I am struck not only by the range in these estimates, but in the ambitions of those who make them. Was the Nanking massacre the “forgotten Holocaust,” as Chang argued? Was it the act of a small group of unhinged individuals, as the scholar Masahiro Yamamoto contended? Or was Japan the victim of a nefarious lie, as Shintaro Ishihara, a former governor of Tokyo, has long insisted? Through these debates, historians and public figures assert their respective versions of what really happened in Nanking, setting aside the meaning of “massacre,” “noncombatant, even “death,” looking past the identities of the severed heads that appear in grainy photographs, and beyond the witness testimonials collected by UNESCO. In their efforts to canonize history is an unambiguous instruction: Remember it like this.
* * *
My grandfather, or Yaya, as I call him, grew up in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Life among the soldiers was “not much different,” he’d say when he visited us in Texas. Of course, he had to bow whenever he passed the Japanese on the street. Rickshaw drivers couldn’t complain when the soldiers didn’t pay them. If you failed to remove your hat in the presence of a Japanese soldier, he might beat you with the butt of his rifle and throw you in jail. Yaya himself was never beaten, but he witnessed beatings every day, he said.
Once, when he was walking me to the bus stop, he said he’d been stabbed by a Japanese soldier. To my great embarrassment, he raised the front of his shirt to show me his scar. Twenty years later, he claimed he’d never told me the story. It was not a Japanese soldier who gave him his scar, but his grandmother, who, following a superstition, fired a large coin and pressed it to his skin when he was a baby to cast off an illness.
Odd as both versions of the story may seem, for me, they embody the struggle to place my grandfather’s life in Chang’s pages. As I watched Yaya drift in and out of sleep in front of the television, my grandmother sitting beside him patiently explaining the plot of the program they were watching, the horrors of the past began to recede. The past felt less real in moments like that, the stakes somehow lower. While the Japanese bombed Shanghai for three months, taking a quarter of a million Chinese lives before marching west to Nanking, Yaya was two years old. What could “different” mean to someone who took his first steps during war?
To return to my grandfather’s China now is to wade through a morass of collective memory. After the war, in response to the rise of Communism, America and Britain began to embrace post-war, pacifist Japan. To officials in the newly formed People’s Republic of China, Japan’s destruction of their beloved land was less relevant than the Nationalists’ colossal failure to protect it. My parents first learned about the war through films in which the Nationalists, who had borne the brunt of the fighting, simply ran away, leaving brave Communist guerrilla fighters and rural villagers to drive off cruel Japanese soldiers. In 1972, Tokyo signed a joint communiqué with Beijing that absolved Japan of all war reparations in exchange for recognizing Taiwan as an “inalienable” territory of China.