From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

City of Life and Death

a film directed by Lu Chuan
(first released in China in 2009)
buruma_1-101311.jpg
Corbis
A Japanese soldier preparing to execute a Chinese prisoner in Nanjing, China, circa 1938

Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large numbers of people. Since no records were kept of these atrocities, the exact number of victims is unknown. The official Chinese figure is 300,000 dead, which is probably an exaggeration. Some conservative Japanese historians put the number in the tens of thousands, which may be too low.1 Some Japanese nationalists, more interested in their political agenda than historical accuracy, claim that the “so-called” massacre never really occurred at all, but is a fiction of Chinese propaganda.

Such nationalist claims have led to further misconceptions. It is widely believed, for example, that the horrible events of 1937 have been consistently denied by most Japanese, and that the true story only emerged in 1998 with Iris Chang’s US best seller, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.2 This notion of Nanking as the forgotten Holocaust, on a par with Nazi mass murder, was promoted by Chang and her many admirers. For example, Chang likened the brave American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who tried to protect Chinese women from rape and murder, and committed suicide in the US three years later, to Anne Frank. This type of loose comparison, as well as some factual mistakes, made it easier for nationalists in Japan to dismiss her work entirely. Chang took her own life in 2004.

The drawing of parallels between the Rape of Nanking and the Nazi Holocaust actually goes back to the Tokyo War Crime Trials in 1946, when Japanese wartime leaders were held accountable for “crimes against humanity,” thought to be comparable to the planned Nazi genocide. Nanking became a symbol of Japanese evil. And the comparisons stuck. In an otherwise sensible review of the film City of Life and Death, J. Hoberman talks about “the presentation of downtown Nanking as a de facto Auschwitz.”3

Nanking was not Auschwitz, nor, in fact, does the movie lay claim to such parallels. To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda. Auschwitz is the symbol of a systematic program to exterminate an entire people. What happened in Nanking is that a large ill-disciplined army ran amok among the mostly civilian population of a great city.

Far from being forgotten in Japan, the massacre has been the subject of heated debates in the mass media at least since the early 1970s, when the journalist Honda Katsuichi wrote a best seller about it, based on his interviews with Chinese survivors.4 Honda stuck closely to the official Chinese version of the massacre, which prompted his right-wing opponents to denounce him as a …

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  1. 1

    The reason for the disparity of views on the number of victims is that many killings took place outside the city limits, and that deaths in battle and deaths by execution are not always distinguished. 

  2. 2

    Penguin. 

  3. 3

    City of Life and Death Weeps for the Rape of Nanking,” The Village Voice, May 11, 2011. 

  4. 4

    Published in English as The Nanjing Massacre (M.E. Sharpe, 1999).