How much did you learn about the Rape of Nanking in high school or college? If you’re like me – and most westerners – your knowledge of this seminal event in the annals of WWII evil is sketchy at best. Or at least it was until the flood of memories, testimonials and witness-bearing that was unleashed by this landmark work of history by Iris Chang in 1997. “THE RAPE OF NANKING” attracted a ton of attention to a Japanese army atrocity in Nanking, China in 1937 and 1938, and was praised widely for its polemical insistence on naming names & its ability to shine a shameful light on the months of systematic barbarism, murder and rape. Chang was praised in some quarters and vilified in others – many of the latter the predictable Japanese ultra-nationalists who to this day deny the events occurred, but also from scholars who nitpicked at some of the details she related. I thought I’d better tackle this one myself finally, since my knowledge of Japan’s road to World War II was woefully lacking.
The book needs to be approached as a polemic first, for that’s what it primarily is, and as a work of history second. This is not to say that its history is bad, wrong or poorly-conveyed. It’s just that Chang was trying to right some historical wrongs, and in so doing needed to be scathing in her descriptions of just what the Japanese did, and how they covered it up in the years to follow. Nanking was invaded in 1937 after the Japanese had conquered Shanghai in their march through China’s cities. Despite ample evidence that Chinese soldiers were not going to resist the invasion – which was preceded by a devastating aerial bombardment – the Japanese invaded the ancient city as if they were facing an enemy hell-bent on their destruction. They killed, in ritualistic fashion, anyone who could conceivably be thought of as a “solider” – which was virtually every male alive. They tortured, maimed and burned alive thousands upon thousands of men and women, and long after the city was in Japanese hands, carried out a policy of rape of virtually any remaining woman or girl. For months this went on, and while it was reported in the western media to some degree, it appeared to have been shunted off as one of the many apocalyptic crimes of the 1930s and was safely ignored.
Chang focuses the first third of the book on the Japanese perspective – what they saw or did as they looted, raped and murdered – and then the Chinese in the second third. Finally, her book talks about the westerners based in Nanking who helped save hundreds of thousands of people from death, rape and starvation. One was a Nazi (!) named John Rabe – his story was broken by Chang in this book, and it’s fascinating. What’s less clear is the why of this horror story. People who criticize Chang for pointing at the Japanese psyche of the 1930s, at the centuries-long samurai and bushido culture, need to offer a more compelling explanation for how an army can do what these men did, under no provocation and often not even under orders. I don’t feel any smarter about why human evil expresses itself when it does after reading this book, and I think that’s OK. I do know a detailed history of this event now, and I felt it was gripping while reading it. It helped me place into context the War in the Pacific, and the army mindset that made those battles so intensely fought by the Japanese. I also appreciated the polemic part of it. It’s easy to whitewash history, and the post-WWII era was full of countries conveniently forgetting their recent pasts in order to move forward. This one should not be forgotten, and like the Holocaust in the west, should be taught to every student of World War II as an example of behaviors that brought the world to the worst conflict it has ever known.