Discover more from David’s hause
A Massacre in the Making: Separating Truth from Fiction about Nanking
Think through the evidence for yourself
Japanese forces entered the city of Nanking in December of 1937. What happened next has long been, for many, an article of faith.
Japanese soldiers, allege some contemporary historians, killed as many as two hundred thousand civilians in a frenzied rampage. The Chinese Communist Party agrees, upping the figure to three hundred thousand. We are also told of mass rapes by the Japanese.
Anyone who questions any of this is accused of being a “denialist.” For many who make such accusations, the Nanking Massacre, as the events of late 1937 are commonly called, is a given, moated with epithets and fenced around by a taboo.
However, while history as fact does not change, history as inquiry never stops. Truth must be sifted from falsehood endlessly. Eyewitnesses must be cross-examined, sources must be probed, newly-unearthed documents must be evaluated. Assertions must be weighed in the balance with the motives of those who make them.
On the question of Nanking in late 1937, scholarship is rich and complex. Dogmatic insistence and knee-jerk accusations of “denialism” do not do justice to the hard work that researchers have put into arriving at an honest understanding of a pivotal moment in the Greater East Asia War. It is time to revisit Nanking and reckon dispassionately with the full brace of facts and circumstances.
Evolving Scholarship on Nanking
In the March, 2023 issue of the Japanese newsmagazine Seiron, Ikeda Haruka, a researcher with the International Research Institute of Controversial Histories, introduces important new developments in the scholarly understanding of Nanking.
Japanese researcher Higashinakano Shudo is a widely-cited authority on Nanking. However, Ikeda problematizes Higashinakano’s too-heavy focus, as Ikeda sees it, on propaganda efforts undertaken by the Nationalist forces in China (the Kuomintang, or KMT) and aimed at foreign audiences, in particular the United States.
Ikeda reminds his readers that Nationalist propaganda, such as that conducted by Dong Xianguang (Hollington K. Tong) (1887-1971) and Zeng Xubai (1895-1994) and filtered often through witting collaborators like Harold John Timperley (1898-1954), was predated by reports by a missionary in Nanking named Miner Bates (1897-1978). In history, timing is of course essential in reconstructing causation. It would seem that, in Nanking, it was the missionaries who had beaten the paid propagandists to the punch.
Ikeda therefore critiques Higashinakano as relying too heavily on the thesis that assertions about a massacre in Nanking were put out by those, such as Dong, Zeng, and Timperley, who were working in some capacity on behalf of Nationalist or other Chinese forces. In other words, Ikeda thinks that Higashinakano over-stresses the propaganda element, and does not look carefully enough at what else was going on in and around Nanking at the time of the alleged massacre.
Instead, Ikeda counter-argues, we must focus more on the missionaries themselves as the source of much, if not most, of the disinformation now current about Nanking.
What Was the Nanking “Safety Zone”?
In particular, and in addition to Bates, Ikeda points to a missive generated by a missionary named Wilson Plumer Mills (1883-1959) at a closed-door missionary conference held on November 18, 1937. The Mills missive urges missionaries to “encourage and comfort the Chinese army.” This exhortation, Ikeda says, culminated in the creation of the Safety Zone in Nanking.
But the “Safety Zone” was not, in fact, a safety zone, Ikeda concludes. Mills himself admitted as much in a letter to his family, Ikeda points out. In that letter, Mills refers to the zone as a “Nan Min Chu,” a “refugee zone.”
The difference is crucial. Ikeda brings us back to the “Safety Zone” in Nanking and asks us to take a closer look. There were Nationalist artillery pieces emplaced there. Armed Nationalist troops went into hiding in the “Safety Zone” after formal military maneuvers against the Japanese force had been officially concluded.
The missionaries, Ikeda writes, covered this up, and furthermore demanded that the Japanese not enter the “Safety Zone,” thus allowing Nationalist troops to hide among Chinese civilians. The Nationalist troops, free of Japanese interference, proceeded to commit rape, looting, arson, and other terrorist acts.
Much of this, I add, was later blamed on the Japanese. In the eyes of the missionaries in Nanking, working to “encourage and comfort the Chinese army,” was the “Safety Zone” for the safety of Chinese civilians, or Nationalist troops and their weapons?
It should also be noted that Wilson Plumer Mills, the architect of the “Safety Zone,” was deeply involved in political and military matters in China and acted as broker for a sought-after truce to open Nanking to the Japanese military. The meeting to this end was held aboard the USS Panay, bombed the very next month by the Japanese.
Where Is the Documentary Evidence?
The May, 2023 issue of Seiron contains yet more information about Nanking.
Researcher of modern history Ara Ken’ichi notes that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is unable to produce any documents to corroborate the assertion that Japanese troops murdered and plundered civilians in Nanking after entering the city in late 1937.
This is despite the fact that Ara and other scholars convened a study group and examined primary-source documents on Nanking in painstaking detail. The scholarly group concluded that the so-called Nanking Massacre was fabricated, wartime propaganda.
This does not mean, of course, that there were no crimes against civilians in Nanking. There were. As longtime historical researcher and political analyst Professor Tsutomu Nishioka points out in the same Seiron piece, General Matsui Iwane (1878-1948), commander of the Japanese Central China Area Army, “utterly deplored” the “abominable sexual violence” which “some young officers and soldiers” among the Japanese forces perpetrated in Nanking.
But that there was mass, systematic murder, looting, and raping by Japanese forces in Nanking is not supported by any documentation whatsoever. In fact, documentation and political circumstances paint an entirely different picture about what happened in December of 1937 in east-central China along the Yangtze River.
Why, then, Ara asks, does the Japanese Foreign Ministry claim otherwise?
The Japanese Establishment Perpetuates Fake History
A January 4, 1938 New York Times article mentions a Nationalist colonel and six of his aides who had been harbored in Nanking by foreign professors who were members of the Refugee Welfare Committee. The Nationalists had hidden rifles, revolvers, a machine gun, and ammunition among Chinese refugees. The men also admitted to looting and raping Chinese civilians and then blaming this on the Japanese.
But this documentary history has, unfortunately, often been sacrificed to politics.
In 2006, Ara points out, a joint Japan-China historical research initiative got underway. It was chaired by Kitaoka Shin’ichi, an emeritus professor at Tokyo University and one of the top establishment supporters of the US-Japan alliance. The Kitaoka-chaired initiative declared that there had been a massacre in Nanking.
Perhaps buoyed by such establishment support from inside Japan, in 2014, the People’s Republic of China applied to register the “Nanking Massacre” as part of the “Memory of the World” under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The application was approved.
History Must Be Factual
In the same May, 2023 Seiron article featuring the scholarly efforts of Ara Ken’ichi, fellow researchers Nishioka and Ezaki Michio argue forcefully that historical inquiry must be done in pursuit of facts.
As a concrete example of how such rigorous historical scholarship can fruitfully intersect with government, Nishioka mentions a project spearheaded by journalist Sakurai Yoshiko to shore up historical knowledge—rooted in facts—among government ministers in Japan.
At the same time, Nishioka laments that more was not done under the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s administration to correct mistaken historical assertions, such as that by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Japanese troops had murdered and plundered in Nanking.
The Hard Work of Historical Truth
However, Nishioka offers as a hopeful development Abe’s response to the baseless claim in some Japanese middle school history textbooks, beginning in 1997, that “comfort women of the Japanese military” had been “forcibly recruited.”
As Japan Policy Institute leader Ito Tetsuo outlined during a meeting of the Historical Awareness Research Committee in December of 2022, Nishioka offers, Abe did not call the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (“Monkasho”) minister on the carpet and demand that the textbooks be reworded. History is never done by fiat.
Instead, Abe organized eighty or so other Diet members into a study group which met on a near-weekly basis to examine the comfort women issue. The study group scheduled talks by those who insist that the comfort women had been abducted by the Japanese military. The group heard from Kono Yohei, the chief cabinet secretary who issued the notorious statement falsely admitting that the Japanese military had coerced women. The group invited also Ishihara Nobuo (1926-2023), who as deputy chief cabinet secretary had been instrumental in the preparation of the Kono Statement.
Eventually, after hearing from all sides and poring over historical research and documents, consensus built. There had, indeed, been no “forcible recruiting” of “comfort women of the Japanese military.” Historical truth won out.
Nanking Must Not Be Politicized
As the example of Abe’s labors to educate himself and his peers illustrates, history must be factual, but facts and people must both be respected. Historical truth takes hard work to discover and protect. Overcoming opposition to truth is a matter of diligence, sincerity, and the patient presentation of empirical proof.
There are no taboos, dogmas, or epithets in historical work. Truth is the only standard, and the only goal.
As Nishioka, Ezaki, and Ara argue in Seiron, one must be careful of politicians’ simply changing the meaning of words, or engaging in other expedients which do not honor the integrity of historical truth.
That truth, although long politicized, is slowly coming out about Nanking in 1937. Let us welcome that truth, bearing in mind that even the Chinese Communist Party long accused the Nationalists of 300,000 murders in Nanking, but now blames Japan.
Reading Iris Chang
Truth takes a long time to get to, especially historical truth. Very often, what is presented as consensus is the product of political maneuvering. One must learn to test assertions. It is a lifelong endeavor.
It was more than twenty years ago that I first read Iris Chang’s mass-market paperback The Rape of Nanking. The bestselling 1997 book, reputedly by a young American journalist of Chinese descent, disturbed me deeply. I was angered by the horrific depravities Chang details, and sickened to see the photographs which seemed to confirm, in gruesome detail, Chang’s account.
I knew that there were people in Japan, where I was living at the time I read Chang’s book, who insisted that the so-called Rape of Nanking could not be corroborated by documentary fact. It only increased my anger that anyone would attempt to paper over what I could see with my own eyes, in the photographs from the massacre which Chang published, to be true.
Photographic Evidence in the Negative
When I read Chang’s book, I was still learning Japanese. I was not ready then to read long essays and books written in that language. Over time, as I began to explore non-English-language research on my own, my initial reaction to The Rape of Nanking changed. I could see that Chang, who was no historian, had made big mistakes in interpreting sources.
But I still thought that the overall contours of the Rape of Nanking held. Chang was just one author, after all. Even if she didn’t understand the complexities of the Second Sino-Japanese War, or the realities of military command in an occupied city, it didn’t mean that the Rape of Nanking never happened.
However, it was a photograph that prompted me to pay more attention to arguments that went beyond detail-level criticisms of Chang’s book.
One of the most heartbreaking images reportedly from the Japanese attack on China is of a small child, perhaps a year or so old, sitting on the platform of a half-disintegrated train station, bawling. This photograph allegedly shows the brutality of the Japanese. Life magazine, an American publication, ran the photo in its October 2, 1937 issue.
This photograph is staged. The proof is in some other photographs, which document the deception. In those other photographs, a man and a boy can be seen. The man is arranging the scene featuring the crying child. The photo is not even from Nanking, but from Shanghai, nearly one hundred and seventy miles away. It is a propaganda shot, made to provoke exactly the kinds of reaction that Chang seemed to aim for: loathing for Japan.
Nationalist (Guomindang) supporter Hollington K. Tong (Dong Xianguang) (1887-1971), the man who arranged for the deception, admits as much in his autobiography. Readers may be interested in Australian National University professor Shuge Wei’s 2014 essay, “News As a Weapon: Hollington Tong and the Guomindang Centralized Foreign Propaganda, 1937-1938”.
“News as a weapon,” indeed.
Making a Big Lie
The propaganda photograph of the bawling baby on the train station, along with another photograph showing how that propaganda photo was staged, are on the cover of a recent book by M. Kanzako and Akira Kashima. The book is called Making of the Rape of Nanking: A Big Lie from World War II.
It was published in 2020 by Toronto Seiron, an organization in Canada which conducts research into Japanese and Asian history.
Readers may be put off by the book’s subtitle. The Rape of Nanking as a “big lie”? Toronto Seiron, some might recoil in disgust, must be a group of Holocaust deniers.
In fact, Miroslav Marinov, a freelance author whose work is familiar to many members of Toronto Seiron, conducts research, in part, into those in Japan and elsewhere who worked against the National Socialists’ drive to exterminate Jewry in Eurasia. I was invited by Toronto Seiron to speak at a local synagogue in 2018, and I categorically repudiate the allegation that this group is anti-Semitic.
In this talk of big lies, we should remember that World War II was the era of big lies. The term “big lie” comes from Mein Kampf. The entire Nazi terror was predicated on a big lie. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s (1878-1953) show trials and purges were made possible by big lies. Soviet disinformation in the postwar was also a series of lies, big and small. It is hardly inconceivable that a group seeking political gain would fabricate a narrative in order to stake out an advantageous position vis-à-vis a hated rival.
Indeed, this appears to be the shifting sand upon which much of “The Rape of Nanking” narrative is constructed. In Making of the Rape of Nanking, Kanzako and Kashima analyze twelve pages of photographs taken during the fall of Nanking to Japanese forces in late 1937 and early 1938. The photographs, many of which were included in doctored form and with concocted captions in Iris Chang’s book, tell a story opposite to the yarn Chang spins.
A Closer Scrutiny of the Sources
Photographs—and film—are just pieces of a larger puzzle. Images need context. Chang relies for that context, in part, on diaries written by two foreigners who were in Nanking as the city came under Japanese military control.
John Rabe (1882-1950), a Nazi businessman, was the chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. Wilhelmina “Minnie” Vautrin (1886-1941) was an American missionary and the head of Ginling College. Both wrote real-time accounts of what they saw during those tumultuous weeks and months over the winter of 1937-1938.
Kanzako and Kashima show in considerable detail, especially given Making of the Rape of Nanking’s slim size (just 91 pages, plus about twenty or so pages of appendix, including the dozen pages of photos mentioned above), that Chang either did not read the sources she cites, or did not understand those sources, or, perhaps, intentionally distorted them.
This is despite some publicity, possibly based on false premises, about “discovering” Rabe’s diaries, publicity in which Chang was involved. This is also despite Chang’s having called Rabe, who reported directly to Hitler, “the Oskar Schindler of China,” and having compared Vautrin rather hyperbolically to Anne Frank.
Take Rabe for example. The Nanking Safety Zone which he oversaw contained between 200,000 and 250,000 souls. Rabe himself estimated 50-60,000 killed. Chang, and the Chinese Communist Party, claim that 300,000 people were massacred by the Japanese.
But the Nanking Safety Zone sheltered refugees, as Kanzako and Kashima write, “with the full knowledge and consent of the Japanese troops and diplomats” in the Nanking area. Rabe’s diary entries make this clear.
If the Japanese were hell-bent on massacring Chinese citizens, why didn’t they breach the undefended Safety Zone to do so? And if the Japanese were massacring citizens in the Safety Zone, why in the world did three hundred thousand people stick around to be murdered?
As Chang herself writes, rumors flew around the city. Word of a massacre would have spread like wildfireamong the war-caught citizens of Nanking. Citizens would have scattered to the winds.
Who Works for Whom?
Vautrie’s words, too, are strangely digested by Chang. Kanzako and Kashima point out that, in Vautrie’s diary, the missionary educator portrays the Chinese people as suffering greatly under the “scorched earth” policy of, not Japan, but Nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975).
Recall that just six months or so after the alleged Rape of Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his Nationalist army to unleash the Yellow River on central China. As many as 900,000 people were killed, 800,000 by the Nationalists’ own estimates. Millions more were made homeless.
Miner Searle Bates (1897-1978), a history scholar at the University of Nanking, was also on the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. Chang cites Bates’ testimonials in her book. However, Kanzako and Kashima report, Bates “was an adviser to the Chinese central government.”
After the fall of Nanking, an Australian journalist named Harold John (H.J.) Timperley (1898-1954) wrote a book about Nanking titled What War Means: The Japanese Terror in China (1938). The book was published as part of the Left Book Club series by a British intellectual and Communist Party fellow traveler named Victor Gollancz (1893-1967). (It was Gollancz who also published Edgar Snow’s 1937 book Red Star Over China, an encomium to Mao Zedong (1893-1976) and the Chinese Communist Party.) Chang mentions Timperley approvingly in The Rape of Nanking.
How reliable a source is Timperley? Timperley’s former employer, the British paper The Guardian, denies the charge, but contemporary documents and other materials (one example of which is discussed below) provethat Timperley was a paid agent of the Nationalists.
Hearsay Reported and Re-Reported as Fact
The above context is of tremendous importance. But one finds none of it in the work of Iris Chang, the author of the popular mass-market book The Rape of Nanking. Chang, no historian, is often careless, or worse, with her sources.
In a recent book by M. Kanzako and Akira Kashima titled Making of the Rape of Nanking: A Big Lie from World War II, the two researchers demonstrate that Chang works inaccurately (and perhaps intentionally so) from figures and testimonials about “the Rape of Nanking” contained in the diaries of Nazi businessman John Rabe (1882-1950) and American missionary Minnie Vautrin (1886-1941).
If Chang takes Rabe and Vautrie out of context, then it must be admitted that Rabe and Vautrie repeat rumors in their diaries, too. It must also be admitted that neither Rabe nor Vautrie could possibly have independently confirmed anything beyond a tiny fraction of those rumors. Indeed, much of what was reported to Rabe, Vautrie, and others on the International Committee in Nanking was hearsay, or else intentionally falsified information.
Kanzako and Kashima note that Fukuda Tokuyasu (1906-1993), “the deputy Consulate General whose job it was to deal with complaints and concerns brought on by the International Committee [about Japanese behavior in Nanking],” spent much of his time investigating those reports. Fukuda often found them to be baseless. It seems no one else bothered to do much checking into the claims which Vautrie, the Nazi Rabe, and others reported in their accounts, and which Chang repeats as fact.
Contradictions Glossed Over
Chang does cite Tokuda’s words once in her book. She portrays him as working to mollify Japanese military leaders lusting for the ruin of Nanking. Chang cites Tokuda directly under some other quotes by Westerners in Nanking. The Westerners are pleading with the Japanese military to increase patrols and so keep order in the city. One wonders which it was–were the Japanese peacekeepers, or mass murderers?
It is remarkable that Chang did not notice blatant contradictions such as these, of which there are many other examples. Did her publisher not notice either?
By a similar token, many Chinese troops were—illegally—hiding inside the refugee zones which Japan was honoring in Nanking. Under these circumstances, reported rapes and looting and murders, where true, could just as easily have been the doing of Chinese as of Japanese.
Chang, however, assumes, even where there are no grounds to do so, that unconfirmed reports about atrocities are: a) true, and b) to be blamed on Japan. There are many possibilities beyond a) and b). Chang is uninterested.
There is also the problem of determining when 300,000 people were massacred. The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek issued press reports every day for an audience of foreign correspondents hungry for news about China. There is no mention of a massacre in those reports, not even for late 1937 and early 1938 when, according to Chang, the killing would have reached a frenzied pace.
Some scholars writing in English have attempted to explain away this discrepancy. Readers can decide for themselves.
Harder to explain, however, is that official documents from the Nationalist side indicate that the population of Nanking increased during the “massacre” about which Chang writes.
As a side note, it bears mentioning that, in The Rape of Nanking, Chang thanks Columbia historian Carol Gluck and several other prominent researchers in the United States and England. They “took the time to review my book before publication and enrich it with their important scholarly suggestions,” Chang writes.
In The Rape of Nanking, Chang describes rather laughable non-events in history. For example, Chang says that Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) arrived in Japan in the mid 1850s in “metal-clad” ships. Ironclads were not used by Americans until the Civil War a decade later, and not even invented until 1859.
Chang also says that Perry paraded his armed American troops through the streets of Edo. This didn’t happeneither.
And yet, Gluck “enrich[ed]” Chang’s book.
Incidentally, Gluck has been among the most vocal proponents in the United States of the North American comfort woman narrative.
The Opacity of a Monolingual Research Environment
Japanese researcher and author Ara Ken’ichi has written richly detailed essays and books about Nanking. Ara has also conducted investigations into how the Nanking narrative is perpetuated by the Japanese media and political sphere.
What Ara has found is that, for example, the Foreign Ministry of Japan is unable to produce any documentary evidence or other sources to back up their public acceptance of the Rape of Nanking narrative. Ara has also found that the burial records from Nanking submitted to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE, also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trial) had been altered, the numbers greatly inflated.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a highly recommended work translating eyewitness accounts from forty-eight Japanese who were at Nanking, almost all of Ara’s output is in Japanese.
So are the books of Higashinakano Shudo, who in 1999 wrote a critical study of Iris Chang’s 1997 volume.
Mizuma Masanori has produced excellent volumes analyzing a number of contentious histories involving Japan. Even readers who do not know Japanese will appreciate Mizuma’s 2017 book on Nanking, as it is filled with historical photographs.
Ikeda Haruka has focused on primary sources in the study of the Nanking Massacre.
Hayasaka Takashi’s 2021 book on various key events during the Greater East Asia War contains important firsthand accounts of Nanking. But Hayasaka’s book is in Japanese as well.
It is unfortunate (but perhaps only natural) that so much of what those in Western countries know about Nanking is received from English-language sources. It is doubly unfortunate when one considers that not all who have written about Nanking have told the truth. Cross-checking testimonials against those in a variety of other sources, ideally across several languages, is essential.
The Witnesses Speak—And Don’t Speak
On the subject of the IMTFE, Kanzako and Kashima mention the testimony given to that tribunal in 1948 by Robert O. Wilson (1906-1967), whom Iris Chang mentions as “the only surgeon in Nanking”.
This is not true. The Japanese military of course had surgeons on staff, and those surgeons and other medical personnel tended to the Chinese wounded as well as to the Japanese.
One wonders how much of what Wilson said is true as well. For example, Wilson described in his testimony to the IMTFE that he saw trenches which the Japanese military had filled with dead bodies so that tanks could pass over. As Kanzako and Kashima point out, as delicately as they can, this is absurd. Human bodies cannot support the weight of tanks.
Chang also mentions ponds which were filled in with dead bodies. This is also absurd. How and why anyone would move dead bodies from the water’s edge out, so filling up the available area of a pond, is not explained, and probably beyond explanation.
Chang cites other of Wilson’s tales, but as Kanzako and Kashima explain, even the diaries of Rabe and Vautrie contain nothing about some of Wilson’s allegations. Chang’s two star eyewitnesses are completely silent on mass rape of Chinese girls by “an entire regiment,” for example. (Kanzako and Kashima remind us that a regiment in the Japanese army comprised “approximately 3,000 men.”)
Nor do Rabe or Vautrie mention Wilson’s bizarre claim that he saw a “woman whose head was nearly cut off, teetering from a bone on her neck.” The reason for the diarists’ silence is probably, as Kanzako and Kashima write, that the jugular arteries—not to mention the windpipe—run through the neck. It is not anatomically possible that someone have her head “nearly cut off” and “teetering” on her spinal column and still be alive.
What’s more, Chang would have us believe that a woman in such a frightful state was not only alive, but able to walk herself to Dr. Wilson’s clinic.
Furthermore, as Kanzako and Kashima say, Wilson did not even tell these stories to the IMTFE. He told them to his wife, Marjorie Wilson. Decades later, Mrs. Wilson told them over the telephone to Chang. Chang duly repeated that telephone-game information in her bestselling book, the one purporting to tell the truth about “the Rape of Nanking.”
Hiding a Massacre with another Massacre
Kanzako and Kashima mention the Tongzhou Massacre. About six months before the fall of Nanking, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in early July of 1937, Japanese citizens living in Nanking were massacred by Nationalist soldiers.
Unlike the Nanking Massacre, the Tongzhou Massacre does not rely on distortions and empty document caches. Fujioka Nobukatsu, formerly a professor at Takushoku University and the University of Tokyo, has produced a highly readable account, based on a Japanese testimonial by a Tongzhou Massacre survivor, about the incident.
Professor Fujioka is not the only scholar to argue that the narrative surrounding the Nanking Massacre was based on the very real Tongzhou Massacre. It appears that, to some extent at least, the Tongzhou Massacre provided the real-life (and -death) inspiration for later accounts of “the Rape of Nanking.”
The Beijing Connection to Nanking
In a recent book by M. Kanzako and Akira Kashima titled Making of the Rape of Nanking: A Big Lie from World War II, the two researchers expose many inconsistencies and innacuracies in American author Iris Chang’s 1997 book The Rape of Nanking.
Kanzako and Kashima do not detail, however, the overlap between Iris Chang’s anti-Japan advocacy and almost identical insistences by the People’s Republic of China.
I have examined documents explaining the program of a December, 1996 anti-Japan symposium featuring, among many other activists, Iris Chang. Note that “Chang’s” book was published in 1997.
The anti-Japan symposium was organized by a man named Ignatius Ding. Ding founded the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia, an organization based in Northern California. Global Alliance engages in activities highly resonant with the Chinese Communist Party’s various propaganda objectives.
Ding is credited in open-source news items as having “sponsored some of [Chang’s] early research.” The Rape of Nanking appears to have been funded in part by Ding and Global Alliance. Chang thanks Ding in The Rape of Nanking, along with several other people who appeared at the 1996 anti-Japan symposia. One of those is Karen Parker, a “human rights lawyer” who has contributed legal heft to proceedings against Japan on the comfort women issue.
In November of 2004, Iris Chang succumbed to severe delusion and other forms of mental illness. She committed suicide in her car along a quiet road in California. Chang left behind three suicide notes. The last read, in part:
I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.
Ignatius Ding, again according to open-source reporting, later “worked with Chinese officials” to design a museum in Cupertino, California dedicated to Chang’s memory.
Righting the Historical Record
Iris Chang’s book about Nanking in 1937 and 1938 is badly flawed. It is also, possibly, an extension of a propaganda initiative by the People’s Republic of China and PRC supporters in the United States.
But it does not follow from these circumstances that nothing bad happened in Nanking as Japanese troops took over the city in 1937 and 1938. The commanding officer at the time, Commander of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force General Matsui Iwane (1878-1948), was at great pains to stop rapes and looting by his men. Rapes, looting, even murders are part of war, and Japan’s military, although highly disciplined, was no exception.
Matsui was executed by the Americans after World War II, based on the highly dubious testimony against him by, among others, a doctor resident in Nanking in 1937 and 1938, an American named Robert O. Wilson. Kanzako and Kashima argue that Matsui’s reputation should be rehabilitated now that much more of the truth about Nanking has come to light. It would seem that simple justice would demand as much.
Assembling the Context
Still, that Matsui fought so hard to stop rape and looting means that those things were happening in Nanking. It would seem, therefore, from the example of Matsui’s efforts and also from examples of other armies taking other cities in other wars, that the argument that there were zero instances of Japanese soldiers abusing civilians in Nanking is untenable.
Readers are urged to consult the work on Nanking by historian Hata Ikuhiko. Professor Hata, whom Chang also cites, works from documentary evidence and strongly rejects the assertion that Nanking fell without incident.
(In an infamous confrontation in 1997, Chang and fellow activists accosted Professor Hata during a presentation he gave at Princeton University.)
Although his analysis has been updated from time to time in keeping with ongoing research, Professor Hata’s estimate of the Nanking death toll is about one-seventh of the figure Chang cites.
What Remains of The Rape of Nanking?
However, while the number of murders, rapes, and other crimes committed by the Japanese military in Nanking was surely not zero, Professor Hata’s estimates are probably too high. There is more context to consider.
The figures here reported are for civilians, with the very slight possibility of the inclusion of a few scattered soldiers. The reports made in the Survey indicate that 3,250 were killed by military action under known circumstances. Of those killed 2,400 (74 per cent) were killed by soldiers’ violence apart from military operations. There is reason to expect under-reporting of deaths and violence at the hands of the Japanese soldiers, because of the fear of retaliation from the army of occupation. Indeed, under-reporting is clearly emphasized by the failure to record any violent deaths of young children, although not a few are known to have occurred.
By “Survey” Professor Smythe means:
The International Committee’s Surveys were really two, though each of them was compound. The City Survey was essentially an inquiry among families resident in Nanking, supplemented by an investigation of all buildings unoccupied as well as occupied, and separating for special attention as food-producers the market gardeners who are scattered through three or four sections of the city. The Agricultural Survey was essentially an inquiry among resident farm families, supplemented by a village survey […] , and by the listing of significant prices in market towns.
The Survey (or Surveys) cover(s) the time span December, 1937 to March, 1938, and, geographically, the city and surroundings of Nanking.
As for the population of Nanking during that time, Professor Smythe estimates that, “At the time the city [i.e., Nanking] fell (December 12-13), its population was between 200,000 and 250,000.”
Professor Smythe was a paid agent of the Chinese Nationalists. Zeng Xubai (1895-1994), Director of the International Propaganda Office for the Nationalist Government, wrote in his autobiography that the money his bureau paid Smythe (and Timperley, who helped deliver payments to Smythe) for their propaganda services was well spent.
Even using the numbers of a paid propagandist of Japan’s enemy, on Iris Chang’s telling the Japanese military would have had to import between fifty and one hundred thousand people from the surrounding countryside in order to kill three hundred thousand people inside a city which was under the watchful eye of international observers.
Even using the numbers of a paid propagandist, the dead in Nanking number in the very low thousands. And it is virtually impossible to assign blame for individual murders (or rapes or lootings) to either the invading Japanese or the defending Nationalists.
Again, readers are invited to think through the evidence for themselves.
An excellent place to start is with M. Kanzako’s and Akira Kashima’s 2020 volume, Making of the Rape of Nanking.