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Nanking Atrocities

Masato Kajimoto, University of Missouri-Columbia

Reviewed by:
Brian Platt
George Mason University
June 2005

This site provides a valuable introduction to the issues surrounding Japan’s assault on the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, an event that has become well known to Western audiences in recent years as “The Rape of Nanking” or “The Nanking Massacre.”

The site is well organized and easy to navigate. It contains a detailed table of contents that allows the reader to see the overall layout of the site and go directly to particular topics or sources.

The site begins with a narrative of the events leading up to the Japanese army’s invasion of Nanking. This narrative is rather straightforward: the author starts with the Marco Polo Bridge incident in July 1937, then moves on to discuss how the early advances of the Japanese forces were followed by a fierce, prolonged battle in the streets of Shanghai. Like many historians, he attaches great explanatory weight to this battle, arguing that it generated frustration and anger toward the Chinese—feelings that, he maintains, Japanese soldiers subsequently vented during the assault upon Chinese soldiers and civilians in Nanking. After most of the Chinese soldiers either deserted Nanking or blended into the civilian population, the Japanese soldiers unleashed a fury of violence upon the city.

After the introductory narrative, the site delves into the atrocities themselves. This discussion is divided into summary accounts of various witnesses: “What Japanese Journalists Witnessed,” “What Westerners Witnessed,” and so on. Whenever possible, the author excerpts relevant primary sources when detailing the acts of violence committed by the Japanese. The site does not shy away from the gruesome details of the violence, but neither does it wallow in them in a sensationalist or lurid fashion, adopting instead a rather balanced, matter-of-fact tone.

The author’s balanced presentation of the Nanking Massacre is evident in his decision to include various primary sources that give voice to a range of perspectives. The site contains primary accounts by American and Japanese journalists, excerpts from the diaries of Western missionaries and businessmen, interviews and memoirs by Japanese soldiers, photographs, and even a segment from Frank Capra’s propaganda film about the war in China.

Upon reading these sources, one is immediately struck by the fact that there is some disagreement among the primary sources concerning the nature and scope of the violence. Rather than trying to reconcile these accounts, the site allows the different voices to speak for themselves. The effect of this approach is to convey to the reader the difficulty of reconstructing a single authoritative account of a historical event—particularly an event whose reconstruction carries such enormous political stakes.

These political stakes are addressed quite explicitly in the site. The author provides a summary of the debates surrounding the event—in particular, the divergent death toll estimates. He also discusses the emergence in the 1990s of right-wing activists in Japan who contest many of the claims about the Nanking atrocities made by other historians. He does not do as thorough a job of interrogating the political purposes of the Chinese government’s memorialization of the atrocities—an issue that has come to public attention in the recent outbursts of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Nonetheless, the site shows how historical research on the events in Nanking is shaped deeply by political concerns in the present.

Thus, the site provides a useful tool for instructors, who can use it as an introduction not only to the historical event itself, but to larger issues relating to the politics of memory and the contemporary relevance of historical events.

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