This book is about the astonishingly violent Japanese occupation of the Chinese city of Nanking during World War II. I have to say that I didn’t exactly enjoy reading this book, though I do think that the topic is an important one. Chang’s book is divided into three sections: the first describes the violence of the Japanese occupation in bloody detail, the second discusses the heroics of the few foreigners who remained in the city, and the third section is a more broad discussion of what Chang calls “the second Rape of Nanking” (the world’s general ignorance of the event).
The first section of the book was hard to read, and I had to put the book down a few times. Chang is unflinching in her description of the almost unbelievable cruelty of the Japanese soldiers toward the Chinese citizens, soldiers and civilians alike. The fate of the Chinese women was particularly horrible, since the men were usually killed more or less quickly, but the women were kept more or less alive, as you can imagine.
Fortunately, the book isn’t just a gruesome voyeuristic look at the terrible things that humans can do to other humans. The second section of the book describes the heroic activity of several foreigners who, against the urging of some, remained in Nanking and set up an International Safety Zone for the protection of a small fraction of the Chinese population. One of the more interesting characters was a German man, a staunch member of the Nazi party, whose acts of bravery in his attempts to protect Chinese civilians make him comparable to the famous Schindler of Schindler’s List fame. He stood in front of guns, pulled Japanese soldiers away from women and girls, and generally used every bit of his power to save lives. There were Americans working in the Safety Zone as well: missionaries, teachers, and professors who did their best to save as many people as possible.
The third part of the book addresses the “second Rape of Nanking,” the attempt by the Japanese government to ignore, cover up, and lie about the events that took place in Nanking. Chang acknowledges that the world’s political stage after World War II created an atmosphere in which the Japanese were not placed in the same social position as the German people were, during the post-Holocaust years. While Nazi war criminals were tried and convicted of their crimes, only a few Japanese officials were tried. And of those who were convicted, several went on to full political careers in Japan. The reasons for the difference are complex, but had to do with the political situation in Asia after WWII, the outbreak of the Korean war, the rise of the Communist Party in China, and the need by the United States to make Japan an ally.
Of course, there is plenty of evidence to support the accounts of the eyewitnesses: diaries, photographs, newspaper articles (the Japanese press bragged about the taking of the city), and eyewitness accounts, both from survivors and, in very recent years, by the perpetrators themselves. This last group, now old men, are beginning to come forward, even though they face shame and ridicule in Japan.
One thing that struck me about Chang’s discussion about historical precedents for cruelty of this magnitude, as well as the ensuing coverup, was that she completely ignored the Armenian genocide of 1915. To me, the actions by the Turkish government, first to exterminate (by inhuman acts of violence) the Armenians and then to cover it up, is an obvious parallel. Perhaps it speaks to the thoroughness with which the Turkish government has waged its war of obliteration.