The Afterlives of the Nanjing Massacre

December 13, 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Not much noise about it so far, not even appreciable uptick in Baidu search, but that should change now that the Party Congress is over. At least there will be buzz surrounding the re-opening of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum which has been closed the last four months for “renovations”.

I reckon by now pretty much everyone is familiar with the facts. Over the course of six weeks the Central China Area Branch Army of the Imperial Japanese Army sacked Nanjing, killing 40,000-300,000 Chinese civilians and perpetrating 20,000-80,000 rapes, depending on whom you talk to. Babies were bayoneted. Old people were slaughtered. It was a bad time, a grim time, a low point in a century not short of low points.

For shocking survivor stories check out this website. If that’s not enough, then watch Lu Chuan’s 2009 film Nanjing: City of Life and Death (it’s on Youtube). It’s fictionalised, but punches you in the gut. There’s a scene where, score by score, Chinese men, hands bound, are herded into a corral and machine gunned into oblivion. In another scene a little girl is tossed out of the window while her father watches. In another a woman is raped until she becomes a raving lunatic. It’s horrible, horrible stuff.

Despite all this, the Nanjing Massacre remains controversial. It’s not so much the facts that are in question – mainstream Japanese historians don’t dispute them – it’s their representation, or lack of, that causes the problems.

The Beginning

The subtitle of Iris Chang’s 1997 Nanjing Massacre book is “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War 2” and in America in 1997 when the book was published the Massacre had been largely forgotten. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact what happened in Nanjing was well documented by the two dozen or so foreigners who stayed behind. German John Rabe, “China’s Schindler”, kept an extensive diary as did American Minnie Vautrin at the Ginling Women’s College. American missionary John Magee filmed 100+ minutes of footage which were smuggled out and shown all over the world including the halls of Congress.

Global media ate up the story. Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News, F. Tillman Durdin of the New York Times, Arthur Menken of the Paramount Newsreel, and Leslie Smith of Reuters were in Nanjing when it fell and almost immediately media outlets big and small were running stories about what was happening there.

Steele was the first to report the atrocities in a report on December 15:

“Patrols of Japanese soldiers moved through the streets, searched houses and arrested droves of people as suspected plainclothes soldiers. Few of them ever came back but those who did said their companions had been slaughtered without even a summary trial. I witnessed one of these execution parties and I have seen the grim results of others. What is more difficult, I have had to listen to the wailing and sobbing of women pleading for the return of sons and husbands they will never see again.”

Throughout the rest of December, Nanjing was a major story powered by in-your-face headlines like “Invaders Despoil Cringing Nanjing”, “Japanese Terror in China”, and “Horrors of War in Nanking.” You can read plenty more of those early accounts here.

But history doesn’t take place in a vacuum and with the Nanjing Massacre external events so often had a way of barging in, borrowing the spotlight, or stealing it completely, each time significantly changing our perception of it. This began as early as December 12, 1937 with the sinking of the USS Panay.

The USS Panay

The Panay was a US Navy gunboat in the Yangtze River service and was one of the last ships evacuating people – foreigners – out of Nanjing ahead of the Japanese army. On December 12 it was attacked by Japanese fighters and bombers and sunk. Three people died, including an Italian reporter, and nearly 50 were injured, despite the fact the ship was clearly marked with American flags.

The sinking of the Panay caused outrage in America which saw the attack as intentional. The Japanese maintained it was an accident but took responsibility anyway, issuing a formal apology and paying a 2 million dollar indemnity. Here’s a fascinating newsreel with actual footage of the sinking.  It’s worth watching for the window on the times, but what’s also interesting is listening to how the Nanjing Massacre and the U.S. conflict with Japan were conflated from the very beginning.

The Tokyo Trials

The Nanjing Massacre heaves back into view at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (i.e. The Tokyo Trials) which took place from April 1946 to December 1948. Like Nuremberg, The Tokyo Trials were intended to administer justice through a final act of legal reckoning. Unlike Nuremberg, however, the Tokyo version ended up having some significant problems.

First, Emperor Hirohito was excluded from prosecution. Not only him, but also his family member, Prince Asaka, who had been acting commander of the Central China Area Army when it took Nanjing. The story is that General Douglas MacArthur let off Hirohito to ensure that U.S. plans in Japan could be carried out more easily. Hirohito was going to be MacArthur’s guy.

But why let off Asaka? Putting him on trial would have sent the message that the Imperial family was not above the law, even if the Emperor had to be protected for strategic reasons. One theory is that the Americans were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get a conviction. Regardless, it was like letting Hitler and Himmeler plea bargain their way out of the Holocaust and it had significant repercussions down the line.

Without Hirohito and Asaka, the two top ranking defendants on trial were Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui. Tojo was the more famous of the two, but at the time of the Massacre he was in Manchuria leading the Kwantung Army. Matsui was the commanding officer of the Central China Area Army when it took Shanghai and Nanjing, except for a couple weeks of medical leave when Prince Asaka was in charge. If justice to the victims of Nanjing was to be done, it would be through Matsui.

But once again history got in the way. Although the Nanjing Massacre was specifically included in the Trial as Count 45 (there were 55 Counts in total), ultimately the judges didn’t rule on it. Instead the prosecution applied Nanjing Massacre evidence to Counts 54 and 55, which fell under Class C – conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This was part of the prosecution’s strategy to demonstrate systematic conspiracy among Japanese officials to commit war crimes throughout the entire course of the war. This meant that Chinese civilians and U.S. POWs would be considered the same in the eyes of the law. In this way, it was believed, conviction of Matsui would set the stage for conviction of Tojo.

The trial did not go particularly well. First, it dragged on for two and a half years. Defense proceedings alone took two-thirds of a year. Nuremberg by contrast lasted less than a year. In December 1948 the sentences were finally handed down. Of the 38 counts he was charged with, Matsui was found not guilty of 37. He was ultimately convicted of only one charge – failure to prevent atrocities. Basically Matsui was found guilty of not doing enough to stop the madness.

Pretty weak, huh?

If you think so too, you’re not alone. The jurors themselves had serious misgivings about the proceedings. Though the jury was not bound to unanimous decision, and, in the end, all defendants were found guilty of one thing or another, nonetheless alongside the majority decision, four dissenting opinions were published, including that of one juror – Radhabinod Pal – who found all defendants not guilty of all charges. It was a bombshell moment.

The Pal Opinion

It wasn’t that Pal believed that no atrocities had been committed by the Japanese – he explicitly stated he believed they had occurred. Rather, he questioned the Tribunal’s entire legal basis. What was being satisfied at the Trials, he wrote, was not jurisprudence, but the thirst for revenge. He called the trials a “sham”. His reasons included:

  1. The jury had no representatives from the defeated nations
  2. The designation “crime against humanity” had been applied ex post facto (“crimes against humanity” was a new kind of crime that had been specifically created as a response to the Holocaust)
  3. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan should also have been considered a war crime
  4. The history of western colonialism in Asia had been ignored

Pal, a devoted Indian nationalist, basically turned the Tokyo Trials into a forum for denouncing western colonialism. Once again, history barged in.

Pal’s extraordinary opinion did not go unnoticed in Japan. After the U.S. occupation ended in 1952, the Pal opinion became one of the most important pillars for Japan’s Nanjing Massacre revisionist community (the other of course was the Emperor). Pal was considered a hero by many in Japan. In 1966 the Emperor conferred on him First Class of the Order of the Sacred Treasure. After Pal’s death, a monument was erected to him on the grounds of the infamous Yasukuni Shrine.

China Under Mao

You would expect that this brazen act would have been met with outrage from China. Not so. In fact, in Mainland China there was a bizarre silence surrounding the Nanjing Massacre from Liberation until the 1980s.

It wasn’t for lack of interest. Recently it has come to light that back in the 1960s prominent Nanjing-based historians did carry out Nanjing Massacre research, but were prevented from publishing. In a later essay, Mai Xiao-ao, son of Mei Ju-ao who was China’s representative on the Tokyo Trials jury, revealed that the work was suppressed for political reasons because it “stirred up national hatred” and even, in a bizarre twist of logic, amounted to “hidden praise of the strength of the Japanese army.”

Declassified archives from the 1960s also show that during rehearsals for visits by Japanese to Nanjing, there was considerable local anger. Comments such as “My mother’s arm was blown off by the Japanese in Nanjing, why should I welcome them here!” and “the devils burnt our village to the ground, how dare you welcome them to Nanjing now!” showed a high level of popular opposition to the CCP ignoring the massacre.

It would be hard to understate the impact the Communist takeover of China had on the Nanjing Massacre in history. It effectively muzzled debate about it in both China and the U.S. for decades, but for entirely different reasons. Further complicating things, in the intervening years both the U.S. and China had committed atrocities of their own which severely undercut any claims to moral superiority – the Chinese with the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the Americans with an unprovoked war of aggression in Vietnam.

In the absence of global moral compass, Japanese revisionists successfully pushed their agenda. By 1982 they had made enough headway to where the government had begun to revise history textbooks – the so-called whitewashing of Japanese imperial history. China in the Deng Xiaoping era would not remain mute though. The textbook controversy kicked off a wave of new writing in China about the Nanjing Massacre with a decidedly patriotic bent. In 1985 the Nanjing Massacre Memorial opened in Nanjing.

The Rape of Nanking

It would be another decade though before a young Chinese-American journalist – Iris Chang – would return Nanjing to public consciousness in America, this time as a Rape, not the Massacre (datusha) it had always been known as before. The book became a best seller, heralded for its unstinting portrayal of human suffering. It was also subjected to criticism from professional historians for numerous factual inaccuracies.

Chang had a very personal motivation to write the book. Her grandparents escaped Nanjing ahead of the Japanese army and the seed for the book was the stories they had told her. Chang was afraid that the passing of that generation would leave the Massacre in perpetual memory eclipse.

The Rape of Nanking was one of three books Chang wrote. Few people have read – or even heard of – the other two. Both of them are heavily steeped in late 20th century Chinese-American identity politics and reveal a not-too-subtle sense of persecution. In 2004, Chang shot herself, leaving behind a husband, a child and a suicide note with this ominous line, “I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know.”

Nanjing Today

Since the publication of Chang’s book, the study of the Nanjing Massacre has been quietly professionalized, even while political positions on both sides remain officially entrenched. Nowadays, when asked about the Nanjing Massacre, most Chinese people will reflect a bit then say something like this: “China was weak back then”. They will say a lot to other things, too, but basically for them it comes down to power – who’s got it and who doesn’t. It’s not about justice nor remembrance, it’s about being strong enough so that nothing like that could ever happen again.

For my part, I spent a couple months reading and watching and researching the Nanjing Massacre. I even went to Nanjing over the National Day holiday and stood on the corner of Hankou Lu and Ninghai Lu where the Ginling Women’s College used to be. It didn’t get me any closer to understanding it.

But then I came across that newsreel about the Panay sinking. In it is a scene I will never forget, a tiny fragment barely 20 seconds long. It starts at the 1:45 mark. It shows a street in Nanjing. In the foreground is a dead body. By its side sits a Chinese woman, her legs stretched out. Her hair is a mess. One of her arms is wrapped around an infant. Her other hand holds the hand of the corpse. She holds it delicately, like you would imagine she held it on their wedding day. Behind her people walk by, some pausing briefly to stare.

Out of the crowd emerges a child, presumably her son. He’s maybe 8 or 9 years old. He grabs her by the arm and tries to pull her up, pulling with all his strength. The woman rocks backwards, but then falls forward again, unwilling to leave the body of her husband. Her son lets go, turns away and let’s out a terrible wail. You can’t hear it, of course, but you see it. If you have a child, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Meanwhile the arch-dramatic voiceover: “Horrors pile upon horrors…” It’s the most awful thing I’ve ever seen.

The woman who lost a husband. The child desperately trying to pull his mother out of the madness of grief. The infant bundled against the December cold. The lifeless body on the ground people have to walk around. A family devastated.

It makes me realise how much the Nanjing Massacre has shrunk. It is now no larger than a speck of dust.

Post Script

A final thought: if Japanese and Chinese historians are largely in agreement about the facts of the Nanjing Massacre, then one big question remains – why did the Nanjing Massacre take place? The speculation has congealed around a few main theories.

1. The nature of the Japanese army

2. The Japanese army took out its frustrations on the people in Nanjing

3. The Japanese thought they could get the KMT to capitulate by sacking the capital

4. The chaotic KMT army retreat left the city vulnerable

5. The rank and file were just following orders

6. The rank and file weren’t following orders

I would like to add a seventh possibility – they thought they would be able to get away with it. I’m not sure they were wrong.

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