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The Rape of Nanking

Book Review

The Rape of Nanking

The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

By Iris Chang

Several years ago a business acquaintance came to me with an idea: organizing Formula One racing in Hawaii. At that time, I happened to be working with Mitsubishi Corporation a lot and I was asked whether the company would be willing to sponsor the event. Mitsubishi was very profitable in those days and this would be a high profile event that would presumably give it prestigious publicity. However, due to the Grand Prix schedule, December was the only month available for such a race to be held. When I heard that, I just had to laugh. My acquaintance apparently had no idea that Mitsubishi was the company that had produced the Zero, the aircraft that was used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. There could hardly be a worse choice for a sponsor for an event in Hawaii in December.

This kind of thing is common: complete ignorance of the past as it relates to Japan. And for Japanese Americans, there is still a lot of bad feeling due to the US government sending that segment of the population to relocation camps after war against Japan was declared. Despite the fact that in 1988 Ronald Reagan officially apologized to those who had undergone that treatment and $20,000 apiece to the 60,000 surviving Japanese Americans. (Many Japanese Americans nonetheless decry the matter insistently, still outraged. However, they fail to mention that Aleut Native Americans were interred during the war in the same way, and also received the apology and restitution from Reagan. Another example of ignorance of history, even when it is intimately related to one’s own experiences.)

The fact is that before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they had been at war in China for years, and had committed terrible atrocities against the people there. There was no wonder that after the stunning events in December 1941 Americans were in no mood to take any chances in dealing with Japanese people in their midst.

Today, there is a great deal of bad feeling remaining among the Chinese populace, which has not forgotten those days. It is important that such things not be dismissed by others without a thought.


The broad details of the Rape are, except among the Japanese, not in dispute. In November 1937, after their successful invasion of Shanghai, the Japanese launched a massive attack on the newly established capital of the Republic of China. When the city fell on December 13, 1937, Japanese soldiers began an orgy of cruelty seldom if ever matched in world history. Tens of thousands of young men were rounded up and herded to the outer areas of the city, where they were mowed down by machine guns, used for bayonet practice, or soaked with gasoline and burned alive. For months the streets of the city were heaped with corpses and reeked with the stench of rotting human flesh. Years later experts at the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (IMTFE) estimated that more than 260,000 noncombatants died at the hands of Japanese soldiers at Nanking in late 1937 and early 1938, though some experts have placed the figure at well over 350,000.

Iris Chang’s book goes on to explain in detail exactly what happened at the time. With maps and 24 pages of photographs (some of which are too graphic to be shown here), the whole horrible and sad history is laid out. Naturally, the military activity and terrorist atrocities are chronicled, but there are also chapters about efforts by Westerners to do everything they could to shelter whomever they could (actions led by John Rabe, a German businessman who wrote a letter to Hitler asking for intervention; he was later arrested in Berlin by the Nazis for his troubles), reporting in the international press, and massive rape of the Chinese women. (As a result of these rapes and the resultant worldwide outrage, the Japanese set up houses of prostitution using “comfort women,” something that lingers as a source of grievance in China and Korea.)

As Ms. Chang states several times in the text, the Japanese have never fully acknowledged their culpability here. In fact, there have been systematic attempts in Japan to purge the matter completely from textbooks used in the schools. And Japanese politicians have made a point of visiting Yasuguni Jinja, a Shintō shrine in Tōkyō, to honor Japan’s war dead. This, despite the fact that the shrine is also the final resting place of war criminals. There is no doubt that many Japanese, especially the right wing element in the population, still see nothing wrong in this, or how it might give offense to Chinese or Korean nationals.

Until the Japanese acknowledge their actions in Asia, such as in connection with the Rape of Nanking, they will find themselves continually forced on the defensive. The country will never be viewed as a legitimate leader in the region. This would be a shame, because on many fronts Japan could pave the way for great political, cultural and economic advancement in Asia.

I have kept this review short because I am aware how painful a subject this is for all concerned: the Chinese, Koreans and the Japanese themselves. I read The Rape of Nanking when it was first published in 1997, but although I have reviewed several other more frivolous books here, I have held back in regards to this one. Anyone who reads the book will see why. It is a harrowing account.

And perhaps it was most unsettling for the author herself. A few years after the book was published, Iris Chang committed suicide. I cannot help but feel that she was one more victim of the Rape of Nanking.

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