Something beautiful, an act of justice, is occurring in America today concerning something ugly that happened long ago and far away. The story speaks well of the author of the just act, and of the constituencies of conscience that leaven this nation of immigrants.
The rape of Nanking, a city of 1 million, by the Japanese army was perhaps the most appalling single episode of barbarism in a century replete with horrors. Yet it had been largely forgotten until Iris Chang made it her subject.Her book "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II" is refuting its subtitle. Already a best seller in its 15th printing, it has stimulated seminars and conferences at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many other places and is assisting those honorable Japanese who are combating their country's officially enforced amnesia regarding what the Imperial Army did in December 1937 and January 1938.
Japanese soldiers murdered tens of thousands of surrendered Chinese soldiers and almost certainly more than 300,000 noncombatants. (Civilian deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki totaled 210,000. Britain and France suffered a combined total of 169,000 civilian deaths from 1939 to 1945.) The Nanking killing continued for seven weeks in front of international witnesses, without any attempt at concealment, and with the sadism of recreational murder.
Chinese were used for bayonet practice and beheading contests. People were roasted alive, hung by their tongues from hooks, mutilated, drowned in icy ponds, buried up to their waists and then torn apart by German shepherds, buried up to their necks and run over by horses or tanks. In addition to pandemic rape by Japanese soldiers even of young children, some of them tied to beds or posts for days, fathers were forced to rape their daughters, sons their mothers.
In 1996 interest in Nanking's calamity was quickened by Chang's research, which led her to the descendants and diaries of John Rabe, the "Oskar Schindler of China." Rabe, who died in 1950, was a German businessman who lived in China from 1908 through 1938. A committed Nazi and leader of local Nazi activities, he nevertheless was one of a handful of foreigners who, at great risk to themselves in the welter of random violence, organized the "safety zone" that saved thousands of lives.
Chang, 29, who now lives with her husband in California's Silicon Valley, grew up in Urbana, Ill., and graduated from the University of Illinois, where her father is a physics professor and her mother is a microbiologist. Both parents were born in China - her father near Nanking, 11 months before the rape - and they first stimulated her interest in the historians' neglect of Nanking's martyrdom.
Cold War politics contributed to the neglect: Both China and the United States were solicitous of Japanese opinion, so too little was done to build a historical record by encouraging survivors to speak. And Japan compounded its crime by censorship. A certain, shall we say, understatement is customary in a country whose emperor, announcing surrender in August 1945, referred to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as developments "not necessarily to Japan's advantage." But something more sinister than cultural reticence explains resistance to candor about Nanking by portions of official Japan.
Senior politicians and officials have referred to the rape as "a lie," "a fabrication" and "just a part of war." Although Nanking fell with only slight Chinese army resistance, Japan's Ministry of Education rewrote one textbook to say, "The battle in Nanking was extremely severe. After Nanking fell, it was reported that the Japanese army killed and wounded many Chinese soldiers and civilians, thus drawing international criticism." The Japanese distributor of the film "The Last Emperor" cut the scene depicting Nanking's fate.
Fortunately, fresh interest in the untold history of World War II in Asia, and particularly China's suffering, was an indirect consequence of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which energized communities of Chinese origin around the world. Chang's book, the fruit of her training at the Johns Hopkins writing seminars, acquired early momentum from brisk sales in cities with large Chinese populations - San Francisco and Los Angeles, of course, but also Wash-ington, Houston, Vancouver and Toronto. Sales quickly reached the critical mass that triggers self-sustaining word-of-mouth advertising among readers, reviewers and booksellers.
Justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. Indeed, delayed justice can be especially luminous when rendered at a historical distance, leaving a truthful impress on mankind's memory. Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate, says that to forget a holocaust is to kill twice. Because of Chang's book, the second rape of Nanking is ending.