Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1998 06:52:49 -0500
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <H-ASIA@H-NET.MSU.EDU>
Leibo, Steven A. <email@example.com>
Subject: H-ASIA Book Review: Iris Chang, _The Rape of Nanking_
From: Robert Entenmann <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In December, 1937, the Chinese army abandoned Nanking (Nanjing), the
Nationalist capital, and the Japanese army occupied the city without a
fight. The notorious
Rape of Nanking that immediately ensued
began as a wholesale murder of Chinese prisoners of war and civilian
men on pretext that they were fleeing soldiers who had discarded their
uniforms. As the discipline of Japanese troops collapsed they began
indiscriminately killing civilians. Estimates of the number of
victims range widely. In the middle range are the numbers presented
at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials: 42,000 killed in city and over 100,000
in the surrounding area over six weeks. The local war crimes trials
held in Nanking immediately after the war estimated that 190,000 were
killed. Iris Chang accepts the highest plausible estimate of 300,000
dead. The incident was also a rape in a literal sense. According to
evidence presented at the Tokyo War Crimes Trails, Japanese soldiers
raped at least 20,000 Chinese women, many of whom were murdered
afterwards. The massacre began with prisoners or suspected soldiers,
then extended to those unambiguously civilian, including women,
children, and old men.
Iris Chang asks why this atrocity is so little remembered. The Western historical memory of World War II, of course, focuses on the struggle against Nazi Germany and generally pays little attention to the war in Asia before Pearl Harbor. But that does not fully explain the relative obscurity of the Rape of Nanking.
I can refer to my own modest contribution to the literature here.
When I was a graduate student about eighteen years ago I was
commissioned to write a few short articles relating to China for the
_Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan_ (9 vols., Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983).
One of my contributions was on the
Nanjing Incident. A member
of the editorial staff with whom I worked, whose name I have
forgotten, told me that as a comprehensive reference the encyclopedia
had to include the Japan's negative side as well as its glories and
accomplishments. My entry, however, was only 179 words long, following
the guidelines I was given. Yet that is more than one can find in the
_Cambridge History of Japan,_ where in volume VI there are two
one-sentence references.  _The China Quagmire,_ one volume of the
English translation of a Japanese study of the origins of the war in
the Pacific, does not mention the incident at all. 
Iris Chang attributes this neglect to a politically-motivated
conspiracy of silence and an alleged atmosphere of intimidation that
prevents Japanese from facing their history. Research on this subject
life-threatening, she claims, and
. . . the Japanese
as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking - not
under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion (p. 220).
The present generation, she writes,
can continue to delude
themselves that the war of Japanese aggression was a holy and just war
that Japan happened to lose solely because of American economic power
. . . (pp. 224-225). The flyleaf of the cloth-bound edition
the story of this atrocity . . . continues to be
denied by the Japanese government, although that assertion, which
is false, does not appear anywhere in the paperbound version.
Chang seems unable to differentiate between some members of the
ultranationalist fringe and other Japanese. A Japanese translation of
the dairy of John Rabe, a German businessman who helped protect
civilians in the Nanking Safety Zone, is a best-seller in Japan.
Moreover, despite what Iris Chang maintains, current Japanese
textbooks discuss the massacre, giving figures of between 150,000 to
300,000 killed. A 1994 opinion poll found that eighty percent of
respondents in Japan believed that their government had not adequately
compensated victimized peoples in countries Japan colonized or
This is hardly the response of a people suffering from
acute historical amnesia, as John Dower notes . Chang
generalizes from extremists who deny that the incident took place,
fanatics motivated by ultranationalism and ethnic prejudice, who have
as little credibility and moral authority as Holocaust deniers have in
the West. Moreover, although Chang explicitly rejects explanations of
national character, her own ethnic prejudice implicitly pervades her
book. Her explanations are, to a large extent, based on unexamined
Many in Japan would certainly prefer that the incident be forgotten, feeling that unpleasant and shameful things should not be talked about. But that is not the same as denying it occurred. In any case, many Japanese have dealt with the Nanking massacre, and have done so for many years. As early as 1940 Yanaihara Tadao, an economist and specialist in colonial policy, courageously criticized his fellow Japanese Christians for honoring General Matsui Iwame, commander of Japanese troops in Nanking . Immediately after the war Maruyama Masao dealt with the incident in his attempt to understand Japan's wartime behavior . My first reading about the Nanking massacre was in Ienaga Saburo's _The Pacific War,_ originally published in Japanese thirty years ago. In recent years other Japanese, including Hora Tomio, Honda Katsuichi, and Tanaka Yuki, have published significant studies of the Rape of Nanking.
The Japanese historical background Chang presents is clichd,
simplistic, stereotyped, and often inaccurate. She writes that
. . . as far back as anyone could remember, the islands' powerful
feudal lords employed private armies to wage incessant battle with
each other . . . (pp. 19-20) - a description appropriate to the
Warring States period of the sixteenth century but not to any other
period. She places the Tokugawa unification of Japan in the wrong
century (p. 21). She asserts that the conditions of Japan's
exonerated all members of the imperial
family . . . (p. 176). Her use of sources is uncritical and
credulous, treating hearsay as the equivalent of more reliable
evidence. She engages in implausible speculations, for example about
Emperor Hirohito's role in the Rape of Nanking (p. 177).
will probably never know exactly what news Hirohito received about
Nanking as the massacre was happening, she writes,
record suggests that he was exceptionally pleased by it (p. 179).
Chang confuses Japanese leaders' delight in the fall of the Chinese
capital with exulting in the massacre that occurred afterward.
So why has this book become so widely acclaimed? Probably because of
her account of the massacre itself, a vivid and gut-wrenching
narration. Moreover, she brings out of oblivion the neutral
foreigners who established the Nanking Safety Zone to protect
non-combatants, particularly the enigmatic Nazi party member John
Rabe. Yet her description of the massacre itself, the strongest part
of the book, is also open to criticism. The Japanese historian Hata
Ikuhito makes some telling criticisms, although Hata himself minimizes
the extent of the massacre . He questions Chang's estimate of the
number of victims, a ghoulish exercise perhaps, but an important one.
He argues that Chang's figure of 300,000 is impossibly high, but his
own figure of 40,000 killed, although similar to the estimates of some
Western witnesses, is implausibly low. Hata claims that eleven
photographs in Chang's book are
fakes, forgeries, and
composites, although he succeeds in demonstrating that with only
two. One, a photograph of a row of severed heads, depicts bandits
executed by Chinese police in 1930 rather than victims of the Nanking
massacre. Another photo, which appeared in the November 10, 1937
issue of _Asahi Gurafu,_ is a propaganda picture of Chinese villagers
returning from fields
under the protection of Japanese
Chang also does not adequately explain why the massacre occurred. Maruyama Masao suggested that because Japanese soldiers lived in brutal hierarchical social order, they developed a habit of submitting to power and authority from above and dominating the weak and powerless below. They assumed their superiority over other races, especially the Chinese. Japanese soldiers were regimented, confined, and harshly treated by their officers. When discipline broke down they lacked any sense of individual responsibility for their actions. Chang argues simply that the Japanese army did not have the means to feed such a large number of prisoners of war, and therefore killed them. This is plausible for the slaughter of young men, but doesn't explain the rapes and the murder of women and children. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the way enemies were dehumanized, one of the distinctive features of World War II. The Nazis described Jews as vermin. Japanese soldiers in Nanking, similarly, regarded their Chinese victims as animals, comparing killing of Chinese to slaughtering pigs. It was not only Japanese and Germans who dehumanized enemies that way: John Dower describes the American use of bestial imagery about the Japanese in World War II .
World War II, of course, had broken all the rules of war. It was
fought with a new technology that targeted civilians, creating what
Omer Bartov calls industrial killing:
impersonal, and sustained mass destruction of human beings, organized
and administered by states . Civilians were considered as
legitimate military targets, and the notion of civilian immunity all
but disappeared. Women and children became targets in warfare.
Yet the Rape of Nanking was not committed by impersonal or distant
perpetrators, nor was its intent genocidal. The incident is difficult
to explain, even in the context of a war which routinely violated the
norms of civilian immunity. To return to theme of rape and sexual
violence, for example, why were Chinese women subjected to these
outrages? Rape was a weapon against
enemy women, an action that
was both misogynist and xenophobic. It humiliated the victims and
demonstrated power, over both women who were the immediate victims and
men who traditionally were regarded as their protectors . The
Japanese military encouraged a rape culture, and rape as well as
murder was a means to avenge the 70,000 Japanese soldiers killed or
wounded in first six months of the war in China.
Explanations for the behavior of Japanese soldiers should probably focus on their brutalization, in training as well as in warfare, and the military culture that encouraged them to see enemy human beings as animals. This was not exclusively a trait of the Japanese army, of course, but it was carried to an extreme there. Specific conditions of a particular time and place, not national character, led to the massacre. The Rape of Nanking was one of the greatest atrocities of modern times, and Iris Chang's book helps preserve the memory of that outrage. But as an attempt to explain it, it falls far short.
This review is adapted from
Remembering and Explaining the Rape of
Nanking, a talk given at the Presidential Panel on Women and
Sexual Violence in Asia, Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs,
Milwaukee, September 26, 1998. I am grateful to Wendy Doniger, Laura
Hein, and Louis Perez for their comments on my talk, although the
opinions expressed and any errors committed are my own.
By mid-December, the Nationalist capital of Nanking had been
seized and raped by the Japanese; in early January 1938, Konoe had
pledged to eradicate Chiang's government (126), and
1937 the city fell, Chiang Kai-shek fled, and the inflamed Japanese
soldiery went on a rampage of killing, looting, and raping (320).
Peter Duus, ed., _The Cambridge History of Japan,_ Volume VI: The
Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
 James William Morley, ed., _The China Quagmire: Japan's Expansion
on the Asian Continent, 1933-1941,_ Selected translations from
_Taiheiyo senso e no michi: Kaisen gaiko shi_ (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1983). This is an abridged translation, and I have
not consulted the Japanese original (7 volumes, Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun,
1962-63). The chapter covering the military campaigns of 1937-38,
where the Nanking incident is not mentioned, is by Hata Ikuhiko, a
bitter critic of Iris Chang's book (see below). Hata also fails to
mention the Rape of Nanking in his contribution to volume VI of _The
Cambridge History of Japan,_ chapter 6:
1905-1941 (pp. 271-314).
 John W. Dower,
Three Narratives of Our Humanity, in Edward
T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., _History Wars: The Enola Gay
and Other Battles for the American Past_ (New York: Henry Holt, 1996),
 Ienaga Saburo, _The Pacific War, 1931-1945_ (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), pp. 209-210. This is a translation by Frank Baldwin of _Taiheiyo senso_ (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1968).
 Maruyama Masao, _Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese
Politics,_ ed. Ivan Morris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
See especially the essay on
Theory and Psychology of
Ultra-Nationalism, published in _Sekai_ magazine in May, 1946.
 Hata Ikuhito,
The Nanking Atrocities: Fact and Fable,
_Japan Echo,_ August 1998, pp. 47-57).
(7) John W. Dower, _War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War_ (New York: Pantheon, 1986.
(8) Omer Bartov, _Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 3.
(9) I am drawing here from a seminar paper by one of my former students, Elizabeth Kratz, which compares sexual violence in the Rape of Nanking with the current war in Bosnia.