Japanese edition of book on Nanking atrocities canceled

Best seller is opposed by right-wing groups, denounced as propaganda

May 23, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

More than a half-century after the Japanese invasion of the ancient Chinese city of Nanking, a tense international literary tug of words has flared over the Japanese translation of a best-selling book in the United States, "The Rape of Nanking," which was scheduled to be published in Japan this year.

The U.S. publisher, Basic Books, and the Japanese company, Kashiwashobo, ended months of wrangling this week by canceling their contract for a translation of Iris Chang's chronicle of the Japanese army's military atrocities in the Rape of Nanking, which involved the systematic killing of 300,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners in a city of fewer than 650,000 people in 1937.

From Tokyo, Kashiwashobo's editor in chief, Hiraku Haga, declared that he did not trust the book. "It's biased, prejudiced and like wartime propaganda," he said.

In New York, the U.S. publisher, John Donatich, issued a statement expressing regret. "The contract between us stipulated very clearly that no modifications to the text or artwork of Basic's edition be made without the author's consent," he said, noting that the Japanese publisher and the author could not agree on changes.

Pressure from right

Kashiwashobo had sought to add notes and eliminate photographs in the book over the objections of Chang. She said she suspected that those actions were motivated by threats from right-wing Japanese organizations that challenge her description of events. "I think it is safe to assume that they were cracking under pressure from ultranationalist groups," said Chang, who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., and whose immigrant Chinese parents passed down stories to her as a child of the atrocities in Nanking.

"Denial," she added, "is an integral part of atrocity, and it's a natural part after a society has committed genocide. First you kill, and then the memory of killing is killed."

Japan has historically been reluctant to take responsibility for wartime atrocities, and some prominent Japanese officials contend that the massacre in Nanking never happened. In recent years there has been increasing pressure from left-wing historians and others to explore that past. But mainstream politicians and education officials still tend to play down that history, charging that the West has exaggerated accounts.

Pope biography a precedent

It is not the first time that publishers have dueled over sensitive books that crossed borders.

In 1997 Doubleday successfully sued to halt the publication of a Polish translation of an American biography of Pope John Paul II that had been heavily edited by the Polish publisher to tone down some of the words of the authors, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, and to remove references to the pope's ill health, to Polish anti-Semitism and to criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

With the increasing export of American books to other countries, it is likely that there will be more literary debates about books that challenge sensitive views about local events. But so far such arguments are relatively uncommon.

"This is unusual," said Carolyn Savarese, vice president and group rights director for the Perseus Books Group, which includes Basic Books. "In the 50 years that Basic has been publishing books around the world, that has never happened before, and I think that says a lot."

Basic and Kashiwashobo initially struck an agreement to publish "The Rape of Nanking" in May of last year despite interest from other Japanese publishers, Savarese said. As part of that contract, she said, Basic included the stipulation that "no modifications to the text of the original edition could be made without the author's consent."

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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