The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II


Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking is a novel that tries to bring light on perhaps the most ambiguous and controversial topic to come out of World War II. Chang, having grown up the daughter of two witnesses to the Japanese occupation of China, provides her readers not only with stories describing the barbaric actions of Japanese soldiers, but also the accounts of heroism that surfaced amidst the brutality.

In the late 19th century, the nations of Asia were beginning to witness the rise of a new power. Japan was once portrayed as a country very rich in culture, but far behind in technology and military strength. After numerous changes in foreign and domestic policies, the Japanese were finally driven to follow in the footsteps of the powers in the west. By the 1920’s, the Japanese economy had experienced prosperity as a result of the enormous global demand of their silk and steel. The economic expansion provided them with supreme military power and elevated them as a world power.

They did not share the same intentions as their peers, however. Their national initiatives revolved around developing a militaristic government destined for world domination. It became an obsession for the Japanese to see the destruction of world powers such as America, Europe and especially China. Chang describes the tone of the day, elaborating that “…Japan resounded with nationalistic slogans such as “Revere the Emperor! Expel the Barbarians!” and “Rich Country, strong army!” (23) The Japanese prepared the citizens of their country for a full scale war against the Chinese, labeled as their chief rival. Children were imbued with agressiveness and violence, given toy guns, and constantly treated as young soldiers programmed to hate their Chinese enemies. “His teacher slammed his knuckles against the boy’s head and yelled, “Why are you crying about one lousy frog? When you grow up, you’ll have to kill one hundred, two hundred chinks!” (30)

After numerous assassinations, bombings, and other methods of provocation from the Japanese, the Chinese were finally forced into declared warfare. Lacking the proper military technology and superiority, it soon became evident they were outmatched to last against such a dominating force. Systematically, the Japanese army conquered one city at a time. The capital city of Nanking was soon to follow.

In December 1937, the Chinese army vacated Nanking, leaving the Japan forces to occupy the city without even a fight. The notorious "Rape of Nanking" that immediately ensued began as a systematic murder of Chinese prisoners of war and anyone assumed to be soldiers in hiding. As the discipline of Japanese troops was realized to be nonexistent, the soldiers began indiscriminately killing civilians, unleashing an orgy of violence and rape throughout the city. Chinese men were lined up in long rows, and machine-gunned into huge burial ditches. Women were gang raped by dozens of soldiers at a time; some were raped to death and others were raped then executed. Babies were either bayoneted or cut into fractions by sword. Fathers and sons were forced to rape mothers and daughters while the rest of the family was required to watch at gunpoint. Some Chinese were even sent to be victims of Japanese killing contests, where the Japanese would tally scores in order to make executions more interesting. A few soldiers were even reported to have bragged to members of the media about their scores.

The estimated number of victims ranges. At the Tokyo War Crimes Trials held in Japan, they claimed approximately 42,000 people were killed in Nanking and over 100,000 in the surrounding area in a period of six weeks. The local war crimes trials held in Nanking estimated that 190,000 were killed. Iris Chang accepted the highest plausible estimate of 300,000 dead.

Despite the numerous acts of barbarism so vividly depicted, Chang also elaborates on many stories of heroism and selflessness. A majority of these acts took place in the Nanking Safety Zone, an area in the city designed to protect innocent civilians from the casualties of war. Robert Wilson, a citizen of Nanking and resident surgeon was one of the few surgeons who stayed in the area, despite the violence and mayhem around him. The bombings around the city of Nanking left him with countless patients, both civilians and soldiers, to care for. His efforts became legendary as he refused to take time off, while working in a hospital and running the risk of being bombed. Shortly after the war, he was reported to have suffered many violent seizures and a mental breakdown due to the amount of stress he suffered in Nanking. His selfless act to save hundreds of lives at the cost of his own became legend throughout China; he remains a revered figure in China to this day.

Possibly the most interesting story, is that of the German businessman John Rabe. Before World War II, John was a staunch political supporter of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. His opinions towards the persecution of the Jews was never discussed, he was simply in favor of the political structure Hitler used as fuehrer. “We are soldiers of work, we are a government of workers, we are friends to the worker, and we will never leave the worker’s side in times of crisis.” (110) In the 1930’s, he was named the representative town leader of the Nazi party in the city of Nanking.

Despite the suggestions from Japanese officials to vacate the city, Rabe informed them of his decision to stay and put forth his efforts towards the preservation of civilian life. After he was appointed as head of the Nanking Safety Zone, he was able to use his political powers to provide many starving and homeless Chinese citizens with food and proper shelter. His prestige as a member of the Nazi regime struck fear in the Japanese soldiers. The common Japanese officer did not want to bring harm to a Nazi official for fear that they would face serious punishment from their superiors. Rabe wore his Nazi patch as if it were the shield of the white knight that was protecting thousands of innocent Chinese.

The most controversial part of the book was the political discussion of memory and forgetting. In contrast to the extensive trials of war crimes trials in Europe, which were begun by the Allies and later continued by the Germans themselves, the trials in Japan became practically nonexistent. There were few and they finished very quickly. Some key contributors were put to death; however, the majority of them, including Japan’s royal family and Emperor Hirohito escaped prosecution. Members of the royal family served as generals in the Japanese army during the Nanking occupation and were never even questioned about their knowledge. The U.S. saw the economic powerhouse of Japan as its key anti-Communist ally in Asia, throughout the Cold War. Taking high ranking officials out of power in Japan would only hinder the efforts of the United States against communism. Even more staggering, they never forced Japan to come to terms with its actions as they did with Germany in Nuremburg.

In my opinion, Chang’s reason in writing this story is the strongest and most poignant element of the book. She felt it was time that the people around the world, not just those in China and Japan acknowledge these events. For decades, Japanese historians have denied the Rape of Nanking, claiming it was a fabricated story that was circulated as an effort to discredit the Japanese government. Survivors of the incident never wanted to come forward in search of justice. The shame and horror the victims were simply too difficult to re-live. The majority of Americans do not even know that Nanking is a city located in China. A majority of the American public follows the assumption that World War II began with the Nazi invasion of its neighbors. Chang’s efforts to research the topic and piece together so much information in order to shed light on the subject are simply remarkable.

Although I found the stories interesting and enjoyed learning about a part of history so rarely discussed, I found the book to be very poorly written. As a historian, her work is superb, but her skills as a writer make the book lack credibility. In the introduction, Chang informs her reader of her intent to dictate the events from three different perspectives: the Japanese perspective as they invade China, the Chinese perspective as they are victimized by such brutality and the persepctive of the outsider (either American or European) as they experienced it as witnesses that did not face the direct threat of violence. She explains that writing in this fashion gives the reader the opportunity to interpret the information in various ways, and make his or her own opinion about what happened. (Page 14) What she fails to do, however, is give any perspective other than her own. When she describes the Japanese “perspective,” she does not shy away from painting a picture of a country filled such evil people. If we reconsider the aforementioned quotation that describes the exchange between the teacher and the student, we can see this “recreation” of a scene that she never witnesses and may never have taken place. It is possible that this story was fabricated either by the author herself, or the source of her information. Using examples like this does not provide a perspective, rather, it only showes her prejudice and raw emotion, while damaging her credibility in depicting the story from the Japanese perspective.

Chang’s choice for title “The Rape of Nanking” is idea as it represents what happened to the people of Nanking during and after the Japanese occupation of the city. During the occupation, the city and its residents were conquered, brutalized and victimized and then perished, both physically and metaphorically. Once the war saw its end, the people of Nanking considered themseves as having been raped, as their dignity as human beings was disregarded when the world failed to acknowledge the pain that they had suffered. There is not a better title than the one Chang chose.

Overall I enjoyed the book very much. It gave me a better understanding of the war, especially on a more personal and human level. The relations Germany had with Japan before World War II never really made sense; however, now it is clear that the two nations shared a common understanding, which was their complete disregard for human life. The Rape of Nanking truly is the forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

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