The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[2020 reread] I was re-watching the first two seasons of The Man in the High Castle to refresh memory before picking it up again and the Japanese cruelty (more pronounced in the show than the Germans’) reminded me of this book. I’d started in back in 2003 during our seven year stay in South Korea, never finishing it until a couple of years after moving back to the US in 2007. As I noted in 2011, it’s a hard book and one I probably would have been okay not rereading…but I did. I finished it a couple of days ago and needed time to regroup.
I took different notes this time, though my original copy was lost to a fire in 2013 so that’s just a guess, but I know me and how my mind has changed. But I do know that as with that first prolonged read, I stopped flagging stuff through most of the middle. It’s not pretty, but that should be expected. This copy had her husband’s epilogue for the 2011 edition and I’ll share something from that upfront before diving into the book: the writing and subject had nothing to do with Ms. Chang’s suicide. That was an unrelated mental illness. She finished the Rape in 1997 and didn’t dhow “any real signs of mental illness until 2004.” Her husband said many have speculated as to her breakdown, but he didn’t know himself what caused it. Put the myths away.
Ms. Chang says the “book describes two related but discrete atrocities.”
One is the Rape of Nanking itself, and the story of how the Japanese wiped out hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in its enemy’s capital.
Another is the cover-up, the story of how the Japanese, emboldened by the silence of the Chinese and the Americans, tried to erase the entire massacre from public consciousness, thereby depriving its victims of their proper place in history.
She tells the stories from three perspectives: the Japanese perspective, from the Chinese, and the American and European perspective, concluding with an examination of the “forces that conspired to keep the Rape of Nanking our of public consciousness for more than half a century.” And from her Epilogue:
This book started out as an attempt to rescue those victims from more degradation by Japanese revisionists and to provide my own epitaph for the hundreds upon thousands of unmarked graves in Nanking. It ended as a personal exploration into the shadow side of human nature. There are several important lessons to be learned from Nanking, and one is that civilization itself is tissue-thin. …Japan’s behavior during World War II was less a product of dangerous people than of a dangerous government, in a vulnerable culture, in dangerous times, able to sell dangerous rationalizations to those whose human instincts told them otherwise.
Another lesson to be gleaned from Nanking is the role of power in genocide. …sheer concentration of power in government is lethal – that only a sense of absolute unchecked power can make atrocities like the Rape Nanking possible.
And there is yet a third lesson to be learned, one that is perhaps the most distressing of all. It lies in the frightening ease with which the mind can accept genocide, turning us all into passive spectators to the unthinkable. The Rape of Nanking was front-page news across the world, and yet most of the world stood by and did nothing while an entire city was butchered. The international response to the Nanking atrocities was eerily akin to the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda: while thousands have died almost unbelievably cruel deaths, the entire world has watched CNN and wrung its hands.
This has not changed, and I don’t see it. Humans have not evolved much past their primitive primate origins.
Her Introduction hits hard immediately
THE CHRONICLE of humankind’s cruelty to fellow humans is a long and sorry tale. But if it is true that even in such horror tales there are degrees of ruthlessness, then few atrocities in world history compare in intensity and scale to the Rape of Nanking during World War II.
She says the book “provides only the barest summary of the cruel and barbaric acts commited by the Japanese in the city,” as quanitifying was beyond its scope, rather understanding the event to learn and warn.
And she says at the end of the Introduction
The ugliest aspects of Japanese military behavior during the Sino-Japanese War have indeed been left out of the education of Japanese schoolchildren.
We had a Japanese friend who was the wife of a Nany Chief stationed with us in Korea and she hadn’t been home to Japan in 12 years. When she visited her family, her uncle, learing that she was living in Korea, asked her, “Why do the Koreans hate us so much?” The Koreans did not suffer the atrocities of Nanking, but they did suffer other atrocities. Like
The first official comfort house opened near Nanking in 1938. To use the word comfort in regard to either the women or the “houses” in which they lived is ludicrous, for it conjures up spa images of beautiful geisha girls strumming lutes, washing men, and giving them shiatsu massages. In reality, the conditions of these brothels were sordid beyond the imagination of most civilized people. Untold numbers of these women (whom the Japanese called “public toilets”) took their own lives when they learned their destiny; others died from disease or murder. Those who survived suffered a lifetime of shame and isolation, sterility, or ruined health. Because most of the victims came from cultures that idealized chastity in women, even those who survived rarely spoke after the war—most not until very recently—about their experiences for fear of facing more shame and derision. Asian Confucianism—particularly Korean Confucianism—upheld female purity as a virtue greater than life and perpetuated the belief that any woman who could live through such a degrading experience and not commit suicide was herself an affront to society. Hence, half a century passed before a few of the comfort women found the courage to break their silence and to seek financial compensation from the Japanese government for their suffering.
The forced prostitution was ostensibly to minimize rape, but it didn’t. Worse, the “military policy forbidding rape only encouraged soldiers to kill their victims afterwards.”
According to surviving veterans, many of the soldiers felt remarkably little guilt about this. “Perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman,” Azuma wrote, “but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”
Killing took training. A Japanese private named Tajima, attested
One day Second Lieutenant Ono said to us, “You have never killed anyone yet, so today we shall have some killing practice. You must not consider the Chinese as a human being, but only as something of rather less value than a dog or cat. Be brave! Now, those who wish to volunteer for killing practice, step forward.” No one moved. The lieutenant lost his temper. “You cowards!” he shouted. “Not one of you is fit to call himself a Japanese soldier. So no one will volunteer? Well then, I’ll order you.” And he began to call out names, “Otani—Furukawa—Ueno—Tajima!” (My God—me too!)
I stopped the notes there for a large part of the book. Some Westerners tried to tell the world what was happening:
Fortunately, the crimes of Nanking were recorded not only on paper but on motion picture film, making them almost impossible to deny. John Magee, who possessed an amateur movie camera, filmed several bedridden victims at the University of Nanking Hospital. They were haunting images—the horribly disfigured, charred men the Japanese had tried to burn alive; the enamel-ware shop clerk whose head received a tremendous blow from a Japanese bayonet (six days after entering the hospital, the pulsation of his brain could still clearly be seen); the gang-rape victim whose head was almost cut off by Japanese soldiers. George Fitch eventually smuggled the film out of China, though at great risk to his life.
And some speculation:
We will probably never know exactly what news Hirohito received about Nanking as the massacre was happening, but the record suggests that he was exceptionally pleased by it.
Lest Americans think their politics are unique…
A debate soon raged between the two camps. There was the liberal “massacre faction,” which consisted of Hora, Honda, and their supporters, and the conservative “illusion faction” led by Suzuki and Tanaka. The liberal camp published its findings in the Asahi Shimbun and other journals, while the conservatives contributed to right-wing publications like Bungei Shunju, Shokun!, and Seiron. The liberals demanded that the Japanese government apologize for its crimes in China, while the conservatives considered such an apology an insult to veterans and a foreign interference in Japanese internal affairs.
I have no allusions about American atrocities – just look to slavery, Native American First People genocides, making the world safe for democracy…except Central and South America… And I am somewhat more than aware of what is happening to Africa, Burma, … Humans don’t stand a chance against the animals who run the world. I do not think I will reread this ever again. It’s too hard.
[From 2011] Disturbing in its revelations and even more with the revisionist pseudo-histories proffered by the Japanese in rebuttal, Ms. Chang documented an atrocity largely ignored by the western world. With the occupation of Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Manchuria, Hong Kong, and more, it’s no wonder that tensions between Japanese and other Asian nations exists to this day.
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