The Nanjing Massacre has been an issue of contention between China and Japan for decades. The principle stumbling block has been Chinese insistence on an unsupportable claim of 300,000 victims. With emotions perennially high, there is little chance of the controversy being resolved by the historians of those two nations.
A logical way forward is for third party historians to step into the breach. Unfortunately, for those of the Western variety, that option is fraught with peril.
The Chinese claim of 300,000 deaths at Nanjing is defended by most Westerners more passionately than a sow defending her bear cubs. Consequently, a Western historian attempting to inject some rationality into the debate is likely to be subjected to all manner of emotively charged insults and accusations of rightwing affiliations. Administrators of Facebook pages carrying articles perceived to be offensive by a reader are apt to receive complaints of “hate speech.”
To what do we attribute this level of concern for the fate of pre-World War II Chinese on the part of the West? It certainly wasn’t evident at the time of the events in Nanjing.
Exclusion Acts denied Chinese nationals the opportunity to immigrate. The pseudo-science of eugenics deemed them inherently inferior beings. The Nanjing Massacre, while contemporaneously reported in the Western press, was considered far less newsworthy than the Japanese attack against the USS Panay, an American gunboat evacuating foreigners from Nanjing prior to the arrival of the Japanese military.
Has the West acquired a newfound regard for the humanity of Chinese from the pre-WWII era, or is some other force at play?
The Nanjing Massacre was predominantly a massacre of Chinese army deserters and stragglers. It occurred after the Japanese military entered the walled city of Nanjing in December 1937.
The city was around 70% the size of Manhattan island and contained an international settlement roughly the size of New York’s central park.
The international settlement had been set aside as a safety zone prior to the commencement of hostilities. It was administered by the International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone, which comprised 15 resident Westerners who had decided to remain behind.
After the city fell, approximately 20,000 Chinese soldiers attempted to blend in with the civilian population of around 200,000 that was sheltering within the safety zone. The Japanese removed them and a great many were executed.
Caught up within this sweep were a number of Chinese civilians who were mistakenly or opportunistically considered to have been soldiers.
Primary Source Documentation
The massacre was a remarkably well-documented event. Primary source documents regarding the numbers of the civilian population exist. The diary of John Rabe, the head of the international committee, has been published. A sociological study was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the massacre by Lewis S. C. Smythe, an American sociologist who had served on the committee. The present generation of historians could not have asked for more.
The Smythe report, released in June 1938, found that around 2,400 had been killed due to soldier violence and 4,200 taken away and as yet not returned. A further 850 civilian deaths had occurred as a result of military action, predominantly shelling and bombing. A footnote suggests that the total number of civilian casualties could be as high as 12,000.
This range of figures conforms with Chinese efforts to put names to numbers. To date they have identified 10,664 victims.
There are three common interpretations of the massacre.
The first is the middle-of-the-road interpretation. It relies on the impressive array of readily available primary sources to conclude that the massacre was largely one of stragglers and deserters, numbering at a mere fraction of the current Chinese claim of 300,000.
The second is the “no massacre" interpretation. Its advocates are routinely referred to as historical deniers, but they do not deny the facts stated above. They assert that those events do not constitute a massacre.
Their claim is that deserting soldiers and stragglers can have no complaints. Civilians mistakenly assumed to be soldiers during the Japanese sweep through the safety zone should direct their posthumous grievances to the soldiers who deserted, civilians killed during the shelling and bombing of the city be considered “collateral damage,” and the remainder put down to in what modern-day parlance is deemed “stuff happens” or the “fog of war.”
The third interpretation is at the other end of the spectrum. It is advocated by the maximizers, for whom no tally is large enough. This category encompasses that vast majority of citizens within the Western world. Their preferred death count is the fanciful 300,000 with “as many as,” “reputed to be,” or “up to” generally attached.
When challenged regarding their stated total, the maximizers inevitably retort that numbers are unimportant. They say the Japanese should simply accept the gist of the Chinese complaint.
Consider, however, the following three cases:
Case 1. The death toll of the Jewish holocaust during the Second World War is uncontroversially accepted to be 6 million. 600,000, however, would still be an extraordinarily large total. Suggest such a figure to representatives of the Israeli nation, however, and you will soon discover that numbers most certainly do matter.
Case 2. North Korea claims a massacre of 35,000 in and around the town of Sinchon by South Korean and American troops between October 17 and December 7, 1950. There is little doubt that a massacre of some description occurred as massacre was commonplace during that conflict. Considerable doubt exists, however, as to the veracity of North Korean claims regarding the death count and the nature of the crimes committed. Yet if the numbers don’t matter, 35,000 it is! Should we now wait with bated breath for the United States to include the Sinchon massacre of 35,000 within its high school textbooks? It could be a long wait.
Case 3. One probable reason for the severity of Japanese behavior within Nanjing was the massacre of around 260 Japanese citizens which occurred at Tongzhou in the wake of the Marco Polo bridge incident. Numbers don’t matter? Then it’s one massacre each and, moreover, the Chinese started it! One wonders if the maximizers would accept this argument. I suspect they would not.
There is then the issue of a basic commitment to historical accuracy, which the maximizers choose to ignore despite simultaneously portraying Japan a nation of historical denial. This hypocrisy is even more pronounced when one considers the reluctance of the Western world to address its own failings to any serious degree.
Postwar Self-Perception of the West
The search for explanation as to why the West so passionately defends the maximizer interpretation of the Nanjing Massacre takes us to the very heart of Western perception during the post-WWII period.
Claims of being the defender of democracy in both the Asian and European theaters of World War II sit at the core of Western self-perception. Neither assertion, however, is particularly true.
The European theater was predominantly contested between Hitler and Stalin, a pair of dictators. The lion’s share of the fighting and dying on the Allied side was carried out by the Communist Russians, not the armies of the democratic West. Poland, for whose integrity Britain and France ostensibly went to war, is reputed to have been conceded to Stalin at the Tehran conference in 1943. It remained behind the Iron Curtain until the Berlin Wall fell.
In the Asian theater, the claim of a victory in the name of democracy is even more difficult to sustain. The Pacific War was a component of an over-100-year process within which Asia was placed under imperial control before regaining independence.
This process commenced while Japan was still a closed nation and continued for a generation after its defeat and occupation. No Asian people gained independence by the defeat of Japan. When independence was achieved, it was despite the intentions of the nations that had brought Japan to heel, not because of them.
Tellingly, the Malayan representative at the victory parade in London was ultimately shot and killed by the British during the struggle for independence.
The Pacific War can be most accurately defined as a showdown between the two imperial powers with the capacity and inclination to improve their standing within Asia: the United States of America and Japan. It was fought for the right to become the voice of influence that a rightwing Chinese government could not ignore; to establish the equivalent of a Monroe doctrine with an associated Roosevelt corollary over Asia.
The heroes of that time were the colonial subjects of Asia, while the combatant imperial powers were universally devoid of clean hands. In short, the imperial Western nations were little more or less virtuous than their Japanese counterpart.
Icon for the West
Two strategies are commonly employed by the West to downplay the nature of its presence within Asia. The first is to portray the combatants of the war as being Japan on one side, with the West and people of Asia on the other. The second is to depict Japanese brutality as being in a league of its own, thus diminishing the crimes of the West and characterizing the Western nations as the saviors of Asia.
It is the second of these strategies in which the Nanjing Massacre comes into play. In article after article, book after book, social media debate after social media debate, the Nanjing Massacre is put forward as clear evidence that imperial Japan was so extreme that it simply had to be defeated, for which the West is entitled to eternal gratitude, and which washes away the stain of its own long history of misdeeds.
The figure of 300,000 at Nanjing is essential in maintaining this fiction. The actual civilian toll is little worse than several six-week periods during the Vietnam War.
The Way Ahead
The iconic nature of the Nanjing Massacre assures that neither Japanese, Chinese, nor Western historians will be able to resolve its controversies in the foreseeable future. That leaves two possible scenarios. The first is for historians from nations with a greater sense of neutrality to play a more prominent role.
The second, and more likely, is that with the rise of China and an associated increase in Western fears, sympathies for Chinese interpretations of history will correspondingly fall. In short, the West may come to see more value in portraying the 300,000 figure as evidence of Chinese duplicity than of Japanese exceptionalism.
The middle of the roaders may rapidly come to be seen as being right. But for all of the wrong reasons.
Author: Paul de Vries
Read other historical essays by the author on JAPAN Forward at this link.