By looking at the past we are presented with conditions of possibility which makes the past constitutive of the present. Such an act involves the individual’s consideration of culture’s role in the authentication of specific memories. Memories emerge spontaneously from people’s stories about their nations. Culture, on the other hand, chooses specific stories which it legitimizes with objectivity by attaching to it the term history.
Story lines emerge continually from man’s consciousness however culture with its demands for social order and progress denounces the memories of common people and relegates the task of remembering to the institutions within the public sphere. Such an act leads to the repression and later on the elimination of the peoples desires to tell their own stories.
Due to culture’s capability to make memories dissipate from people’s minds while reimbursing it with its own notions of truth, people tend to forget that the accounts of the events given to them may not necessarily be the truth rather they are just one of the several accounts of an event. This shows culture’s power to control the circulation and exchange of ideas society.
Furthermore, this shows us that “truth is a thing of this world…produced by multiple forms of constraint and regular effects of power” (Schmidt and Warenberg 288). Historiography, in this sense, only presents us with events which are in accordance with the ideology of the group who is in power. Within this perspective it is interesting to consider how this is apparent in the works discussing a particular event in history.
In line with this, this paper’s task is two-fold. First, it aims to present the different accounts regarding a particular historical event. Second, it aims to present an analysis of how these accounts provide an interpretation of an event which manifests the perspective of the individual who discusses the event. For the sake of brevity, the focus of the paper will be on the Nanjing Massacre as it is presented and interpreted by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking and Honda Katsuichi in The Nanjing Massacre.
The event known as the 1937-1938 Nanjing Massacre became one of the most reported events by both the Western and Chinese press during the war as it became a major case at the military tribunals in Tokyo and Nanjing after Japan’s surrender. At the end of both trials, the verdict for both the Tokyo trial and the Nanjing trial was the same.
The tribunal led to the execution of five Japanese officers who were found guilty for either participating in the said massacre or failing to apprehend the said massacre. The difference between both trials merely lies in the death toll recorded in the former trial. The Tokyo trial of the Nanjing Massacre claims that the aforementioned verdict stands as a result of the occurrence of organized murder, random killings and rape, looting and destruction of the Japanese troops in Nanjing during a six week period on the Winter of 1937-1938 which led to the death of over 200,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war as well as the occurrence of 20,000 cases of rape (Pritchard and Zaide 49604-08).
The Nanjing trial claims the same things however it states that as opposed to the 200,000 death toll specified in the Japan trial, the death toll reached 300,000 (Second 603-12).
In the years that followed the Nanjing Massacre, the information specified on both trials became the springboard for the construction of accounts that presented claims and counter-claims regarding the Nanjing Massacre. Different accounts have circulated regarding the event wherein some accounts affirm the occurrence of the said event whereas others deny its occurrence. One of the most recognized accounts that affirm the occurrence of the Nanjing Massacre is Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanjing.
Iris Chang (1997), an American journalist of Chinese ancestry, wrote the first non-fiction account in a Western language of the Nanjing Massacre in her book The Rape of Nanjing. Within the text, Chang claims that the Nanjing Massacre stands as the East’s equivalent of the West’s Holocaust of the Jews in Europe as both events represent the most heinous cases of violence in recorded history. Chang’s subtitle The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II emphasizes this claim in the aforementioned text. In the introduction of the text, she states,
Just as Hitler’s Germany would do half a decade later, Japan used a highly developed military machine and a master-race mentality to set about establishing its right to rule its neighbors…marked by countless incidents of almost indescribable ruthlessness… One event can be held up as an example of the unmitigated evil lying just below the surface of unbridled military adventurism, that moment is the Rape of Nanking. (Chang 3-4)
As can be seen above, the beginning of Chang’s text may be seen to present the reader with a fixed moral judgment regarding the events that occurred in Nanjing. This moral judgment considers the event in Nanjing as an act of evil. It is important to note however that although, a moral judgment has already been specified in the initial part of the text, Chang clarifies in the later part of the book’s introduction that this judgment does not necessarily aim to establish “a quantitative record to qualify the event as one of the great evil deeds of history, but (it aims) to understand the event so that lessons can be learned and warnings sounded” (5).
The lesson which Chang hopes to be learned from her work refers to the necessity to prevent a “deliberate attempt…to distort history” which she perceives to be evident in Japan’s refusal to recognize the Nanjing Massacre (13). In addition to this, Chang perceives her book as her “attempt to rescue (the) victims from the degradation by Japanese revisionists and to provide… (her) own epitaph for the hundreds upon thousands of unmarked graves in Nanking” (220).
As a text classified within the non-fiction genre, the significance of Chang’s work lies in its presentation of the events in Nanking through the accounts of those who experienced and survived the Nanjing Massacre. It is important to note that Chang was a granddaughter of one of those individuals who escaped Nanjing as Japanese soldiers arrived in the land.
Chan’s family thereby stands as one of those who were directly affected by the war since it has forced them not only to leave their homeland but to create new roots in the United States. Within this context, one may argue that Chang’s interpretation of the event may be seen as a result of her attempt not only to remind individuals of the effects of instances wherein they are freed from moral restraints but also as her attempt to recapture her roots and her history. It within this context, that one may understand Chang’s comparison of the Nanjing Massacre to the Holocaust of the Jews.
Chang’s comparison of the Nanjing Massacre to the Holocaust of the Jews may seem farfetched since the death toll as well as the duration of the Nanjing Massacre is miniscule in comparison to that of the Holocaust however the comparison may be significant in terms of the politicization or the symbolic use of both the Nanjing Massacre and the Holocaust by its perpetrators since both events served as a symbol of the brutal character of their perpetrators in such a way that the Nanjing Massacre served to symbolize the military aggression of the Japanese army during that time.
Chang’s aforementioned text has been continuously questioned. The Japanese publishing company, Kashiwashobo Publishing Company, for example, considers the text to be “based on prejudice and misconceptions (as a result of) its author’s basic attitude” (1). In the 20 May 1999 press release given by the Kashiwobo Press after its cancellation of the Japanese version of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, Kashiwashobo Press states,
We must provide good history books on the War in order to learn from the past and to avoid the same kind of tragedies in the future. But this publisher also believes that we are responsible for publishing qualified books for the good of the public…The fundamental cause of the termination of the contract is the original work, which…due to its errors and inaccuracies, The Rape of Nanking has contributed to reviving deniers of the Nanking atrocities in Japan by giving them bullets to challenge the historical event. (1-2)
One of the errors of Chang’s text lies in stating that there are no Japanese texts which have recognized the occurrence of the Nanjing Massacre. Such texts however exist. One of these texts which was published prior to the publication of Chang’s text is Honda Katsuichi’s The Nanjing Massacre.
In the introduction of the Honda Katsuichi’s The Nanjing Massacre, Katsuichi’s states,
I wrote this book not as a means of apologizing to China but as a means of revealing the truth to the Japanese people. Having been a child at the time, I bear no responsibility for the actual massacre, but as a Japanese journalist, I bear some responsibility for leaving the story unreported for such a long time…I hope that that the mere fact of my reportage being widely read overseas will serve as gaiatsu and will bring about a change in the disgraceful anti-internationalist behavior of the Japanese government and the conservative forces. (xxvi-vii)
From the very beginning of the text, one sees a difference between Katsuichi’s approach to the Nanjing massacre as opposed to Chang’s approach to the said event. Although both individuals are journalists and both of their works do not use sophisticated methodology in order to support their accounts within their texts, one notes that Katsuichi’s goal is for the redemption of the Japanese people. As the subtitle of the work states, Katsuichi’s text aims to ‘confront Japan’s national shame’. This shame may be seen to be a result of the following factors: (1) The Japanese government’s refusal to recognize the Nanjing Massacre and (2)
The Japanese people’s inability to recognize the veracity of this event as a result of the Japanese government’s refusal to recognize the aforementioned event. For Katsuichi, retelling the event may enable the enlightenment of the Japanese people which may further enable the Japanese peoples’ recognition of the necessity to change the framework of their government. Katsuichi’s aim in retelling the events of the Nanjing Massacre is for the occurrence of an ideological revolution within the country. Such an aim was supported by his factual reportage of the events within his work.
Within Katsuichi’s The Nanjing Massacre, for example, one notes that the Japanese atrocities would not have been prevented even if the Chinese surrendered peacefully since the Japanese troops were already committing atrocious acts along their way to Nanjing. In addition to this, one notes that the Japanese did not find the act of murdering Chinese as an immoral act since they have long considered the Chinese to be inferior entities. Furthermore, as the book progresses, one also notes that the Japanese did not recognize the regulations set within the International Safety Zone as the Safety Zone was continuously entered by the Japanese troops.
Katsuichi’s text, in this sense, affirmed the occurrence of the Nanjing Massacre. What makes his text and his account distinct from Chang’s is the perspective from which he perceives the event. One may state that Chang’s highly graphic portrayal of the events in Nanjing as well as her misguided notion that the Japanese failed to present an account of the event may be seen as a result of her position as a victim of the Nanjing Massacre. As was stated in the aforementioned discussion, Chang’s family stands as a survivor of the Nanjing Massacre. As opposed to this, Katsuichi’s more objective portrayal of the evident may be seen as a result of his position an heir to the Japanese people who have committed the aforementioned evident.
Within this context, one may state that an author or speakers interpretation of a historical event is affected by his position in relation to the occurrence of the event. If the author or speaker stands in line with the perpetrators of the event, he may either present an account which aims to defend the people who committed the atrocities or he may present an account which aims to sanctify the people who committed those atrocities or to sanctify the succeeding generations affected by the stain of those who committed atrocious actions.
If however the author or speaker stands in line with the victims of the event, he may either present an account which aims to commemorate the victims or he may present an account which aims to further vilify the perpetrators of the crime.
Given these two accounts of an event from two different perspectives, the goal of the reader does not merely lie in considering whether an account presents the truth or not but to consider that as history is necessarily a nihilation and hence one cannot accurately determine one account as to comprise the totality of what transpired, hence the purpose of a supposed event is to be open to interpretations.
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Gibney, Frank, ed. “Editor’s Introduction.” The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan’s National Shame. By Honda Katsuichi. Trans. Karen Sandness. New York: East Gate Book, 1999.
Kashiwashobo Press. Kashiwashobo Press Release about the Cancellation of the Japanese Version of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. 20 May 1999.
Katsuichi, Honda. The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan’s National Shame. Ed. Frank Gibney. Trans. Karen Sandness. New York: East Gate Book, 1999.
Pritchard, John and Sonia Zaide, eds. International Military Tribunal for the Far East: Tokyo War Crimes Trial. 22 vols. New York: Edwin Mellen P., 1998.
Schmidt, James and Thomas Warenberg. “Foucault’s Enlightenment: Critique, Revolution, and the Fashion of the Self.” Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Cambridge: MIT P., 1994.
Second Archives of China et, al. Archival Materials on the Nanjing Massacre by the Invading Japanese Troops. Nanjing: Np, 1987.