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Breaking the Silence

Iris Chang
Facing the Darkness: Sunnyvale writer Iris Chang confronts a black chapter in Sino-Japanese history with 'The Rape of Nanking.'

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Sunnyvale-based author Iris Chang gives voice to a new era of Chinese activism--much of it based in Silicon Valley--which may force Japan to confront its World War II atrocities, still largely unknown to the world a half-century later

By Ami Chen Mills

My older aunt, my dah ahiee (big aunt), is actually very small. Her wrists are the size of napkin rings, as delicate as rice paper--and the clothes we pass around in our family do not fit her slight frame. She is shy, especially in English. And during one heated family discussion on the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a mid-peninsula Sizzler, she kept quiet. I had pointed out to her rather talkative husband that the U.S. government was still the only government that had dropped the atomic bomb on human beings. Hiroshima, I could maybe see, but Nagasaki too? At this point, my petite aunt spoke up. "I think they should have bombed the whole country!" she bellowed, and then lapsed back into silence.

It was the first time I realized how profoundly the Chinese were affected by World War II. Even then, I was not familiar with what had happened in the country of my mother's birth during the war.

As Americans, we are almost all familiar with the Nazi-sponsored Holocaust, which spread its dark wings across the face of Europe during World War II, spawning unspeakable horrors, starvation, genocide. We know six million Jewish people were killed in the cogs of a death machine--along with almost as many gypsies, POWs, gays, communists and resistors. Even as Allied troops marched in victory to the gates of the death camps, the Germans continued to kill prisoners, to march them to death, starve them, shoot them, burn them, poison them, bury them alive. Many will never forgive the Nazis. The lesson of the Holocaust is to never forget.

Most of us are not familiar, however, with what the Chinese call the "Other Holocaust," or the "Forgotten Holocaust," undertaken by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. But a techno-savvy group of Silicon Valley­ based Chinese activists are waging a campaign to recall this lost episode from the fog of amnesia blanketing the entire Asian half of World War II.


First-Person Accounts:

Members of the International Safety Zone Committee
open pages of the journals they kept.

Historical photographs of the violent atrocities
during the Rape of Nanking.


JAPAN'S FORMAL WAR on China began in 1931, and Japan occupied parts of China--two-thirds of the country at its peak--until the end of the war in 1945. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and Chinese war historians estimate deaths resulting from the Japanese occupation at 10 million to 30 million. These figures, which some Chinese activists hope to revise upward, reflect deaths from massacre, attack, forced starvation and germ warfare.

According to Japan's government admissions, the testimony of Japanese soldiers, and Chinese survivors, Japanese soldiers routinely killed civilians in brutal ways. They raped women and turned them into sex slaves. Japanese doctors performed medical experiments without anesthesia. Prisoners were subjected to amputation and frozen alive. Epidemics were unleashed on Chinese and POW populations through germ-warfare experiments. But the incident which stands out most in the Chinese mind for its unbridled brutality is the Nanking massacre.

On the morning of Dec. 13, 1937--59 years ago this week--roughly 50,000 Japanese soldiers captured China's capital city, Nanking. Many residents had already fled Nanking before the invasion, including my grandparents. A new Chinese capital was founded in Chung King, in the Sichun province where my mother was born. Yet, according to historians, more than half a million Chinese remained trapped in Nanking. On that fateful invasion 59 years ago, the Japanese there were given the order to kill all captives. During the ensuing chaos, commonly referred to as the "Rape of Nanking," between 200,000 and 300,000 or more Chinese lost their lives to Japanese soldiers, according to court records and historians.

As the stories go--recorded in international newspapers, Chinese government and academic documents, Japanese photographs and in the diaries of Red Cross officials stationed in Nanking--the Japanese killed so many men, women and children with machetes that their arms became tired and they had to rest before they continued. The soldiers also used bayonets, machine guns, live burial and fire. Decapitation was popular, evidenced by dozens of photographs in James Yin Shi Young's The Rape of Nanking (Innovative Publishing Group, 1996). Chinese heads were fed to the dogs. Women were raped, forced to perform bizarre sexual acts, then killed. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons, their mothers. Chinese men were forced to rape corpses. Competitions took place among Japanese soldiers to see how many Chinese they could kill in one day.

For six to eight weeks, the horrors in Nanking continued unabated. After World War II, while the Germans were preparing for trial at Nuremberg, the U.S., represented by General Douglas MacArthur, brokered secret deals with the Japanese government. In exchange for their research on germ warfare and human biology, the murderous actions of the Japanese in China and elsewhere in the Pacific would be ignored. Even today, the germ-warfare research which the U.S. obtained, and which some believe may explain some POW illnesses, has not been declassified.

Rape of Nanking
Photo courtesy of Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War

Killing Field: An estimated 10 to 30 million Chinese died during the Japanese occupation of China. This mountain of bones was found at the Huangpo Massacre site, Hubei Province.

UNLIKE THE OUTRAGE over the actions of the Nazis, there has been little international recognition of Japanese war crimes. While the Germans have formally apologized many times, the Japanese emperor still has not. Some conservative Japanese believe the massacre never happened. Many continue to honor war criminals at national shrines. In 1979, when the U.S. first compiled a list of 60,000 European war criminals who were not allowed to travel to the United States, there was no list of Japanese war criminals. There were no memorials erected to honor the Chinese dead, nor to sear the memory of atrocities committed in China into the American conscience.

Only in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, did the Diet house of the Japanese parliament pass a resolution expressing "deep remorse"over Japan's World War II actions, noting simultaneously that such actions took place in the context of worldwide "colonial rules and acts of aggression." Soon after, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama made a "personal" statement expressing his remorse, in which he called Japanese actions a "mistake" which would not be repeated. Otherwise, the official Japanese position is that war-crimes issues were settled at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal--after which seven Japanese high-ranking officers were hanged, and at subsequent war-crimes trials in China. The issue of reparations was settled in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, where an approximate $15-per-head payment for POWs was awarded for distribution to the Red Cross. There were no other reparations to victims of the war by Japan.

China, roiling with an internal war after World War II, has done little of note to hold the Japanese responsible for its military actions. And the Chinese here have only begun to give voice to their seething anger over the Japanese occupation. My mother, for example, cannot look at photos of naked Chinese women forced into sexual positions by the Japanese (carried in soldiers' wallets), or of bayoneted bodies and mass graves. Yet she recently donated money to a campaign conducted by local Chinese to place an ad in the New York Times protesting permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council for Japan; and she volunteered at the recent International Symposium on Japanese Responsibility for World War II Atrocities at Stanford.

ONLY IN THE LAST decade, since the communist Chinese government's killing of students in Tiananmen Square inspired massive protests, have American-based Chinese begun to protest publicly in their adopted nation. As Chinese here feel more comfortable as citizens, their children, American-born upstarts like myself, have begun to ask questions about World War II. And we wonder why we did not learn of the Japanese massacres in school.

Now, the Japanese threat to the Diaoyutai Islands, a hundred miles from the shores of Taiwan, has prompted vigorous activism around Japanese militarism, much of it centered in Silicon Valley--specifically, at the Cupertino-based Alliance to Preserve the Truth of the Sino-Japanese War. Through Web sites, email, and fundraising from a large and largely affluent population of Chinese here, Santa Clara County is a stronghold of Chinese efforts to hold Japan accountable for its wartime crimes. At Stanford last weekend, more than 250 people--including Japanese, Koreans and American POWs--gathered for a three-day conference to discuss legal avenues for international justice, for victim reparations and, above all, for apologies from the Japanese. There was talk of a permanent memorial or museum. As one organizer put it, "We seek justice." The U.S. government is beginning to respond. Last week, the Justice Department issued a list of 16 Japanese war-crimes suspects barred from the U.S.

Rape of Nanking
By the Sword: According to reports from Nanking, so many Chinese were beheaded, it left Japanese soldiers exhausted at day's end.

Photo courtesy of Alliance for Preserving the Truth of Sino-Japanese War

IRIS CHANG, a Sunnyvale-based writer, emceed the Stanford conference for English speakers. In 1995, Chang authored Thread of the Silkworm, a book about Tsien Hsue-Shen, a Chinese immigrant who, forced out of the United States, pioneered the Chinese missile program. Now Chang has finished her second book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, due out in October from HarperCollins. As an American-born Chinese, she represents a generation perfectly willing to upset the status quo. Indeed, she is basing a career on just that. She is one of few Americans who has interviewed Chinese survivors of the Asian Holocaust in China with permission of the government. Among other discoveries, Chang has obtained the diaries of foreign missionaries and German Nazis living in China during the war--many of whom sheltered Chinese victims of Japanese atrocities. She has identified a man she calls "the Oskar Schindler of China," a German Nazi named John Rabe, as well as an American "Anne Frank," named Minnie Vautrin who committed suicide in the International Safety Zone in Nanking during the massacre. She likes to point out that, according to the diaries, the atrocities in Nanking were so brutal, "even the Nazis were shocked."

A few days before the Stanford conference, I interviewed Chang at Lucy's Tea House, a quiet Chinese "tea cafe" tucked in an alley in downtown Mountain View. Chang is 28--exactly my age--with long, black hair, a sweet and long face, and gracious manner. Both our grandparents fled Nanking just before the massacre. Her mother and my dah ahiee were born in the new capital, Chung King. Both of our families emigrated to Taiwan. Like many Chinese, Chang looks younger than she is. Her demeanor is staid and professional. But she grows heated and animated during discussions of Japanese actions during World War II. The Japanese occupation of China has become a part of her character, a living cause which quickens her pulse. Although she was born halfway around the world and two generations removed from the incident at Nanking, by now it is almost as if she lived through it herself.

How did you become interested in this topic?

My parents told me stories about the atrocities when I was a little girl. I found it hard to believe at that time, but they said that it was so bad that the surface of the Yangtze River was literally covered with bodies and blood. My grandparents were almost separated during World War II, and my mother almost died because the Japanese had bombed the hospital where my grandmother had been staying when she was pregnant with my mom back in 1940. And when I was a little girl, I tried to find information on the rape of Nanking in the local library, but there was nothing there. This was in Illinois. Later on, in college, I tried finding information, but it became clear no one had written a book that had penetrated the mass consciousness. There have been books, but they tend to be compilations of some of the documents generated from that time--nothing the mass media would pick up. So I decided to work on it.

My mother will start to cry when she thinks about what the Japanese did in China. It's hard for her to discuss. How did it feel for you to be immersed in this material?

It was very difficult. The Global Alliance for Preserving the Truth of the Sino-Japanese war had put together a conference in December of 1994, which I attended. I remember being in that conference hall looking at all these photos of decapitated bodies and women who had been horribly mutilated after rape. I was walking around in a state of shock. [During research at the National Archives and] at the Yale Divinity School Library, in the beginning, when I would read a passage about a Japanese atrocity, I had to look away from the page. ... It's really frightening how fast you get used to the atrocities, because after a while I stopped having that reaction. Part of you wants to stay sensitive, but the only way to deal with the atrocities and to protect yourself psychologically is to numb your mind to it ... It's very, very easy to just accept these atrocities and almost see them as banal. It really gave me insight into the true nature of evil and how easily we all can become desensitized.

Do you talk about this project with your parents?

Yes, I have. Actually, when I showed my father some of the Nazi diaries that I had discovered, when he read them, he burst into tears.

A Jewish friend of mine had some problems with the use of the word "holocaust" to describe what happened in China. Have you encountered resistance to the use of that word?

Not at this point. Most of my Jewish friends are very interested in this topic because they say they are sensitive to genocide issues and they feel that this is an important story. My book is not an attempt to show that one ethnic group's suffering was worse than another's. But it's important to focus on the truth of what happened.

Is this generally taught in textbooks in the United States?

We're seeing in San Francisco [in the San Francisco Unified School District], children will be required to learn about the Japanese atrocities committed during the rape of Nanking. It's the beginning of a trend of increased awareness on the subject. [But, generally,] there's very little. I think Americans are abysmally ignorant about this, and it's not really their fault because there's very little written about it.

There was an apology by the Japanese Prime Minister in 1995, but most Chinese feel that apology was weak, hardly enough. What do people want?

At a minimum, what the Asian community wants from the Japanese is a full and sincere apology to all of its victims from World War II. Reparations for victims. A guarantee that the next generation of Japanese schoolchildren will be taught the full extent of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese. That's a good start. Right now, in Germany, it's against the law not to teach the Holocaust in public schools. Contrast this with Japan, which for decades has systematically covered [Japanese war crimes] up. They whitewashed it from their textbooks. ... During the rape of Nanking--just that incident alone--the number of deaths that resulted surpasses the death toll, the immediate death toll, of the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. That's just one incident. And the rape of Nanking was not a unique and isolated incident. There were so many similar atrocities that occurred all throughout China. So few people even know about [them].

What did you learn had happened in Nanking?

In Nanking, babies were thrown in the air and bayoneted on the way down. Some people were buried waist deep and torn apart by German shepherds. People were killed in any manner you could imagine. I mean, fire, freezing, mutilation, explosion. ... Prisoners were used for bayonet practice. Women's breasts were cut off. Men were castrated. I have read accounts of tanks being stuck, not able to go across a ditch because the ditch was empty, and so they would round up all the civilians in the area, men, women, children, and shoot them all down and they'd put their bodies in the ditch so the tank could go over it. I could go on for days. ... It was horrifying. ... And it's amazing how some of the people survived. Women hid in holes in the ground. Some women dressed in rags, or shaved their heads and smeared soot over their faces so they would appear to be too ugly or diseased to be raped. ... There were people who pretended to be dead, then clawed their way out of half-buried graves or hid under mounds of bodies. I read one account in which a Buddhist nun and a little girl hid for several days, almost a week, and they didn't dare open their eyes. And they were covered with other bodies. They just lay like that, pretending to be dead, until they were rescued later.

In your research you've come across the diaries of German Nazis stationed in China. One man in particular, Rabe, head of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, risked his life trying to protect the Chinese. Why were the Nazis helping the Chinese?

You have to understand that some of the people who were members of the Nazi party had not been in Germany for many decades. So they did not understand the extent of activities the Nazis were engaged in in Germany. In fact, they were probably more Chinese in heart and soul than they were German. And many of them thought of the Nazi party as a socialist party. John Rabe, who was head of the local Nazi party, I consider something of the Oskar Schindler of China because he risked his life to protect all of these citizens, and later on he was punished by the Germans for this because he was aiding the citizens of an enemy country. After the war, he was denounced [by the Allies] for being a member of the Nazi party, even though he was in China and had saved all those hundreds of thousands of lives. There were more than 100,000 people crammed into the Safety Zone in Nanking, which was only about 2 1/2 square miles. Members of the Safety Zone Committee protected women from rape. They risked their lives to cart in food. Many of them endured physical violence by the Japanese for protecting Chinese. They were all routinely slapped or beaten up. ... For years afterwards, many of them were psychologically scarred. One would have complete amnesia when attempting to talk about it. And at least one woman committed suicide when she was in the zone. Her name was Minnie Vautrin; she has a diary which I found at Yale. She's like the Anne Frank of China because she kept daily diaries--they are so compelling, and I would like to make sure her diary is published.

There is an argument that the Japanese may have committed atrocities, and they should be recognized, but there was never this sort of gas-chamber, mechanized attempt to kill all the Chinese as there was to kill all the Jews. Do you see that as a difference between the two "holocausts"?

Obviously the Japanese could never be able to exterminate all of the Chinese people. There's so many of them. But they wanted to make an example of Nanking, and I would say the method of execution was quite systematic. Of course, it wasn't as systematic as what the Germans did to the Jews. The Japanese used swords and knives. They used machine guns and fire. But the results were horrifying. It wasn't as systematic, it wasn't as "clean." What happened in Nanking was actually quite messy.

Do you think the lack of action on the part of the U.S. just after the war had anything to do with Asian racism that was going on during World War II?

I think there were many, many factors involved. For one thing, Japan was seen primarily as a victim after World War II because of the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The whole issue of Japanese wartime responsibility is so controversial precisely because it's tied in with the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On one hand, we have this image of the Japanese as being these suicidal bombers, these warriors, these perpetrators of atrocities like the rape of Nanking, but on the other hand we have these images of innocent Japanese civilians with their skin falling off from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ... Secondly, the Chinese themselves did not make a big issue about it. After 1949, there were two Chinas--and both Taiwan and the PROC had economic and political reasons for being on good terms with the Japanese. ... In the United States there weren't as many Asians at that time, and I also think this was not something that really interested many people. Let me give you an example: John Taylor is military reference librarian at the National Archives. He told me that when all the Japanese records were seized by the United States and brought to the national archives, the U.S. government funded less than a third of the documents to be microfilmed. Whereas, all the records that the Americans had seized from Germany were microfilmed and processed. Most of the Japanese documents were sent back. They did not spend as much effort trying to understand the Japanese mentality, the Japanese records, as they did with the German records. That's a fact.

Which leads us to the current situation in which perhaps most Americans don't know what the Japanese did. They know we fought a war against the Japanese, but they don't understand that there were atrocities going on in Japan that were similar to what the Germans were doing in Europe.

And in some ways even worse. For instance, one out of about 20 POWs captured by the Germans died, but in Japan it was roughly one out of three. Historians have found that the Japanese treated their POWs much worse than the Germans had. Now that's a fact. There's a great deal that the Americans need to know about the entire Asian side of World War II.

After the war, the United States agreed not to prosecute the Japanese for the same war crimes that the Germans were being prosecuted for. Now there is this movement to try to recall the charges that were lost. Why do you think anyone will be successful today?

In the past, the Chinese learned from their ancestors and their parents that politics can be deadly. People who came to this country came based on their scientific or technical expertise, and they had learned from their parents or from their own experiences that it's probably best to stay away from politics. That's why you see a tradition of Chinese political apathy in this country. But in the last few years we've seen an increase in Chinese activism. Now we have the first international conference to discuss legal strategies to force the Japanese to pay reparations for wartime crimes. It was only just a few years ago that the Korean comfort women issue was first addressed. The first major conference in this area on the Nanking massacre was held just two years ago. ... So, why now? I would say that demographically, there are more Asians here, they have more economic clout, they're more politically sophisticated. There's a whole new generation of Chinese-Americans who are going into fields that are traditionally non-science--literature, or filmmaking--and I think that's important, too. Almost every Chinese-American family has had some kind of experience with World War II, in many cases, dead relatives. All of these forces are contributing to the organization that we're seeing. ... Look at this conference. It's drawing people from all over the world, from more than 50 organizations. I think we will see cooperation, a systematic plan by organizations, and a movement that will force the Japanese to take them seriously.

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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