The Controversies in Japan

The Controversies in Japan

Another Phase for the Controversy

Emperor Hirohito. A photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Emperor Hirohito. A photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

In August 1993, four years after the demise of Emperor Hirohito, a significant transformation took place in Japan’s official stance on the nation’s role during World War II.

That month, Hosokawa Morihiro became the first prime minister who did not represent the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 38 years.

Immediately after he took office, Hosokawa formally announced, “It [the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War] was a war of aggression, and it was wrong.” [211]

On August 23, in his maiden policy speech to the Diet, Hosokawa apologized for Japan’s past aggression and colonial rule for the third time.

“I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people,” said Hosokawa. [212]

In 1995, the Diet passed a resolution on Japan’s responsibility for World War II that acknowledged the nation’s guilt for “acts of aggression” and “colonial rule.”

However, the compromise statement was criticized in some Asian countries due to its lack of the word “apology” and of any reference to specific brutal acts committed by Japanese troops during the war. [213]

The same year on August 15, the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi went much further than the resolution by stating:

During a certain period in the not-too-distant past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asia. In the hope that no such mistake will be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. [214]

“Such a conciliatory domestic environment,” writes historian Yoshida Takashi, the co-author of The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, “provoked intense challenges” from Japanese conservatives and nationalists.

Senior LDP politicians such as environmental agency chief Sakurai Shin and education minister Shimamura Yoshinobu continued to make statements that played down Japan’s wartime aggression between 1994 and 1995. [215]

A cross at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military's Nanjing Massacre. The former Prime Minister, Murayama Tomiichi, officially visited the memorial hall on May 24, 1998.

A cross at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre. The former Prime Minister, Murayama Tomiichi, officially visited the memorial hall on May 24, 1998.

When interviewed by a national newspaper, Mainichi, in May 1994, newly appointed justice minister Nagano Shigeto told the paper that the Pacific War was a war of liberation and the Nanjing Massacre was a mere “fabrication.” [216]

His perception of Japan’s involvement in WWII and his remarks on this specific historical incident infuriated the Japanese people as well as people in China and South Korea. Two national newspapers, Asahi and Yomiuri, criticized Prime Minister Hata Tsutomu for not taking immediate action.

Consequently, Nagano was forced to resign only ten days after taking office. Hata subsequently sent a letter of apology to his Chinese counterpart, Li Peng, and telephoned South Korean President Kim Young Sam. [217]

At this point in the mid-1990s, the Nanking Atrocities once again came forward in the political arena, creating a foundation for another phase of ongoing polemic.

The vanguard was a professor of education at Tokyo University, Fujioka Nobukatsu.

Frustrated by the “pervasive Tokyo War Crimes Trial view of history” and “masochistic” descriptions of Japan’s imperial past in school textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Fujioka and his collaborators co-founded Jiyushugi Shikan Kenkyukai, or the Association for the Advancement of A Liberalist View of History, in January 1995, and Atarashi Kyokasho wo Tsukuru Kai, or the Society for Creating New History Textbooks, in December 1996, aiming to revise what he dubbed Japan’s “masochistic education” in history.

Fujioka and the two groups enjoyed large support from a variety of individuals including 62 lawmakers from the LDP, academics and novelists. [218]

Among other things, Fujioka questioned the death tolls of the Nanking Atrocities in the textbooks. He indicated the figures of hundreds of thousands were “groundless” and criticized especially those textbooks that quoted the number of “200,000” or “over 100,000” without attribution. [219]

Claiming to have been persuaded by “thorough and innovative” research on the topic by Higashinakano Shudo, a professor of intellectual history at Asia University, Fujioka later concluded that there was no massacre in 1937 Nanking. [220]

Throughout 1999, Fujioka and Higashinakano continued to contribute articles and essays to magazines and newspapers that sternly condemned other historians and reckoned the Nanjing Massacre as a latter-day fabrication.

Meanwhile, the two organizations founded by Fujioka also cooperated in disseminating Fujioka and Higashinakano’s view on the Nanking Atrocities. For instance, on July 31, 1999, the Association hosted a symposium in Tokyo that called the Nanjing Massacre “the biggest lie of the 20th century.” [221]

The Osaka International Peace Center, also known as Peace Osaka.

The Osaka International Peace Center, also known as Peace Osaka.

On January 23, 2000, a citizens’ group called “The Group to Rectify One-sided Wartime Exhibitions” organized a conference also dubbing the Rape of Nanking “the biggest lie of the 20th century” in the semi-public Osaka International Peace Center (commonly known as Peace Osaka in Japan).

Unlike the previous symposium or any other comparable forums, this particular conference, which invited Higashinakano as one of the key panelists, engaged keen attention from the media worldwide, especially in China.

About a week before the event took place, Chinese newspapers such as Renmin Ribao and China Youth Daily began reporting on the provocative title and the meeting’s intention to play down the Atrocities. [222]

Beijing officially urged Tokyo to take action to stop the forum. While assuring China of the Japanese government’s stance that the Nanjing Massacre was an undeniable fact, the Foreign Ministry said that it had no right to intervene in an event organized by citizens. [223]

In Nanking, one day after the conference was held, about 500 people gathered to protest at the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre.

“The conference broke Chinese people’s hearts,” says Zhu Chengshan, the director of the Memorial Hall.

“It was the worst in the recent controversy. They conspicuously denied the historical fact and even labeled it ‘the biggest lie’ in the 20th century. Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?” [224]

"Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?" asks Zhu Chengshan.

“Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?” asks Zhu Chengshan.

In China the mass media harshly criticized the event in their newspaper articles, editorials, and TV programs. Many local newspapers reprinted the editorial piece in Renmin Ribao titled “Who’s fabricating the ‘lie’?” written by Zhu.

In the headline for its editorial piece China Youth Daily even used the term, “riben guiji,” a derogatory expression meaning Japanese devils. [225] Shanghai TV made a lengthy news document titled “Wrath of Nanjing.” [226]

In Japan there was a difference of opinion about the event. Some argued that as long as it is not illegal, anyone should be allowed to speak one’s opinion freely. They said because Peace Osaka was a semi-public institution, the door must be open for everyone. Thus no one had the right to stop the event.

Others argued that since the Peace Osaka was established “not to forget the tremendous damage inflicted by Japan on people in China and other Asia-Pacific countries as well as people in Korea and Taiwan under colonial rule,” the administrators of the facility should have stopped any event that contradicted the principle. They said it was too harmful to be protected under freedom of speech and pointed out that if it had been in Germany, the conference would have been a punishable crime. [227]

About two and a half months later in Peace Osaka, those Japanese who were against the theme of the previous conference organized another meeting called “What the Nanjing Massacre calls for from Japan.”

This forum, which was held on April 8, 2000, also attracted media attention in Osaka and in Nanking. The forum was reported by the Chinese media as a rebuttal to the decision made by the Peace Osaka. The panel urged public officials to face Japan’s past deeds squarely. Among the panelists were Zhu and Yoshida Yutaka of Hitotsubashi University.

Interview: Yoshida Yutaka [228]

"The [Japanese] society has gone through a major change," says Yoshida Yutaka.

“The [Japanese] society has gone through a major change,” says Yoshida Yutaka.

Yoshida Yutaka is a historian at Hitotsubashi University. He has published various books and articles on the Imperial Army’s involvement in wartime atrocities. He has done extensive research on the Army records and other historical evidence of the Nanking Atrocities in Japan.

Q: In the United States the Nanking Atrocities are often typified in the context that Japan has never admitted the evildoings of their countrymen during World War II. It seems many people, including some newspapers and scholars, believe Japanese in general don’t acknowledge the Rape of Nanking. Some even say the Japanese government has been trying to cover things up and gloss over the history. What do you think of that claim?

Yoshida: It is not entirely groundless to claim that Japan has been avoiding owing up to the past. But it is not like 1960s or 1970s anymore. The society has gone through a major change.

For instance, today every textbook mentions the Nanjing Massacre. On several occasions the Japanese government has officially acknowledged that large-scale atrocities took place.

Yes, there are a variety of voices in Japan now. But I personally think the debate whether it actually happened or not ended when Kaikosha [a war veterans’ organization holding some 18,000 members (see Confessions)] admitted the fact and apologized for it in mid-1980s. Since then our task has shifted to the analysis of the historical context of the Nanjing Massacre.

Q: But it is also true that in Japan there are still people who deny that the Nanking Atrocities ever happened, isn’t it?

Yoshida: Yes, but their argument is primarily based on an arbitrary interpretation of international law, which even conservative scholars wouldn’t agree with. They say executing plain-clothes soldiers and stragglers are not massacres.

Japanese troops on the way to "wipe out Chungking guerillas." A photo used for a military postcard.

Japanese troops on the way to “wipe out Chungking guerillas.” A photo used for a military postcard.

But as I indicated in my research, it is indisputably unlawful to kill them without any legal procedure. It seems even right-leaning scholars are criticizing the interpretation of the law by the ‘denying camp.’ So I think they will have to take it back soon.

Frankly, I do not want to be bogged down in today’s controversy. It simply lacks the most important aspect of the historical analysis, which is, why it happened. What drove the Japanese troops to go on the rampage in the way they did in Nanjing, that’s what the research should be about.

Q: In Japan, some people question the credibility of certain historical materials relating to the Nanking Atrocities. Do you think it is an attempt to downplay the atrocities or an academic inquiry?

Yoshida: We should be aware of the limitation of historical material. Any evidence does not reflect all the facts in one piece. So we should put them together in perspective.

Better yet, we can only come up with an image. We cannot reconstruct the past exactly as it happened no matter what evidence we have.

What disturbs me most is that those ‘deniers’ are using the materials we have gathered over a long period of time, or the ones Kaikosha collected, and just twist things around. In the academia of history, they are not productive; rather, they are living in the world of interpretation.

I must say I learn a lot even from some conservative historians when they try to prove their point with their own research and with new evidence they unearthed. Although my view of a certain historical incident such as the Nanjing Massacre may differ from their view, I can still discuss details in a scholarly fashion.

But those ‘deniers’ have their conclusions first. Then they lay down the available evidence to back up their belief, which inevitably forces them to interpret the material in a way no one else would do.

Q: In your recent writing on this topic [“Did no one really know about the Nanjing Incident?”], you indicated the Emperor might have known what was going on in Nanking. Are there any new findings to suggest that?

Emperor Hirohito. Another photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Emperor Hirohito. Another photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Yoshida: I didn’t mention this in that paper but I have known for quite some time that Hallet Abend [New York Times correspondent in Shanghai] wrote in his book [Pacific Charter (see Works Cited)] that the Emperor knew about the Nanjing Massacre.

According to the book, a high civilian Japanese official told Abend that he informed the Emperor of the atrocities in Nanjing. But it seems there is too much dramatization in his book.

It tells us that this official spent two hours on his knees at the Emperor’s feet, whispering into the Emperor’s ear what had happened following the capture of Nanjing. His feet became numb and he had to have assistants massage his legs. It is hard to take at its face value, isn’t it? The story is too dramatic to be true.

I would say it is probably a safe bet to assume this high official was Hidaka Shinrokuro, an able diplomat in Shanghai who was well known among foreigners there. A biography of Hirota Koki [then foreign minister] tells that he and Hidaka discussed the conditions in Nanjing. Hidaka in fact testified about what he knew about the atrocities in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Since he returned to Japan once in the beginning of 1938, it is quite likely that he reported the information he had at the time to the government.

But there is no evidence that he reached the Emperor. Abend’s book isn’t enough to verify the fact. So I simply quoted the chamberlain to the Emperor [who wrote that many in the administration knew about what happened and recalled the Emperor often saying “The Army is different from what it used to be during the Russo-Japanese War”]. The Emperor might have known, but it is not proven.

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. T. R. Reid, “Japan’s Leader Seeks To Meet With Clinton,” the Washington Post, 11 August 1993.
  2. James Sterngold, “Japan’s Leader Vows Action on Political System,” the New York Times, 24 August 1993.
  3. T. R. Reid, “On Japan’s WWII Resolution, Right Wing Blinks and Prime Minister Wins,” the Washington Post, 8 June 1995.
  4. A letter from Hiroshi Hashimoto, ambassador of Japan in Singapore, to the Straits Times, 4 February 2000.
  5. Takashi Yoshida, 97.
  6. T. R. Reid, “Japan’s Hata Reprimands Justice Chief: Ex-General Disputed ‘Rape of Nanjing’,” the Washington Post, 5 May 1994.
  7. The Daily Yomiuri, 11 May 1994.
  8. Takashi Yoshida, 98. Soni Efron, “Defender of Japan’s War Past,” the Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1997.
  9. Nobukatsu Fujioka, Jiyu Shugi Shikan to ha Nani ka: Kyokasho ga Oshienai Rekishi no Mikata [A Liberal View of History: Historical Views Textbooks Do Not Teach] (Tokyo: PHP Bunko, 1997), 32-49.
  10. Nobukatsu Fujioka, “Nakamura Akira shi no ‘Nanking Jiken Ichiman Nin Gyakusatsu Setsu’ wo Hihan Suru [Critique of ‘The Death Toll of Ten Thousand’ in the Nanjing Incident’ by Mr. Akira Nakamura],” Seiron 319 (March 1999): 287-288.
  11. Akira Nakamura, “Nanking de Kangaeta ‘Nanking Jiken’ [Reflecting on ‘The Nanjing Incident’ in Nanjing],” Seiron 329 (January 2000): 89.
  12. See for example, Renmin Ribao, 18 January 2000; China Youth Daily, 18 January 2000.
  13. See Asahi Shinbun, 24 January 2000 and 25 January 2000.
  14. Zhu Chengshang, interview by author, Nanjing, China, 24 March 2000.
  15. See China Youth Daily, January 24 2000; Asahi Shinbun, 25 January 2000.
  16. The program was shown at the conference held in Peace Osaka on April 8, 2000.
  17. A booklet given by the Peace Center and observations of several newspapers by author.
  18. Yutaka Yoshida, interview by author, Tokyo, 24 February 2000.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved