70 Years Later, Struggle for Nanking Massacre Justice Continues

The late historian Iris Chang, and now her mother, take up a generations-old fight to remember the Japanese atrocities in China

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Nir Elias / Reuters

Hints don't come much less subtle than the one the late Iris Chang received in a small package in 1998. Inside the box, which has been mailed to her front door, were two bullets. Almost anyone else might, there and then, have opted for a less stressful life. Not Iris Chang.

The episode is recounted in The Woman Who Could Not Forget, a new biography by her mother, Ying-Ying Chang. The book provides new insights into the pressures that the world put on Iris, who as the author of the late 1990s best seller The Rape of Nanking came not only to fear for her own safety but for that of her loved ones. The threats never seemed to slow her down -- at least not until near the end, when they may have contributed to the profound depression that led to her suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.

The British author Simon Winchester, in dedicating a book to her in 2005, wrote that her "nobility, passion, and courage should serve as a model for all." He was not alone in his admiration. "I don't know of anyone in the field who was more courageous," said Ivan P. Hall, a Harvard-educated historian and a former cultural diplomat to Japan.

To understand her achievement, try a thought experiment. Imagine that, thanks to a stew of pecuniary and geopolitical factors, public discussion of Auschwitz had long been muffled and that officials not only in Germany but in the United States and even Israel had colluded in the cover-up. Then imagine a previously unknown 29-year-old almost single-handedly smashing the taboo.

The horrors of the Nanking massacre were in many ways not so different from those at Auschwitz -- shocking not only in their huge scale but even more so in the gruesome eyeball-to-eyeball sadism. Over a period of several weeks in the winter of 1937 to 1938, at least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children died in an organized exercise in terror at the hands of a conquering Japanese army. Yet, until Chang came along, the carnage had been a great unmentionable among American scholars of the region.

As Iris Chang noted in taking on the project, the silence over Nanking was unusual compared to the massive attention given to other such modern mass atrocities. There have been hundreds of books about the Nazi Holocaust alone, countless others about Turkey's Armenian massacre, the air bombing of Guernica, the London Blitz, the Dresden firestorm, and, of course, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why was Nanking different? At its core, the issue was money. Almost from the moment World War II ended, the then impoverished Japanese government made one of its primary goals fending off the potential tidal wave of claims for compensation. There followed a highly orchestrated campaign to keep the more controversial aspects of Japan's past from intruding on its future. So successful was that campaign that, as I wrote in a 1995 book, the total sum Japan paid to war victims of all nations had come to little more than $1 billion. Any subsequent additions are likely minimal. By contrast, Germany had already paid $72 billion to Jews, Poles, and other victims of the Holocaust by the mid 1990s, and continued to make further payments thereafter.

Nazi Germany's policy of premeditated genocide had no counterpart in Japan, of course. But imperial Japan was notoriously brutal in its treatment not only of civilians in fallen cities like Nanking and Singapore, but of prisoners of war.

In a fair post-war world, millions of such victims and their heirs would have been entitled to compensation. But Japan pleaded poverty and, in 1951, in a spirit of Cold War solidarity, the United States led more than 40 nations in renouncing their citizens' claims on Tokyo. The 1951 agreement did not rule out the possibility that Japan would make payments as its economy recovered. But Tokyo stuck rigidly to its not-a-penny policy, with the assiduous support of the U.S. State Department in fighting off claimants. The State Department even slapped down a number of lawsuits by U.S. servicemen who had suffered abominably in Japanese prisoner of war camps, in many cases serving as de facto slaves, doing the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in Japanese factories and mines.

Japan's symbolic support for U.S. foreign policy, most notably the Vietnam war, kept Washington on its side in Tokyo's reparations diplomacy. Japanese diplomats proved adept at exploiting the State Department's Cold War neuroses. Greatly exaggerating the influence of the left in Japanese politics, they constantly implied that, absent copious "mutual understanding" in Washington, Japan might switch sides and throw in its lot with the Soviet Union.

Japanese officials feared an inundation of millions of claims from China but, although Beijing never signed the 1951 agreement, they nonetheless successfully kept Chinese claimants at bay for decades. In the late 1970s, China's new supreme leader Deng Xiaoping was persuaded to take a deal: in return for a promise of billions of dollars in Japanese economic aid and technology transfers over subsequent decades, he signed away Chinese citizens' rights to remunerations. After that, top officials in Beijing proved almost as assiduous as their counterparts in Tokyo and Washington in sweeping victims' claims under the rug.

Chang's book posed a threat to this status quo not only because it broke the silence on one of the most embarrassing episodes in Japanese history but because it highlighted the not-a-penny compensation policy, which continues today. Japan experts regarded this as the ultimate no-go area in East Asia studies. Chang sensed that she had enemies almost everywhere.

Her fears had been aroused even before the book was published. On a research mission to China in the mid 1990s, she later wrote, she had lived in constant fear that her notes and audio tapes would be confiscated.

Her relations with Japan were particularly fraught. She believed that many of her threats came from right-wing extremists there. And as the book shot into the best seller list, she found herself debating, among others, the Japanese ambassador to the United States on national television.

Her biggest surprise came from her work's reception in the United States. Although most mainstream American intellectuals and journalists welcomed her book, the reaction among scholarly specialists in East Asian history was often negative. Joshua Fogel, then of the University of California, pronounced some of her analysis "hare-brained." Robert Entenmann of St. Olaf College dismissed her book as "cliched" and "simplistic."

As recounted by her mother, Ying-Ying, a particularly wounding episode came in 2000, when when the publisher of a forthcoming biography of Japan's Emperor Hirohito asked several commentators, including Iris, to provide a blurb for the back cover. She duly obliged. But when a well-known East Coast Japanologist learned that his comment would be featured alongside Chang's, Ying-Ying writes, he threatened not only to withdraw his blurb but to pressure other writers into doing the same. Iris's was deleted from the back cover.

Susan Rabiner, who edited The Rape of Nanking for Basic Books, believes that the sullen reaction among American scholars stemmed from old-fashioned territorial concerns. "Iris was still very young and they just regarded her as an interloper," she told me.

The academics' standard line was that The Rape of Nanking was "deeply flawed." No doubt it contained some inaccuracies. And certainly, in its passionate advocacy, it diverged sharply from the usual dispassionate tone in the East Asian history field.

Some journalists also joined in the pile-on, most notably Ian Buruma, a frequent reviewer for the New York Review of Books and a key gatekeeper in the East Asian studies field. He pronounced the book "not serious history."

But Chang's book is serious history. By dint of dogged detective work, she had unearthed a compelling new source in the so-called Rabe Diaries, written by John Rabe, a German businessman who lived in Nanking in the 1930s. He had not only witnessed the massacre first-hand but, day in day out, had recorded it in devastating detail. He went on to play a leading role in the Nanking foreign community's efforts to save hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens.

Why the long silence in Western academies? Few East Asia specialists doubt what happened in the winter of 1937 to 38. And a definitive, book-form accounting was overdue -- as its market success attests, book buyers agreed. But the way that money flows in the East Asian studies field made such a book difficult to write. Nanking was, in a sense, a scholarly poisoned chalice. The East Asian field's funding comes overwhelmingly from corporations and foundations based in Japan and elsewhere in the region. Any scholar who broke the Nanking taboo would risk their funding.

After Iris, several scholars subsequently wrote their own accounts of Nanking -- though they generally avoided the compensation issue. Many of them took swipes at Chang's earlier book. But few of these books would have been published, and our understanding of this terrible and important chapter in Asian history would be far poorer, had not Iris declared open season on the subject.