JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 1 (January 2000)
Some Thoughts on the Nanjing Massacre
by Chalmers Johnson

As my contribution to the ongoing debates about the Nanjing Massacre, I would like to raise three issues. The first I call, What Did the Japanese Know and When Did They Know It? I do not want not to dwell on the War Crimes Trials and other Allied inquisitions that Japanese nationalists have called "victor's justice." Instead I want to discuss the 1955 short-story by Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) entitled "Botan" (Peonies). Mishima is one of several authors, including Shusaku Endo, who have alluded in their postwar fiction to Japan's atrocities in China.

Mishima's story deals with a former Imperial Army colonel named Kawamata who has planted 580 peonies, one for each of the women he killed with his own hands at Nanjing. He holds himself responsible for those whom he personally killed, which he says he did with great "enjoyment" and "special care," and not for the "suu-mannin" (several tens of thousands) who were slaughtered at the same time.

Shusaku Endo, in his novel Scandal of 1986, features a scene in which the narrator wife's discusses how she discovered what her university professor husband did in China during the war. In mopping up campaigns against Chinese guerrillas, he and his men on several occasions herded women and children into village houses, on which they poured gasoline, set fire, and shot the victims as they tried to escape. The wife is erotically aroused whenever she thinks of these My Lai-like incidents. In Van Gessel's superb translation, Endo writes, "The burning straw of the roof swirls into the sky with the blackish smoke. Then from inside the house screams and weeping soar into the heavens with the flames. Children engulfed in flames and women clutching babies come running from the house. Along with his men, my husband shoots them one after another. He shot them. My husband. The man stretched out on my bed right now, sipping his whisky and reading his book--he shot those mothers and children" (p. 124).

My point is that the denial movement of the 1990s is of relatively recent vintage. It is not speaking to people who were alive in the 1940s, since they have their own experiences to tell them what was true about Japan's war, but primarily to those who grew up in the Japan bequeathed by MacArthur.

This semiofficial Japanese movement to deny that the rape of Nanjing ever occurred, or that any of the other particularly atrocious acts of the Japanese Army in China and Korea even took place, is one of the most curiously self-defeating policies of any former belligerent government. For its part, the United States has acknowledged the racism that lay behind its imprisonment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and it has paid compensation, although admittedly late and in small amounts. The United States has not been willing to put on display in its national aerospace museum a full account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but at least its refusal to do so provoked a furious debate within the United States, with the publication of many books attacking the cowardice and mendacity of the museum's directors.

By contrast, Japan has no law covering war crimes, has never brought to justice any Japanese citizen accused of crimes against humanity, is the only advanced democracy whose government censors school history textbooks, and has consistently used its censorship power to suppress information about Japan's treatment of civilians and prisoners during wartime, including its army's killing its own citizens in places like Okinawa. Japanese courts routinely acknowledge that victims of the Nanjing massacre, Unit 731, prisoners of war, and former so-called jugun ianfu ("comfort women") were unjustly treated by representatives of the Japanese government, but they refuse to order that compensation be paid, saying that the various peace treaties with Japan after the war have settled the matter. It is precisely because the Japanese courts have never once been on the side of Japan's victims that California and other American states have recently passed laws allowing former prisoners of war to sue American branches of Japanese corporations for compensation for their suffering.

The Peace Constitution

All these modern deniers also dislike Japan's postwar "pacifist" constitution. However, it seems to me that its famous article nine renouncing any right of belligerency was, in fact, Japan's genuine apology for its wartime acts. Many argue that Germany has apologized profusely and repeatedly for its wartime deeds but that Japan has not. I believe this view is mistaken. It is rather that Germany's and Japan's apologies took different forms, reflecting their different geopolitical situations, and that Germany's apology has remained credible whereas Japan's has been undermined by the policies of its mentor, the United States.

Japan does not have a history of pacifism, and article nine was actually written for it by General MacArthur's staff. Nonetheless, by the 1950s and 1960s, a large majority of Japanese, including most leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party at the time, had internalized the "peace constitution" and proudly held it up as a vow that postwar Japan would never again maintain armed forces. Japan's small constabulary was called the Self-Defense Forces, old words for things like tanks (sensha) were replaced with new terms like tokusha, or special vehicle, and expenditures for defense were kept under one percent of gross national product. It was a different way of apologizing from Germany's, reflecting the fact that Japan did not have immediate borders with the nations it had victimized, but official pacifism was widely accepted within and outside Japan as a fundamental precept of Japanese foreign policy. During the 1960s, Okinawans demonstrated against the American military in order to rejoin Japan and come under the terms of the peace constitution--a wish that once fulfilled turned into a cruel joke and that today causes many Okinawans to wonder what they were ever thinking of.

The peace constitution is today in tatters. Unremitting American pressure on Japan to "share the burdens"--as the Americans euphemistically put it--of American military hegemony in East Asia has produced a powerfully rearmed Japan. Even though its only real military threat, the former USSR, collapsed almost ten years ago, Japan has the second largest navy in the Pacific, with more destroyers than the United States. Japan today has the fourth largest defense budget on earth (after the United States and Russia, almost on a par with France's, and well ahead of China's); and earlier this year it accepted new "defense guidelines" with the United States that allow U. S. forces to use Japanese territory for military purposes on the same basis that they did during the Korean and Vietnamese wars. Japan has missiles with a lifting capability greater than America's "Minuteman" ICBM. It is investing in its own system of military satellites, has joined the U.S. program to develop a theater missile defense, and has the world's largest plutonium stockpile.

Iris Chang's Book

In this context the Japanese campaign to suppress and discredit Iris Chang's 1997 best-seller The Rape of Nanking appears worrisome. Let me stipulate at the outset that I am aware of the small errors in Japanese names and dates she makes in her book and that her occasional laudatory references to David Bergamini's book Japan's Imperial Conspiracy (1971) is a red flag to those who think Emperor Hirohito was a pacifist. Her statement on p. 183 that a Chinese invitation in 1991 to the Japanese prime minister to visit the mainland was "like being raped a second time" suggests that she does not know Prime Minister Tanaka visited China in 1972 and opened diplomatic relations with the government in Beijing.

Chang's subtitle "The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II" is also wrong on two counts: one, the Nanjing massacre was never forgotten, and two, although it reflected Japanese racism it did not have the ideological foundations of the Nazis' extermination of the Jews. The United States and the Communist Chinese governments both have tried, unsuccessfully, to cover up the Nanjing massacre in pursuit of their own political interests: the United States wanted to rehabilitate Japan's wartime reputation in order to convince Americans that Japan was an acceptable Cold War ally, and the Chinese Communists have since the 1950s been seeking aid and trade from Japan. But these campaigns never obliterated knowledge of Japan's wartime activities in China, including the rape of Nanjing.

Nonetheless and despite these points, Chang's great and enduring contribution to the history of the Nanjing massacre is to have discovered the existence of John Rabe and to have tracked down his twelve-hundred-page diary, which was in the possession of his granddaughter in Berlin. One cannot overstate the importance of Rabe's eye-witness account. He lived in China for all but two years between 1908 and 1938. At the time of the massacre in 1937 he was the Siemens representative in Nanjing and a member of the Nazi Party, which under the terms of the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 made him an erstwhile ally of the Japanese invaders. His activities in saving Chinese civilians--at one time he had 650 refugees camped in his backyard in Nanjing--and his diary have been authenticated by the Americans who worked with him at the time. His diary has now been partially published in German and English as The Good Man of Nanking (Knopf, 1999) and photocopies of the original have been deposited in the library of the Yale Divinity School and at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China. It was Chang's research that uncovered this invaluable source of historical information and one of the reasons why her book was so widely read.

It is therefore dismaying to see the Japanese ambassador to the United States, the Sankei and Yomiuri newspapers, and numerous Japanese professors for weeks on end attacking Chang's book and declaring it to be "unbalanced" (whatever that might mean). Is this only of historical significance, or is there more at stake? Given the events of 1999 in Japan, I believe that the attack on Iris Chang is less a matter of honest historians correcting the work of a younger colleague and more a symptom of the way in which the security situation in East Asia is deteriorating under Japanese and American pressure.

The year began with the Minister of Justice, Shozaburo Nakamura, denouncing the constitution that he is supposed to defend. On January 4, in a New Year's reception for his colleagues, the Japanese Minister of Justice said, "The Japanese people received from the allied forces this constitution which denies us the right to engage in war and does not allow us either to defend ourselves or to have an army. Unable even to revise it, we just have to stumble blindly along."

On March 3, 1999, the chief of the Japanese Defense Agency, Hosei Norota, announced on behalf of the government that under certain circumstances Japan enjoyed the right of "preemptive attack" (sensei kogeki) and that it was thinking of making such an attack against North Korea. During the spring and early summer, the Japanese government then did the following things one after another: it passed a law allowing the police to tap citizens' telephones (the Tsushin Bojuho); it legalized the rising sun flag (hinomaru) and made the prewar song celebrating the emperor's reign (kimi ga yo) the national anthem, and ordered them to be displayed and sung in schools; it established Constitutional Research Councils (Kempo Chosakai) in both houses of the Diet in order to study revisions to the "peace constitution"; it enacted legislation to support the new "Defense Guidelines" with the United States, giving the U.S. the power to take over Japanese airports, harbors, roads, and hospitals in times of an emergency in "areas surrounding Japan," a description that is said to be conceptual and not geographical; it forged a three-party coalition (the Ji-Ji-Ko alliance) giving the Liberal Democratic Party control of over 70 percent of the seats in the Diet and the ability to pass any laws that it wants to; and, in October 1999, it saw the newly appointed vice minister of defense, Shingo Nishimura, urge the Diet to consider arming the country with nuclear weapons.

I believe that these are not just random events but more than likely parts of a pattern, one that most Americans simply cannot recognize because they have so little knowledge of this century's politics in East Asia but that many adults in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea find chillingly familiar. I could be wrong, but if I am I know I will be forgiven because people will be so glad that I was.

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2000). This Critique is excerpted from remarks made at a conference on the Nanjing Massacre held at Pomona College, November 5, 1999.


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