"The Chinese people must speak up to protest the Japanese government for refusing to acknowledge the historical misdeed of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre." These are the words of an unknown hacker who added a new twist to the seven decade old Sino-Japan argument about a brutal war and the remembrance of that war. The cyber attack, the first of its kind on a Japanese government site, came shortly after a Japanese rightist rally calling the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 "the biggest lie of the century" was held in Osaka. Although the hacker has not been identified, many people in China are furious that some people in Japan, with the apparent complicity of the government, are trying to re-write a past that young people know about (or don’t know about) from textbooks only.
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement encouraging the Chinese people to express their utmost anger in reaction to the Osaka rally and the Beijing media has duly complied. Night after night, CCTV News berates Japan for its inability to face its own history, noting that while the economy has advanced, so has the ultra-nationalist right wing and the government’s tacit acceptance of it. Newspaper headlines such as "Japanese Devils" "Infamous Past Undeniable" °China Indignant over rightist rally" and references to Japan as an "emotional dwarf" (dwarf is a common epithet for Japanese in China) are common fare these days.
China Daily, Beijing’s primary English mouthpiece, ran a number of articles pointing the finger not at the rightists but at the Japanese government for permitting the rightists to "remove the smirch on Japanese history." An anti-Japanese breeze is blowing across China just now, but it does not necessarily portend a downturn in Sino-Japanese relations. Japan’s foreign ministry has released conciliatory statements acknowledging the basic fact of the massacre and in China it is not uncommon for emotionally-charged campaigns to be reversed by fiat. One need look no further than the incendiary anti-American vitriol in the Beijing press last May after a US jet bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the subsequent muffling and complete extinguishing of the same anti-American sentiment only a month later, to see that political campaigns in China are under tight control. They can turn them on, they can turn them off. In the case of the buried anti-American sentiment, it is fair to say that high-level strategic concerns about balance of power and economic expansion won the day.
There are numerous individuals in Japan, elite and lowbrow alike, ranging from the influential author and current mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, to various low-brow criminal syndicates and anti-communists who claim that the event known to the world as the Nanjing massacre is a fabrication intended to dishonor Japan. Others say that terrible things happen in war, the unpleasantness is best forgotten. The more moderate of the revisionists don’t deny killing by Japanese troops, but say the figures are greatly exaggerated which is certainly an arguable point.
The topic is a touchy one because it opens old wounds, especially of victim and vanquished, and reinforces mutually negative stereotypes that influence how Chinese and Japanese continue to see one another.
NANJING 1937: WAS THERE A MASSACRE?
Massacre is a strong word, but it does not do justice to the horror of the event, let alone the commonly used euphemism Nanjing "Incident". Historical records, photos, diaries, newsreels, unearthed corpses and tearful eyewitness testimony of survivors attest to the ferocity and magnitude of the killing that took place when the Japanese Imperial Army chose to frighten China into submission by making a bloody example of its capital city. Perhaps Nanjing was, in the twisted mind of the militarists, the massacre to end all massacres. Every nation has ugly chapters in its history and this chapter will always be the disgrace of Japan. But what does that have to do with the peaceful Japan of today with no little direct memory of war? Most Japanese that I’ve talked to reluctantly acknowledge such things took place,though with a reserve and perhaps shame similar towhat middle Americans might express when confronted with how the ¡°Anglos¡± decimated North America’s Indian population.
HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI: GOOD NEWS IN CHINA
Japanese soldiers, like other soldiers in other unjust wars, commited some really terrible crimes above and beyond the horrible job of being a soldier, or professional killer, during the invasion of China. Precious little of Japan’s negative legacy in China makes it into the Ministry of Education-approved list of teaching materials, another irksome irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. Nor has Japan adequately apologized , in China’s view, though some Japanese would argue, for cultural reasons, that an oblique expression of regret by the current emperor is apology enough.
A few of Japan’s aged killer soldiers have broken the silence and risked death to come clean about the worst excesses of the bloody wars of invasion in China, Korea and Southeast Asia between 1937-1945.
It is unfortunate, but perhaps a testament to human inability to stare horror in the face, that in the aftermath of a massacre, the statistical issues concerning the death toll often become the main topic of discourse rather than the sick psychological reasons for the murderous madness and the imponderable tragedy befallen by the victims and their kin. No amount of selective amnesia is going to change the facts, but amnesia sometimes makes for bad neighbors.
Unlike Germany, which has intermittently come to grips with the horrible excesses of the Hitler era, Japan is largely in denial about its own history. In fact the Japanese collective memory is suspiciously vague and forgetful until the moment at which Japan arguably became the victim: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nakasaki. (two horrid, inhumane, unnecessary explosions which to this day are regarded as a very positive development by most Chinese because the atomic hits marked the end of Japan’s brutal occupation of China.)
RIGHTIST REVISONISTS ARE NOT ALWAYS WRONG
Where the Japanese rightists have a valid point, and it’s a point worth exploring further in a less mutually incriminating atmosphere, is on the question of the scope of the massacre. Who’s to say Irene Chang got it right in the Rape of Nanking? Numerous errors in her reporting have been documented, and not just by Japanese writers. Who’s to say the Communist Party’s figure of 300,000 raped and killed is correct? The Chinese Communist Pary, responsible for the famine that followed on the heels of the Great Leap Forward, (caused partly by phony, inflated statistics of grain output) among other self-inflicted tragedies with death tolls in the millions, is hardly a sterling source when it comes to statistics. The discussion never gets to a point where such things can be talked about because of the vested interests of Japan-bashers and China-bashers on each shore of the Japan/China sea.
BEIJING 1989: WAS THERE A MASSACRE?
The Beijing government rightly condemns Japan, not just for its proven record of brutality during its invasion and occupation of eastern China, but for the especially infuriating fact that even today, six decades later Japan doesn’t own up to what it did. There are, however, sadly and ironically enough, recent parallels in Chinese history where the Chinese government is guilty of the same kind of brutal aversion to the truth and selective amnesia. One need only look back to the June 4, 1989 crackdown on the peaceful Tiananmen student movement to realize that impulse to whitewash the past is not a monopoly of Japanese rightists.
To this day the Beijing government blames the victims of the June 4 bloodshed by asserting it took necessary, firm actions to prevent instability. There are extremists in China who even argue no one died at Tiananmen, distracting the argument away from who killed whom to quibbling about the dimensions of the Square. Many powerful people in China, some in leadership positions today, some even in the military, were upset by the clumsy and unecessary bloodletting on that fateful June night, but few have had the courage to speak out openly. So much harder then for the weak and disenfranchised millions of ordinary citizens who have to reconcile their private truth with official lies. Those who cannot stand the hypocrisy and speak out loudly are imprisoned or driven into exile.
So even as China righteously wags its finger at Japan for denying the unpalatable past, there are skeletons in the closet, rattling, but unseen. The point is, Japan’s refusal to recognize what it did in Nanjing, (and elsewhere) and China’s refusal to recognize what it did to its own people in cracking down on the Tiananmen protests, (and elsewhere) both share the common motivation of saving face and presenting one’s nation in the best possible light by distorting, denying or distracting the public with trivial unproveable arguments to cover up the shame of crimes against humanity and murder.