Nanjing’s 70-year-old ghost story

This essay was the Third place winner of the Iris Change Memorial Essay Contest in 2007.


Memories stay with people. Bad memories can haunt you like a ghost. History works like this as well, like an Asian horror movie. The history of the Pacific War torments China and Japan – indeed, all of Asia and the Pacific. But like a Japanese onryo, or vengeful spirit, the ghosts of Nanjing indiscriminately torment the innocent and the guilty. Karl Marx’s observation that “The history of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” is as true for 21stcentury East Asia as it was for 19th century Europe. The only problem is, the ghosts of Nanjing are for real, so how do we exorcise them? How can China and Japan rid themselves of the nightmare of the Nanjing Massacre and finally put the past behind them?

In East Asia, historical wounds are still festering. Seventy years on, and the memories of Nanjing continue to haunt the Japanese, as well as the Chinese. The ghosts of Nanjing feed an increasingly bitter competition of nationalisms. But Japan’s leaders only hurt their country with jingoism, as a perception of Japan’s former aggression is revived and overshadows the country’s many accomplishments.

The bitterness of the war years is frequently summoned to the present by Chinese feelings of injustice and a Japanese sense of being unfairly singled out for wrongs committed decades ago. When the re-certification of a history textbook in Japan can spark weeks of riots across China in April 2005, sending crowds thousands strong vandalizing Japanese businesses and consulates, it is clear the value of history in East Asia is palpable.

The waves of anger were touched off by Tokyo imbuing credibility into claims made in the New History Textbook, published by a right-wing Japanese group. In one demonstration, some 10,000 angry protesters surrounded Jusco supermarket run by Japanese firm Aeon in the bustling port city Shenzhen, a hub of foreign investment in South China. Many saw the government as sanctioning a whitewashing of the history of Imperial Army atrocities in Nanjing during Japan’s 1937 invasion of China.

The riots vividly illustrate how the memories of Japan’s former aggression, seared into minds of present-day Chinese as feelings of injustice, are unwittingly resurrected as expressions of patriotism. China sees a Japan that is boorish and unapologetic. In fact, hardly any of Japan’s junior high schools have actually adopted the text – just 18 out of more than 11,000, according to one news report. But to the Chinese, it’s enough that the government even extended its seal of approval to such a book.

Now, the ghosts of Nanjing will be channeled into a number of new films. In December, as the world observes the 70thanniversary of the “Rape of Nanjing,” at least three films are starting or are already in production this year (by directors Yim Ho, Stanley Tong and Lu Chuan), in addition to the American production Nanking, which screened at Sundance in January, and focuses on the point-of-view of Westerners in Nanjing when the city succumbed to the Imperial Army’s onslaught. With that, 10 years after the publication of Iris Chang’s incisive work, the Nanjing Massacre has become a cinema sensation.

Unfortunately, extremists in Japan have a film of their own: The Truth About Nanjing. Its theme is predictable, as will be the reactions. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), too, exacerbates bitter feelings, inflaming painful memories with peremptory remarks that deny Japan’s responsibility for atrocities committed by the country’s Imperial Army in the 1930s and ’40s.

But ironically, the caustic remarks of mainstream Japanese leaders hurt themselves most. Japan has the most to pay for its recalcitrance, not China. The more these LDP politicians run their mouths the more they drag Japan’s national image through the mud, soiling what would otherwise be an inspiring record of peace, prosperity and freedom.

By denying the past today, Japan will be condemned to forever re-live the shame of what it did in the 1930s and ‘40s. Thoughtless behavior and insensitive quips overshadow Japan’s accomplishments and re-cast the nation in its image of two generations ago. Who will be able to identify with an image of a Japan calloused by a shameful history?

Expressions of Japanese nationalism, even now, make headlines and incite emotional demonstrations. This is because the images that it invokes in the minds of Chinese – and in the minds of people all over Asia – are invariably informed by haunting recollections of the country’s wartime atrocities, such as the images summoned from Tokyo’s incursions into China. The rape and massacre of civilians in Nanjing upon the city’s collapse in December 1937 – including women, children and the elderly – are quintessential examples of the Japanese Army’s brutality.

These images provoke anxiety over the safety of loved ones and a visceral desire to protect the vulnerable. And these same images prevent the Japanese from demonstrating old-fashioned patriotism. What’s more, Chinese nationalism gets a boost.

In 1972, Asia’s greatest cinematic hero became the champion of everyone who recognizes right from wrong and yearns to defend the downtrodden. That was the year Bruce Lee’s breakthrough film, “Fist of Fury,’’ titled “The Chinese Connection’’ in the U.S., screened for the first time in San Francisco.

Who was not outraged by the Japanese man mocking Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, at a park entrance, as he pointed to a sign reading “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed?’’ And who was not stirred when Chen – inspired by a real-life patriotic insurgent – broke the sign in half with a jump-spinning dropkick? Or when he destroyed a framed calligraphy penned by Japanese imperialists declaring China the “Sick Man of Asia?’’

The actor Bruce Lee and the symbols he destroys in the film are vital to Chinese nationalism. Indeed, every country’s nationalism is about piecing together images that the people can be proud of and rally around. These images inculcate patriotic feelings; in patriotism, symbolism is everything.

In a way, Chinese nationalism became more compelling than Japanese nationalism because appeals to universal sentiments. Anyone can identify with defending the downtrodden against unprovoked aggression. Japan’s denial of the past retards the country’s ability to recover from the war just as it stunts the country’s relations with China and Korea.

Japan’s denial of the atrocities it committed in Nanjing inflames an infection the Imperial Army left more than 70 years ago. Leaving historical wounds to fester makes demonstrating Japanese patriotism impossible.

In one incident between December 1937 and March 1938, some 350,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the invading Japanese troops, according to mainstream historians. Tens of thousands of victims were beheaded, burned, bayoneted, buried alive or disemboweled.

Worse than that, an estimated 80,000 women and girls were raped. Many were then mutilated and tortured before being murdered. It is in recognition of them that we call this inhumanity the “Rape of Nanjing.’’ The gruesome details are rendered compellingly in Iris Chang’s 1997 book, likely the first written in English. Even sworn Nazi John Rabe was so horrified by Japanese sadism, he urged Adolf Hilter to intervene.

To this day the Japanese government has refused to apologize for these and other World War II atrocities. But unlike Holocaust deniers, the revisionism of the Rape of Nanjing has been largely successful in Japan, where a large swath of Japanese society believes they never happened. This has had consequences for Japan, even while it continues the charade.

In fact, soon after the war 28 men went on trial in an international criminal court in Tokyo for the Nanjing Massacre and other crimes. And during the trial, it became clear that Tokyo had known about the atrocities but ignored them. Of the 28, 25 were found guilty on one or more of the charges. All were sentenced in 1948 either to death by hanging or life imprisonment, but by 1956 every one of them had been paroled.

Decades after the massacre, Japan began to deny and distort the history of Nanjing. In books and columns in Japan, a revisionist perspective of the incident began to emerge, including outright denials that it had ever taken place. Ikuhiko Hata’s “Nanjing Incident’’ is considered by the Japanese Ministry of Education to be the definitive historical text on the subject. This book puts the official death count at between 38,000 and 42,000.

In the 1990s, some top Japanese government officials claimed that the massacre was fabricated. Shocked by this, conscientious professors and parliamentarian ministers tried to set the record straight, but they were thwarted at every turn. Official apologies or compensation have, as a result, not been forthcoming.

In 1997, Japan’s former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized to the victims of Japan’s unprovoked aggression. His apology a decade ago, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s in Indonesia in 2005, should be welcome. However, their apologies are personal ones, not government recognitions of atrocities.

The majority of Murayama’s colleagues in the Japanese government did not share his feelings. And he failed to make a formal and official apology in the so-called “No War Resolution.’’ Only 26 percent of the members of Japan’s Diet supported the resolution. Shockingly, 47 percent voiced opposition. Furthermore, Seisuke Okuno, the former education minister, managed to organize a national campaign collecting 4.5 million signatures against the resolution.

The gaff prone Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said in a 1990 interview: “People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.’’ He has been the top political leader of Japan’s most important city since 1999 and has a realistic chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister.

In the battle of competing Japanese and Chinese nationalism, the struggle over the re-construction of Japan’s national identity, and whether it will incorporate its past into that re-construction, will determine whether a “normal” Japan can be accepted by its Asian neighbors. It behooves Japanese people everywhere to join in the reconstruction by acknowledging what really happened 70 years ago. Otherwise, the country will remain stuck in the past, preventing itself from taking the leadership role it deserves.

Japan pays dearly in denying this history, a fact poignantly illustrated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States in April. He reacted defensively to a salvo of questions on “comfort women” and Japan’s wartime responsibility. Contrast that with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder joining with his French, American and British counterparts in D-Day ceremonies in France in June three years ago. These two pictures starkly show how far Japan is behind Germany in coming to terms with its past – and how far Asia is from exorcising the ghosts of Nanjing as compared to Europe’s exorcism of the memories of Auschwitz.

Japan also pays with its international reputation. Japan’s denials cost it permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao specifically said in April 2005 that Beijing would wield its veto power to block Japan’s U.N. aspirations until Tokyo “respects history, takes responsibility for history and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia.” If strained relations with its neighbors have such real political costs for Tokyo, then why do Japanese leaders cling to their delusions?

One possible reason is that they hinge pride in their country on the sacrifices their fathers and grandfathers made fighting in Japan’s Pacific War. Many Japanese have falsely conflated Japanese slogans of “support the troops” with supporting the country’s past militarism. For them, to apologize for Japan’s wars of aggression in Asia, and indeed, to acknowledge war crimes the Imperial Army committed during its invasion of China in 1937, would be tantamount to believing the lives of millions of their countrymen were sacrificed in vain, and that the lives of those enshrined at Yasukuni were wasted.

The vast majority of the interred at the Yasukuni Shrine were fighters in the Pacific War, or what many on the right in Japan continue to call the “Greater East Asia War” – a term banned by the American General Headquarters during its post-war occupation due to the name’s association with Japan’s wartime policies, namely the notion of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

Suspicions about the role of Yasukuni in Japanese nationalism are due in part to Shrine priests secretly adding 1,068 convicted war criminals to the “Book of Souls,” Yasukuni’s official registry. If Japan’s leaders honestly acknowledge the past, the ghosts of Nanjing would be finally laid to rest.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States has done a lot to support intellectuals and artists suppressed in China or forced to escape their country. And Japan? The oldest democracy in East Asia, and perhaps its freest society, has been conspicuously silent on free speech in China. This is not just a matter of Tokyo prioritizing economic relations over political rights. Do Japanese perhaps feel they have no right to criticize China because of some historical guilt?

Japan’s national image depends on its people’s pride and sense of self. Japan, without building a base of credibility through acknowledging its wartime aggression, has failed to effect true reconciliation with its neighbors. The efforts of Japanese volunteer doctors, engineers and students from NGOs and charities working in many countries in Asia are undermined by the denials their country harbors. Their moral dedication is misdirected by Tokyo’s denial of the past and the value of their work is cheapened. Without that credibility, Japan cannot take on the international role its people can be proud of, a role commensurate with the country’s greatness.

Japanese denials and distortions of history hurt Japan itself. Moreover, those distortions of history make it easier to identify with nationalist Chinese protests, and harder for Japan to join the world in remembering a shameful chapter in its history as Germany does in remembering World War II and the Holocaust.

 In May 2005, I attended a public dialogue in Seoul in which Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe spoke on the importance of Japan acknowledging its historic wrong doings. He said for Japan to be a full and proper member of the community of East Asian nations, it must properly face its former militarism. Oe observed that true national pride cannot be founded on misrepresenting the past and encouraging collective amnesia about war responsibility.

Until the ghosts of Nanjing are exorcised, Japan cannot achieve its national goal of “normalcy;” it won’t be free from the nightmare of its wartime guilt, until it faces Nanjing’s ghosts. In Asian horror movies, onryo are borne out of a brutal murder. The haunted protagonists in these films free themselves from these maligned spirits only after first acknowledging the crime that made these bitter ghosts. Upon a foundation of honesty and contrition, Japan, too, can free itself, build a solid relationship with its neighbors and take its rightful place as a beacon of freedom in the region.