Cooper Cooper's Reviews > The Rape of Nanking

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
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Jul 30, 2009

it was amazing

The Nazi Holocaust, until late in WWII unknown to most and ignored by many of those who did know about it, has since received mind-boggling attention in the media—new books by survivors are still being ginned out sixty plus years after the war, and Holocaust images repeatedly pop up on the networks, in PBS documentaries, and on the Discovery and Learning and History channels. Conversely, the Japanese version of the Holocaust was widely publicized while it was happening (at least during the early phase, in the 1930s) but since then has virtually vanished. Why? In The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang sets out to explain why and also to rectify the “oversight.” This is a very gory book—not for the squeamish; Chang has done her homework: she’s long on graphic detail and the cataloging of atrocities. Of the many Holocaust books I’ve read, the only one that rivals Nanking for grisliness is Eugen Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell.
The Rape of Nanking took place during several months in 1937 after the Japanese army captured the city. Most of the Chinese army had retreated, and most of the civilians who could afford to had escaped, leaving a city of about 600,000 people defenseless. The Japanese proceeded to slaughter half of them—around 300,000 (the exact number is still disputed). Not only slaughter—joyfully, happily torture, rape, maim, and murder people who could not fight back. For example, the soldiers held competitions, publicized back in Japan, to see who could cut off the most Chinese heads (they used the lopped heads to keep count). Killing for sport, for fun and games—as in ancient Rome. Nor was this limited to one or two aberrant sadists—it was unspoken Army policy.
If the Nazis were bad, the Japanese were worse. Apart from individual sadists here and there, the Nazis were more machine-like and impersonal in their extermination of “undesirables.” Most did not enjoy the work. In fact the Nazi gas chambers came about, ironically, because Himmler, personally witnessing executions for the first time, was so shaken that he began to fear that shooting unarmed civilians would unnerve his SS troops. By contrast, most of the Japanese apparently enjoyed the carnage immensely: photos taken by the Japanese themselves show soldiers laughing and smoking as their comrades take bayonet practice on unarmed Chinese civilians.

There were heroes in Nanking, too. Mainly these were Westerners who established a safe zone into which crowded most of the Chinese who eventually survived the slaughter. Ironically, the leader of this group was a German named John Rabe—the city’s top-ranking Nazi. The Oskar Schindler of China, he was dubbed by the grateful Chinese “the living Buddha of Nanking.” But that is another story.

Some important questions: 1) Did Emperor Hirohito know what was going on? 2) Were the perpetrators of the Nanking Rape and similar atrocities brought to justice after the war, as the leading Nazis were? 3) Has Japan, like Germany, admitted its guilt and made restitution to survivors? Answers: 1) Yes, 2) for the most part no, and 3) for the most part no.

*Hirohito—It was quite clear at the time, and it’s even clearer now (because of confirmation provided by recently-unearthed documents) that Hirohito knew what was going on, probably in great detail, and had the power to put a stop to it at any time. The man who ordered the soldiers to “Kill all!” in Nanking was none other than Hirohito’s uncle, General Asaka. The notion that Hirohito was a feckless puppet of his generals, especially Tojo, is a myth that was created after-the-fact by General Douglas MacArthur. Why? Because MacArthur reasoned that a postwar Japan would be easier to manage with the emperor in place. In other words, having the emperor around would simplify MacArthur’s job as chief honcho of the American occupation. Initially, Truman and Marshall and Acheson thought the evidence should be closely examined to determine whether Hirohito ought to be tried as a war criminal. But MacArthur sent them a scare letter, claiming that if the U.S. tried Hirohito as a war criminal the Japanese population would come unglued, the communists would exploit the situation, the U.S. would need to bolster its occupation forces, etc. etc.—all highly questionable assertions. But MacArthur was on location (not to mention on stage) so Truman took his word for it. After that began the systematic whitewash of Hirohito, which went so far as having the U.S. war crimes prosecutor ask Tojo to swallow the party line (after he had first testified to its opposite) in order to protect his revered emperor. Tojo obliged by changing his testimony. Clearly Hirohito should have been hanged, just as Hitler would have been. Instead, he led a long and leisurely life, esteemed alike by the Japanese public and the world powers. Thus (I want to say, “as usual”) was justice sacrificed to expediency.* And MacArthur’s propaganda became the conventional wisdom—for media and academia alike.

*Perpetrators—A handful of the bad guys were sentenced for war crimes. Tojo was hanged. But Hirohito came off clean, and so did uncle Asaka, because a MacArthur provision in the surrender agreement guaranteed immunity from prosecution to everyone in the imperial family. So like Hirohito, Asaka, the instigator of the Nanking Rape, lived a long and prosperous life, while the nominal head of the implicated army command, Shiro Iwane, who had been ailing and out of town during the Nanking invasion and who had expressed outrage after finding out about the massacre, was hanged as a scapegoat. More justice. And still more: in Germany the U.S. tried (albeit with only partial success) to purge Nazis from the postwar government, but in Japan the wartime policymakers and bureaucrats—some of them “class A” war criminals—kept their jobs during the American occupation, and after the Americans left expanded their power.

*Contrition—By policy, the Japanese have doctored textbooks to expunge or downplay accounts of the Nanking Rape and similar Japanese atrocities. Chang quotes two 1990s teachers, one high school and one college, as saying that some of their students expressed surprise when informed that the U.S. had ever fought a war with Japan—and immediately asked, “Who won?” Many Japanese historians deny that that Nanking was ever raped. Even prime ministers and cabinet ministers have expressed the view that the Caucasians caused the war, that Japan was blameless, and that the Japanese were actually victims—witness the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With this attitude, it is not surprising that the Japanese have done little in the way of restitution to victims, although at the time The Rape of Nanking was being written the government was under increasing world pressure to do so.

Since WWII the Germans have worked hard to turn around the authoritarian tradition that played into the hands of Hitler. By contrast, I suspect that a great many Japanese remain arrogant Divinely Chosen Ones who, at the gut level, rankle even now over their nineteenth century humiliation by Admiral Dewey, and would love to show up the West.

*Ms. Chang’s analysis has been supplemented by that of Edward Behr, as expressed in his Hirohito: Behind the Myth.

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