The Chinese call it a war crime. The Japanese describe it as an ‘incident’. David McNeill reports from Tokyo on how the Nanjing massacre still haunts an uneasy relationship
20 April 2005
Last weekend, 15-year-old Akari Shimoda sat down to dinner in Tokyo and watched in amazement as snarling protesters in Shanghai shouting “Japanese pigs out” filled her television screen. The demonstrators surrounded the Japanese consulate in the city and pelted it with rocks and bottles before smashing shop windows, overturning cars and beating Japanese students.
“It’s a scary country,” said Akari, who says she does not understand the phrase “repent for war crimes” on the placards of the protesters. “The police just stand around and let them act.”
Does she know why the protesters are angry? “Not really. I think Japan did something to China in the past, I’m not sure what. It was so long ago.”
Japanese children’s ignorance of Asian history, thanks to a curriculum that glosses over imperial Japan’s brief but brutal colonial adventure until 1945, has been a source of controversy in Asia for decades. The contrast in China, where every 15-year-old is taught that wartime Emperor Hirohito’s brainwashed troops butchered and looted their way across their country for 14 years, could not be starker.
This contested history, stoked by growing economic and regional rivalry, helps explain why distrust and suspicion lurk beneath the surface of a booming bilateral trade relationship.
“There is so much hate between our two countries,” says Alice Lee, a saleswoman in Guangzhou, southern China. “Even though I like Japanese culture and products, we Chinese find it hard to forgive them for what they did to us in the past.”
Japanese troops poured into the wartime capital city of Nanjing on 13 December 1937, after suffering heavy casualties in Shanghai. They then began a six-week orgy of medieval raping, killing and looting, carrying out what the United Human Rights Council called “the single worst atrocity during the World War Two era in either the European or Pacific theatres of war”.
An American eyewitness, Minnie Vautrin, who kept a diary, wrote on 16 December 1937: “There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today.” Witnesses said soldiers practised with bayonets on tied-up prisoners, burnt others alive and set dogs on children.
Pregnant women were raped and bayoneted, decapitated heads were put on spikes or waved around like trophies, hundreds of unarmed civilians were mown down with machine guns and dumped in rivers and open graves.
Tillman Durdin, the New York Times reporter who called the rape of Nanjing “one of the great atrocities of modern times”, described a car journey to the city’s river front. “The car just had to drive over these dead bodies. And the scene on the river front, as I waited for the launch … was of a group of smoking, chattering Japanese officers overseeing the massacring of a battalion of Chinese captured troops.”
The most famous witness was John Rabe – the so-called Good Man of Nanjing, an Oscar Schindler-type businessman who ran the local Nazi party but became leader of an international safety zone that reportedly saved 250,000 lives.
After weeks watching children and old women being repeatedly raped then murdered, often with extreme cruelty, he wrote in his diary that the suffering “dumbfounded” him. Exactly how many were killed in Nanjing is one of the most bitterly contested statistics of the Second World War.
The best-known account, by the Chinese-American author Iris Chang, who committed suicide earlier this year and who said she “felt rage” and suffered nightmares during her research, claims more than 300,000 Chinese died and at least 20,000 women were raped. Her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was the target of a vitriolic campaign by neo-nationalists in Japan who said it was full of lies and exaggerations.
Today, Nanjing is another of China’s booming, rapidly modernising cities, a metropolis of more than four million people with wide tree-lined streets and a new highway stretching to Shanghai. The city memorialises the winter of 1937 in a sparse concrete bunker in the south-western suburbs where the figure “300,000” is carved in four-foot black lettering on the museum wall. Inside, an exhibition of pictures of mutilated corpses and glass cases containing the bones of the victims concludes with a visitors’ book.
“I cried when I learnt what my country did,” reads a comment from one of the many Japanese visitors.
In the catalogue of Japanese war crimes in China, Nanjing is rivalled only by the gruesome experiments of Unit 731, which was then the most elaborate biological warfare programme ever created; a four-mile complex of squat buildings in Ping Fang, south of Harbin, that turned diseases such as typhoid, anthrax, smallpox, cholera and dysentery into mass-produced killers.
The atrocities included dissection of live prisoners in an attempt to determine the effects of pathogens on the human body.
Yoshio Shinozuka, who was just 16 years old when he was dispatched by authorities in Tokyo to help the Unit 731 scientists, remembers the first time he assisted in an experiment on one of the prisoners who were known asmurata, or logs.
“I knew the Chinese individual we dissected alive,” he recalls. “At the vivisection I could not meet his eyes because of the hate in them. He was infected with plague germs and, as the disease took its toll, his face and body became totally black. Still alive, he was brought on a stretcher to the autopsy room, where I was ordered to wash the body. I used a rubber hose and a deck brush to wash him … The man’s organs were methodically excised one by one.” The results harvested by military scientists from these experiments were, by 1940, being used to spread typhoid, cholera and plague across China.
Teams of soldiers were sent to dump pathogens in rivers and water supplies. When these methods proved too slow and soldiers ended up poisoning themselves, military brains were racked for more efficient delivery systems. Shinozuka and his colleagues were put to work cultivating fleas.
When Japanese planes flew over Chongshan village in Zheijiang Province in 1942, the residents remember seeing a black cloud descending from the skies. Within days, many residents developed high fevers, headaches and swollen lymph nodes; the symptoms of flea-borne plague – the same disease that wiped out much of the European population in the Middle Ages. Within two months, about 400 people, or one-third of the village’s population, had died.
Estimates of casualties from Japan’s germ warfare programme in China from 1932 to 1945 vary, but the most careful English- language study so far, by the American historian Sheldon H Harris, says that even by late 1942 the casualty count “fell into the six-figure range”. Outbreaks of disease continued long after the scientists – whose parting gift was to release thousands of disease-ridden rats before dynamiting the germ factories – melted back into post-war civilian life back home.
Few Japanese students know anything about Unit 731, even though, after years of denial, a Japanese court ruled in a landmark lawsuit three years ago that the germ warfare programme did exist. Most Chinese know the whole sordid tale, including the bitter sting at the end.
While Shinozuka and other Unit 731 minions were sent to Chinese prisons as war criminals, the military mandarins who had built the programme and boasted of its war-winning potential to Tokyo were protected in exchange for their research findings.
In newly released documents published by historians over the past decade, American military scientists emphasised the “extreme value” of the intelligence information gained in Japanese germ-warfare tests. “The value to the US of Japanese biological warfare data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from ‘war crimes’ prosecution,” wrote one. The military seal of approval meant immunity for the key figures, including the programme’s architect, Shiro Ishii, who died in Tokyo in 1959 without ever spending a day in court.
Many went on to have lucrative post-war careers in the medical industry. Unit 731 and its aftermath ranks, according to the veteran Japanese civil rights lawyer Keiichiro Ichinose, with the worst of the Nazis’ war crimes. “The government here has got to come to terms with this before it can move forward with the rest of its Asian neighbours,” he says.
Japan’s way of moving forward since the war has been to sign normalisation agreements with its former enemies, ending all claims for compensation, and to hand over billions of dollars in development aid, an apology of sorts that means not having to say the word sorry.
But its failure to make a clean break with the past has allowed the issue of war guilt to be manipulated by Beijing, which has ratcheted up patriotism, anti-Japanese and anti-US rhetoric as the social fallout from two decades of breakneck capitalism has grown. And as disputes over resources and territory worsen, this patriotism threatens to take on a life of its own.
As Japanese businesses and consulates in China cleaned up after another weekend of rioting, one of the sadder sights on television was diplomats on both sides insisting that they had not said sorry. “It is Japan who should apologise first for its war history,” said Wu Dawei, the Vice-Foreign Minister. Meanwhile, Japan’s Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, was telling the press in Tokyo that he had not expressed “deep apologies” during a private meeting with Li Zhaoxing, his Chinese counterpart. “I said no such thing,” he said. After all these years, sorry, it seems, is still the hardest word.
What it says in the Japanese textbooks
The history textbook at the centre of the dispute between Japan and its neighbours is just one of eight selected by Japan’s Ministry of Education for use in secondary schools. In it, the Japanese invasion of Asia is called the “war in Asia and the Pacific” and the word “invasion” changed to “advancement”, or replaced with neutral phases like “extension of the battle line”.
References to Unit 731 are dropped. The 1937 Nanjing massacre is changed to the “Nanjing incident” and the casualties played down, with the implication that China invented the episode – a common contention among Japanese nationalists; Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s governor, famously called the massacre a “Chinese lie”.
References to “comfort women”, or an estimated 100,000-200,000 sexual slaves from across Asia forced to service imperial troops, are not included.
The 1943 Greater East Asia Conference, held in Tokyo, was said to be working for the “cooperation of each country and the elimination of racial discrimination”, even as imperial scientists were experimenting on Chinese prisoners in Unit 731 like animals in a zoo.
The benefits of Japan’s brief colonial rule of the Korean peninsula are extolled and China is essentially blamed for its own subjugation for rebuffing Japan’s attempts in the 1920s to deal with the country “in a spirit of co-operation”.
War in China was prolonged, the textbook says, because of the tactics of the Chinese Communist Party, which formed an alliance with the Nationalists in the 1930s. The population in Japan’s colonial outposts around Asia “co-operated” to defeat Western imperialism.
This approach is combined with the sometimes selective use of facts: readers are told that Japanese people tried to save Jews from the Nazi Holocaust but not that imperial scientists were also conducting Nazi-style experiments on Chinese and other Asian prisoners; that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been judged a crime on a par with the Holocaust and the African slave trade, but not that the Japanese war machine also enslaved millions of Asians.
The Japan that emerges from the pages is moderate, stoic and put-upon; a reluctant warrior steering a tortuous path between the Scylla of national security and the Charybdis of Western colonialism. It is a comforting picture, but not one that the rest of Asia is likely to agree with.