Selective Amnesia

A Holocaust and a massacre are ideas that have been intrinsically imbued into the social conscious of our society. No serious conversation about these topics can be held without emotionally charged rhetoric emerging and for good reason. The 1900s produced some of the most horrific displays of human violence and destruction that the world has ever seen, and to the present day, the cultural pain of these events has traveled through each generation with increasing resonance. The discovery of new evidence and accounts of what occurred in the European and Pacific fronts has illuminated tails of great perseverance but also of great evil. Today, the events that occurred in Nanjing, China in 1937 have produced irreparable tensions and conflict between Japan, China, and even the US, and it is personal interpretation which is the focal point of the feud.

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One does not need to look far to see a wide range of numbers surrounding Nanjing. Anywhere from less than 100,000 to 300,000, the human death toll is staggering for something which occurred over the course of a week. For the Japanese, Nanjing has been the epicenter of an internal ideological struggle to come to terms with their actions during World War II. For historian Takashi Yoshida, the persistent denial of the conservative body in Japan has made reconciliation with their Chinese and American counterparts impossible. Denial at the highest levels of Japanese government, such as the Minister of Education, had perpetrated a censuring of World War II material to students across the nation, such as with the textbook controversies of the late 1960s and 70s. Yoshida attempts to highlight the progressive movement that reacted against these denials and has sought to uncover the truth in order to push Japan to come to terms with the atrocities that the Tokyo Trials of the late 1940s claimed they caused. From a more bipartisan stance, Yoshida attempts to bridge the gap between the more nationalistic narratives produced by some in China and Japan, and he exposes how politically motivated agendas have taken over an event which demands critical analysis above all.

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In the fray are writers such as Iris Chang, a Chinese-American, and Tanaka Masaaki, a personal secretary to the Japanese General Iwane. Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking, which became a best-seller in America, received praise for its telling of the massacre by the Japanese. She compares the Japanese to the Nazis and the Rape to the Holocaust in an attempt to provide context and to share with the Japanese the notoriety the Nazis hold. She generally leaned to the larger body counts of the massacre, and she used the memories of her parents and other Chinese people to infuse emotion into her narrative. On the other end, Masaaki tried to refute the arguments that Chang presented, claiming they were either fake or exaggerated. He did this by inputting his personal experience into the picture and taking apart the photographs Chang used. He focused greatly on the deceitful nature of her work above all. Both writers have noticeably personal stakes in the telling of this story which leads to highly divisive interpretations of what occurred.

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In the end, it is a fundamental division in how each party interprets Nanjing and the utter brutality of what occurred that makes this such a sensitive subject. Both sides selectively focus on the facts and evidence that suits their narratives and utterly shuns any opposing notion. This has made true discussion of the issue futile as basic points like the definition of a “massacre”, which is tackled by each source in this paper in a different way, have provided little common ground to work with. While Japan is advancing its post-war awareness, there are still those who would rather believe that Japan is blameless in the blood that was shed. Whether Nanjing be a holocaust in its own right, or merely a by-product of a bitter war between two fierce adversaries, it is paramount that we be able to analyze all aspects of this event and truly understand what created such an event. Until then, Japan, China, and the US will remain locked in a bitter triangle of suspicion and hate.


Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking – The Forgotten Holocaust of World War IIPreview the documentView in a new window (1997)

Tanaka Masaaki, What Really Happened in Nanking – The Refutation of a Common MythPreview the documentView in a new window (2000)

Takashi Yoshida, “The Nanjing Massacre. Changing Contours of History and Memory in Japan, China, and the U.S.,” Japan Focus 4.12 (2 Dec. 2006). (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

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