The Nanking Massacre: Iris Chang’s legacy

The late Iris Chang, author of the best selling book The Rape of Nanking, is the subject of a compelling new biography by her mother Ying-Ying Chang. (This commentary was first published at the  website of the Atlantic Monthly.)

Hints don’t come much less subtle than the one the late Iris Chang received in a small package mailed to her in 1998. Inside were two bullets. Almost anyone else might, there and then, have opted for a less stressful life. Not Iris Chang.

The episode is recounted in The Woman Who Could Not Forget, a new biography by her mother Ying-Ying Chang. The book provides many explosive new insights into the pressures on Iris, who as the author of the late 1990s best seller The Rape of Nanking came not only to fear for her own safety but for that of her loved ones. Nonetheless the threats never seemed to slow her down — at least not until near the end when they may have contributed to a profound depression that led to her suicide at the age of  36 in 2004.

In dedicating a book to her in 2005, the British author Simon Winchester posited that her “nobility, passion, and courage should serve as a model for all.” He was not alone in his admiration. “I don’t know of anyone in the field who was more courageous,” says Ivan P. Hall, a Harvard-educated historian  and a former cultural diplomat to Japan.

To grasp her achievement, try a thought experiment. Imagine that, thanks to a stew of pecuniary and geopolitical factors, discussion of Auschwitz had long been muffled and that officials not only in Germany but the United States and even Israel had colluded in the cover-up. Then imagine a previously unknown 29-year-old almost single-handedly smashing the taboo.

The Nanking massacre was in many ways more horrific than Auschwitz — shocking not only in its huge scale but even more so in its gruesome eyeball-to-eyeball sadism. Over a period of several weeks in the winter of 1937-1938 probably at least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children died in what was surely an organized exercise in terror by a conquering Japanese army. Yet, until Chang came along, the carnage had been a great unmentionable among American East Asia scholars.

As Iris Chang noted in taking on the project, the silence contrasted sharply with the massive attention afforded other major modern instances of man’s inhumanity to man. There have been hundreds of books about the Nazi Holocaust alone, countless others about Turkey’s Armenian massacre, the air bombing of Guernica, the London Blitz, the Dresden firestorm, and, of course, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why was Nanking different? At bottom the issue was money. Almost from the moment World War II ended, one of Tokyo’s key objectives became to fend off a potential tidal wave of claims for compensation. There followed a highly orchestrated campaign to keep the more controversial aspects of Japan’s past from intruding on its future. So successful was that campaign that, as I recorded in a book in 1995, the total Japan had had to pay to war victims of all nations had come to little more than $1 billion. My estimate was based on a little noticed statement in 1961 by  the semi-official Bank of Tokyo, which put the cumulative total at that time at  $1.012 billion. Any subsequent additions are believed to have been minimal. By contrast Germany had alreadypaid $72 billion to Jews, Poles, and other victims of the Holocaust  by the mid 1990s and it continued to make further payments thereafter.

It has to be pointed out, of course, that the Japanese and German cases are not fully comparable. Certainly Nazi Germany’s policy of premeditated genocide had no counterpart in Japan. On the other hand, imperial Japan had been notoriously brutal in its treatment not only of civilians in fallen cities like Nanking and Singapore, but of  prisoners of war.

In a fair post-war world, millions of such victims and their heirs would have been entitled to compensation under international treaties which had been signed by Japan decades earlier. Initially, however, Japan pleaded poverty and then in 1951, in a spirit of Cold War solidarity, the United States led more than forty  nations in renouncing their citizens’ claims on Tokyo. The 1951 agreement did not, of course, rule out the possibility that Tokyo would make ex-gratia payments as the Japanese economy quickly recovered in the next two decades. But not only did Tokyo stick rigidly to its not-a-penny policy but it enjoyed the assiduous support of the U.S. State Department in fighting off claimants. The State Department even went so far as repeatedly to take Tokyo’s side in slapping down various lawsuits by U.S. servicemen who had suffered abominably in Japanese prisoner of war camps and had in many cases served as de facto slaves doing the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in Japanese factories and mines.

Though the quid pro quos were rarely explicit, it seems clear that Japan’s symbolic support for various controversial American foreign policy initiatives, most notably the Vietnam war, was intended in large measure to keep Washington on side in Tokyo’s  reparations diplomacy. Certainly Japanese diplomats proved adept at exploiting the State Department’s Cold War neuroses:  greatly exaggerating the influence of the left in Japanese politics, they constantly implied that, absent copious “mutual understanding” in Washington,  Japan might switch sides and throw in its lot with the Soviet Union. (Such a possibility was actually preposterous as Japan had no ambition to become another Poland or Ukraine. In any case Japan’s influential exporting corporations knew full well that East Bloc sales prospects  were derisory by comparison with what they would sacrifice in the West.)

More than anything Japanese officials feared an inundation of millions of claims from China but, although Beijing never signed the 1951 agreement, they  nonetheless successfully kept Chinese claimants at bay for decades. Then in the late 1970s  China’s new supreme leader Deng Xiaoping was persuaded to do a deal: in return for a promise of billions of dollars in Japanese economic aid and technology transfers over subsequent decades, he signed away Chinese citizens’ rights. Thereafter top officials in Beijing proved almost as assiduous as their counterparts in Tokyo and Washington in sweeping victims’ claims under the rug.

Chang’s book posed a threat  not only because it broke the silence on one of the most dishonorable episodes in Japanese history but, far more alarmingly for Tokyo, it highlighted the not-a-penny compensation policy. This had previously been regarded by  Japanologists as the ultimate no-go area in East Asia studies.  In the circumstances it was reasonable for Chang to sense  she had enemies almost everywhere.

Her fears had been aroused even before the book was published. On a research mission to China in the mid 1990s, for instance, she had lived in fear that her notes and audio tapes would be confiscated.

Her relations with Japan were particularly fraught and she assumed that many of the threats emanated from right-wing extremists there. What is clear is that at higher levels in the Japanese establishment there was pandemonium as the book shot into the best seller list.

The biggest surprise was how her work was received in the United States. Although mainstream American intellectuals and press commentators generally welcomed her book, the reaction among scholarly specialists in East Asian history was a different matter. Many of their comments seemed deliberately intended to generate more heat than light. Joshua Fogel, then of the University of California and more recently a professor at York University in Canada, pronounced some of her analysis “hare-brained.” Robert Entenmann of St. Olaf College dismissed her book as “cliched” and “simplistic.”

As recounted by Ying-Ying, a particularly wounding episode ensued when in 2000 Iris was among several commentators who were asked by the publisher of a forthcoming biography of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito to provide a “blurb” — a laudatory comment — for the back cover. Chang duly obliged. Then all hell broke loose when a senior East Coast Japanologist who had also been asked for a blurb became aware that his comment would be featured alongside Chang’s. If Ying-Ying’s account is to be credited, he threatened not only to withdraw his blurb but to pressure other blurbers into doing the same. Iris’s blurb was promptly consigned to the memory hole. She felt particularly aggrieved because she had helped the author  in the early stages. Ying-Ying does not name names but by inference it seems clear that the scholar who had had Iris blackballed was John W. Dower of MIT. For Dower’s part, he says he has no memory of the episode.

Susan Rabiner, who edited The Rape of Nanking for Basic Books, believes that the sullen reaction among many American scholars stemmed from old-fashioned territorial concerns. “Iris was still very young and they just regarded her as an interloper,” she says.

The academics’ standard line was that The Rape of Nanking was “deeply flawed.” No doubt it contained some inaccuracies — and certainly in its passionate advocacy it diverged sharply from the usual dry tone in the East Asian history field. But as Iris’s critics knew full well the perfect book has yet to be written and there are inconsistencies even in the New Testament.

Some journalists also joined in the pile-on, most notably Ian Buruma, who as a frequent reviewer for the New York Review of Books is a key gatekeeper in the East Asian studies field. He pronounced the book “not serious history.” For whatever reason the book was not reviewed in the New York Review until more than a year after publication, by which time it had already  long established itself as one of the publishing sensations of the decade. (Buruma moreover had observed the general omerta among East Asian specialists in keeping the compensation issue sub rosa when in 1994 he published The Wages of Guilt, a study of the war legacies of Germany and Japan.)

In reality Chang’s book was serious history. By dint of dogged detective work, she had unearthed a compelling new source in the so-called Rabe Diaries. It was one of the greatest research coups any historian had pulled off in recent decades. The diaries had been written by John Rabe, a German businessman who lived in Nanking in the 1930s. He had not only witnessed  the massacre but day in day out had  recorded it in devastating detail. He had moreover played a leading role in the Nanking foreign community’s efforts to save hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens.

Chang’s academic critics did not seem to see the contradiction in their position but to others it was obvious. After all, few East Asian specialists were in any doubt about what had happened in the winter of 1937-38. They were moreover  fully aware that a book was overdue — a book that clearly had a better than average chance of market success. They had, however, shrunk from the challenge. Given the way money flows in the East Asian studies field, that was not surprising.  Nanking was  a scholarly poisoned chalice. The point, of course, is the East Asian field’s funding  comes overwhelmingly from corporations based in Japan and elsewhere in the East Asian region. To say the least, any scholar who broke the Nanking taboo would not last long on corporate Japan’s payroll.

In the end several scholars did subsequently write their own accounts of Nanking — generally watered down versions that avoided all mention of the compensation issue. Many of them moreover went out of their way to sideswipe the Chang book. The irony  is that few if any of these books would have been published had not Iris declared open season on the subject.

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