Breaking the silence A new book on a murderous rampage by Japanese troops focuses attention on a war crime that ranks among the worst acts of genocide in history.

September 13, 1998|By Young Chang

Iris Chang's personal yet universal stake in writing "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II" reminds me of something Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist poet, wrote in an essay titled "The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action." It is one of many essays in which Lorde addresses issues such as alienation, sexuality, racism and womanhood. "For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us," Lorde wrote.

Chang breaks the silence, slashes the silence, dissects and scrutinizes what came before, during and after the silence, to save herself and the rest of the unknowing world from suffocation.

"An event that 60 years ago made front-page news in American newspapers appears to have vanished, almost without a trace," writes Chang. In about six weeks, Japanese troops massacred no fewer than 260,000 Chinese and perhaps more than 350,000. The orgy of violence took more lives than the death toll from the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (estimated at 70,000 and 140,000, respectively) or the U.S. air raids on Tokyo (80,000 to 120,000 deaths).

"One historian has estimated that if the dead from Nanking were to link hands, they would stretch from Nanking to the city of Hangchow, spanning a distance of some 200 miles," Chang wrote. "Their blood would weigh 1,200 tons, their bodies would fill 2,500 railroad cars. Stacked on top of each other, these bodies would reach the height of a 74-story building."

While the Rape of Nanking stands as one of history's worst crimes against humanity, the Japanese government has refused come to terms with it. Many prominent Japanese politicians, academics and industrial leaders refuse to admit it happened.

"In contrast to Germany, where it is illegal for teachers to delete the Holocaust from their history curricula, the Japanese have for decades systematically purged references to the Nanking massacre from their text books. They have removed photographs of the Nanking massacre from museums, tampered with original source material and excised from popular culture any mention of the massacre," Chang wrote.

Chang found much of the raw material for her book in the United States. Western missionaries, journalists and military officers witnessed the atrocities and recorded the events in diaries, films and photographs.

What has compounded the Japanese army's barbarism is the silence that followed in the years after the war, which claimed some 19 million Chinese lives. Chang calls the silence "the second rape" and blames it on post-World War II politics.

"The People's Republic of China, the Republic of China and even the United States had all contributed to the historical neglect of this event for reasons deeply rooted in the cold war," she writes. "After the 1949 Communist revolution in China, neither the People's Republic of China nor the Republic of China demanded wartime reparations from Japan (as Israel had from Germany) because the two governments were competing for Japanese trade and political recognition. And even the United States, faced with the threat of communism in the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to ensure the friendship and loyalty of its former enemy Japan. In this manner, cold war tensions permitted Japan to escape much of the intense critical examination that its wartime ally [Germany] was forced to undergo."

The story begins in August 1937, when fighting erupted between Chinese and Japanese forces in Shanghai. After Shanghai, China's largest metropolis, fell in November, Nanking prepared to be attacked. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalists, turned responsibility of the city over to his director for military training, Tang Sheng-chih. Chiang commanded most government officials in Nanking to leave the city, and by early December, approximately 90,000 Chinese troops transformed Nanking and its surrounding suburbs into a war zone ready for invasion.

But the city fell to the Japanese in four days, December 12. Historians attribute this rapid fall to many factors, including "a loss of nerve among the Chinese soldiers," abandonment by Tang and his men, the absence of an air force and a lack of sophisticated communications equipment.

Chiang commanded his troops and Tang to retreat. Complete chaos reigned as desperate soldiers attempted to reach the Yangtze River by fleeing through Water Gate, Nanking's northwest gate. Those who remained were the most defenseless: children, the elderly, and all those either too poor or physically weak to secure passage out of the city. Before the war, Nanking's population had exceeded 1 million; by December, the estimate was a half-million.

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