Book review: “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II” by Iris Chang

I took up another book on Chinese history written by the Chinese-American author Iris Chang, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” The Nanjing Massacre, as it is more commonly known, was the slaughter of an estimated 300,000* Chinese civilians by the Japanese army in 1937. I recently finished an extensive history of China by John Keay, where the massacre in Nanking is mentioned very briefly in the last chapter:

Worse by far, though, was the madness that had overtaken the Japanese when they entered Nanjing. That city, as fair as any with its graceful Ming palaces and massive walls beneath the wooded slopes of Mount Zijin, had known massacres before. Nothing, though, could compare with the butchery, rapes, and other atrocities perpetrated over a seventeen-week reign of terror in the winter of 1937/38. As Japanese troops took their revenge on the capital, at least 50,000 Chinese– and possibly half a million– most of them civilians, were gratuitously slaughtered in one of the worst war crimes on record.

That is as good a summary as any. Have you ever heard of the Nanjing Massacre? Perhaps not. Even if it is mentioned in history textbooks, it hasn’t entered our collective consciousness the way the Holocuast in Germany has. Iris Chang’s book seeks to correct that by describing the massacre, documenting the aftermath of the victims and perpetrators, and trying to explain how and why the massacre has fallen off the map. As Chang explains, The Japanese managed to avoid the moral judgment of the civilized world that the Germans were made to accept for their actions in this nightmare time. The reasons are manifold: our tendency to focus on the more familiar western front, a treaty that allowed the Japanese emperor to avoid prosecution and blame for the massacre during the war trials, and America’s need of a strong East Asian ally during the Cold War among other reasons.

The book has several themes woven throughout. The first is a quote by Elie Wiesel included in the introduction: To forget a holocaust is to kill twice. Why is remembering such horrible tragedies so important? Wouldn’t it be better to try to move on to happier times rather than continue to dig up a traumatic past? Isn’t it healthier? The power of positive thinking and all that? The thing is, forgiveness and healing can’t occur without acknowledgment first and restitution where possible. For comparison, take a look at how Germany has squared with the past the victims of the Holocaust. Chang uses this comparison in several places to hit this home. For example, in terms of monetary compensation:

As of 1997 the German government has paid at least DM 88 billion in compensation and reparations and will pay another DM 20 billion by the year 2005. If one factors in all the money the Germans have paid in compensation to individual victims, restitution for lost property, compensatory pensions, payments based on state regulations, final restitution in special cases, and money for global agreements with Israel and sixteen other nations for war damages, the total comes to almost DM 124 billion, or almost $60 billion. The Japanese have paid close to nothing for their wartime crimes.

Money, of course, isn’t the only metric, but it does give a quantitative metric. Chang concludes, Germany is a better place because Jews have not allowed that country to forget what it did during World War II. Japan, on the other hand, hasn’t had to face such a reckoning. And it has become a highly contested and politicized topic today without any accountability. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:

Japanese historians debate not only what should be done in light of the Nanking Massacre, they debate whether it even occurred at all. The liberals demanded that the Japanese government apologize for its crimes in China, while the conservatives considered such an apology an insult to veterans and a foreign interference in Japanese affairs. Right-wing groups have issued death threats to historians and reporters who dare to bring it up. The media engages in self-censoring to avoid drawing negative reactions from conservatives. Take this example when a distribution company cut out a 30-second scene summarizing the Nanjing Massacre from a documentary:

A spokesmen [for the distribution company] told reporters that the scene was removed “out of respect for Japanese audiences.” A Japanese film critic speculated that the decision to cut the scene arose from both the distributors’ pusillanimity and the threat of ultranationalist violence. “I believe the film’s distributors were afraid these right-wing groups might cause trouble outside the theatres,” the critic told reporters. “Some of these people still believe that Japan’s actions in China and during the war were part of some sacred crusade.”

This example of politicized history and lack of accountability reminded me of our own reckoning with slavery in America. Some argue that we have already “done our time”, but have we really? There are currently politicians trying to remove “negative” accounts of America’s founding, removing discussions of race from the classroom. We look more like Japan than we do Germany, in this regard.

Another theme throughout the book that provides a nice counter is, this isn’t unique to the Japanese. This doesn’t try to pin the Japanese down as uniquely barbaric. After all, Germany was responsible for the Holocaust. Chang states: No race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin– one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war.

In her discussion of the violence done in Nanking, the question of why and how comes up. How could Japanese soldiers sink to this level of barbarism? Chang takes issue with explanations that point out Japan isn’t a Christian nation:

Other experts blame the non-Christian nature of Japanese religion, claiming that while Christianity puts forth the idea that all humans are brothers, Shintoism in Japan purports that only the emperor and his descendants were created in God’s image… There is an inherent danger in this assumption, for it has two implications: one, that the Japanese, by virtue of their religion, are naturally less humane than Western cultures and must be judged by different standards (an implication I find both irresponsible and condescending), and two, that Judeo-Christian cultures are somehow less capable of perpetrating atrocities like the Rape of Nanking. Certainly Nazis in Germany, a devoutly Christian country, found a ways in the 1930s and 1940s to dehumanize the German psyche and even demonize peoples they had declared to be enemies of the Germans.

I couldn’t agree more, as this come off as condescending and racist. Some of Chang’s most insightful attempts at explaining why come from her interviews with soldiers who committed these acts:

Some Japanese soldiers admitted it was easy for them to kill because they had been taught that next to the emperor, all individual life– even their own– was valueless… “If my life was not important, an enemy’s life became inevitably much less important… This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of the captives.”

Chang’s book engages with difficult history. For me, it isn’t and shouldn’t be an attempt at pointing fingers and trying to find someone to blame. It should give us a moment to reflect on our own historic wrongs that are yet unhealed.

* The record isn’t settled on exact numbers, and historians debate over the number. They have to draw on censuses before and after the war, body counts, government records, and personal accounts to piece together how many died.

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