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Still secret after all these years

Japanese denial and 'The Rape of Nanking'


By Laura Miller

May 25, 1999
Web posted at: 2:25 p.m. EDT (1825 GMT)

(SALON) -- Last week, the Japanese company Kashiwashobo announced that it had canceled plans to publish Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" in Japan. Chang's critically acclaimed 1997 history of the atrocities the Japanese Army committed during its occupation of Nanking in 1937 had already stirred debate in Japan. Basic Books, Chang's American publisher, issued a statement saying that it could not come to an agreement regarding changes that Kashiwashobo had requested in the text and photographs. Chang, who maintains that these requests are the result of pressure on Kashiwashobo from "ultranationalist" organizations in Japan, refused to make the alterations.

Salon Books interviewed Chang via e-mail about the fate of "The Rape of Nanking" -- and of her message -- in a country where the past remains the subject of ferocious dispute.

Why do you think Japan has proved so resistant to confronting and acknowledging the Rape of Nanking and similar aspects of its past? Germany, by contrast, has made coming to terms with the Holocaust a national project. Daniel Goldhagen, the author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners," was actually celebrated by many Germans.

Because both countries found themselves in entirely different political circumstances after the war. In postwar Germany, most of the Nazi war criminals were thrown in prison, executed or -- at the very least -- prevented from occupying positions of power. The Germans also officially acknowledged their wartime misdeeds by paying billions in restitution to their victims and passing laws to mandate the teaching of the Holocaust in public schools. By dismantling the Nazi infrastructure from top to bottom and by teaching subsequent generations the full story of the horrors of that regime, Germany was able to make a clean break from the past and earn back some of the trust and respect it had lost from the international community.

But what happened in Japan was precisely the opposite. To this day, Japan has never paid a penny in reparations to the victims of the Nanking massacre, or, to my knowledge, adequate restitution to its other victims, like Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military or the American and Chinese POWs who were used as human guinea pigs for Japanese medical experimentation.

Moreover, the entire royal family of Japan was exonerated under the terms of the surrender, and avoided prosecution, and even having to testify, during the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. Emperor Hirohito stayed on the throne until his death in 1989.

Why did this happen? I think it happened because the United States, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan were all more concerned about achieving their immediate political objectives than about seeking justice for the victims of Japan. After 1949, neither the PRC nor the ROC demanded apologies or reparations from Japan because both governments were competing for Japan's diplomatic recognition and trade relationships. And during the Cold War, the U.S. government sought to build up Japan as a strong and stable ally to counter the forces of communism in the Soviet Union and Asia. No doubt a deep-seated American guilt over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also made U.S. criticism of Japanese wartime behavior difficult.

Therefore, the Japanese escaped the moral scrutiny and legal responsibility that their counterparts in Germany were forced to accept, and the consequences can be felt in Asia today. Thanks to American and Chinese leniency, the entire Japanese wartime bureaucracy remained intact, leaving it in a position to control what was taught in schools -- or broadcast in the media -- during the postwar years. As a result, the people of Japan never went through the intense process of national soul-searching and atonement for their World War II crimes.

Have you been to Japan since the publication of your book in the U.S., and, if so, what have your interactions with individual Japanese been like when this topic is raised?

Next page | "I'm simply not welcome in Japan right now"

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