ZHENG: Standing by history’s side

Takashi Kawamura is the mayor of Nagoya, Japan. Yet he wasn’t representing the citizens of Nagoya last Monday when he publicly denied that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 had ever occurred. What’s perhaps most bizarre is that he chose to make this statement in front of a visiting delegation of government officials from Nanjing, who were in Nagoya to celebrate the sister relationship between the two cities.

Kawamura’s statement has stirred Chinese communities worldwide, including at Yale. It is easy to criticize Kawamura for his grossly inappropriate remarks, but more needs to be said about the underlying causes of this incident and what an appropriate response entails.

First of all, the Nanjing Massacre is a well-known historical fact. The Tokyo War Crimes Trial estimates that the Japanese Imperial Army murdered more than 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war in the 1937 invasion. Although exact number of people killed remains disputed, there is irrefutable evidence to show that a horrific massacre indeed took place. In fact, there is an impressive collection of first hand photographs and documents recording the massacre in the Yale Divinity School Library.

Since his original statement, Kawamura has tried to frame his comment as a “personal opinion.” According to Japan’s Mainichi News, he remarked at a press conference in Tokyo a few days after the incident: “Since I became a lawmaker I’ve said there was no massacre of hundreds of thousands. It is better to say so openly, rather than saying it secretly.” Although he recognized that it was “uncourteous” to express “a personal opinion during a visit of senior Nanjing officials to Nagoya City Hall,” Kawamura has not apologized for his actions.

Suppose we believe that Kawamura was simply being forthright about his personal opinions. Under the most charitable interpretation, Kawamura’s position can be reconstructed in the following manner: The alleged massacre in Nanjing was a historical incident, and therefore its veracity and scope should be open to academic scrutiny and debate. One should certainly be permitted to hold his or her opinion in a discussion of history, no matter how unpopular that opinion might be. There is no reason to treat an issue differently simply because of its politically sensitive nature.

Indeed, Kawamura is treating himself like a beleaguered academic surrounded by a furious mob. Instead of retracting his claim, he offered to hold a public debate in Nanjing to discuss whether the massacre happened.

Kawamura’s assumption that the issue can be settled in an open debate reveals his ignorance about the nature of the Nanjing Massacre. Certain historical events are so emotionally charged and so deeply embedded in the collective conscience of nations and peoples that they cannot possibly be limited to purely academic discussions.

Furthermore, such historical events such as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima do not remain static throughout time. They become concepts and evolve with the reflection and imagination of each passing generation. The Nanjing Massacre must be understood in context. For the Chinese, it has come to symbolize the countless atrocities that the Japanese committed in China in the Second World War.

Kawamura’s open denial of the Nanjing Massacre throws into doubt his stance on Japanese war crimes in general. It is a purposeful attack on the goodwill of the Chinese people and perpetuates hatred between the two countries.

More troubling is the fact that Kawamura isn’t alone. He isn’t the first Japanese politician to deny the massacre, and, sadly, he will not be the last. Just days after Kawamura’s statement, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara stepped forward to defend him.

Despite the fact that certain Japanese right-wingers have not been shy about historical revisionism, the Chinese people must resist the temptation to make generalizations about Japanese politicians and the Japanese people as a whole. More than anything, generalizations feed stereotypes and fatten the radical nationalism that lies at the core of those historical revisionists’ beliefs.

Kawamura and Ishihara deny the Nanjing Massacre because the glorious Japanese national character they uphold does not square with what occurred in Nanjing. They deny history in an effort to honor their nationalist beliefs, but they fail to recognize that it was the latter that bloodied history in the first place.

Kawamura and Ishihara’s claims must be rebuffed. They must apologize. Yet the Chinese must not respond to extreme nationalism in kind. I cannot help but worry about a growing Chinese nationalist sentiment that harbors regrettable misconceptions of Japanese people and constantly pushes the Chinese government toward hard-line responses.

Hate begets hate. If we let the perpetrators of hatred bring out the worst in us, then they win. We don’t need to be hyper-nationalists to see through Kawamura’s farce. Rather, we simply need to stand firmly by history’s side.

Xiuyi Zheng is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.


  • River_Tam

    I wish someone would address the Mayor’s underlying statement – the basis for his claim is: “Why were people in Nanjing kind to Japanese soldiers only eight years after the incident?” Is this true? Were the people of Nanking kind to Japanese soldiers in the 1950s? If so, why? This is what is fascinating to me; not the nationalism and ignorance of one mayor.

    The Rape of Nanking is a matter of historical record and there is a long and well-documented trail of Japanese atrocities (the death toll estimates range everywhere from 40,000 to 300,000). So why were the civilians so kind to Japanese soldiers only eight years later?

    • jamesdakrn

      The Mayor was only relying on the memories of his own father in 1945. Maybe the crowd was being “nice” because of the euphoria of the Victory on the long, 8 years of warfare. Maybe it was because that the “citizens” that were nice to the soldiers were pro-Japanese. I don’t know. What I do know however is that these things happen all the time.

      People of Gwangju were kind to Roh Tae Woo, the “best friend” and successor of Chun Doo Hwan, when Roh visited the city of Gwangju in 1987 campaigning for the election, just 7 years away from the famed Gwangju Massacre of 1980. Why? because they were pressured to. Because they were in a collective mood of self-hate, despair and a sense of anomie not unlike what the Czechs felt after the Prague Spring.

      • River_Tam

        > What I do know however is that these things happen all the time.

        I’d be interested to hear of more cases of this happening — my own limited experience with such things is that there is more likely to be long-standing enmity rather than any cordial relations.

        As fro your example, the Gwangju massacre was on the scales of hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. The difference is significant for considering how the collective population of a major city would view you. Also, Roh had agreed to democratic elections, which greatly helped his public image.

        (If I recall correctly – my knowledge of this is mostly based on my knowledge of the 1988 Olympics)

        • jamesdakrn

          It was on the thousands. The government’s version of the story says 200 CONFIRMED casualties. There are claims of 2000 missing/dead that were reported right afterwards, and as a politically polarized incident, the casualties range from 200 at the lowest to around 12000, but most average around 2000.
          But yeah I do agree that the size is not comparable. However, all of the citizens of Gwangju still vividly remember the incident (if they were old enough) and they would never forget about it since they were basically unwanted in Korean society. In Seoul, speaking a Jeolla accent meant that you were never getting a job.

        • jamesdakrn

          And yeah while it may not be “all the time” there are two examples that I could think of off my head. Gwangju and Czech 1968. Only months after the Soviets sent their tanks in the citizens of Czechoslovakia had to “welcome” and “celebrate with” whenever the Soviets visited the country.

  • whatwhat

    Of course it was wrong for Kawamura to deny the Rape of Nanking. However, perhaps the Chinese government should not be so hypocritical- it continues to suppress the public memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, amongst other things.