The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture.

Jeff Kingston

Edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. Bergahn Books, NY, 2007. 433 pp.
Reviewed by Jeff Kingston (11/14/07)
This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Nanking Massacre, but it is not yet a time for quiet reflection about the horrors of the past. Instead, vitriolic recriminations, denials, minimizing and shifting of responsibility define and shape the discourse about this tragedy. There is little middle ground and prospects for a consensus among Japanese scholars and between Japan and China remain remote because political agendas continue to resonate loudly within the discourse.
Thus, this outstanding collection of essays detailing what is known about what actually happened at Nanking, and overview of the historiographical battle lines, is an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the Atrocity. These essays provide a compelling refutation of the tired and implausible arguments typically espoused by the deniers and minimizers and also vividly portray the various atrocities committed by the Imperial Armed Forces. This collection also offers refreshing counterpoints to the hyperbole that biases –and undermines-Chinese accounts of the tragedy.
It is no longer possible—if it ever was- to cast doubts on the extent and nature of the horrific crimes Japanese soldiers perpetrated on Chinese civilians and POWs in and around Nanking. Certainly much can never be known, but so much is known and verified that any further attempt by reactionaries and apologists to minimize, mitigate or shirk responsibility for these appalling malefactions demonstrates willful ignorance. For a taste of this ignorance readers are encouraged to visit the Yushukan Museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine; where else will one find a film clip that cuts from the scene of a triumphal collective “Banzai!” atop the city walls to a Japanese soldier ladling out soup for the young and elderly while the narrator asserts that the Japanese restored peace to Nanking?
So what are the complications suggested in the subtitle? Well the exact number of victims will never be known. So what? The focus on the numbers game casts a huge shadow over the Nanking discourse, but whether it was 10,000 or 300,000 is hardly the main issue and deflects attention away from an understanding of the causes and consequences of this atrocity. Holding Nanking hostage to the slippery numbers game is a gambit by conservatives to artificially constrain scholarly inquiry—we can say nothing until we know with precision everything– and ignores more important questions like why these soldiers were permitted to run amok, why did they do what they did, who was responsible and why attempts at airbrushing this atrocity persist.
Complications also arise from the spatial and temporal boundaries of the Atrocity. Depending on where one draws the boundaries—the city walls, the surrounding six counties or along the invasion route from the coast—and the initial six weeks or some longer period, makes a difference in the magnitude of the crimes. It is also inconvenient that conservative historians have been right in insisting on solid empirical research based on sound historical methods rather than instrumentalizing war memory for political purposes. The horrors of Nanking encapsulate a consummate evil that needs no embellishment.
There are sixteen chapters by eleven authors, including eight Japanese or Japanese-American contributors, demonstrating that Iris Chang was wrong in suggesting that Japanese suffer collective amnesia about Nanking. Clearly, Japanese researchers are conducting some of the finest scholarship on Nanking and the absurd arguments of the deniers featured in the mass media are not representative of Japanese public opinion or scholarly consensus…

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