The Horror

Should the Japanese atrocities in Nanking be equated with the Nazi Holocaust?

The Western world in fact neither then nor later ignored the Rape of Nanking. American attention was riveted on the lower Yangtze in December of 1937, not least because in the course of their attack Japanese planes sank the U.S. gunboat Panay. Jammed with refugees, the 450-ton, two-stack ship was anchored in the river just above Nanjing and conspicuously identified by huge American flags spread over its fore and aft decks and flying from every mast. Unknown to the American public at the time, the Panay was also not so innocently serving as a radio-communications link between the city's wasting garrison and the departed Chiang Kai-shek. The uproar in the United States over the sinking subsided only after a series of highly publicized apologies by the Japanese Foreign Minister, the removal from command of the Japanese officer whose flyers were responsible for the sinking, a Japanese naval salute to the people killed in the attack, and the Japanese government's offer of a $2.2 million indemnity—all actions, not incidentally, that testified both to official remorse and to considerable anxiety within the Japanese government about its ability to control local commanders and individual combatants in China. At the same time, American newspapers carried extensive and lurid coverage of the Rape of Nanking. "Wholesale looting, the violation of women, the murder of civilians, the eviction of Chinese from their homes, mass executions of war prisoners and the impressing of able-bodied men turned Nanking into a city of terror," F. Tillman Durdin reported beneath banner headlines on the front page of The New York Times on December 18, 1937. The Rape of Nanking later became a staple of wartime anti-Japanese propaganda, especially in Frank Capra's Battle of China, one of several films in his "Why We Fight" series that were screened for millions of U.S. troops in training camps and millions of civilians in commercial movie theaters throughout the United States.

Nor is Chang entirely correct that Japan has obstinately refused to acknowledge its wartime crimes, let alone express regret for them. That accusation has become a cliché of Western criticism of Japan in recent years, perhaps most notably in Ian Buruma's study of war memories in Germany and Japan, The Wages of Guilt (1994), whose general thesis might be summarized as "Germany remembers too much, Japan too little." To be sure, the Japanese Ministry of Education in the early 1980s did try to discourage mentioning Nanjing and other wartime unpleasantries in secondary school textbooks, and a Japanese distributor did (unsuccessfully) attempt in 1988 to cut a thirty-second sequence depicting the Rape of Nanking from Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor. And it remains true that reverential visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, honoring Japan's military dead, including war criminals, are still obligatory for right-wing Japanese politicians. But a vocal Japanese left has long kept the memory of Nanjing alive. It is also true, as John Dower recently pointed out, that on June 9, 1995, the lower house of the Japanese Diet expressed "deep remorse" (fukai hansei) for the suffering that Japan inflicted on other peoples during the Second World War, and that two recent Japanese Prime Ministers have tendered clear apologies (owabi) for Imperial Japan's offenses against other nations. Dower additionally noted that "popular Japanese discourse concerning ... war responsibility ... is more diversified than usually is appreciated outside Japan," and that "the non-Japanese media [have] also generally failed to report that current textbooks approved by the conservative Ministry of Education speak more frankly about Japanese aggression and atrocities than was the case up through the 1980s."

As atrocities follow war, so history follows atrocities—a lesson that this book doggedly demonstrates. And even in a culture as muted as Japan's, murder will eventually out. It remains, however, to explain it, as this book only imperfectly does.

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