The Horror

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

Chang explores some of these possible explanations, but pursues none of them rigorously. She is clearly tempted to argue that the Rape of Nanking resulted from formal political decisions taken at the highest levels, an argument whose virtually lone proponent is the historian David Bergamini, whom Chang repeatedly cites. In a decidedly eccentric book, Japan's Imperial Conspiracy (1971), Bergamini tried to lay the blame for Nanjing and much else squarely at the feet of Emperor Hirohito. Chang is obliged to concede that "unfortunately, Bergamini's book was seriously criticized by reputable historians." That's putting it mildly. One reviewer observed that Bergamini was "believable only by violating every canon of acceptable documentation." The historian Barbara Tuchman said that Bergamini's thesis "appears to be almost entirely a product of the author's inference and of his predilection for the sinister explanation." Yet Chang cannot resist concluding that at the very least "Hirohito must have known about the Rape of Nanking"—far from causing it to happen, but an assertion that represents the unmistakable if meager residue of Chang's infatuation with Bergamini's long-discredited thesis.

Elsewhere Chang serves notice that "this book is not intended as a commentary on the Japanese character," but then immediately plunges into an exploration of the thousand-year-deep roots of the "Japanese identity"--a bloody business, in her estimation, replete with martial competitions, samurai ethics, and the fearsome warriors' code of bushido, the clear inference being, despite the disclaimer, that "the path to Nanking" runs through the very marrow of Japanese culture.

In the final accounting, this book does a much better job of describing the horrors of Nanjing than of explaining them. Part of that deficiency is owing to Chang's sources. With but a handful of exceptions, Chang tells her tale from the point of view of the Chinese victims in Nanjing or the Caucasian witnesses in the Safety Zone. Her evidence offers little basis for any insight into the mentality of the perpetrators. Her focus on the events in and around Nanjing, which two students of the Imperial Japanese Army describe as "only one tidemark left by a sea of atrocities inflicted by the Imperial Army on the Chinese," also compromises her effort to find a comprehensive explanation for Japanese behavior. She offers little that is comparable to the carefully nuanced analysis of the motives behind Nazi brutality that one finds in works like Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men (1992) and Omer Bartov's The Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (1985), or even to the sustained argument found in Daniel Goldhagen's one-dimensional but provocative Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), which in effect indicted the entire German nation for the crime of the Holocaust. Thus despite Chang's shocking description of the events in Nanjing, she gives the reader little reason to conclude that what happened there should be compared to the systematic killing of the Holocaust, an episode that was surely the loathsome spawn of Hitler's purposeful policy—not an incident of war or the mere excrescence of individual cruelty or the result of a poorly disciplined army run amok. The Holocaust entailed a methodical application of all the apparatus of the modern bureaucratic state and all the most advanced technologies of killing to the cold-blooded business of mass murder.

ACCUSATION and outrage, rather than analysis and understanding, are this book's dominant motifs, and although outrage is a morally necessary response to Nanjing, it is an intellectually insufficient one. To what purpose is Chang's outrage directed? Nothing less than hauling Japan "before the bar of world opinion" and forcing it to acknowledge its war crimes. She assails both the Western world's alleged ignorance about the Rape of Nanking and the refusal of several prominent Japanese figures to admit that it even happened. Japan "remains to this day a renegade nation," she writes, having "managed to avoid the moral judgment of the civilized world that the Germans were made to accept for their actions in this nightmare time." Western indifference and Japanese denial, she says, amount to "a second rape," violating the memory of the dead and profaning the claims of history. Why, she asks, is there no equivalent of Schindler's List for Nanjing? How can a Japanese nationalist like Ishihara Shintaro, the author of The Japan That Can Say No, get away with calling the Rape of Nanking "a lie.... made up by the Chinese"? Chang concludes,

At a minimum, the Japanese government needs to issue an official apology to the victims, pay reparations to the people whose lives were destroyed in the rampage, and, most important, educate future generations of Japanese citizens about the true facts of the massacre.

Her charges are not so much wrong as exaggerated. Similarly, her demands on present-day Japan are less unwarranted than at least partly redundant.

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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