Interview: The Nanking Atrocities

Interview: The Nanking Atrocities

[Note: This interview was conducted on 21 January 2000]

A view from the tower of St. Paul's Church in Nanking in the spring of 1938.

A view from the tower of St. Paul’s Church in Nanking in the spring of 1938.

Dr. Yang Daqing is a professor of history at George Washington University. Fluent in the three languages that are crucial to examine historical evidence of the Nanking Atrocities, namely Chinese, Japanese and English, he has published papers on this topic in China, Japan and the United States. Yang has recently co-authored a book titled The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.

Q: In your two essays, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing” and “Challenges of Trans-National History: Historians and the Nanjing Atrocities” (see Works Cited), you extensively covered the scholarship on both Japanese and Chinese sides and mentioned there has been some convergence among Japanese and Chinese historians. Is there still a long way before the two sides reach a transnational consensus on this particular incident?

Yang: First we should be aware that there is no such simple division as Japanese and Chinese side. Among Japanese themselves there are various positions and they’ve been debating each other….

This is a very sensitive and emotional issue for Chinese. Especially the number issue [the death toll estimates] is very sensitive in China. And secondly, Chinese scholars are not fully up-to-date on Japanese research or Japanese sources. In a sense they are handicapped to appreciate the kind of research done in Japan.

On the Japanese side I still see people primarily use the Rape of Nanjing as a political tactic. So not everybody in Japan is treating the Rape of Nanjing as a scholarly subject. In turn that creates a vicious cycle making it very difficult for Chinese scholars to accept or appreciate different views or conclusions in Japan.

Q: Is there any positive prospect?

Yang: I see indications. There has already been some joint work, so to speak, done by some Chinese and Japanese scholars. For example, Professor Kasahara [at Tsuru University] and his colleagues participated in a conference in China even though their specific conclusions are not exactly as Chinese conclusions.

I also think that as more and more sources come out, especially the diaries and new battle records discovered in Japan, then translated into Chinese, these new materials serve as very convincing sources that help establish the parameter of the atrocities in the sense that these are the kind of sources that all sides can agree on.

Wartime diaries unearthed by a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji

Wartime diaries unearthed by a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji

Q: You mentioned the number of victims is still very sensitive. What is the latest scholarship on that particular issue?

Yang: It is not probably a good idea to begin with numbers. I think that’s very difficult. I think we should begin with the general understanding that, given the passage of time, given the disappearance of many critical documents, given the fact that to fully understand how many people died, you really have to ask those who got killed, it’s impossible, basically.

So we have to understand the limit of what historians, 50 or 60 years later, or even ten years later, could do in order to establish the exact scale of massacred victims….

We also have to be aware that the atrocities are not just about people being killed. Rape, looting, destruction of property, I think it is more important to understand the whole picture of the Atrocity….

I think it’s possible and probably a good idea to leave a certain ambiguity within a range. There is sometimes the view that the more precise the figure, the better. I think it’s a very naive misconception.

Q: In Japan, some people question the credibility of historical materials such as Timperley’s book (see Psychological Warfare) and the news stories about Hyakunin Giri [the contest to kill 100 Chinese soldiers with sword] (see Postwar Judgment). What do you think about their claims?

Yang: Those specific issues are certainly open to reexamination. They should not be kept off-limits. They should be examined within the big framework.

If you are interested, I can give my own view.

Yes, many journalists at the time were not reporting as eyewitnesses but, rather, reporting from second-hand, third-hand sources. There could be misinformation, exaggeration, or even a tendency toward wartime propaganda. However, that’s not enough to dismiss all of them outright.

A photograph of the two Second Lieutenants who allegedly initiated the killing contest.

A photograph of the two Second Lieutenants who allegedly initiated the killing contest.

For example, Timperley’s work, as indicated in his preface to his book, the purpose of his book is not to defame the Japanese people. He gave credit to a Japanese journalist, Matsumoto Shigeharu in Shanghai, for sympathizing with what he was doing. So he made a specific point that there were conscientious Japanese. Not all Japanese were the same.

And what he included in the book were mostly reports from the [International] Committee for the [Nanking] Safety Zone. They are, as far as we know, generally credible reports by a third party even though you can look at specific cases. Specifics, yes, they were not on the spot when the rape was perpetrated. But how many rapes were perpetrated in front of a third party? Very few.

Q: According to what I have read, Chinese soldiers also extensively torched houses and buildings in the name of a “scorched earth” policy and they looted some shops before the city fell (see The Fall of Nanking). In my impression, this is something rarely mentioned by Chinese scholars and always mentioned by “deniers” and other very conservative scholars in Japan. What is your standpoint on the Chinese soldiers in Nanking?

Yang: The scorched-earth policy was a politically strategic decision taken by China and it had enormous costs on the Chinese part. But, on the other hand, in some cases, I’m not talking about this case, but in some military situations, a scorched-earth policy may be the only way to stop the enemy. You can talk about when Russians defeated Napoleon…. Of course, throughout the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese were extreme….

There are two aspects to this [Chinese looting]. Discipline of Chinese forces was generally not very good in the Republican period after 1927, especially after Chiang Kai-shek consolidated his power. Some of his best troops, shall we say, behaved better than those locally recruited forces. So there were differences in discipline among the Chinese. Some were pretty bad. Some were pretty good. Whatever the case, it is true that there were Chinese looting. It is undeniable.

Refugee huts outside Nanking. March 1938.

Refugee huts outside Nanking. March 1938.

However, the question is what we make of this fact…. Of course some people can say, look, the Japanese troops’ behavior wasn’t that bad because there was looting on the Chinese side. To some extent this is true. We should not expect any troops to be saints. In a way it is important to bring that aspect out so that we can understand the condition of the battle better.

So in general I am in favor of bringing those aspects out. I don’t think Chinese historians are going to defend the reputation of those Chinese forces. But they would probably say we have to put it into perspective.

Q: The descriptions of the Rape of Nanjing in Japanese history textbooks are also another issue that often comes up in the polemic. Could I ask your opinion on this?

Yang: Of course there was initial misreporting by Japanese press. Those wordings were not changed in 1982. But I think it is generally true that there was a tendency on the part of Ministry of Education to downplay the aggression the Japanese Imperial Army committed, and the atrocity committed. That has, of course, alarmed the Chinese government. Yes, there was misinformation but it was not entirely groundless. There was something, I think, Japanese historians like Ienaga Saburo pointed their fingers at.

On the other hand I have to say that Japanese have, since the textbook incident, changed considerably for the better, in general, in terms of inclusion of accounts of wartime atrocities. I am not saying that they should all repeat what Chinese are saying. I think it’s not necessary as long as they are facing squarely the dark side of the country’s history, which I think every country should do.

I think the textbooks in general have been taking a positive development, and hence you have more backlashes from the conservative forces of Japan.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was held at War Ministry Buildings in Tokyo between April 1946 and November 1948.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was held at War Ministry Buildings in Tokyo between April 1946 and November 1948.

Q: In Japan some question the legitimacy and procedure of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanking War Crime Tribunal, in an attempt to discredit the atrocity stories in the judgments of the two trials (see Postwar Judgment). What is your opinion on the postwar tribunals?

Yang: You can criticize the hypocrisy and the double standard on the part of the Allies. You can criticize that the trial was unjust or very problematic.

But then, all the people who were tried were innocent? I think that’s what a lot of ultra-nationalists in Japan are trying to do. I think its very misleading.

On the other hand, many Chinese are afraid of even touching the subject of reevaluating those trials because of the fear that once they open the reexamination, they think they are giving those deniers an opportunity to whitewash the whole thing.

Ultimately, I hope our view that we can reexamine it without justifying the cause of those who were tried will gain the majority support…. Of course some of them were innocent at least, according to the evidence presented. Some of the materials were not available.

If we look at the trial in Nanjing, how many of those battle records were presented? Almost none. Diaries? Almost none. Even those incriminating evidence was not available. So there were severe limitations in those two trails.

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