is one of many of Japan’s extended list of war crimes committed by commanders and their troops during World War II. Throughout the seven-week pillaging of what was once Nanking, an estimate of 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women raped and forced into a life of prostitution as “comfort women”, and 50,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians were brutalized and savagely murdered. Despite the fact that the massacre was carried out by the Japanese, the Chinese government could partially be blamed as well, due to the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek’s inadequate handling of the event, and Communist leader Mao Zedong’s following coverup. The Rape of Nanking has been a topic of debate for historians in the past few decades as no one can seem to pinpoint the exact amount of people decimated, the extent of the acts committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, and whether it was comparable to the Holocaust.
The controversy of the event lies between the traditionalists, who strictly adhere to the idea that the Rape of Nanking was a brutal massacre of 300,000 Chinese civilians committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, and the revisionists, who believe the numbers were fabricated and in some instances the Rape did not occur. The stark contrast in viewpoints, as well as the Chinese mishandling the event, could be attributed to why the Japanese government never completely apologized to China and the victims of Nanking.
The siege of Nanking occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war that consisted of China fighting against Japanese mass colonization– which explains the heavy anti-Japanese sentiment that still permeates within Chinese society today. One of the first major battles during the Sino-Japanese War was the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, in which the Japanese Imperial Army defeated the Chinese Nationalists in a three-month stint, with a loss of 300,000 soldiers combined. With the death of Chiang’s best troops in battle and the disorganization and inefficiency of the Nationalist Army, Chiang was left to reinforce his army with unfit auxiliary soldiers. As the Japanese advanced to Nanking in early December of 1937, the ragtag group of Chinese Nationalist soldiers attempted to hold their ground but withdrew after two days of fighting. In a cowardly move to preserve his troops and save his own life, Chiang left the civilians of Nanking defenseless to the Japanese Imperial Army. To make matters worse, in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek chose to heavily persecute Chinese Communists instead of Japanese prisoners of war who were active participants in the atrocity. Alongside Chiang Kai-Shek’s actions that exacerbated the event, the Communist government of China (that ended up defeating the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War) under Mao Zedong also made it worse as they failed to acknowledge and hold Japan accountable after the war. During Mao’s long reign over the PRC, not a single academic textbook covered the massacre given that it did not coincide with Mao’s agenda. Not only did the massacre make China seem weak in comparison to Japan and other Asian countries, but also as Nanking was Nationalist territory at the time, Mao already viewed the victims as traitors to the Communist Party. Without Mao’s recognizance of the Rape of Nanking, the tragedy was buried amongst all the other war crimes of World War II, largely forgotten within Western society, and leaving Japan without the burden of responsibility. Contrary to the thought of most traditionalists, the blame can no longer be placed solely on the Japanese Imperial Army. It is critical that the Chinese government acknowledge its role in the Rape of Nanking before asking Japan to do the same.
With an issue as complex and nuanced as the Nanking Massacre, there are sure to be numerous opinions especially as concrete evidence is hard to come by. The biggest divide stems between the traditionalists and revisionists, which are essentially pro-Chinese versus pro-Japanese stances. In spite of their differing beliefs, traditionalists and revisionists alike have heard of the book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, written by Iris Chang; for it was her book that made the West aware of the atrocities in Nanking. To the traditionalists, she was revered as an amazing and courageous historian who was not afraid to speak the truth in revealing the monstrosity of Japan (during the Sino-Japanese War). However, to revisionists, she was an anti-Japanese liar, seeking to destroy the national image of Japan by spewing lies about the war. Iris Chang’s book infamously covered the event itself, the aftermath, and why Japan’s refusal to acknowledge their wrongdoing led to the “Second Rape of Nanking”. Chang examined the psyche of the soldiers and the implications of their actions through a sensationalized and hyper-emotional lens; she exaggerated the death count of the massacre with no concrete evidence, as well as placed all the blame on Japan and their refusal to apologize. Although her book was not a perfect rendering of the Rape of Nanking, Chang effectively imprinted the horror of the massacre amongst readers, and bravely took on the backlash of seasoned historians and Japan’s far right.
Out of the thousands of Japanese WWII revisionists, one of the most infamous revisionists, in complete opposition to Chang’s traditionalist thought, is Masaaki Tanaka. His book, What Really Happened in Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth explicitly details how and why the Rape of Nanking never could have taken place. Tanaka seems to pose a concrete argument through stating that there were no credible witnesses at the event, explaining how there was no evidence to prove the high death count, and referencing the diary of General Matsui Iwane, Chief General of the Japanese Imperial Army responsible for the Battle/Rape of Nanking. However, after the publication of the book, it was revealed that Tanaka had been Matsui’s secretary during the war, and fabricated several hundreds of his diary entries. Even in regard to this, Tanaka’s book still gained widespread attention and was used by revisionists alike for the basis of their arguments. What Really Happened in Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth became a huge step backward for Japan on their road to an apology.
Keeping in mind the dual Japanese and Chinese involvement, and the contrast between traditionalist and revisionist thought, the Rape of Nanking is a complex, multifaceted issue, leading to the question of which country and to which degree should be apologizing. Within the decades following the atrocity, Japan issued multiple apology statements for their involvement in the event, from the 1993 Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono’s Statement, apologizing for Japan’s comfort women, to 2015 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Statement, apologizing for Japanese war crimes and promoting the idea of long-lasting peace between the Asian superpowers. Yet, none of these apologies ended in financial reimbursement for the victims and their families of the Rape of Nanking. Efforts at reconciliation are marred by far right, high-level politicians adamantly refuting the occurrence of the event.
While Japan hasn’t issued a comprehensive apology to the Chinese victims yet, neither has the PRC on behalf of Chiang and Mao’s actions. Until both sides have provided sincere apologies, given joint financial compensation to the victims, and can co-author a universal account on the Rape of Nanking, then can the issue finally be on its way to resolving the issue. Even with the possibility of resolving the issue on the horizon, the Rape of Nanking will remain a complex part of Sino-Japanese relations, a source of bitter disagreement between both traditionalists and revisionists, and a painful reminder of Japanese transgressions during WWII.
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Basic Books, 1997.
“Statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Konoon the Result of the Study on the Issue of ‘Comfort Women.’” MOFA, www.mofa.go.jp/policy/women/fund/state9308.html.
Tanaka, Masaaki. What Really Happened in Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth. Sekai Shuppan, Inc., 2001.
Fingleton, Eamonn. “70 Years Later, Struggle for Nanking Massacre Justice Continues.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 26 May 2011, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/70-years-later-struggle-for-nanking-massacre-justice-continues/239478/.
Yamamoto, Masahiro. Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. Praeger, 2000.
Editors, History.com. “Nanking Massacre.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/japan/nanjing-massacre.
Fish, Isaac Stone. “Why Did China Downplay the Nanjing Massacre?” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 23 Feb. 2012, foreignpolicy.com/2012/02/23/why-did-china-downplay-the-nanjing-massacre/.
“Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister).” Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201508/0814statement.html.
Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi. The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-38 Complicating the Picture. Berghahn Books, 2017.
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