The scars of Nanking: Memories of a Japanese outrage

It is 70 years since one of the Second World War's worst massacres. But Japan still struggles to admit its brutality in China. By Clifford Coonan

"I really, really hate the Japanese. I was raped when I was 11 years old. I tried to commit suicide three times afterwards," said Zhang Xiuhong, 81. She was recalling the six-week-long Rape of Nanking, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered by invading Japanese troops who breached the Ming Dynasty city walls of the wartime capital.

The ground assault began 70 years ago this week and is still known as China's holocaust, although many here in this southeastern city, now called Nanjing, believe the Japanese have failed to atone sufficiently for their wartime crimes. For their part, many conservative Japanese believe the Chinese are exaggerating the scale of the incident.

"I've repeated this thousands of times. I pretended to be dead so the soldier would go away," said Ms Zhang, who is quite deaf and relies on her daughter-in-law to communicate the questions. But her face flushes as she recalls the events of that grim December 70 years ago.

"They raped young girls and grabbed young babies from their mothers and bayoneted them in the behind. They beat me on many parts of my body and I still can't walk well," said Ms Zhang, who starts to weep softly.

The Japanese invasion began on 10 December 1937 and the city fell three days later, signalling the start of the Rape of Nanking. Eyewitnesses, both Chinese and Western, say Chinese captives were tortured, burnt alive, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted and shot en masse. Up to 80,000 Chinese women and girls of all ages were raped and many more murdered or forced into sex slavery.

The Chinese say the invaders killed 300,000 civilians, while many in Japan say it is far less. A wartime tribunal put the figure at 142,000. Many right-wing Japanese historians dispute whether the massacre ever took place at all and the event has left enormous psychological scars in China, remaining a huge stumbling block in relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

For the Communist government in Beijing, the incident is a crucial event in post-Revolution history, a milestone in the war against Japanese aggression. There were riots in Beijing as recently as 2005 over regular visits by Japanese leaders to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours war criminals among the country's war dead and is seen as an enormous insult by many Chinese, and attempts to whitewash history in schoolbooks, as the Chinese see it.

Since 2005, relations have warmed considerably between Asia's dominant power, Japan, and its rising superpower, China. While the 70th anniversary is being marked in Nanjing, it has taken on a relatively low profile in the country as a whole and senior leaders are not attending the main events.

It's a raw tale here in Nanjing. During a news conference to announce details of a new memorial to the victims of the massacre, a Japanese journalist asked what the panel thought about concerns that the figure of 300,000 was exaggerated. Zhu Chengshan, curator of the memorial, fielded the question. "We want young people to think rationally and we want to direct the visitors to the memorial to see the historical issues in Sino-Japanese relations," said Mr Zhu.

"The Nanjing massacre is historical fact and is only one in a series of outrages perpetrated on China by the Japanese aggressors... the figure of 300,000 is historical fact. There is no reason for people to doubt the number," he said, to loud applause from the Chinese journalists.

The centrepoint of the new museum is a wall with a wreath containing a picture of a victim, that changes every 12 seconds to represent how many people died during the six-week massacre.

Many countries who were invaded by Japan during the war, which in China lasted from 1931 until 1945, still feel that Tokyo has yet to say sorry properly, despite billions being paid in war reparations. A sign of Japanese ambiguity about the issue came in the respected Yomiuri Shimbun, which wrote in an editorial on Tuesday: "On the number of victims of the Nanjing Incident, the Chinese government has not revised its official tally of 300,000. Indeed, when the Japanese forces wiped out the remaining Chinese soldiers hiding in the city, many executions and violence against civilians obviously took place, according to records and testimonies from the time.

"However, there are theories that the number of victims was about 40,000 and that only a fraction of those deaths were murders that violated international law," ran the editorial. "Recently, even some Chinese scholars say scholarly debate should be deepened on the number of victims. Such a flexible stance has started to be aired. The Nanjing Incident is an important area for bilateral joint studies on history conducted by Japanese and Chinese historians. It is necessary for Japan and China to jointly proceed with empirical research toward the final report to be compiled next year," it wrote.

While the editorial has a balanced and seemingly rational tone, it is in sharp contrast to the kind of debate that one sees in Germany on any issues relating to the Holocaust. What would happen if a German historian were to accuse a Jewish historian of inflexibility on the number of people who died at Auschwitz, or if someone were to write that the number of Jews who died in Europe was only 600,000 and that only a fraction of those deaths were murders that violated international law?

There is no denying the power of Zhang Xihong's testimony.

"One day three Japanese soldiers came in. We told the Japs [sic] that we are farmers and that father was not a soldier. So the Japs beat my father on both sides of the face and kicked me into the corner of the house. The second day the troops burnt all the houses and we had to live in straw huts in the fields," she said.

"Because of the violence of the rape they tore me down there and it was hard for me to give birth afterwards. I only had one child and it took me three days and three nights," she said.

"I can't remember exactly what happened on the days when the city first fell to the Japanese but I remember one day when I was in the field, there were piles of rice husks and the Japanese bayoneted the stacks to see if people were hiding in there. I was in a small bale and they cut my finger when they stabbed the stack," she said, holding up her hand to show where the bayonet cut her finger. "They burned the bigger stacks and I saw people burned alive," said Ms Zhang.

Li Gaoshan, 83, was a 12-year-old boy soldier during the invasion. "There were dead people everywhere in the streets. We didn't dare to go out during the day because of the aerial bombings. I escaped when soldiers tried to shoot me in the head. I managed to escape and took shelter with some civilians who gave me civilian clothes. We want world peace, and we want the world to know about the Nanjing massacre," he said.

Last week, China published an eight-volume list of 13,000 victims of the invasion, which includes the names, ages, sex, occupations and addresses of the victims, which Japanese army unit was responsible and how the victims were killed.

The accounts include first-hand historical documents and records, such as US news reports, diaries and official circulars of Japanese troops, diplomatic letters from the British and German governments, lists of casualties and economic losses, and signatures of more than 600 Chinese civilians seeking refuge from the invaders.

The massacre is currently the subject of nearly a dozen film projects, with luminaries such as Oliver Stone and Steve Buscemi involved in the debate.

One of the key witnesses to the massacre, and a central figure in many of the films in development, is Germany's John Rabe, a paid-up member of the Nazi party who offered refuge in the garden of his comfortable, grey-bricked house near the city university and ultimately helped save the lives of more than 250,000 people. Rabe led a group of Western missionaries, businessmen and scholars in draping Red Cross flags painted on sheets around a two-by-three-kilometre area. The quarter of a million people who were able to get inside the safety zone survived. As far as his diaries are concerned, the 300,000 people outside the International Safety Zone became the victims of the Nanking Massacre.

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