electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 8 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs on 15 November 2008

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Picking at the Wound

Nanjing, 1937-38


James Leibold

Lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies
La Trobe University

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About the Author

Li, Fei Fei, Robert Sabella and David Liu (eds) (2002) Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, ISBN 0-7656-0817-8, paperback, 264 pages plus index.

Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi (ed) (2007) The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture. New York: Berghahn Books, ISBN 1-84545-259-3, hardcover, 419 pages plus index.

During my first visit to Nanjing in 1989, I spent a bleak, wintry afternoon at the recently opened Victims of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum. It was a disturbing visit. As I cycled back to my dorm, I was overcome with emotion and a feeling of unease. I was deeply disturbed by the heinous savagery so graphically depicted in the museum's photos and other dioramas, yet also uncomfortable with what seemed to be missing from this lavishly reconstructed simulacrum of horror. The tragedy of the event was obvious, but was this evidence of a 'rape,' 'massacre,' or some postmodern 'illusion'? Or more to the point can I even trust my own memory of that cold day some twenty years ago?

The complex memory, emotion and legacy of Nanjing confronted me once again while studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in 1996–97. With the fiftieth anniversary of the 13 December 1937 fall of Nanjing little more than a year away, the entire city and nation were gearing up for a collective display of shame and remembrance. At noon on the 13th of December 1996, the city's emergency sirens wailed as the entire city came to a standstill—cars pulled over to the side of the road and passersby lowered their heads for five minutes of silence. At the Center, my Chinese classmates gathered in the cafeteria to mark the anniversary with quiet contemplation and then a strident rendition of their national anthem. 'International students,' such as I, were invited to observe the gathering while one Japanese classmate was warned to stay away. Among this new generation of Chinese students, the passage of time had caused this symbolic wound to fester, transforming it into one of the most important issues in Sino-Japanese relations today.

Yet, outside Asia, few know anything about the complex events that surrounded the capture of the Nationalist capital of Nanjing and the subsequent looting, mass killings and wanton raping of Nanjing residents by the Japanese Imperial army soldiers. The sheer difficulty of navigating a path through the miasma of claims and counter-claims became painfully evident when I began to teach about the event at La Trobe University, Australia. Last semester, I asked my first-year students to review three online articles related to Nanjing. I purposefully chose three radically different perspectives—what one might classify as 'Nanjing as Rape,' 'Nanjing as Illusion,' and 'Nanjing as Historical Event'—hoping it would sharpen some of the critical skills students need to evaluate online sources. Most students skillfully picked apart the three sources but, in the end, remained both confused and frustrated by the subject matter. 'Come on, you're the teacher, you must know,' one exasperated student asked me in a tutorial. 'What really happened in Nanjing?'

Although I found it difficult to answer this student—for if there is one thing I know for certain about the events of Nanjing, it is that there are no simple or clear-cut answers—the two books under review provide the most authoritative explorations to date into the facts, myths, and repercussions of this human tragedy. Although guided by different agendas and perspectives, these two edited volumes have been skillfully compiled and nicely complement one another. If only I had read them last semester, I would have had no hesitation in referring this uncertain student in the direction of these two landmark publications.

Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing grew out of a November 1997 Princeton University conference which was convened by a group of largely Chinese-American students from a non-Humanities background. It represented the attempt of this second and third generation diaspora and the wider American community to come to terms with what the late Iris Chang termed 'The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.' In their brief introduction, the editors speak of a 'Massacre' and 'Rape' of unprecedented proportion and fault the Japanese for their reluctance to face this ugly page in their history; yet they set out admirably, albeit a bit naively, to compile a balanced volume, one which brings together a 'multiplicity of perspectives' in order to 'consider all aspects of the debate.'

At the core of the volume, one finds the sharply contrasting views of Sun Zhaiwei and Higashinakano Shudo. Sun Zhaiwei, the Vice-Chairman of the Research Institute on the Nanjing Massacre and one of the leading scholars of Nanjing in mainland China, explores the 'barbaric nature of Japanese militarism,' as partially demonstrated by a contest between two Japanese lieutenants to see who could sever 100 Chinese heads before reaching Nanjing, before concluding that a final death toll of 'more than 300,000' is 'scientific and in line with the actual situation at that time' (page 39). In sharp contrast, Higashinakano Shudo, professor of intellectual history at Asia University in Tokyo and one of the leading 'deniers' in Japan, argues that there is little or no evidence to confirm mass butchering of innocent civilians at Nanjing. As evidence, he offers a tautological and callous discussion of corpse burials. 'How many corpses were buried each day?' he asks, before beginning: 'If we assume that, in February, 200 bodies were buried each day and that the number of working days in this month was 25 days (excluding rainy days), then the data indicates the burial of at most 5,000 bodies in Februaryc.' (page 99). Luckily for the reader the volume also contains a number of more reflective (albeit less empirical) essays by leading American, Chinese and Japanese scholars including Ian Buruma, Haruko Taya Cook, Vera Schwarcz, Onuma Yasuaki, and Yang Daqing.

As the volume's subtitle suggests, the focus of these articles is on the problems associated with historical memory and the process of healing. According to Richard Falk, the 'acceleration of history' through the rapid pace of technology-enhanced modernity and globalization has increased both the ambiguities and saliency of historical memory. Yet, it is the politicization of memory that has 'encrusted' these historical events in layers of mythology, propaganda and polemics according to acclaimed journalist Ian Buruma. He calls for us to strip away these layers of mythology and 'seek truth from facts,' albeit in a more critical fashion than that suggested by this Chinese Communist Party axiom. Herein lies the crux of the problem, and perhaps the answer to why Nanjing is as perplexing as it is intriguing, and as horrifying as it is titillating: the emotional attachments surrounding these thickly coated narratives of the past have come to shape the contours, substance and protective armor of the national identities of Chinese and Japanese people today; and here the quest for truth can be deeply troubling and destabilizing—a stone for many that is best left unturned or a wound that cannot and should not be bandaged.

Emotions like memories are central to the performative process that marks our humanity. As such, they rely on their malleability (select remembering and forgetting; cyclical patterns of love and hatred) to help us interpret our rapidly changing world. As is the case with Nanjing 1937–38, most of the participants and documents have faded from the historical record, yet the recent mushrooming of academic and popular representations has renewed and intensified its meaning among a new generation of Chinese and Japanese youth. In seeking to heal the wounds of the past, Vera Schwarcz warns that history is no 'nursing mother'; rather it contains as much 'black milk' and 'dark corners' as it does nourishment and lights of truth. Without dismissing the power of historical memory to forge and maintain the boundaries of social identity, Schwarcz suggests an alternative course of healing, one that explores 'the strategies used to evade, allegorize, and romanticize genocide' (page 196); but it would seem that few outside the academy are interested in pursuing such an agenda. Rather, as many of the essays in this volume clearly illustrate, ghoulish hyperbole and political point-scoring have become de rigueur in the Nanjing debate—leaving facts uncovered and perceived wounds to fester as the deep psychological self/other process which is central to identity construction and maintenance continues.

What seems to be needed is the type of detective work revealed in Haruko Taya Cook's essay. In perhaps the most innovative and provocative essay in the volume, Cook recovers the remarkable details of the wartime novel, Living Soldier (Ikiteiru heitai). In this fictionalized, eyewitness account of Japanese soldiers on the frontlines of the Nanjing theater, the young novelist Ishikawa Tatsuzo depicts the grim and dehumanizing effects of war; how they 'cease to be men and seem to turn into animals' (page 130). Cook traces how Ishikawa and his publisher tried to evade government censors in order to reveal the complexities and horrors of war. Ishikawa's publisher chose to self-censor lines about soldiers 'forag[ing] for fresh meat' and 'search[ing] for women like dogs chasing a rabbit,' but managed to preserve its overall tone and implication when the novel briefly reached the Japanese public in 1938. But within days it was pulled from circulation and its author imprisoned for four months for disturbing 'peace and order.'

This type of recovery work lies at the heart of Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi's 2007 edited volume The Nanking Atrocity 1937–38: Complicating the Picture. Providing what he terms a 'largely non-American perspective on the Nanking Atrocity' (page ix), Wakabayashi has collected together sixteen richly empirical essays which seek to de-mythologize and recover the historical facts of what occurred in and around Nanjing in late 1937 and early 1938. Only two of the contributors, Timothy Brook and Joshua Fogel are US nationals, while other contributors include leading Japanese scholars Fujiwara Akira, Kasahara Tokushi, Kimura Takuji, Ono Kenji, Masahiro Yamamoto, Takashi Yoshida and Japan-based Australian scholar David Askew (Japanese name order as listed). Seeking to move beyond both the political rhetoric and didactic introspection central to the Nanjing 1937 volume, Wakabayashi called on his authors to offer cutting-edge, revisionist perspectives based on new empirical research. As such, most of the essays rise to this challenge and successfully undermine many of the assumptions and basic facts employed by both the Chinese nationalists and the Japanese deniers. In his introduction, Wakabayashi warns that this type of revisionist historiography does not 'deny, excuse, or justify Japan's naked aggression,' but rather seeks to 'give readers a more reliable, less emotionally distorted basis for reaching their own conclusions and moral judgments about what this tragic event was, and what it was not' (page 23–24).

This of course does not mean that the volume's authors and Wakabayashi himself are completely objective and opinion free. In his provocative and wide-ranging concluding essay, Wakabayashi tries to stake out an empirical middle ground in-between 'the twin evils of knee-jerk dismissal and gullible acceptance' regarding the scope and consequences of Nanjing. Both he and his fellow authors are sharply critical of those who argue that the incident was an 'illusion' (maboroshi) fabricated by international forces opposed to Japan; yet Wakabayashi's real target is those who insist that Nanjing represented the calculated and premeditated 'butchery or slaughter' (datusha) of innocent civilians on a par with the extermination of nearly six million Jews during the Holocaust. Suggesting the dangers of an imprecise definition of the highly emotive term 'massacre,' Wakabayashi rejects Donald Ritchie's claim that 'four or forty is as atrocious as 140,000' or Vera Schwarcz's assertion that the numbers game 'numbs us into helpless wonder,' and argues instead that the number and manner in which people were killed is absolutely central to both the meaning and facts of what happen in and around Nanjing in 1937–38.

In the most careful and thoroughly empirical analysis of the death count to date, Wakabayashi concludes that 'the admittedly vague range of "over 40,000 to under 200,000" has scholarly validity in the sense of being empirically supportable' (page 362) but the most reliable sources (official battle reports and private field diaries) suggest 'that Japanese troops illegally and unjustifiably massacred at least 29,249 Chinese—and I would say 46,215—just before and after Naking fell' (page 384). For the author, the hyperbolic inflations of deaths contained in the work of Iris Chang and PRC scholars does more harm than benefit. It not only provides fodder for counter-arguments and an exaggerated sense of Nanjing's centrality but also detracts from the wider effects of Japanese brutality throughout the Pacific War.

Labels and tags such as 'massacre,' 'rape,' 'atrocity,' 'illusion' and even 'incident' tend to illuminate as much as they obscure. They reflect our struggle to make sense of the event and its meaning, to both categorize and moralize. Yet several of the authors in both volumes rightfully warn against the temptation to compare the events of Nanjing with the Holocaust. Comparisons to the Holocaust, or other mass killings in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, demonstrate how racism and war can bring out the worst in mankind. But superficial comparisons also tend to fatten out the complexities of the individual historical contexts in which each of these pogroms occurred and further obstruct their real significance.

Iris Chang's often repeated assertion that, properly calculated, the death toll at Nanjing surpasses those of the Holocaust or Wu Tien-wei's claim that Nanjing makes 'the Auschwitz gas chambers appear humane' are not only ludicrous but also do a disservice to the memories of those who perished in both tragedies. Hyperbole aside, can the actions of the Japanese at Nanjing be termed 'genocide' or 'the destruction of a nation or ethnic group' as originally defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1933? 'No' is the definitive answer of the widely respected scholar Joshua Fogel. It is easy for one to convincingly argue that the Nazi state set about to systematically eradicate the Jewish people and even invented new technologies of mass killing to accomplish their goal; yet the ruthless and wanton actions of Japanese soldiers at Nanjing were hardly premeditated nor officially sanctioned by military or government officials in Tokyo. Rather they reflected a deep-seated racism (and here I disagree with Fogel), the break down of military discipline and battlefield chaos instead of some state-sanctioned 'master plan' to annihilate the Chinese race.

The real strength and contribution of the Wakabayashi volume lies in its empirical richness. Such as the meticulous combing through military documents, soldier diaries and interview transcripts which allows Ono Kenji to piece together the details behind the systematic killing of 14,000 to 20,000 Chinese POWs at Mufushan following the collapse of Nanjing city; David Askew's foray into competing statistical accounts of the population of Nanjing both prior to and after the Japanese attack in order to estimate that 'up to 5000' civilians lost their lives; Bob Wakabayashi's debunking of the 100-man killing contest which has become central to the mythology of Nanjing in China; Timothy Brook's use of English, Chinese and Japanese language sources to reconstruct the immediate post-occupation governance of Nanjing city; and the colorful letters of young Japanese reservist Amano Saburō and his mundane yet real concern for a 'comfort bag' from home and the replacement of his stolen sword sash.

Both volumes explore the rich intersections between memory and identity, and in particular the central role adversity, disaster or humiliation plays in shaping narratives of collective identity. For many in both China and Japan, the events of Nanjing have come to encapsulate a larger narrative of collective victimhood. Chinese nationalists see themselves as victims of first the brutal Japanese military and then a callous or indifferent West (including post-war Japan) which has long ignored, downplayed or covered-up this 'Asian Holocaust.' For conservatives in Japan, Nanjing and its manipulation threatens to distract from their own victimization: first, as the victims of the world's only nuclear bombings and the arbitrary and disproportionate 'victor's justice' of the occupation period, and then today as victims of those who attempt to use the spectre of the past to oppose any 'normal' role for Japan in international diplomacy or policymaking.

Ironically, both these narratives of victimhood have their roots in the rising economic power of these two Asian giants. The double-digit economic growth of the 1960s in Japan produced the first revisionist historiography on Nanjing while it was only after Deng Xiaoping unleashed his economic reforms during the early 1980s that Chinese nationalists rediscovered Nanjing. In both instances, narratives of national victimhood become intertwined with resurgent visions of patriotic national pride and dignity, with each narrative feeding off the other. While crucial to group identity formation, these narratives leave little room to manoeuvre. Everything is black or white and everyone is a bad guy or a good guy; shades of grey and independent human agency fade from this polarized frame, leaving little room for those who collaborated or dissented, like the complex characters of Jimmy Wang and Radhabinod Pal discussed by Timothy Brook.

There is however an important difference between the ways Nanjing is discussed in China and Japan today. In China, the tightly controlled media and strictly controlled education system permits little deviation from the 'party line,' as signified by the inscription of '300,000 victims' etched in stone on the front wall of the Nanjing Massacre Museum. In Japan, by contrast, there exists a rich cacophony of viewpoints, with those who deny or downplay the death and destruction of Nanjing in the distinct minority (although perhaps gaining in strength). Is this perhaps one of the reasons why the Wakabayashi volume does not include a single chapter authored by a Chinese or even Chinese-American author?

In his final essay in the Nanking 1937 volume, Nanjing University educated academic Yang Daqing calls for a common historical understanding among the Japanese and Chinese people. Professor Yang, who now teaches at the highly respected Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in the US, proposes a new 'interpretive framework' which would include the historical, political and humanistic elements of Nanjing. But he goes on to suggest that the 'greatest obstacle' to this convergence lies with the Japanese and their reticence to 'settle the past' and accept collective responsibility for their past war crimes against the Chinese nation and people. Bob Wakabayashi, on the other hand, is less sanguine, in spite of his stated friendship and respect for his Chinese colleague Yang Daqing. For him 'the two peoples' historical experience, basic values, and sociopolitical systems lie too far apart' for any agreement on the meaning and events of Nanjing (page 7). Yet just as Yang sees conservative Japanese scholars as the key impediment, Wakabayashi waves a finger at those Chinese scholars who distort historical facts in the name of patriotism.

Thus the debate is sure to continue; both sides have too much invested in the meaning and identity of these now distant events. The divergent tone and focus of these two pioneering volumes illustrate how the gap between Japanese and Chinese positions remains formidable and likely insurmountable. But any scholar or student serious about exploring the significance of Nanjing 1937–38 should have these books at the top of their reading list.

Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing

Perry Link, 'Foreword'
Li, Fei Fei, Robert Sabella and David Liu. Introduction

Part One: Nanking in a Global Context
1. Ian Buruma, 'The Nanking Massacre as a Historical Symbol'
2. Richard Falk, 'Redressing Grievances: Assessing the Nanking Massacre'

Part Two: Revisiting Nanking: Views From China And Japan
3. Sun Zhaiwei, 'Causes of the Nanking Massacre'
4. Lee En-Han, 'The Nanking Massacre Reassessed: A Study of the Sino-Japanese' Controversy over the Factual Number of Massacred Victims'
5. Kasahara Tokushi, 'Remembering the Nanking Massacre'
6. Higashinakano Shudo, 'The Overall Picture of the "Nanking Massacre'

Part Three: Remembering Nanking
7. Haruko Taya Cook. 'Reporting the "Fall of Nanking" and the Suppression of a Japanese Literary "Memory" of the Nature of a War'.
8. Takashi Yoshida, 'Refighting the Nanking Massacre: The Continuing Struggle over Memory'

Part Four: Healing the Wounds
9. Vera Schwarcz, 'The "Black Milk" of Human Consciousness: Thinking About the Nanking Massacre in Light of Jewish Memory'
10. Onuma Yasuaki, 'The Tokyo War Crimes Trial, War Responsibility, and Postwar Responsibility'
11. Daqing Yang, 'Toward a Common Historical Understanding: The Nanking Massacre as a Challenge of Transnational History'

The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture


1. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 'The Messiness of Historical Reality'
2. Fujiwara Akira, 'The Nanking Atrocity: An Interpretive Overview'

Section One: War Crimes and Doubts

3. Kasahara Tokushi, 'Massacres outside Naking City'
4. Ono Kenji, 'Massacres near Mufushan'
5. David Askew, 'Part of the Numbers Issue: Demography and Civilian Victims'
6. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 'The Nanking 100-Man Killing Contest Debate, 1971–75'
7. Timothy Brook, 'Radhabinod Pal on the Rape of Nanking: The Tokyo Judgment and the Guilt of History'

Section Two: Aggressors and Collaborators

8. Amano Saburō, 'Letters from a Reserve Officer Conscripted to Nanking'
9. Timothy Brook, 'Chinese Collaboration in Nanking'
10. David Askew, 'Westerns in Occupied Nanking: December 1937 to February 1938'
11. Takashi Yoshida, 'Wartime Accounts of the Nanking Atrocity'

Section Three: Another Denied Holocaust?

12. Joshua A. Fogel, 'The Nanking Atrocity and Chinese Historical Memory'
13. Masahiro Yamamoto, 'A Tale of Two Atrocities: Critical Appraisal of American Historiography'
14. Kasahara Tokushi, 'Higashinakano Osamichi: The Last World in Denial'
15. Kimura Takuji, 'Nanking: Denial and Atonement in Contemporary Japan.'


16. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 'Leftover Problems'

About the Author

James Leibold is a Lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University, Australia, where he teaches on Chinese and Japanese history, society and politics. Dr Leibold's research interests include the role of ethnicity, race and national identity in modern Chinese history and society. His recent book, Reconfiguring Chinese Nationalism (Palgrave Macmillan 2007), explores the role of the frontier and its indigenes in fashioning the contours, boundaries, and meanings of modern Chinese identity. His new research projects include a critical analysis of the category of 'Han' identity in China as well as a history of archaeology as an academic discipline in China and its intersections with modern notions of time, space and identity.

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Copyright: James Leibold
This page was first created on  15 November 2008. It was last modified on 19 November 2008.

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