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'The Rape of Nanking': Looking For the Spirit of 'Rashomon'

One need not know much about the "Nanjing Massacre" to harbor doubts about the claims made within Iris Chang's 1997 book, "The Rape of Nanking."



The Rape of Nanking (1997, Basic Books) by Iris Chang.

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, first published in 1997, was a controversial but influential work on the Nanjing Massacre. The book is error-strewn and the citations are insufficient and poor. It was, nonetheless, a stunning commercial success. The book sold more than 500,000 copies, vaulting Chang into the public domain. 

There are four forms of verification that a reader can exploit to test the validity of the facts and opinions given by an author. Firstly, follow up on citations and sources. Secondly, check for the existence of editorial oversight by a respected publisher. Thirdly, see whether the book has been reviewed by independent entities and individuals.

Within these initial three forms, the reader places trust in learned authorities. 

The fourth form is somewhat different from the other three. It can be applied by any individual, independent of learned authorities, and irrespective of his or her level of knowledge on the subject at hand. 

For example, if figures seem grossly inflated, it is pertinent to be skeptical and dig deeper. If the writer shows evidence of ethnocentric, political, or religious bias, there is probably an absence of balance. If an anecdote fails to support a central argument, there is likely an issue with that anecdote or the central argument itself. 

Nanjing memorial in Nanjing, China, on December 13, 2017. (© Kyodo)

Commercially Successful yet Error-Strewn

Iris Chang, as a young first-time writer, would have benefitted from strong editorial support. It was not forthcoming. Accordingly, it fell upon independent scholars to set out the inadequacies of the book. They did so in considerable detail.

The exhaustive reviews of Chang's work took some time to be produced. Therefore, during the book's initial months, the fourth form of verification was paramount. I read the book during this time period with the assumption that a great massacre had indeed occurred. But I was struck by the following two passages, one from the introduction and one from the epilogue. From both, questions and doubts abounded. 

The Rashomon Principle 

In the introduction, Chang cites the 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon. She describes it as a tale that "goes to the heart of history," before claiming that her book has been written with the same resolve.

The film is about a rape-murder case in tenth-century Kyoto. It is told at trial by four witnesses with contradictory accounts. Rashomon's core message, deployed countless times as an analogy in other works, is that there is more than one side to every tale. It is a caution against absolutism.

There are three schools of thought concerning the Nanjing Massacre. The Great Massacre school, the Illusion school, and what is commonly referred to as the Middle-of-the-Road school. I would prefer to classify the latter as "the school which employs common sense and is supported by the evidence."


If evaluating the Nanjing Massacre from the Rashomon principle, an author would set out the arguments of all three factions. Or at the very least, those of the Great Massacre and Illusion schools. 

Instead, Chang details the Great Massacre argument with near exclusivity. She rationalizes adherence to the spirit of Rashomon in that she did so from the point of view of the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Westerners who had remained within the city. 

This is quite extraordinary, comical even. Not only did Chang totally misread the movie's central lesson, but she also engaged in the absolutism that it cautions against. It is hard to conceive of a more inauspicious preface for a book that purports to be revelatory. 

Press photo of Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyō for the 1950 film "Rashomon" (via Wikimedia Commons).

Blessed are Believers in the "True" God

Moving on to the epilogue of The Rape of Nanking, we are treated to the sentiments of Nagatomi Hakudo, "a former Japanese soldier who participated in the Rape of Nanking." 

So indoctrinated had he been, suggests Chang, that when quizzed by a local Christian priest as to who was the greater, "God or the emperor of Japan?" he was in "no doubt that 'the emperor' was the correct answer."

"With an entity higher than god on its side," Chang goes on to explain, "it was not too difficult for the Japanese military to take the next step — adopting the belief that the war, even the violence behind it, would ultimately benefit not only Japan but its victims as well."

One would have to be the most fundamental of Christians to not pick up on the ethnocentrism being demonstrated in Chang's employment of this anecdote. For someone who is not a Christian and not even a monotheist, the local priest's question would not be as obvious as Chang assumes. 

Who Started Imperialism in Asia?

Most disturbingly, the religious absolutism being demonstrated by both the priest and Chang was central to the centuries-long imperial mindset of the West. Japan participated in the imperial conquest of Asia but it did not initiate it. The subjugation of Asia began while Japan was still in isolation.

The ethos of the West under which the colonial era was launched and sustained was predominantly racial and religious. That religious component is clearly on display in the anecdote championed by Chang. 

One can only assume she was unaware of the full history of imperialism within Asia, attributing Asia's woes to the singular participation of imperial Japan. Alternatively, she was happy to give the West a pass on its imperial crimes due to its Christian mores.

In any event, the interpretation by Iris Chang of the exchange between Nagatomi Hakudo and the priest is entirely un-Rashomon-like. Positioned within the epilogue, it can only call into question the revelations that have preceded it. 


Forgotten by Whom?

Interestingly, one of the biggest complaints about Chang's publication within Japan was its subtitle: "The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." 

"The Japanese as a nation are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking," states Chang, in justification of her subtitle, "not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion." 

The assumption from Chang was clear: the massacre was poorly known in the West so it must also have been a historical black hole in Japan. 

It was rapidly pointed out by scholars within Japan, to all who cared to listen, that by 1997, the National Diet Library contained forty-two books on the massacre. Twenty-three had been published within the previous five years, twenty-one by adherents to the Great massacre school.

Implicit Racism

There is another unstated assumption here as well. Namely, Chang collates everyone in Japan into one uniformly denialist mass, "the Japanese as a nation," all acting with one accord to "bury the victims of Nanking" in "historical oblivion." Grouping more than 125 million people together on the basis of an unverified assumption about universal ignorance is, to put it mildly, irresponsible.

It is also implicitly racist. If Westerners don't know something, then surely the Japanese must be completely in the dark about it. This kind of unacknowledged ethnic ranking does not help the reader who sincerely wants to trust that Chang is working from evidence, and not from animus.

Contrary to Chang's claim, there had been, and remains, rigorous debate within Japan on what had or had not occurred during the Nanjing Massacre. When searching for the spirit of Rashomon on that unfortunate event, the best place to begin is in the country where Akira Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece was conceived, written, and produced: Japan. 

About the Book and Film:

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997)

Rashomon (1950)


Author: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history on JAPAN Forward.


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