Atrocity Exhibition


The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang, New York: Basic Books, 290 pages, $25.00

Ienaga Saburo had been an unusually busy man, and not out of choice. In 1965 the Japanese historian sued his government for forcing him to rewrite a portion of a textbook. The Ministry of Education was incensed over his brief denunciation of Japanese genocide against at least 300,000 civilians in the Chinese city of Nanking during December 1937 and January 1938. Just mentioning this World War II story would have been bad enough.

Luckily, in 1970 a Tokyo judge ruled in Saburo's favor, saying textbook screening could not go beyond correction of factual and typographical errors. Japanese ultranationalists, in retaliation, fired off death threats to the judge, Saburo, and his attorneys. They also demonstrated outside his house, screaming slogans and banging pots and pans.

The lawsuit proved to be the snowball that led to the current avalanche of worldwide outrage over the Rape of Nanking and its long cover-up. It also inspired a new generation of tenacious researchers, one of whom is Iris Chang, a 29-year-old Chinese-American author whose grandparents survived the slaughter. In writing this book, the first full-length, English-language account, Chang conducted interviews with survivors, reviewed film footage, and pored through official documents. Her work speaks much not only about genocide but about how a nation prepares its people to commit and whitewash it.

At least in America we know a lot more than before; in Japan, the dissemination mills grind more slowly. Not only is Nanking unmentionable, apparently in some quarters so is America. Early this decade one Japanese high school teacher expressed surprise that his students did not know their country had been at war with the United States. The first thing they'd wanted to know was who won. Whatever "unfortunate" circumstances occurred in Nanking, say official spokesmen (and still most textbooks), these incidents were isolated, if they occurred at all.

Chang knows that a successful official truth shield must be unyielding. To allow a single crack in the foundation of silence risks setting in motion the collapse of the whole edifice. She terms Japan's silence and disinformation campaign "the second rape," which began even while the first was in progress. One headline of a Japanese-controlled newspaper in Shanghai in January 1938 blared the headline, "The Harmonious Atmosphere of Nanking City Develops Enjoyably." The article claimed, "The Imperial Army entered the city, put their bayonets in their sheath, and stretched forth merciful hands in order to examine and heal."

Once the facts became known, the lying had to assume a different guise; a conflating of crimes and mistakes. This attitude extends to Japan's academic community. "How long must we apologize for the mistakes we have made?" one indignant Japanese professor complained. Tyrants (and their enablers) everywhere love that kind of talk. Late last year Pol Pot offered the following explanation for why his Khmer Rouge had turned Cambodia into killing fields: "We made mistakes. We were young." So that's the secret. In that vein, let us examine a few of the strategic "mistakes" young Japanese troops committed in Nanking.

On December 13, 1937, victorious soldiers, giving glory to the emperor, poured into the Chinese capital of Nanking. For the Japanese, it was now open season on the city's entire population, as they shot countless civilians attempting to escape. Alleys, dugouts, buildings, streets, ditches–no place was safe for the Chinese to hide. Soldiers impaled babies on bayonets and tossed them while still alive into pots of boiling water. The Rape of Nanking was all too literally that, as soldiers raped anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women and girls from all social classes. They forced many into prostitution and killed them when they no longer could fulfill sexual requirements. An untold number of women either died from rape-related injuries or committed suicide. At times, the troops found the going a bit boring. Hence, they devised killing contests and a variety of torture-deaths, such as live burials, mutilation, burnings, death by freezing, and "death by dogs" (in which Japanese soldiers buried Chinese victims up to the waist and set German shepherds upon them).

Lurid beyond belief as such stories seem, the sources are unimpeachable. Chang has drawn much from detailed accounts by American and European missionaries and businessmen. We owe much to the Nanking International Safety Zone Committee, whose missionaries, such as George Fitch, James McCallum, and John Magee, eloquently chronicled their observations on film as well as in reports and diaries. At risk to their own lives, they mimeographed or retyped reports so that friends, relatives, government officials, and the press could receive copies. Some dispatches found their way into mainstream periodicals, such as Reader's Digest. Editors at that magazine, concerned over the credibility of its initial exposé, continued to collect letters from Safety Zone Committee leaders and reprinted them several months later. "The material we have seen," the editors noted, "would fill an entire issue of this magazine, all of it corroborating the typical extracts which follow."

The horrors of Nanking resemble all too closely recent events in Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Chang tries to explain how a culture of obedience helped bring them about. "How could it be that a country as civilized as Germany…?" This classic incredulity over the Holocaust easily could be the point of departure in pondering how Japanese soldiers ("honorary Aryans," in Hitler's eyes) could have maimed, raped, tortured, and murdered so many unarmed civilians of all ages. (Ironically, it was a German businessman and Nazi loyalist, John Rabe, who emerged as the unlikely humanitarian hero, helping to create the Safety Zone and saving some 300,000 lives in the process.) While the Nazi atrocities rightly continue to be tagged as absolute evil, Japan's are merely the product of "fanaticism." But fanatics aren't born, and as Chang explains, the methods to their madness had origins.

First, Japan since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 had revamped its system of education to the point where schooling and preparation for war had become almost interchangeable. Student-teachers, for example, were housed in barracks during their training and subject to harsh discipline and indoctrination. By the 1930s many teachers themselves were military officers, lecturing students on their divine duty to conquer Asia. Obedience to authority, most of all to the emperor, was the cardinal virtue. Teachers would instill shame and terror in renegade students, often by slapping, punching, and bludgeoning. Hatred for the Chinese was part of the core curriculum, no matter what the pretext. Chang recounts one story of a teacher who punched a boy in class for being squeamish about dissecting a frog. The teacher yelled, "Why are you crying about one lousy frog. When you grow up you'll have to kill one hundred, two hundred chinks!"

Training for military recruits took such "schooling" to its logical conclusion. If the schools were molding a New Japanese Citizen–stoic, brutal, and obedient–the military wanted the cream of the crop. Officers were unceasing in their abuse, often slapping and punching recruits until they bled, saying: "I do not beat you because I hate you. I beat you because I care for you." The idea was to instill in young soldiers a numbness to killing civilians, not just soldiers. In any society, Chang observes, those with the least power "are often the most sadistic if given the power of life and death over people even lower on the pecking order." In Japan, those at the bottom of the military hierarchy turned their wrath on the Chinese, a people they'd been trained to regard, quite literally, as less than human. A culture war was about to become a shooting one.

That leads to a second major reason for the Nanking genocide: sadism as an affirmation of traditional cultural loyalty. Social rank, even in modern Japan, was still determined by proximity to the emperor and enforced by ritualized politeness. Chang recognizes that civility, when elevated to a cult, justifies rather than discourages violent behavior. For centuries a Samurai warrior had the authority to cut off the head of any peasant who failed to answer questions politely. Citing Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Chang notes the Samurai code was localized; that is, a person could commit atrocities on foreign turf that they would regard as unthinkable on their own. Though with less rigor than Michael Ignatieff's new book, The Warrior's Honor, Chang recognizes that modern ethnic cleansing is grassroots tyranny gone national; the problem is less "the state" per se than a certain social type who seizes the state's institutions, most of all its military, as a means to subjugate groups of outsider status. At once Westernizing and fiercely anti-Western, Japan's radical militarists paradoxically used the tools of modernity to mobilize for the defense of tradition.

There remains much work to be done in getting the Japanese government to reckon with truth, but change is occurring. In the spring of 1994 the new Japanese justice minister, Gen. Nagano Shigeto, gave a newspaper interview claiming the Nanking massacre was a fabrication; the uproar across Asia triggered his quick resignation. In late 1996 our own Justice Department established a watch list of Japanese war criminals with the intent of barring them from entering the country.

While the publication of The Rape of Nanking will surely spur similar developments, Chang's analysis of Nanking holds a lesson for contemporary America, too, one that should resonate with libertarians: Beware of those who, in the name of maintaining and recovering "tradition," turn to the state as a blunt instrument of moral development in citizens.

Carl F. Horowitz ( is a Washington correspondent for Investor's Business Daily.