Japanese denial and "The Rape of Nanking"

Author Iris Chang reacts to Kashiwashobo's decision to halt publication of her book.

Published May 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week, the Japanese company Kashiwashobo announced that it had canceled plans to publish Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" in Japan. Chang's critically acclaimed 1997 history of the atrocities the Japanese Army committed during its occupation of Nanking in 1937 had already stirred debate in Japan. Basic Books, Chang's American publisher, issued a statement saying that it could not come to an agreement regarding changes that Kashiwashobo had requested in the text and photographs. Chang, who maintains that these requests are the result of pressure on Kashiwashobo from "ultranationalist" organizations in Japan, refused to make the alterations.

Salon Books interviewed Chang via e-mail about the fate of "The Rape of Nanking" -- and of her message -- in a country where the past remains the subject of ferocious dispute.

Why do you think Japan has proved so resistant to confronting and acknowledging the Rape of Nanking and similar aspects of its past? Germany, by contrast, has made coming to terms with the Holocaust a national project. Daniel Goldhagen, the author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners," was actually celebrated by many Germans.

Because both countries found themselves in entirely different political circumstances after the war. In postwar Germany, most of the Nazi war criminals were thrown in prison, executed or -- at the very least -- prevented from occupying positions of power. The Germans also officially acknowledged their wartime misdeeds by paying billions in restitution to their victims and passing laws to mandate the teaching of the Holocaust in public schools. By dismantling the Nazi infrastructure from top to bottom and by teaching subsequent generations the full story of the horrors of that regime, Germany was able to make a clean break from the past and earn back some of the trust and respect it had lost from the international community.

But what happened in Japan was precisely the opposite. To this day, Japan has never paid a penny in reparations to the victims of the Nanking massacre, or, to my knowledge, adequate restitution to its other victims, like Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military or the American and Chinese POWs who were used as human guinea pigs for Japanese medical experimentation.

Moreover, the entire royal family of Japan was exonerated under the terms of the surrender, and avoided prosecution, and even having to testify, during the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. Emperor Hirohito stayed on the throne until his death in 1989.

Why did this happen? I think it happened because the United States, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan were all more concerned about achieving their immediate political objectives than about seeking justice for the victims of Japan. After 1949, neither the PRC nor the ROC demanded apologies or reparations from Japan because both governments were competing for Japan's diplomatic recognition and trade relationships. And during the Cold War, the U.S. government sought to build up Japan as a strong and stable ally to counter the forces of communism in the Soviet Union and Asia. No doubt a deep-seated American guilt over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also made U.S. criticism of Japanese wartime behavior difficult.

Therefore, the Japanese escaped the moral scrutiny and legal responsibility that their counterparts in Germany were forced to accept, and the consequences can be felt in Asia today. Thanks to American and Chinese leniency, the entire Japanese wartime bureaucracy remained intact, leaving it in a position to control what was taught in schools -- or broadcast in the media -- during the postwar years. As a result, the people of Japan never went through the intense process of national soul-searching and atonement for their World War II crimes.

Have you been to Japan since the publication of your book in the U.S., and, if so, what have your interactions with individual Japanese been like when this topic is raised?

First of all, a distinction has to be made between Japanese nationals and Americans of Japanese heritage.

During my book tour, I met many, many Japanese-Americans across the nation who were greatly moved by and supportive of my book. In fact, recently the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) even passed a resolution to support the Chinese victims of Japan's wartime atrocities and criticized the present government of Japan for not taking the appropriate steps to apologize and pay reparations.

However, the reaction from Japanese nationals (as opposed to Japanese-Americans) is mixed. I haven't been to Japan, but I have spoken to Japanese nationals who attended my lectures at universities and bookstores. A few have reacted defensively, voicing fears that this book might somehow give rise to Japan-bashing. (By the way, I think these fears have as much validity as worrying that books like Nien Cheng's "Life and Death in Shanghai" and Jung Chang's "Wild Swans" might arouse a wave of China-bashing in this country.) Others have reacted with shock and shame. I remember that several Japanese nationals were genuinely horrified -- and outraged that as children they had not been exposed to this in the Japanese school system.

On a few rare occasions, elderly Japanese men would courageously step forward to share with the audience their own wartime experiences -- either in Japan or in China -- and tearfully assure the audience that the stories in my book were true.

If your book is eventually published in Japan, would you consider doing a book tour there?

It would depend entirely on the political climate in Japan. The last few months have seen a dramatic rise of ultranationalism in that country, and unless the situation improves I don't foresee a tour of Japan in the near future.

Japanese extremists have used lawsuits, death threats and even physical intimidation to silence their opponents. Just this year, a fanatic with a baseball bat trashed the offices of a Japanese publisher who printed the diary of a Japanese veteran of the Nanking massacre. Also, when a Chinese feature film on the Rape of Nanking was shown in Japanese theaters a few months ago, right-wingers harassed theater owners, slashed up movie screens with knives and even smashed a loudspeaker truck through theater gates.

Of course, there are extremists in every country. But the problem in Japan is that revisionists who deny all wartime wrongdoing have powerful champions in high places. In Germany, Holocaust deniers have no significant voice, and they remain on the fringes of society. But in Japan, those who deny the existence of the Nanking massacre often occupy leading positions in government, business and academia.

For instance, I find it extremely disturbing that the newly elected governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, is an outspoken revisionist of World War II history. He told Playboy magazine back in 1990 that the Rape of Nanking was a "lie" and "a story made up by the Chinese." He's enormously popular in Japan, and he won the election by a landslide.

Also, I'm terribly disappointed at how leading members of the Japanese government have reacted to my own book since its publication. I had a series of unpleasant encounters with them through the media. Last summer, Kunihiko Saito, the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., made headlines when he attacked my book as "inaccurate" and "one-sided" -- though he couldn't come up with one good example to support his allegations, even when grilled by reporters. People were pretty shocked by his comments, because they were made not by some notorious ultranationalist fanatic but by a major Japanese government official -- indeed, the top official representative of the Japanese government in the U.S. And many people spoke up and criticized him for it. The People's Republic of China, my American publisher (Basic Books) and human rights groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia all wrote letters protesting the ambassador's statements.

Then, on another occasion, the Japanese consulate general in Hawaii stormed into the offices of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin to protest their coverage of my lecture on the main island. It was an unprecedented visit -- one that certainly stunned the Star-Bulletin, and one that prompted the paper to run another article on the subject. These activities suggest to me that I'm simply not welcome in Japan right now.

You have said that you suspect right-wing extremists in Japan of being behind the cancellation of your book there. Do you think that average Japanese citizens are interested in or ready to deal with the subject you've written about?

I imagine that the stories in this book may be hard for some Japanese people to swallow, especially if they have been sheltered from the facts all their lives.

Unfortunately, the education system has prevented most Japanese people from knowing the details of Japan's war in the Pacific. For decades, the Japanese Ministry of Education censored or whitewashed descriptions of the Rape of Nanking and other wartime atrocities from school textbooks through the notorious screening process that all textbooks must undergo. In fact, the Japanese school system has done such a poor job of teaching World War II history that it was reported a few years ago that some Japanese children weren't even sure which side won -- the United States or Japan.

Sad to say, profound ignorance of World War II history extends even to the best and brightest in Japanese society. One scholar who was using "The Rape of Nanking" as a textbook at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government told me that when he introduced the topic to his Japanese students -- mostly diplomats -- they had no idea what he was talking about. And some were psychologically unprepared to deal with the subject in classroom discussions. Apparently one Japanese student became so distressed that she bolted from the room, weeping hysterically.

It's going to be painful, but the people of Japan need to learn the full dark legacy of their nation's wartime past if they are to understand how their country is being perceived internationally, and why.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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