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Book Review: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army committed possibly the greatest war crime in history.


The Rape of Nanking

Basic Books, 1997, 290 pages



In December 1937, in the capital of China, one of the most brutal massacres in the long annals of wartime barbarity occurred. The Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenseless city but systematically raped, tortured and murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians. Amazingly, the story of this atrocity- one of the worst in world history- continues to be denied by the Japanese government.

The Rape of Nanking tells the story from three perspectives: that of the Japanese soldiers who performed it; of the Chinese civilians who endured it; and finally of a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and were able to create a safety zone that saved almost 300,000 Chinese. It was Iris Chang who discovered the diaries of the German leader of this rescue effort, John Rabe, whom she calls the "Oskar Schindler of China." A loyal supporter of Adolf Hitler, but far from the terror planned in his Nazi-controlled homeland, he worked tirelessly to save the innocent from slaughter.




This is a grim fucking book, and I've read books about genocides and serial killers without flinching.

Iris Chang is not neutral on this subject. She wrote The Rape of Nanking in 1997 after learning that, although the event was well documented, there had never been an English-language book written about it. Her grandparents had narrowly escaped Nanking during the war. It's clear from reading her words that she had some feelings about the Japanese. In 1998 she confronted the Japanese ambassador to the United States on television. In the typical manner of Japanese politicians speaking about Japan's wartime record, the ambassador said, "There were perhaps some unfortunate incidents."

Nanking Bodies by river

Slaughtered women

Execution of Chinese man

Captives tied to poles

Nanking Massacre-Bayoneting

These are not the worst images available. While the Japanese tried to cover up the massacre as it became a PR nightmare, Westerners in the city took a lot of photographs and even movie reels. There are thousands of pages of documentation and photographs. The facts are really indisputable, which has not prevented many Japanese (including government officials) from disputing them, which is the source of the author's palpable rage towards the end of the book.

The story in simple summary: the Imperial Japanese Army's Shanghai Expeditionary Force arrived at Nanking in December of 1937, where one of Chiang Kai-Shek's generals, Tang Shengzhi, declared that Nanking would not surrender, but would fight to the death. Then he left about 10,000 untrained peasant soldiers to defend it and hightailed it out of the city. The IJA arrived, following a bombing campaign, took the city, and a six-week orgy of rape, looting, and mass murder on a scale perhaps never before seen in history ensued. Although atrocities continued throughout the Japanese occupation (as indeed the Japanese had been committing atrocities in China long before this), it was that initial period in which the worst horrors occurred.

Chang details the atrocities in gruesome detail. They are well-documented, by the international residents of the city who witnessed it and did their best, often heroically, to save the defenseless Chinese. Chang herself went to Nanking to interview survivors. The book is divided into several parts, first telling the story from the perspective of the Japanese and their military campaign, then from the perspective of the Chinese, then from the perspective of international observers inside and outside of the city.

The Unknown Holocaust



The Holocaust tends to suck all the air out of the room when we talk about World War II atrocities, but in many ways, what happened in Nanking was even worse. The death toll may not have been as high (estimates are still disputed, with the Japanese still insisting on a death toll from the truly ridiculous 3K to a still absurd underestimate of 30K-60K, while most historians agree it was probably more like 100K-200K and some Chinese claim as many as 400K), but while the Holocaust was a brutal industrial scale genocide carried out with German efficiency, the Japanese in Nanking got.... creative.

They ran wires through captives, chopped them up with swords, hung them by their tongues, used them for bayonet practice, stabbed them to death with needles, soaked them in gasoline and shot them, laughing as they went up in flames. They buried men to the waist and had dogs tear them apart, they drove over prisoners in tanks to use their bodies to fill ditches. They herded civilians into frozen lakes and forced them into the water to freeze to death. They committed thousands of acts of torture and dismemberment. There was also a "medical research" lab that performed gruesome experiments on Chinese civilians, injecting them with poisons and venoms and vivisecting them, and which destroyed all records and was only revealed afterwards by the testimony of a captured Japanese officer.

And then there were the women. Rape has happened in the aftermath of every captured city in history, but the Japanese turned Nanking into a city-wide orgy of nonstop gang rapes. When Chang refers to the entire event as "the Rape," it's not really figurative. Girls younger than 8, women older than 60, the Japanese herded women into streets and gang-raped them in broad daylight, raped women and girls literally to death, kept thousands as sex slaves, and killed any who resisted, killed any family members who tried to defend them, and often killed them anyway when they were done with them. There are numerous stories of pregnant women being raped, then bayoneted and their fetuses torn out of their bellies. The Japanese also forced fathers to rape their daughters, sons to rape their mothers, families to watch as every female from little girls to grandmothers were raped.

Particularly chilling in the aftermath is that Chang couldn't find a single recorded instance of any (admitted) half-Japanese children. What she did find was appalling suicide rates, pregnant women throwing themselves into the river in large numbers, and a lot of babies strangled at birth.

The Rape of Nanking catalogs these atrocities, lots of them. Although describing the hell that Nanking went through might serve a purpose in itself, it would be of little historical value just to itemize the horrors unless there was something else to take away from this.

Chang tries to offer some explanations for what caused Japanese military discipline to break down so badly, but the hard truth seems to be that it wasn't a breakdown: it was by design. All along their path to Nanking, the Japanese had been told that it was going to be open season on Chinese civilians. One of the more sensational stories is the infamous "killing contest" between two IJA lieutenants, reported in Japanese newspapers. This contest was later disputed, with the descendants of the named lieutenants even suing (unsuccessfully) for slander, but regardless of whether two officers really had a friendly little competition to see who could behead more Chinese on the way to Nanking, it was clear that this sort of behavior was not just allowed, but encouraged.

Chang spends some time talking about the harsh indoctrination of the Japanese military, in which enlisted men were regularly beaten by officers and had to stand there and take it. Brutal hazing was a way of life, and it started in childhood under Japan's military dictatorship, so by the time these soldiers reached Nanking, they had spent much of their lives being relentlessly abused, and then turned loose on a helpless civilian population they'd been taught to think of as less than human. There is some evidence that General Matsui, who was in charge of the expeditionary force (and who was not even present during the initial occupation of Nanking) was shocked and horrified by what happened, but less to his credit, he later spent more time trying to cover it up and then to deflect blame away from Prince Asaka, the Imperial commander who may or may not have ordered the rapine, and certainly did nothing to stop it.

Prince Asaka Yasuhiko

General Matsui was later executed as a war criminal. Prince Asaka lived out his days playing golf in Japan until the age of 93.

The Westerners Who Tried to Intervene



At the time the Japanese captured Nanking, there were a number of Westerners, mostly Germans and Americans, in the city. They established the "Nanjing Safety Zone," in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese took shelter.

Japan was not yet at war with the United States, but they definitely didn't view the Americans as friendly. The Germans on the other hand were Japanese allies, and this led to one of the most ironic stories of the Nanking massacre: the heroic Nazi whom Chang calls the Oskar Schindler of Nanking.

John Rabe

John Rabe was the leader of the Nazi Party in Nanking. Yet it's not an exaggeration to say he probably saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives. While keeping the Nanjing Safety Zone open, Rabe took in refugees and sheltered them everywhere he could — in his house and at his workplace and with his colleagues and coworkers. He and his fellow Nazis found that displaying their swastika armbands was often enough to deter Japanese soldiers, even as they interrupted them in the middle of a gang rape.

He left Nanking shortly after the occupation, promising the Chinese that he would appeal directly to der Führer on their behalf. And then he disappeared from history, until Iris Chang, researching this book, tracked down his family and learned the rest of the story.

Rabe really did make it back to Berlin, and he really did send a letter to Hitler about the Rape of Nanking, asking the Führer to intercede with Japan for the hapless Chinese.

This makes Rabe's granddaughter's claim that he was a Nazi because he believed in National Socialism but that he never knew about atrocities against the Jews somewhat believable. Rabe got a visit from the Gestapo for his trouble, and was basically told to shut up. After the war, he and his family spent a few years close to starvation. Rabe was interrogated first by the Soviets, then by the British, and for a long time was denied "de-Nazification" that would have allowed him to find employment, because of his Nazi party leadership back in Nanking. Eventually the story of his humanitarian efforts convinced the committee to remove his black mark, and the people of Nanking, upon learning that Rabe had fallen on hard times, sent him money and care packages. Rabe died in 1950, still in poverty. It was only as a result of Iris Chang's research that his family finally decided to publish his memoirs: it had always been problematic to try to tell the story of a "good Nazi."

Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson was an American physician who ended up being one of the only doctors in Nanking. He was at one point the only person providing medical care to Chinese in the city, in the last surviving hospital, which was bombed more than once. He worked around the clock to exhaustion, and when he wasn't treating injured civilians, he literally drove around the city rescuing Chinese women from rape. Being a Westerner kept him from getting shot, but only barely.

He later testified before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He died in 1967, still suffering physically and mentally from his experiences in China.

Minnie Vautrin

Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary. Like John Rabe and Robert Wilson, she took in refugees in the International Safety Zone, and did her best to protect women from rape, often as Japanese soldiers with trucks would drive directly up to the women's college where she worked and demand girls. She kept a diary of the atrocities she witnessed, and personally saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives. Like Robert Wilson, she more than once put herself in front of Japanese rifles to shield people, and was on a few occasions slapped by angry Japanese soldiers.

In 1940, she had a nervous breakdown and returned to the United States for medical treatment. The friend who sailed with her had to repeatedly keep her from throwing herself overboard. She was hospitalized, received electroshock therapy, and committed suicide a year later.

This Book May Have Broken the Author



The Rape of Nanking has been criticized in some quarters (mostly Japanese) as being polemical and unbalanced. I don't think that's fair, but it's definitely not objective. Chang wasn't trying to be "fair" to the Japanese or tell "both sides." It's also been accused of exaggeration (again, mostly by Japanese apologists) because Chang tended to take Chinese claims at face value and dismiss Japanese rebuttals. I think this charge is not entirely unwarranted: Chang does obviously tend to believe the worst accusations and dismiss claims that any of the stories or body counts might have been exaggerated. However, her citations are numerous and the documentation and eyewitness testimony is damning.

I did notice that one of Chang's primary sources on Japanese history and culture was Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an anthropological study written in 1946 that was the first in a genre of "books explaining Japan to Westerners." It was a bestseller in the United States and Japan in the 1950s, but it's had its share of criticism as well, and by 1997, when Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking, she could certainly have found some less dated references.

It's clear that Chang was outraged as she wrote this book, and she is not sparing of the Japanese. While carefully disclaiming that there was anything inherent in the Japanese character to cause such atrocities, and separating the Japanese people from Japanese society, Chang rails in the last section of the book about the Japanese government's continued (at least up to the 1990s) refusal to acknowledge what had happened. She talks about how Japanese textbooks to that time barely mentioned any of Japan's war crimes, or indeed that Japan had even been an aggressor in World War II, and the pervasive national amnesia on the subject, the nationalist right wing's threats against any who criticized the actions of Japan during the war, and outright denials by Japanese writers and politicians that the Nanking Massacre even happened. She compares Germany's reparations over the Holocaust with Japan's lack of any form of reparations for their crimes, and points out how many Japanese soldiers, all the way up to Imperial officers, who admitted committing atrocities or at least being aware of them, escaped punishment. She was definitely on Team "Hirohito was a war criminal."

This was personal for her, and Chang was obviously very, very angry.

After reading it, it is hard not to be revolted, outraged, and yes, angry that a single person involved in this atrocity could have been allowed to walk around a free man enjoying life. It's easy to see how working on this book for years, traveling to Nanking to speak to survivors, looking at all those photographs of dead women with bayonets shoved up their vaginas, piles of severed heads, and children burned alive, could, well, unhinge someone.

Iris Chang

The Rape of Nanking was Iris Chang's third book. She was working on her fourth when, in 2004, following a breakdown and a hospital stay, she shot herself in her car by the side of a road in California. She left behind three suicide notes, one of which rambled about the CIA and being followed and discredited by the government.

Chang was severely depressed, and it's impossible to know what exactly caused her to take her own life. But I can't help thinking that the Rape of Nanking played a part in breaking her.

As a history, this is a thorough if imperfect book. As journalism, it's visceral, gripping, and horrifying. It may be flawed, and it may have come packed with a personal agenda, but the reality is undeniable, and anyone who says things like "Never again" or "Lest we forget" should read this. The survivors and ghosts of Nanking deserve it.







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