The Making of the "Rape of Nanking": History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States

The Making of the "Rape of Nanking": History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States

The Making of the "Rape of Nanking": History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States

The Making of the "Rape of Nanking": History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States


On December 13, 1937, the Japanese army attacked and captured the Chinese capital city of Nanjing, planting the rising-sun flag atop the city's outer walls. What occurred in the ensuing weeks and months has been the source of a tempestuous debate ever since.

It is well known that the Japanese military committed wholesale atrocities after the fall of the city, massacring large numbers of Chinese during the both the Battle of Nanjing and in its aftermath. Yet the exact details of the war crimes--how many people were killed during the battle? How many after? How many women were raped? Were prisoners executed? How unspeakable were the acts committed?--are the source of controversy among Japanese, Chinese, and American historians to this day.

InThe Making of the "Rape of Nanking"Takashi Yoshida examines how views of the Nanjing Massacre have evolved in history writing and public memory in Japan, China, and the United States. For these nations, the question of how to treat the legacy of Nanjing--whether to deplore it, sanitize it, rationalize it, or even ignore it--has aroused passions revolving around ethics, nationality, and historical identity. Drawing on a rich analysis of Chinese, Japanese, and American history textbooks and newspapers, Yoshida traces the evolving--and often conflicting--understandings of the Nanjing Massacre, revealing how changing social and political environments have influenced the debate. Yoshida suggests that, from the 1970s on, the dispute over Nanjing has become more lively, more globalized, and immeasurably more intense, due in part to Japanese revisionist history and a renewed emphasis on patriotic education in China.

While today it is easy to assume that the Nanjing Massacre has always been viewed as an emblem of Japan's wartime aggression in China, the image of the "Rape of Nanking" is a much more recent icon in public consciousness. Takashi Yoshida analyzes the process by which the Nanjing Massacre has become an international symbol, and provides a fair and respectful treatment of the politically charged and controversial debate over its history.


In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Nanjing on December 13, 1937, and the subjugation of Chinese forces, the atrocities in Nanjing did not exist in official Japanese accounts, nor did most Japanese learn of these atrocities which had destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. Authorized newspaper reports, magazine articles, radio programs, textbooks, and even cartoons all supported the war effort and denounced Chinese leaders who, it was said, were promoting the anti-Japanese movement in China. These accounts emphasized Chinese atrocities in sensational reporting designed to stir public antagonism toward the enemy nation and its people.

In order to control the media and public opinion, the government made full use of its police power. It censored the press and even eavesdropped on street conversations between ordinary citizens. It arrested people who challenged its policies and spied on those whom it regarded as potentially harmful to the government. Especially suspect were Communists, liberals, ethnic minorities, and members of religious organizations.

Even during this period of suppression, however, Japanese society was neither monolithic nor perfectly united. Accounts that escaped censorship—the socalled “rumors and lies,” banned writings, smuggled publications, and personal diaries—did record and condemn the random killings, looting, and rape in Nanjing. Communists and their sympathizers in China and the United States sent their publications to friends in Japan. Missionaries smuggled in written accounts of Japanese atrocities in China. Japanese soldiers recorded their experience in Nanjing in their field diaries. Yet, at the height of hostilities with China, such brutalities seemed almost indistinct from the rest of the fabric of enmity, nationalism, and war. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the outrages at Nanjing, only the most attentive observers in Japan were aware that they had even happened.

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