The Big Question: Why is tension rising between China and Japan over the 'Rape of Nanjing'?

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Why are we asking this now?

Next week is the 70th anniversary of the infamous Rape of Nanjing, when Japanese soldiers went on an orgy of rape and murder in the then Chinese capital. Dubbed the "forgotten holocaust" by its most famous contemporary chronicler, Iris Chang, the massacre is the subject of no fewer than a dozen new American, German and Chinese movies, including the $53m (26m) Purple Mountain, helmed by Con Air director Simon West. Nanking, released in China earlier this year, is reportedly already the most watched documentary in Chinese history.

What happened in Nanjing?

Virtually the only fact not disputed is the date that victorious Japanese troops poured into the city 13 December 1937. China says that over the following three months, the soldiers murdered 300,000 people: women and young girls were raped in their thousands, men were tortured and butchered with bayonets and prisoners were mown down indiscriminately.

Eyewitness accounts by the handful of Westerners in the city appear to back up these claims. The American missionary Minnie Vautrin wrote in her diary: "There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today." The United Human Rights Council called it "the single worst atrocity during the Second World War era in either the European or Pacific theatres of war."

But what does Japan say?

Japanese neo-nationalists dispute those accounts and say that the casualty figures were inflated by Chinese wartime propaganda. Most Japanese historians, and many scholars outside the country, now doubt the 300,000 figure. On the lunatic fringe of the neo-nationalists, academics and politicians dispute that anyone was illegally killed. "The evidence for a massacre is faked," says documentary director Satoru Mizushima.

Mizushima is preparing to release his own movie, The Truth of Nanjing, which will argue that Japan's Pacific War leaders, including Iwane Matsui, the general accused of orchestrating the Nanjing invasion, were heroes. In one recent interview he likened them to "Jesus Christ."

Why is this causing so much friction now?

Japan's undigested history has long been a poison at the heart of the Sino-Japanese relationship. Many ordinary Chinese feel that Tokyo has never properly atoned for the 15 years it spent ransacking their country. Repeated denials from the Japanese establishment seem to prove their case: Mizushima's movie, for example, is backed by 12 politicians, including Nariaki Nakayama, a former education minister under ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The official Beijing line on Japanese war crimes was muted until recently by China's need for Japanese foreign aid. But the line is hardening as China flexes its muscles in Asia. Japanese nationalists meanwhile accuse the Beijing government of banging the nationalist drum and whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment to hold its giant country together.

These problems have not stopped the two sides from entwining their economies and developing one of the world's most important bilateral relationships. But tensions exploded into the open a few years ago when anti-Japanese riots broke out in China, and few are prepared to bet that they won't do so again.

Why doesn't the issue go away?

The massacre's central place in the construction of the modern Chinese state the Communists say they saved the country from the Japanese military helps it stay fresh in the minds of the Chinese population. When asked, "What comes to mind when you think of Japan?", Chinese university students regularly poll "Nanjing" as their top answer. But Tokyo's fudging and denials ensure that the wounds stay open.

Prime Minister Koizumi enraged China by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, which venerates the men who led Japan to war. His successor, Shinzo Abe, unleashed the historical deniers and whitewashers who have long been kept tied up in the dungeons of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. His cabinet was dominated by revisionists who argue for a "reinterpretation" of history. Abe himself sparked a furore by denying that the Japanese wartime state rounded up thousands of sex slaves in Asia during the Pacific War. Many say that current Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda could help remove the poison for good by visiting Nanjing and making a formal apology, but the chances of that are virtually zero.

Any other reason why Nanjing is in the news?

Unlike Japan, Germany is growing bolder about exploring its past and is increasingly fascinated by the figure of John Rabe the so-called Good Man of Nanjing, who ran the local Nazi party but became leader of an international safety zone that reportedly saved 250,000 lives.

Rabe may have been the most famous witness to the massacre: After weeks watching children and old women being repeatedly raped then murdered, he wrote in his diary that the suffering "dumfounded" him. He is the subject of two new movies, including one starring Steve Buscemi; as well as John Rabe: The Schindler of Nanjing.

Will anyone in Japan see these movies?

As yet, no Japanese distributor has been found. The co-director of John Rabe: The Schindler of Nanjing, Annette Baumeister, said Japan's public service broadcaster NHK told her they would make their own movie about the subject. "And maybe they will, some day."

What will happen next?

Anti-Japanese sentiment is likely to be inflamed in China. Bad publicity is also certain to come from Europe and America, as Tokyo is aware. "It is a delicate issue so we hope filmmakers will not create negative emotional reactions," says a government press secretary, Mitsuo Sakaba.

Sakaba hopes a joint academic committee, set up with China to study the issue in a "non-political way", will narrow major differences of interpretation over wartime events. "We expect much of this study group, so we hope the movies don't make the work of the experts difficult."

And the deniers? "I think that it will reinforce their siege mentality," says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. Mizushima is already planning two sequels to his movie. What might we expect from parts 2 and 3? He gives some hints in his reply to a key question: Was the Imperial Japanese Army guilty of any war crimes? "None," he replies. "In war, atrocities will always be carried out by a small number of individuals, but did the Japanese army systematically commit war crimes? Absolutely not."

Will China and Japan ever come to an agreement over Nanjing?


* History aside, the bilateral relationship grows from strength to strength: China became Japan's biggest trading partner last year

* It is in everybody's interests to keep this relationship on track; the generation that remembers what happened is dying out

* The internet has given young people on both sides access to more information on the massacre than they ever had


* In Japan, revisionists increasingly influence policy and education, controlling the version of events that is presented to the public

* Hardening nationalism is forcing both sides to dig their heels in further, and feelings still run high

* Measured academic discussion on what happened has become almost impossible as the debate seeps into popular culture