Iris Chang was a Chinese-American author and historian who took her own life in 2004. As Paula Kamen recounts in a new biography, Chang had challenged the establishments of two of the world’s most powerful nations. [This review was first published by CounterPunch.org.]
- Kamen, Paula. Finding Iris Chang. Da Capo Press, 2007.
Somewhere in the Sherlock Holmes stories there is an episode where Holmes slyly sets a little test for Watson. Holmes has already checked out the mystery du jour but, without letting on, deputes Watson to take a second look. Watson reports back in plodding and largely irrelevant detail, as Holmes impassively listens. Finally Holmes thunders: “Watson, you have noted everything but what is significant….You see but do not observe.”
Anyone familiar with the geopolitical ground covered in Paula Kamen’s book Finding Iris Chang can be forgiven a similar harrumph. While Kamen’s account consistently holds the reader’s interest, she comes up short on many of the crucial questions that knowledgeable readers want answered.
Iris Chang was a Chinese-American author and historian who died early one morning of a single gunshot wound to the head on a quiet road in Santa Clara county in November 2004. Various suicide notes were found. Aged just 36 and the mother of a two-year-old boy, she had seven years earlier published The Rape of Nanking, a book that had accomplished an impressive double as a runaway best seller and a major contribution to our understanding of World War II. She went on to become an international celebrity and at the time of her death had been researching the so-called Bataan Death March, another little publicized Japanese atrocity in which in the summer of 1942 more than 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners captured on the Philippines’ Bataan Peninsula were force-marched across jungle tracks for more than sixty miles in conditions often of gratuitous brutality.
Chang was a historic figure in that she was probably the first American intellectual of Chinese descent to win acceptance as an unhyphenated American. Certainly she thought of herself as mainstream, even to the point of openly scorning affirmative action. The tragedy is that she was to find out the hard way that the world is not as “global” as the Wall Street Journal and the Economist would have us believe, nor can Americans speak their minds as freely as the political science textbooks suggest — at least not where sensitive geopolitical issues are at stake.
Kamen was a friend of Chang’s from their college days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They remained in occasional touch thereafter — mainly via marathon telephone calls which were evidently a signature element of Chang’s style.
One of the most obvious questions Kamen fails to address is how someone as young as Chang could have soared so seemingly effortlessly to fame. True, The Rape of Nanking was well written and Chang had added considerably to what was already known from the 1930s. But, in an era in which hype alone can catapult sheer balderdash to the top of the best seller list, good writing is hardly a sufficient condition for publishing success. What propelled the Nanking book was its unique shock value in breaking a half-century-old omerta in the Japan studies field. Quite simply in pre-Chang days, Nanking was virtually never mentioned by American Japan watchers.
This self-censorship was all such a sharp contrast with the dedication with which American scholars had pored over the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka (and indeed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Yet, as the truly sickening photographs presented by Chang showed, the bestiality at Nanking was uniquely shocking. In one photograph, for instance, the stark naked body of a young Chinese woman is shown with her legs wide apart and a long stick of some sort protruding from her vagina.
Why had Nanking been forgotten? The answer — one whose significance has evidently been lost on Kamen — is that the highest government officials in Tokyo wanted it forgotten. And in Japan studies, what Tokyo wants it usually gets. The field has long been under Tokyo’s thumb thanks to American universities’ shamefully subservient dependence on Japanese money (much of which comes directly from Japanese sources and most of the rest from various “globalist-minded” American corporations intent on currying favor with Tokyo).
If the subject of Nanking had long been taboo, another element of Chang’s story was the ultimate third rail: Japan’s war reparations policy. This was defined in 1951 when, in negotiating the Treaty of San Francisco, Japanese officials played up Japan’s then sub-Saharan levels of poverty to slough off most war claims. Even the orphans of Nanking (or Nanjing as it has now become known) never received a penny. Nor did millions of Imperial Japan’s other victims, not just in China but in countless other victim nations.
What made the compensation issue particularly explosive was that governments of the victim nations were quietly but deeply complicit in Japan’s not-a-penny policy. This included even the Chinese government. Although Beijing was not a party to the 1951 treaty, Mao Zedong renounced all Chinese war claims on Japan when Sino-Japanese relations began to warm up in the early 1970s. Thereafter Beijing did Tokyo’s dirty work in blocking attempts by Chinese victims to sue Japan in Western courts.
Perhaps even more controversially Washington has played a similar role in, for instance, marginalizing claims by former American prisoners of war against Japan. Many of these prisoners worked in appalling and often life-threatening conditions in mines and factories owned by Japanese industrial groups that went on in the post-World War II era to build huge empires around the world.
Before Chang, the not-a-penny policy had received even less attention in the West than the Nanking massacre. Even the Tokyo and Beijing correspondents of America’s most prestigious newspapers quietly decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Some of them did begin finally to take up the compensation issue in the early 1990s but only in the context of the so-called comfort women issue and then only after the activities of women’s groups in the Netherlands in the late 1980s had made it safe to do so. Even when in October 1994 Chinese activists in Shanghai were given stiff “re-education” sentences for campaigning for compensation from Japan, the news received no more than a few paragraphs in the American press.
Ian Buruma, an influential commentator on East Asian affairs, did not mention the policy in The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, a 1994 book in which he extensively compared and contrasted German and Japanese attitudes towards the legacy of war. As far as I can see there were only two significant discussions of the policy in English in the 30 years before The Rape of Nanking was published. One was by me in a book I published in March 1995. The other was a reference in the 1970 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This reference was dropped a few years later after the Britannica company established an important financial link with the Tokyo Broadcasting System.
As someone whose grandparents had fled Nanjing just before the massacre, Chang can have been in no doubt about the cages she was rattling. Kamen, on the other hand, seems blissfully unaware that there was anything eerie about the previous silence on the Nanking and compensation issues. Yet this background is key to understanding much of Chang’s subsequent career and in particular the less happy side of that career. From the start the governments of not only Japan but less obviously China had their knives out for her. So had most of the West’s Japan watching establishment, for whom any acknowledgment of the merits of The Rape of Nanking was tantamount to an admission of their collaboration with Japanese censorship.
Where Kamen does make some useful points is in reporting the strange goings-on ahead of the launch of The Rape of Nanking. Newsweek had contracted to publish a lengthy extract to coincide with the book’s publication in November 1997. Then, amid rumors that Japanese advertisers had pulled advertisements, the magazine’s top editors decided at the last moment to delay the extract. In the end this was published two weeks later and without the customary promotion that might have been expected. The delay was crucial: the point is that had the extract run as scheduled, books editors across America would have taken note. By the time the extract finally appeared, however, many books editors had already passed. Of course, in the end the book did become a best seller but, in a major exception to the normal pattern in the modern book business, it made its way on its own merits rather than as a result of a heavily promoted launch.
What of Newsweek‘s decision to delay publication? Although Chang openly alleged that the magazine had bowed to Japanese pressure, Kamen seems to think otherwise. In reality the preponderance of the evidence is on Chang’s side. It is notable, for instance, that in the end the November 17 1997 issue in which the extract should have appeared carried no less than eleven ads from Japanese corporations. On Kamen’s figures, this was about twice as many as usual. Did this “clustering” happen by accident or had it been pre-arranged as a bargaining tool in pressing for a delay? Kamen leaves this question unanswered.
All Newsweek‘s protestations to the contrary, it has long been an open secret that advertising pressure constrains American press coverage of Japan. Anyone who thinks otherwise might ask himself when was the last time major American media frankly discussed Japanese import barriers, particularly barriers to manufactured goods such as cars. Even Renault, which via a stake in Nissan ostensibly controls Japan’s second largest car distribution network, has never been able to sell its French-made cars in Japan. There are no Korean cars on the road in Japan either, although the Koreans hold their own in virtually every other market.
One of the biggest omissions in Kamen’s account is a clear, extended account of how The Rape of Nanking was reviewed. Initially, many East Asia-watching scholars and journalists adopted a haughty establishmentarian policy of trying to ignore the book (this tactic, standard in Japan in dealing with any boat-rocking initiative, is known as mokusatsu — “killing with silence”). But as sales soared in the spring of 1998, mokusatsu was no longer tenable, so the establishmentarians switched instead to a policy of loudly alleging gross inaccuracies.
But was the book inaccurate? For any conscientious biographer, this question is surely paramount. In effect the question is was Chang a serious historian or not? What is called for is a dispassionate itemization of alleged inaccuracies accompanied by a careful and fair evaluation of all the available evidence. This sort of digging seems beyond Kamen and indeed it does not even occur to her that it is necessary.
It is a pity. Chang was actually a more than averagely scrupulous fact-checker and in virtually all cases she had solid sources for what she wrote. The only issue was that whether her sources were more reliable than those the Japanese establishment has wanted us to believe. Tellingly one of the most significant charges concerned the secondary matter of the captioning of one of the book’s photographs. The picture showed frightened looking women being escorted by Japanese soldiers. Whereas Chang’s caption suggested these were Chinese women being rounded up for “comfort woman” duty, Japanese spokesmen claimed they were Japanese women being led to safety. We will probably never know the truth. But what is clear is that if the photograph was wrongly captioned, Chang was merely the victim of an inaccurate source (she relied on a Japanese author who had similarly captioned the photograph in an earlier book).
By the same token Chang was roundly criticized for a statement on the book’s cover that the massacre had claimed more than 300,000 lives. As Chang pointed out, she had actually presented a range of figures in the text — between 260,000 and 350,000, with both of these numbers attributed to named sources. In the end she admitted nine errors, most of them insignificant. Few non-fiction writers have ever done much better (there are factual errors even in Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and indeed the Bible).
The conclusion is that Kamen has done her friend a signal injustice in not more spiritedly debunking the inaccuracy charge. Kamen moreover missed some of the most telling critical sub-controversies. After the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, published a lengthy critique by Charles Burress, a noted Japanophile, the paper’s editors refused to publish a powerful point-by-point rebuttal by Chang. Kamen also omits all mention of the curious role played by Ian Buruma, a crucial figure because of his reviewing activities for the New York Review of Books. His first mention of the book in the New York Review did not come until nearly 18 months after publication.
Earlier, in an interview with the rightist Japanese-language magazine Sapio in the summer of 1998, he sounded notably condescending, suggesting the book was not “serious history.” The magazine used the interview, in which Buruma poured scorn on Chang’s alleged overstatement of the number of deaths in Nanking, as the first item in a battery of anti-Chang propaganda. In the words of the Tokyo-based commentator Michael Hoffman she was portrayed as “the central character — central villain — in an extended Sapio feature entitled ‘The Nanking Massacre Campaign Plot.'” The magazine portrayed the book as having been spawned by a Sino-American conspiracy against Japan.
What really happened to Chang? Although there is little doubt that she pulled the trigger, she had been an extremely strong person whose sad end would a year earlier have seemed utterly out of character to those who knew her best. Kamen does little to illuminate the mystery. Part of the problem is that, true to one of the less felicitous traditions of New Journalism, Kamen conducts much of the explication in the first person singular. Too often the approach is, “This is what happened to me,” rather than “These are the facts.” While it is understandable that Kamen, as a friend of Chang’s, might be tempted to take this approach, it proves in her hands, as in the hands of so many second-rank American journalists, a lazy and incurious writer’s way of avoiding the time-consuming research needed to resolve contentious issues.
Towards the end Chang was evidently suffering serious psychological problems (in one of her suicide notes she described herself as “a wild-eyed wreck”). Instead of providing as impartial as possible an assessment of these problems, Finding Iris Chang treats us to a confused account in which Kamen tries to equate her own experience of psychological illness with Chang’s. The unstated assumption is that the problems arose from similarly autonomous causes, which of course would be highly unlikely in any circumstances let alone in the uniquely Orwellian world in which Chang found herself.
From what little factual information Kamen provides, Chang’s problems seem to have a world away from Kamen’s. For a start Chang seems to have had no pre-history of illness: her problems emerged suddenly only in her final months.
Chang was used to stress and generally thrived on it. The question is whether the external pressures increased qualitatively or quantitatively towards the end. Kamen makes little attempt to address this. Kamen emphasizes how much Chang had been affected by interviews with Bataan Death March survivors. But such interviews could hardly have been more distressing than her mid-1990s interviews about the even more appalling atrocities committed at Nanjing.
Kamen also suggests that Chang’s punishing work schedule may have been a factor. But again this seems less than convincing. After all from earliest childhood Chang had been an overachiever (she had written her first mystery story at the age of four!) and she was used to pushing herself to the limit. Another factor Kamen mentions is that Chang had been frightened by the harassment efforts of ostensible Japanese “rightists” — but again this was nothing new. As far back as 1998, she had been quoted as saying, “not a week goes by when I am not harrassed by a vicious [Japanese] right wing group.”
Kamen treats Chang’s complaints of being followed and watched as evidence merely of acute paranoia. This surely puts the emphasis in the wrong place. While we will probably never know the truth, what surely cannot be denied is that, even by Chang’s own daring previous standards, the Bataan book was a work apart in the degree to which she was baiting formidable geopolitical interests. In highlighting the fact that the Bataan survivors had never received more than derisory compensation she was provoking apoplexy not only in Tokyo but perhaps even more so in Washington, where, in the name of good U.S.-Japan relations, the State Department has long been even more fanatically hostile than the Japanese establishment in slapping down the Bataan survivors’ quest for justice. In essence Chang was poking a stick in the eyes of two of the world’s most powerful governments at once.
As Kamen records, some Bataan survivors have speculated that Chang’s death was not a suicide. All the evidence, however, seems to suggest that this goes too far. The real question is whether new forms of coercion were instigated against Chang in her final months. What is clear is that the pressures in the field are enormous and few Westerners stay long without being relieved of their truth ethic. Either that or they voluntarily sideline themselves in bland peripheral aspects of the subject. Chang retained her Western truth ethic to the end — and kept her gaze unflinchingly on the center of the target.
Chang seems to have believed that her real enemies resided in Washington not Tokyo. As she pointed out, the Bush administration was desperate to ingratiate itself with Tokyo in its efforts to retain at least nominal Japanese support for the Iraq war. Was the U.S. government watching Chang at the end? In truth, because of a legal ban on spying on U.S. citizens, Washington tends to “outsource” such work to other nations. So the real question comes back to what Tokyo was doing. Given the size of the stakes and the fact that the Bush administration would almost certainly turn a blind eye, it is hard to see how the Japanese government would not have spied on her. That said, though Chang’s allegations of strange vans parked across the street and strange people following her around may have been true, it is surely a stretch to imagine they were real in the sense that their true purpose was surely not surveillance: rather they may have been theatrical gimmicks intended to increase her paranoia and undermine her credibility. After all serious surveillance these days is done so unobtrusively that even experts find it difficult to spot.
The conclusion on Iris Chang is that she may have ventured out of her depth. Certainly her biographer did.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).