- The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture
The current relevance of this excellent book was underscored by my receiving, as I was finishing reading it, an email (dated May 5, 2008) from the "Committee for the Examination of the Facts about Nanking." Two of the members of the committee, Fujioka Nobukatsu and Higashinakano Shūdō, loom large in Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi's edited volume as foremost "deniers" of the Nanking Atrocity. The email posed five questions about the "Battle of Nanking" to visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao—the substance of which are all addressed in this book.
The issue of what happened in Nanking from December 1937 into early 1938 has recently become an especially hot topic, with a number of books focusing on it following the publication in 1997 of the late Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic Books) In the sharply polarized reaction to her book, she was both lionized and demonized for her interpretation. Wakabayashi's book is in many ways a reaction to issues raised by her work. The essays probe what indeed happened in the Chinese capital 71 years ago, and they analyze the historiography of the events, looking at interpretations of the Nanking Atrocity by Chinese, Western, and especially Japanese scholars.
I find the book's subtitle to be somewhat surprising. I would have thought "Clarifying the Picture" more appropriate than "Complicating the Picture." After all, Wakabayashi, in explicating the goal of the book, states that "[o]ur task is to refine, not reject, the prevailing view of Japanese turpitude, Chinese victimization, and Western humanitarianism at Nanking" (p. 23). He is not challenging the reality of the killings and the rapes that occurred: "We contend that the Atrocity was a shameful violation of law and morality" (p. 19). But he goes on to say that he and other essay writers "find [them]selves in grudging and qualified agreement that certain intractable facts betray key points in the official Chinese narrative and in Western accounts that follow it" (p. 19).
The elephant in the room is the atrocity-deniers, who have raised questions mostly about numbers and identities of those killed and about (a perceived lack of) coverage of the events at the time. Wakabayashi asserts that "[t]he most that would-be deniers can do is minimize the number of victims, cite extenuating circumstances to explain it, or claim that all armies in all wars commit similar atrocities" (p. 143). And yet, it seems to me that he [End Page 172] leaves open the possibility that the atrocity-deniers may be right. Several sentences following the preceding quotation, he says, "if Japanese critics . . . succeed in disproving the factuality not only of the killing contest [which Wakabayashi discusses], but of many more incidents in the Nanking Atrocity, the Chinese will be hard put to maintain credibility because modern-day historians will not accept narratives unless these are convincingly supported by empirical evidence" (p. 143). Even more pointedly, he asserts, "if deniers prove that many more incidents in the Nanking Atrocity are baseless in fact, we may have to rethink our overall understanding of it" (p. 361).
On the one hand, this makes perfect sense: historians must leave themselves open for any possibilities. But the phrase "convincingly [my emphasis] supported by empirical evidence"—on its face the ideal of every historian—is, in this case, also a trump straight from the deniers' playbook. It is troubling, given the realities of the atrocity where a host of factors militated against the careful setting down of accurate and unbiased empirical evidence. Even what exists is suspect, incomplete, or open to widely varying interpretations. In the end, what does it take to be convincing?
Many essays in this volume deal with the numbers game. Whether the number is "at least up to 5,000" as David Askew posits (p. 112), 46,215 in Wakabayashi's estimation (p. 384), or between 200,000 and 300,000 in Chinese eyes, even the...