Nanjing Massacre

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Why does the “Nanjing Massacre” remain such a contentious issue over seventy years on?


The event at the origin of the contention

The rise of the contention over time: the massacre as an instrument to serve politics

The unsolved controversy on textbooks

Public opinion beyond control

Content of the contention


The Nanjing massacre during the winter of 1937-1938 has no parallel in either country’s history of external relations in terms of scale and brutality. China and Japan emerged traumatized in terms of human casualties, economic consequences, but also humiliation and nation pride. Nevertheless, for decades, the event was concealed and did not appear as a political issue in their post-war political and economic relations. The essay will tend to demonstrate why the history quarrel started in the 80’s and the role played by historical myths and nationalism. It will analyse why the textbook issue is crucial and how exacerbated anti-Japanese attitude among the public opinion developed. Finally we will examine the questions the two countries would have to address objectively, with no emotional and ethnocentric statements, to solve the problem of history.

The event at the origin of the contention
The ‘Nanjing Massacre’, also known as the ‘Rape of Nanjing’, is a six weeks rape and mass murdering that happened during the winter of 1937-38 in Nanjing, the former capital of the Republic of China during the Sino-Japanese war. According to the various sources, the Japanese imperial army killed between several thousand people to 300 000 Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers and raped between 20, 000-80,000 women. The difficulty to evaluate the exact number is partly linked to the fact that information was released from the occupied city and transmitted mainly by the few foreigners living there; yet, the main cause lies in the definition of the massacre itself and the interpretation of the two parties, China and Japan. It is still a very contentious issue , as China and Japan do not agree about what exactly happened.

The rise of the contention over time: the massacre as an instrument to serve politics

Though the events were related immediately after they occurred in China and abroad, it is striking that almost immediately after the event, both sides concealed the events for decades until the 80’. A direct link can be established between the domestic social and political contexts, the international climate and the content of the debate. In other words, the interpretations of the massacre have been orchestrated over time according to the needs of the politicians in power.

During the 1950s-60s there were no real disputes between both nations about the historiography of the war. Both nations created their own nationalistic myths in rewriting history to address their political climate.

The post-war Japanese conservatives wanted to keep the state power, needed to gain public opinion concerning the policy of recovering economic domination and to justify their collaboration with the United Stated that wanted to assure Japan would be an important anti-communist ally. To do so, the Japanese elite had to shape Japanese war memory in introducing three myths in the national collective memory. The ‘myth of military clique’ holds that the Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific war was an aggression; it whitewashed the responsibilities of the Emperor and the conservative ruling class by blaming a small group of militarists for causing the war. Also, Japan only accepted responsibility for aggression towards the Western nations and disrupting world peace, but whitewashed its actions for aggression and atrocities in the Asian countries. At last, Japan introduced the myth of ‘sacrifice as hero”. Japanese imperial soldiers were praised as heroes because they served their country in times of need. By including these myths in all the historic textbooks...
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