Debate on Nanjing Incident Still Polarized

July 3rd, 2000

What does the Nanjing Incident of 1937 mean to Japan and the rest of the world?

Judging from what was discussed in meetings held by the Japanese prime minister with the leaders of South Korea and China in 1999, there are good reasons for saying that various problems arising from Japan’s wartime conduct are becoming less important in the list of political and diplomatic issues facing Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, and gradually have been replaced by a more forward-looking agenda. For instance, few people bother to talk about the issue of so-called comfort women any longer. This was once a major issue between Japan and South Korea, the significance of which matched that of the Nanjing Incident, a thorny issue between Japan and China.

However, the Nanjing Incident still hangs over Sino-Japanese relations.

In her book “The Rape of Nanjing,” Iris Chang writes that Japanese soldiers massacred about 300,000 Chinese in the December 1937 incident. The book is a story written out of a somewhat bizarre curiosity, rather than as a historical document. Nonetheless, I find it disturbing to note that “The Rape of Nanjing” helped arouse renewed anti-Japanese sentiment when it became a best-seller in the United States, while also providing moral support for former Allied citizens who have filed lawsuits, claiming damages for forced labor imposed on them during World War II. Antagonized by the book, some Japanese critics and academics have insisted that the Nanjing Incident is nothing but a fabrication. Those supporting and opposing Chang’s argument have continued to lock horns with each other.

Admittedly, it seems somewhat eccentric to argue that the Nanjing Incident is a fabrication–or, to be more exact, that the incident was nothing more than the confusion and violence that could have arisen in any city occupied by a foreign army in the initial stage of the takeover. However, proponents of this argument have some reason to insist that such is the case.

Victors’ justice

The root of the whole dispute rests with the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, popularly known as the Tokyo Trial of 1946 to 1948.

It was not until the start of the Tokyo Trial that the Nanjing Incident became known to the public. Until then, most Japanese people were firmly convinced that their country’s army was the most strictly disciplined of all armed forces in the world, due to its foundations in bushido, the time-honored code of ethics and moral values observed by samurai warriors. Consequently, the revelation of the 1937 incident dealt a more crushing blow to the faith of the Japanese people in their own statehood than did their country’s defeat in the war.

Even today, some Japanese people feel repulsed by the Tokyo Trial, because the blow dealt to their national pride by the military tribunal has deeply affected their mind-set during the postwar years.

It is possible for even a freshman attending law school to find fault with the Tokyo Trial and conclude that its proceedings were far from fair, if he examines the trial in such peaceful times as today.

Questions could have been raised over all aspects of the trial’s legality, including the jurisdiction of the military tribunal and the qualifications of the judges. Issues also include whether the laws invoked at the trial should have applied retroactively to the accused, as well as what kind of legal basis should have been necessary to accuse the defendants of jointly conspiring to start the war.

Simply put, it takes about two years to try a single murder suspect, and several times longer to sentence that defendant to death in times of peace. In this sense, it would have been impossible to expect the Tokyo Trial to complete flawless legal proceedings before passing decisions. The military tribunal took about 30 months to try the 28 defendants for alleged war crimes conducted over a 15-year period. Of the 28, seven were sentenced to death.

It can be argued that there was little substance to the Tokyo Trial, and that this was all the more so because the tribunal took little time to go through all the legal formalities.

There may have been only one way to conclude the trial in such a way as to arrive at the sentences that were handed down in the Tokyo Trial. First, the prosecutors may have created a scenario for what they wanted to have happen, and then collected only testimony that would not contradict their allegations. Next, the tribunal may have rejected testimony and evidence presented by the defense counsel on behalf of the accused. This would have enabled the court to give a verdict that closely matched the prosecutors’ scenario.

No one could have done otherwise had they wanted to ensure that the trial ended in that way during such a limited time.

The Tokyo Trial concluded that the Nanjing Incident led to more than 200,000 Chinese deaths. However, statistics taken from the testimony of highly reliable witnesses to the incident could not possibly have added up to that kind of figure. Therefore, prosecutors had to rely on hearsay evidence and guesswork as they sought to put across their argument during the trial.

If the trial had been conducted under less turbulent circumstances than were prevalent in 1946-48, even a single shrewd lawyer–like those who ply their trade in the United States today–would not have found it very difficult to demonstrate that the judges cited insufficient evidence and that no such thing as the Nanjing Incident had ever occurred.

Trial defects irrelevant

Historical facts must be fair and objective. During trials, however, two opposing litigants dispute their case by stating only the facts that support their respective arguments. Nothing is wrong with a trial if fair checks and balances are at work between the two opposing parties. It would have been impossible, however, to expect that kind of balance to prevail between the victors and the vanquished at the Tokyo Trial. The controversy over the military tribunal reflects the depth of the scars created by the absence of fair checks and balances between Japan and the Allied forces at the trial.

It is important to note, however, that legal defects in the Tokyo Trial should not be confused with historical facts concerning the Nanjing Incident. Several key figures who were in positions of responsibility at the time of the incident acknowledged, to differing degrees, that atrocities were committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. They included the late Itaro Ishii of the Foreign Ministry; the late Kazuo Horiba of the army’s General Staff Office; and the late Iwane Matsui of the army’s Central China District Army.

Admittedly, reports on incidents delivered to such officials by subordinates should be taken as hearsay evidence in a trial. Nonetheless, the memories of several people responsible for an incident should be deemed good enough to be recognized as historical fact if they correspond to each other.

Questions can be raised over whether it is meaningful to discuss how many people were actually killed in the Nanjing Incident. In the history of any country in the world, an atrocity in which as many as 100 people are killed is regarded as a massacre. Common sense tells us that it is absurd to conclude that 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese were killed during the Nanjing Incident. But anyone may be forgiven for angrily reacting to an attempt to dismiss that kind of figure as preposterous.

However, this does not mean that one would be misguided in believing that there was no massacre at Nanjing. Following this line of thinking, the incident has tended to appear in the wrong historical perspective.

A civilized army

We now need to examine what led to the Nanjing Incident.

The Imperial Japanese Army traditionally enforced a strong disciplinary code. This appears to have been demonstrated by what the Japanese forces did when they participated in the capture of Beijing during the Boxer Uprising of 1900, an incident in which the Imperial Japanese Army fought well alongside the troops of the United States and European nations. During the rebellion, European troops got so far out of control that they plundered the areas they seized in the Chinese capital–in stark contrast to the peace that was observed in areas seized by the Japanese forces. Knowing that the Japanese-occupied areas remained safe, large numbers of Chinese civilians flooded into those areas. Records show that many Chinese living outside the area sought to protect themselves by hoisting Japanese flags under the eaves of their homes.

In those days, Japan was striving to revise the unequal treaties it had signed with other nations. To fight imperialistic competition, the United States and European nations imposed hefty 30 percent to 40 percent tariffs on imports to protect domestic industry. Meanwhile, Japan, China and other nonwhite nations were forced to keep tariffs on imports from the great powers as low as a uniform 5 percent. To revise the unequal treaties concluded with the United States and European powers, Japan had to show that its people were more civilized than white races.

Having achieved equality with white races and become an imperialist nation herself, Japan no longer felt that kind of urge during the Sino-Japanese War. Something comparable to what occurred in Nanjing could well have happened in other cities if the troops had wished it. However, nothing comparable ever took place in any other city in China, such as Hangzhou or Guangzhou, though Chinese civilians suffered damage from bombings and other inevitable consequences of the fighting.

Beijing was the first city to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937. The Imperial Japanese Army was most strict in its discipline in Beijing, as evidenced by the fact that all cultural artifacts in the Chinese capital were protected. With vivid memories of the plunder by the European troops during their capture of Beijing, some Chinese people in the city even campaigned to erect a bronze statue in honor of Sumihisa Ikeda, the commander of the Japanese occupation forces.

Special circumstances

Why did a massacre happen in Nanjing? In a nutshell, things like that can happen in times of war.

In both Chinese and Western history, some conquests have taken place peacefully, while others have entailed appalling slaughter. All this depends on the circumstances.

A parallel may be drawn between the Nanjing Incident and the seizing of Berlin by Soviet troops in 1945. There was a sense of relief among both the Soviet forces and the Imperial Japanese Army, both of which were convinced that the war they were fighting was nearly at an end. Although the Nanjing Incident was not the closing chapter of the Sino-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers believed that the incident marked an end to the hostility between the two countries.

Soviet soldiers had a feeling of “anything goes” in Berlin, partly because they were sufficiently relieved to feel able to take advantage of their occupation of the city to retaliate for the atrocities committed against their country by the Nazis. Such a sentiment was echoed by the Imperial Japanese Army, which sought to avenge China for its atrocities against Japanese civilians in Tongzhon earlier the same year and other anti-Japanese activities. Another factor was the total anarchy that ensued when all government officials fled both Nanjing and Berlin. Furthermore, the Imperial Japanese Army had been so seriously tormented by Chinese guerrillas disguised as ordinary civilians that it considered it necessary to hunt them out.

In some cases, as has happened so often in wartime despite its violating established rules of conflict, the victors chose not to take prisoners of war where practical reasons and other considerations made it difficult to do so.

One way in which the Nanjing Incident can be established as a historical fact is by examining the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army after the incident. Gen. Yasuji Okamura ordered his soldiers to obey strict military rules during the capture of Hankou–the next target city after Nanjing–with the aim of ensuring that anything like what happened in Nanjing would not happen again. Some time later, Okamura was promoted to supreme commander of the entire Imperial Japanese Army in China. While in that post, Okamura endeavored to ensure that his soldiers maintained strict military discipline, ordering them not to rape, kill, or burn property.

There were more than 1.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians in Chinese territory at the time of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Soon after the war, nearly all of those Japanese were peacefully repatriated, albeit with some inevitable confusion. Undoubtedly, their homecoming was made safe and easy in part because of a policy adopted by Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, that people should “settle grudges with kindness.” However, things would not have gone that way if the Imperial Japanese Army had been deeply resented by all Chinese people.

No better, no worse

There may be those who find it offensive to hear that some Chinese were reluctant to see the Imperial Japanese Army leave their country after the war. However, I take that to be a fact. Since the successful revolution against the Qing dynasty in October 1911, the Chinese people had been plagued by oppression and atrocities committed by military factions and bandits across China. This history has been detailed in documents made public by the Chinese Communist Party, although they may have been exaggerated for the purposes of political propaganda.

The Chinese people had good reason to feel apprehensive when they saw the Imperial Japanese Army leave their continent. Some Chinese probably shuddered to think about what army factions and bandits might do while seeking to capture their areas if the Japanese troops left their country after staying there under strict military discipline for more than seven years following the Nanjing Incident.

What kind of historical lesson should be learned from the Nanjing Incident?

First of all, we have learned that the Japanese people can become brutal under such an extreme situation as war.

Historically, Japan, a racially homogenous nation, has experienced no civil war that involved the slaughter of civilians. Killing was limited to warriors during civil war in this country, with the exception of religiously inspired rebellions as Ikko Ikki (large-scale uprisings in the late 15th and 16th centuries by adherents of a Buddhist sect) and Shimabara no Ran (a Christian uprising that broke out in 1637 in the overtaxed Shimabara domain, now part of Nagasaki Prefecture), in which just about everyone was regarded as a combatant, regardless of age or sex.

Against this historical background, together with the memory of the strict discipline the Japanese maintained during the Boxer Uprising, the Japanese initially believed that they were far from brutal. However, the Nanjing Incident caused the Japanese to realize that they were not a special people, and that they had the weakness–common to all human beings–to the temptation of criminal indulgences under certain circumstances.

I believe that this way of thinking will help the Japanese to undertake soul-searching, form a fair and tolerant opinion of other peoples, and remind themselves of the sin of war.

Meanwhile, the Japanese people should grow out of their masochistic way of thinking, which has long tarnished their own pride since the end of the war.

Even today, many Japanese people who have grown up under the postwar education system believe that the Imperial Japanese Army committed rape and a host of other extreme atrocities throughout China. They are sure that the Nanjing Incident symbolized all that.

The behavior of the Imperial Japanese Army, however, was not particularly worse than that of troops from other civilized nations during the seven or so years of Chinese occupation following the Nanjing Incident.

Admittedly, the Japanese occupation troops may have engaged in some violent activities during their occupation of China. However, that kind of violent conduct will always take place in any occupied nation.

After the war, for instance, a Chinese city occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army formed sister-city relations with a Japanese city that was home to the occupying Japanese regiment. It would have been impossible to expect cities in Russia seized by the Germans to form such a relationship with a German city where a German occupation army had its headquarters. This was also true of the relationship between German cities occupied by the Allied forces and the homes of the U.S., British and French occupation armies.

By and large, the Japanese people may be proud that their wartime army was one of the most disciplined armies in the world. I believe that this kind of self-respect will enable the Japanese people to maintain a good measure of pride and moderation in their behavior. That kind of attitude will also prove desirable for Japan’s neighboring countries.

It may antagonize some people to say that Japan excels over other nations when it comes to discipline and civility. But let me state a fact that nobody can dispute. Are there any large cities in major nations other than Japan where women can safely walk around alone at night?

And Japan has been a safe nation not only in the postwar years. It was so during and before the war and even during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Japanese people have good reason to be proud of their law-abiding and well-disciplined traits and are entitled to be encouraged to keep this tradition.