The Magazine


Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By CHARLES HORNER
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IN 1997, THE YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN writer Iris Chang published The Rape of Nanking, a compelling account of the infamous Japanese capture of China's capital in December 1937. Timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of an episode that has become, like Auschwitz, a defining example of a "crime against humanity," Chang's unexpectedly successful book became a political force in its own right. Not only did it sell hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States, it also was adopted by the Chinese diaspora around the world in its effort to revive international interest in Japan's conduct during World War II.

Japan's war crimes in China, a sometimes dormant, sometimes raging issue in Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, took center stage again during Chinese president Jiang Zemin's visit to Japan in late 1998. Jiang succeeded in extracting from his hosts a more forthcoming, though still somewhat grudging, apology for past misdeeds. In this, Jiang was attempting a certain kind of Chinese re-unification effort, for all Chinese, whether Communist or Nationalist, are as one in their anti-Japanese sentiments. Indeed, the founders of China's new Democracy party (most of whom were recently jailed) criticized Jiang for being too tepid in Tokyo.

Chang's book is not exactly the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the piece, but its role is important nonetheless. It appeared at a time when the accomplishments of Chinese at home and around the world were a source of growing pride -- while the Japanese, beset with economic and political malaise, were once again obsessively engaged with their past. Then last week, Chang's Japanese publisher announced that it has postponed indefinitely issuing the Japanese translation of her book. The company was forthright in admitting that it was succumbing to pressure and threats. Apparently, Chang herself was unwilling to accept revisions and excisions in the Japanese version of her book that would have made it more palatable to Japanese critics.

The controversy over The Rape of Nanking tells us something about Japan's difficulties in coming to terms with its Asian neighbors. But it also instructs us about Japanese-American relations since the war. It is symptomatic of Japan's inability to establish a larger political role for itself in the world, as well as of the problems we can anticipate if we wish to make Japan the center of a new pro-democratic, pro-American (anti-China?) strategic coalition in Asia.

In the past, Japan's sense of itself has changed quite abruptly, and we should remain alert to how the Japanese see their place in the scheme of things. Disaster concentrates the mind. The trauma of the country's economic crisis these past few years is, of itself, not comparable to the collapse in 1945 of Japan's great imperial projects. But the most recent reversal of fortune cries out for some explanation. How much is it the result of some inherent defect in the Japanese character or system of governance? How much the result of the machinations of anti-Japanese forces outside the country? Who at home should be blamed, and how should they answer? If Japan is still without any real friends in the world, why is that?

For many Japanese, an attempt to answer such questions still begins with the "war crimes" trials that followed World War II. A Nuremberg-type international tribunal began deliberations in Tokyo in May 1946 and issued its judgment in November 1948. All twenty-five defendants were convicted. Seven were sentenced to death, sixteen to life imprisonment, and the rest to lesser punishments. Meanwhile, in several other places in Asia, the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, France, and China conducted some 2,000 separate trials of their own in many venues, involving more than 5,000 lesser defendants and producing another 4,000 convictions -- and another 1,000 death sentences. In the aftermath of devastating defeat, the Japanese were able to lay off their miseries on a handful of leaders and their embarrassments on a somewhat larger group of supposedly rogue warriors.