Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: A New Consensus on the Rape of Nanking





[Kate Merkel-Hess is an ACLS/Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the University of California - Irvine, the editor of "The China Beat" blog/electronic magazine, and a co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at University of California - Irvine and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in April.]

The "Rape of Nanking," in which invading Japanese soldiers slaughtered and raped a massive number of Chinese civilians, has long been a flashpoint in formal relations between Beijing and Tokyo, as well as a subject capable of arousing strong feelings among the general population of both countries, particularly in China.

The debate was recently reopened by a joint report issued by the governments of China and Japan. But while most newspaper accounts have focused on the remaining points of disagreement -- including the still-disputed death toll -- they've tended to miss the larger significance of the report: that historians appointed by both countries did, for the first time, agree that the Japanese army committed atrocities during the war and that Japan's illegal acts of aggression were the main cause of hostilities.

Ever since the end of the Pacific War in 1945, characterizations of what happened in Nanjing have varied widely depending on whom you ask. At one end of the spectrum, the unfortunate historical episode that began with Japanese troops entering Nanjing in early December 1937 has been referred to as China's counterpart to the Holocaust. At the other end, it has been treated as a predictably bloody wartime effort to assert control over a captured city. Historians in Japan have typically estimated the number killed at between 20,000 and 200,000 Chinese citizens (with those on the far right tending to veer toward small casualty figures), while historians in China have often insisted that more than 300,000 people died, the great majority of them non-combatants. It is not a debate likely to be easily resolved. In the chaos of war (and the conflagration in question was especially chaotic), careful records of the murdered are seldom kept, and accounts of mass burials and burnings of bodies indicates that, in this case, we are likely never to know precisely how many civilian deaths occurred....

The main points of agreement constitute a major step forward in Sino-Japanese relations. For years, there have been some historians in Japan moving toward a more moderate position on Nanjing, but there have also been periodic efforts by Japanese officials to sidestep or minimize the issue of Japanese culpability and misbehavior, their sentiments echoed by a small number of textbooks authorized for use in Japan's classrooms. Japanese leaders have historically ignored pleas to acknowledge fully the extent to which Japan was responsible for Pacific War-era devastation and violence not just in China but also in Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. So, all in all, the report has much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, coverage of its release in the United States has tended to focus on the continued disagreement over the massacre's death toll. The same has been true in much of the Japanese press. Chinese papers, by contrast, while taking note of the disagreement over numbers, have typically led with what is arguably the much bigger story -- Japan's acknowledgment, in an official report, that the war was due to Japanese aggression....

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