The Horror

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

"Atrocities follow war as the jackal follows a wounded beast,” John W. Dower wrote in his history of the Second World War in the Pacific, War Without Mercy (1986). Bestiality slunk along as the ghoulish companion of all the armies in that war, Allied and Axis alike, notoriously in the Nazi-Soviet war, and most hideously in Hitler's campaign of systematic genocide. The Holocaust has become our era's ghastly icon of humankind's capacity for fiendishness. The memory of it quivers in the world's imagination, chastening the certainties of philosophers, challenging the pieties of churches, shadowing art and literature, chilling the souls of all who contemplate it. More than half a century later, recollections of the Holocaust also dictate the policies of governments and even shape relations among nations. Indeed, contemporary discourse about the Holocaust epitomizes the modern urge to master the politics of atrocities, an enterprise that has come to rival in scope and intensity an older cultural project that sought to fathom and perhaps to quell man's dreadful instinct to play the wolf to man. In our time the effort to control the politics of suffering may even be displacing the effort to understand the psychology of evil.

Iris Chang's subtitle signals her intention to assimilate the war in Asia to the war in Europe, and to claim for the Chinese victims of the Imperial Japanese Army's sadism the same recognition that history affords to victims of the Holocaust. To be sure, the grisly record of what happened in Nanjing following the Japanese conquest of the city in December, 1937, prodigiously confirms Dower's dictum. But whether the events in Nanjing deserve to be compared to the Holocaust is perhaps another matter. Nor is it clear that those events have been so thoroughly forgotten as Chang asserts.

Japan's campaign of aggression against China began with the seizure of Manchuria in 1931. The Manchurian takeover elicited Chinese reprisals against Japanese nationals in Shanghai, including the murder by a mob of a Japanese Buddhist monk, which in turn prompted an armed Japanese intervention in that city. A vicious but localized Sino-Japanese war raged around the Shanghai region through much of 1932. The conflict then settled into a quiescent phase for several years. Japan proceeded to consolidate its hold on Manchuria, while China was distracted by simmering civil war between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Mao Zedong's Communists. Preoccupied with the Great Depression and the rising menace of Hitler, the Western world bore distant and largely helpless witness to the sputtering crisis in Asia.

A minor clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, near Beijing, touched off full-scale war between the two Asian powers in July of 1937. Japan and China were both by then spoiling for the fight. Open war offered an opportunity once and for all to chastise what Tokyo regarded as the exasperatingly feckless Chinese regime. In Japanese eyes, a British diplomat reported,

China is not a civilized state, but a chaotic amorphous mass whose government is powerless to maintain order. Communism is rampant there, and the country is prey to the depredation of the armies of rival war lords, red communist armies and roving bodies of bandits.

For his part, Chiang, under pressure from his generals and the Communists, ravened for the chance to come to grips with the Japanese aggressor in a decisive showdown. Soon foiled, however, in his attempt to engage the main body of Japanese troops near Beijing, Chiang sought to shift the arena of combat to the south by replaying the scenario of 1932. His minions menaced the 30,000 Japanese residents of Shanghai, hoping to draw Japanese forces out of the north and into the great valley of the Yangtze, Chiang's main political base and supposedly most secure military stronghold.

The lure worked. Tokyo turned its eyes southward, and the Japanese commander Matsui Iwane began the investment of Shanghai on August 23. He made tortuous headway against fierce but patchy Chinese resistance. (Chiang's generals executed several hundred of their soldiers for cowardice.) After suffering 30 percent casualties, Matsui's forces at last took Shanghai in early November, a military disaster for Chiang and the prelude to greater disasters that soon followed. Behind a rolling carpet of ferocious bombing, the Japanese began moving up the valley of the Yangtze toward Chiang's capital at Nanjing.

The bloody Yangtze. Less than a century earlier its teeming watershed had been convulsed by some of the worst fighting of the Taiping rebellion, a horrific fourteen-year upheaval that claimed 20 million Chinese lives. In the decade before the Japanese incursion Chiang's unruly armies had ruthlessly exterminated Communists and labor unionists along the lower Yangtze. They also looted the British, American, and Japanese consulates and murdered several foreigners. Through this historic cauldron of seething hatreds and prolific violence Matsui's troops now advanced. Chiang's soldiers scattered before them in a pell-mell rout that swelled to maniacal panic as the fighting neared the gates of Nanjing. Nationalist government officials fled the city as the Japanese drew close. Chiang himself abandoned his capital on December 8. He left behind a ragtag force under General Tang Sheng-chih to mount what rear-guard defense it could. Tang quickly gave up even the pretense of resistance. After ordering the houses outside the city walls to be set aflame as a delaying action, he boarded a launch that churned away up the Yangtze on the evening of December 12. Deserted by their leaders and fearful of being trapped inside the city by a ring of fire, the remnants of the Nanjing garrison and the additional troops streaming into the city from the lower Yangtze stampeded for what safety they could find. Thousands swarmed into the frigid waters of the river, in what quickly proved a suicidal quest for the refuge of the far shore. More thousands sought to disguise themselves and hide within the beleaguered city. They stripped off their military uniforms, looted shops and assaulted civilians for nonmilitary clothing, trampled and axed and machine-gunned their comrades, in a mad scramble to elude the oncoming invaders.

Into this scene of incomprehensible bedlam the first Japanese troops marched on December 13. After a decade of civil disorder and Nationalist marauding, and after weeks of savage bombardment by Japanese warplanes, as well as mutinous rioting and bareknuckled intimidation by their own soldiers, the city's Chinese inhabitants were so traumatized that many of them welcomed the Japanese army as a disciplined military force that might at least impose a semblance of order on the chaotic hell of bleeding, burning Nanjing. That expectation the Japanese abruptly and cruelly demolished.

The Japanese occupiers immediately began combing the city for the abandoned Chinese soldiers who had gone to ground. The procedure was certainly allowable under recognized rules of war, but Matsui's troops carried it out with wanton ferocity. They rounded up all young men of military age and proceeded to kill them in wholesale machine-gunnings and serial decapitations, sometimes in full view of horrified onlookers. Worse soon followed. Roaming bands of Japanese troops began murdering civilians at random, indiscriminately assailing the young and the old, men, women, children, and unborn fetuses alike, with bludgeon, bayonet, rifle, torch, and sword. Matsui's soldiers used both living and dead Chinese for bayonet practice. They mutilated, tortured, and maimed countless victims. According to Chang's account, they hanged people by their tongues and marinated them in acid, dismembered them, grenaded them, impaled them and burned them and flayed them and froze them and buried them alive. They also raped countless women, bestowing upon this unholy episode the name by which it has forever after been known and which furnishes Chang's title: the Rape of Nanking.

READERS fascinated by the sanguine and the macabre will not be disappointed by this book. Chang describes many incidents of unshirted mayhem in excruciating detail, and supplements her written account with a gallery of photographs whose grotesqueness no mere vocabulary can match. By any measure the Rape of Nanking was a catastrophic horror—and Chang gives us several measures, including an estimate of the height to which the stacked bodies of the Chinese victims would reach, and even a calculation of the weight of the blood spilled during the Japanese rampage.

But if a penchant for the sensational, along with a certain credulousness, occasionally colors Chang's recounting of some of those incidents, there can be no doubt that the evidence amounts to a crushing indictment of the Japanese army's behavior. The Rape of Nanking stands out in the long and sorry annals of warfare and its crimes as an exceptionally heinous monstrosity. Even the Japanese Foreign Minister, Hirota Koki, reported after an inspection trip in January of 1938 that the "Japanese Army behaved . . . in [a] fashion reminiscent [of] Attila [and] his Huns. [Not] less than three hundred thousand Chinese civilians slaughtered, many cases [in] cold blood."

Brutality intruded even into the ironically named Safety Zone, a section of the city where thousands of refugees took shelter under the precarious protection of a hastily organized "International Committee" composed of some two dozen foreign nationals resident in Nanjing. The committee repeatedly protested to Japanese officials about the bacchanalia of violence, and set out to document formally what its members somewhat delicately called "cases of disorder." It published its sober, legalistic record of the Rape of Nanking in 1939, listing 425 such cases. To that testimony Chang has added reports of additional incidents, some taken from the records of the postwar Tokyo War Crimes Trials, some from papers later deposited in the library of the Yale Divinity School by the handful of American missionaries marooned in Nanjing in 1937, and some from an extraordinary document that Chang herself first brought to light—the diary of the chairman of the International Committee for the Safety Zone, John H.D. Rabe.

Rabe was by any account a remarkable figure, and an unlikely hero. "Why the devil did you stay?" a puzzled Japanese officer asked him in the midst of the pandemonium engulfing Nanjing. "What does all this matter to you?" "My kids and grandchildren were born here, and I am happy and successful here," Rabe replied, adding, "I have always been treated well by the Chinese people." Rabe was a German businessman, born in Hamburg in 1882. He had lived in China since 1908, working mostly for the Siemens Company. He had learned the Chinese language, had grown to love the country, and was extremely solicitous toward his Chinese employees. He was also a Nazi. Along with a few other foreigners who worked under his guidance, Rabe shielded numberless Chinese from the Japanese juggernaut, sometimes thrusting his swastika armband at Japanese soldiers and flashing his Nazi decoration as a way to assert his authority. Not without reason, Chang calls him "the Oskar Schindler of China."

BUT if this improbable tale reminds us of the enigmas of good and evil and the infinite mysteries of the human personality, Chang does not bring an analogous sense of complexity to her effort to explain why the Rape of Nanking happened at all. How did military discipline first degenerate into disorder and then slide into such stupefying depravity? Were Japanese actions the result of deliberate high-level policy decisions to terrorize the Chinese? Did the Imperial Japanese Army's atrocities flow from some moral defect in the Japanese national character? From willful military indoctrination that cultivated race hatred toward the Chinese? From the bent minds of crazed local commanders? From wholesale insubordination by an ill-educated and hard-used soldiery? Or did the whole history and atmosphere of the Yangtze—especially the bloody 1937 campaign from Shanghai up the valley, which culminated in the nightmarish condition of Nanjing on December 13—somehow unbridle the demons in men's souls?

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.