SPEAKING FREELY Japan and China rattle ghosts of Nanking
By Senan Fox
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Next Thursday marks yet anniversary of the infamous Nanking Massacre, a six-week orgy of murder, rape, and pillage by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in the city of Nanking, the walled capital of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist regime in China.
Unlike the commemoration of the Second World War in Europe, where once sworn enemies now live in peace and where the
conflict is very much relegated to the past, the so-called "Rape of Nanking" remains an open wound in the Japan-China relationship, frequently picked at and exploited by political elites in both countries.
As such, the atrocity still casts a dark shadow over attempts by Tokyo and Beijing to move on from the past, and to at last give succor to the sleepless spirits of the war dead. At the heart of controversies surrounding the Nanking Massacre is its denial or downplaying by some high-profile Japanese nationalists and politicians.
Two notable examples include the former Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and the current Mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, who have gone as far as stating, in 1990 and in 2012 respectively, that the massacre never took place.
In 2007, the year of the 70th anniversary of the atrocity, 100 elected Japanese politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) collectively denounced the "massacre" as a "fabrication" created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Contrary to irrefutable historical evidence and eyewitness testimonies, many Japanese nationalists and politicians persist in viewing the events in Nanking in late 1937 and early 1938 as merely "incidents" that have been greatly exaggerated and politicized by Beijing for propaganda purposes.
It is true that Chinese political elites have indeed exploited the history card and nationalism to bolster their patriotic credentials and to present the CCP as the true defender of China's dignity. This has been particularly evident since the 1980s, when the post-1978 era of reform and opening up in China witnessed rapid social upheaval, the development of a more educated and informed middle class, and a concurrent erosion of faith in communism as a unifying force.
In its place, communist elites increasingly appropriated the pursuit of economic prosperity and the preservation of national dignity as themes with which to unite the people behind the party. The end of the Cold War and the murderous repression witnessed in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 served as a stark reminder to the CCP that communism was a spent force.
Seeking to fill the ideological void, and to "remind" the Chinese people that the communists had liberated their country from Japanese occupation, General Secretary Jiang Zemin (from 1989 to 2002) and the CCP unashamedly launched historical education and public awareness campaigns in the early and mid-1990s that fed popular nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment.
Both the pursuit of economic prosperity and the preservation of national dignity pique the interests of all Chinese citizens and have gained significant political currency as issues on which the party's success or failure into the future will depend.
Party cadres hold close to their hearts the well-known ancient Chinese warning by Chancellor Wei Zheng to the Emperor Taizong - "the waters that float the boat can also tip it over". In this context, the CCP can suffer or gain depending on how it manages emotive historical and increasingly politicized issues such as the Rape of Nanking.
These political realities in China however cannot in anyway diminish the undeniable horror of the Nanking Massacre. The chronicle of inhumanity is apparent in the collective findings of numerous tribunals, and countless Chinese, Japanese, and third party witnesses to the atrocity.
The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, lasting from 1946 to 1948, and consisting of representatives from 12 nations, concluded that over 200,000 people died as a result of the massacre. The Nanking War Crimes Tribunal of 1946, held in the years of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist regime cited a figure of 300,000 deaths at the hands of the Japanese.
This number is widely accepted in China today as the final death toll, and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, built in 1985 by the communist government, has this figure emblazoned in large writing on the wall of the museum. Nationalistic historians and politicians in Japan however claim that the actual figure was a mere fraction of the numbers claimed by the Chinese and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
Decades after the atrocity, an exact figure for the numbers killed is nigh on impossible to prove or disprove. Nevertheless, attempts by some Japanese right-wingers to dismiss the numbers cited by the Chinese should not be allowed to distract people from the bestiality of the horrific acts that were carried out.
An estimated 20,000 female residents of the city, ranging from old women to young girls, were raped. Noticeably pregnant women were also not spared the ravages of the Japanese troops. Many of these crimes involved the gang rape and sexually mutilation of victims, and then murder to guarantee their silence.
According to a number of books written on the topic, the depravity extended to cases of forced incest aimed at humiliating an enemy population whom the Japanese Imperial Army viewed as sub-human. At the point of a gun and a bayonet, fathers and sons were forced to strip mothers and daughters and to mimic the crime of rape.
Others were coerced into mimicking sex with recently raped or murdered females while, in at least one case, a Buddhist monk who had pledged himself to a life of celibacy was similarly humiliated but upon refusing later castrated by Japanese soldiers.
Alongside the findings of tribunals and researchers, it is the documented accounts of the massacre provided by Chinese and international witnesses, as well as by Japanese war veterans, who confessed to what they seen with their own eyes, that provide perhaps the most graphic and indelible account of how the citizens of Nanking suffered in the weeks after December 13, 1937.
As the Japanese army advanced in late November 1937, a small number of foreign residents who remained in the city (from the USA, Germany, Denmark, and the UK), rallied together to form the 'International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.' Their hope was that the Japanese army might recognize the zone as a special area and thus help to protect the people of Nanking from harm.
The businessman, John Rabe, was chosen as a suitable leader due in part to his German nationality and to the belief that this might carry more clout in negotiations with the Japanese military (Germany was Japan's ideological ally under the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936).
Other key figures in the committee included US missionaries and academics such as John Magee (who captured film evidence of the massacre's aftermath), Miner Searle Bates, Wilhelmina 'Minnie' Vautrin, and Robert O Wilson, an American doctor and surgeon who witnessed first hand the violence inflicted against Nanking's residents.
This committee played a decisive role in saving many more civilians from violence and death by arranging food supplies, sanctuary, and medical treatment to over 200,000 Nanking residents who poured into the safety zone (3.86 square kilometers), an area slightly larger than Central Park in New York.
The committee's selfless courage was all the more apparent when one considers the fact that the Japanese forces refused to officially recognize the zone, and to the manner in which the committee's members risked their lives to stand up to countless marauding soldiers who entered the zone seeking women to rape and property to pillage.
Their later testimonies of events played a key role in bringing individuals responsible for the massacre to justice after the war. It was also a central reason why news of the atrocity was disseminated to the outside world.
One particularly harrowing account of the massacre, based on smuggled out film evidence, as well as eye-witness evidence from the Reverend John Magee, tells of how a gang of some 30 Japanese soldiers forced their way into a residential building in southeastern Nanking on December 13th 1937.
Upon entry, the troops shot dead the building owner, Ma, his wife, and a neighbor, Hsia. They later bayoneted and cleaved through the head the Ma's two young children (aged two and four). The account continues to tell of how Hsia's terrified wife, who was protecting her baby in the same building, was dragged from under a table before being viciously gang-raped and bayoneted through the chest.
The soldiers then bayoneted her baby. Proceeding to another room, they found Mrs. Hsia's elderly parents and her other children, three daughters who were aged eight, fourteen, and sixteen. The grandparents were murdered when they attempted in vain to prevent the gang rape of two of their grandchildren, who were both bayoneted and sexually mutilated.
The eight-year-old daughter, though wounded, managed to crawl next door where she and another younger four-year-old sister (who escaped unharmed) lay next to the body of their dead mother until neighbors found them.
Such depravity was also illustrated in accounts provided by Shiro Azuma, a Japanese veteran of the Second World War who, in the winter of his life, began to disclose his own role in the massacre. In one interview, Azuma told the story of how he and members of his unit mercilessly stabbed to death a woman and the two children that she was holding.
Just over three quarters of a century since the massacre, the continued denial amongst the Japanese rightwing of such inhumanity in the face of overwhelming historical evidence persists in keeping the wounds of Nanking open.
While both sides may never find consensus on the exact details of the atrocity, it goes without saying that an atrocity most certainly occurred, and was one that symbolically holds their relationship back today.
While the pages of human history are sadly stained with the blood of the innocent, in the Japan-China relationship, the Nanking Massacre is still a live issue. The question of whether or not the Chinese and the Japanese people will remain hostages to their history will depend on how their political elites choose to treat it and other historical controversies.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Senan Fox is associate professor of the School of International Studies at Kanazawa University, Japan. (Copyright 2013 Dr Senan Fox)