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A Vancouver MP is calling for a national day to commemorate Japan’s assault on the Chinese city of Nanjing eight decades ago, prompting criticism from the Japanese government and some members of the Japanese-Canadian community, who argue the proposal would open up painful wounds.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan’s call for the federal government to declare Dec. 13 Nanjing Massacre Commemorative Day follows the Ontario Legislature’s decision last year to observe the day at the provincial level.

“My intention for commemorating the Nanjing Massacre is about the formal recognition of atrocities, learning from history and paying tribute to those impacted,” Ms. Kwan said in an e-mail.

The massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanjing, happened over six weeks in December, 1937, and January, 1938. Civilians were slaughtered and raped by invading Japanese soldiers. The death toll remains unclear and disputed, with historians in Japan typically estimating that between 20,000 and 200,000 people were killed, but China believes more than 300,000 died.

The consulate-general of Japan in Vancouver said in an e-mail that Ms. Kwan’s proposal is “deeply regrettable.”

Some Japanese-Canadian groups have also come out against the idea.

Gordon Kadota, chair of the Japanese-Canadian Coalition for Racial Harmony, said his group “emphatically opposes” the proposal.

“If it’s passed [or] accepted, it could become a cause for friction and discord between ethnic communities in Canada,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Kadota argued that since neither Canada nor Canadians were involved in the massacre, it does not make sense to create a commemorative day in this country.

“Yes, it’s a concerning matter, I don’t deny that, but why in Canada?” he said. “You know, we have many other incidents in Canada, or the government or Canadians have acted and treated other Canadians atrociously, and none of them have commemorative days.”

The Prime Minister’s Office referred questions about Ms. Kwan’s proposal to Heritage Canada. Simon Ross, press secretary for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, said in an e-mail that all Canadians can agree the massacre should not be forgotten, but he did not address the specific proposal.

"As the House of Commons has recognized, the memory of these victims and survivors must be addressed in the true spirit of reconciliation,” Mr. Ross said.

Last October, members of the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed Liberal MPP Soo Wong’s motion to recognize Dec. 13 as Nanjing Massacre Commemorative Day. At the time, Ms. Wong said many Ontarians had little knowledge of such atrocities in Asia, adding that it is important to learn about them and reflect.

She also said Ontario is home to one of the largest Asian populations in Canada and that some Ontarians are directly related to victims and survivors of the Nanjing Massacre.

Satoko Norimatsu, the founder of Japanese Canadians Supporting Nanjing Massacre Commemorative Day, said opponents of the proposal are trying to silence efforts to remember Japanese war atrocities. She said that, whether the atrocities happened inside or outside Canada, all Canadians should learn about and remember such crimes against humanity.

Satoko Norimatsu, who supports MP Jenny Kwan's initiative to call on the federal government to establish a commemorative day for the Nanjing Massacre, is photographed in Vancouver, July 20, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Canada has officially recognized five genocides that happened outside the country: the Armenian Genocide (1915), the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine (1932-33), the Holocaust (1933-45), the Rwandan Genocide (1994) and the Srebrenica Massacre (1995).

Julian Dierkes, associate professor and Keidanren chair in Japanese research at the University of British Columbia, said he generally does not think it appropriate for the Canadian government to commemorate events that did not involve Canadian actors directly. He said the Holocaust is a significant exception, because of the nature and scale of its atrocities.