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Erna Paris

Shine a light on the Rape of Nanking Add to ...

Seventy-three years after the Imperial Japanese Army stormed the Chinese metropolis of Nanking and massacred an estimated 260,000 civilians, survivors and their descendants still wait for justice - and for a full acknowledgment of the crimes. The Japanese government has provided neither.

This weekend, an international conference in Toronto titled Forgotten Voices, Living History will address the issue of war memory, with an emphasis on the need to educate Canada's children about these difficult issues. Organized by the Chinese diaspora, a group that only recently found its voice, the meeting will bring together survivors, Japanese human-rights activists who are subversively using the Internet to educate their fellow citizens, "comfort women" (200,000 Korean, Philippine and Indonesian women were forcibly prostituted to the occupying Japanese soldiers; only 40,000 of whom lived through the ordeal), writers such as Canada's Joy Kogawa whose work has focused on the human-rights abuses, former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and educators from across Ontario.

Why are war crimes of this magnitude so little known in the West - and even less so in Japan? Put simply, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews took place physically closer to us, and many of the survivors remained in Europe or emigrated to North America. Second, genocide scholars were more likely to read German than Japanese or Chinese, and the Nazis had conveniently and fastidiously documented their crimes. Third, although there were war-crimes trials in postwar Tokyo, corresponding with the Nuremberg trials in Germany, only a handful among the Japanese military were convicted.

For reasons of Cold War preparedness and strategy, the American occupying power ignored major crimes, such as medical experiments on live Chinese prisoners that had produced potentially useful data for biological warfare. General Douglas MacArthur also agreed to preserve the hierarchical structure of Japanese society, with the emperor at its pinnacle.

For all these reasons, among others, Japan's postwar period did not include learning about atrocities that had been committed on behalf of the nation, as it did in postwar Germany.

Two famous pictures recall the difference. In one frame, German chancellor Willy Brandt has fallen to his knees before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. The year is 1971. In the second frame, Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto stands proudly in Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where the "souls" of Japan's war criminals have been sanctified. The year is 1996.

This may be changing. On Aug. 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his entire cabinet did not attend the commemorative ceremony at the shrine, having decided that angering the Chinese (as these annual visits always do) was no longer politically expedient. Mr. Kan also took the opportunity to express a generalized "deep remorse" for the damage Japan had inflicted upon its neighbours. He went further still, making an outright apology for his country's annexation of the Korean Peninsula on the 100th anniversary of the event.

In the past, such acts would have elicited angry protests from the country's extant fascists, who still drive through the streets of Tokyo in black armoured limousines broadcasting their invective through bullhorns. But, as Mr. Kan may have hoped, the response was surprisingly muted (the angry old men may be dying of old age). Peace groups hailed the Prime Minister's shift in policy.

Given China's rise and Japan's deflationary woes, Mr. Kan was right to change course, especially since China has indicated that the unresolved "history question," meaning Japan's refusal to fully acknowledge and apologize for the massacre of Chinese civilians, will impede improved Sino-Japanese relations. The two countries do seem to be moving ahead, if slowly. A commission of Japanese and Chinese scholars has been struck to discuss the numbers of victims (upon which possible reparations will probably depend). So far, there has been little agreement, but there is reason to believe that Japan may now be more willing to deal with its past.

Eventually, Japan will need to teach its children the truth about their country's war, just as Germany has done. During a research trip, I found widespread ignorance. As one high-school teacher put it, "The university entrance exams do not include questions about the wartime period, so the secondary-school teachers just don't teach it."

In 1997, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by American writer Iris Chang, became the first major English-language study of this tragedy, but the book was criticized in Japan as "inaccurate." Tragically, Ms. Chang took her own life. She was 36. Her suicide was an appalling example of the depression that frequently settles upon those who have been victimized by crimes against humanity, down into the generations, and their urgent need for accountability.

Japan has taken a first step. It is time to quicken the pace.

Erna Paris is the author of Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History. She is a speaker at the Forgotten Voices, Living Memory conference.

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