TCS Daily

Japan-China: Why All the Fuss?

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Relations between Japan and China continue to smolder, as Chinese crowds trash Japanese restaurants in China and hurl rocks and bottles at the Japanese embassy and at consulates around the country.

Now it's reported that many Japanese living in China fear for their safety. All this over what Reuters reported was Chinese umbrage over "Japan's inability to face up to its wartime past." Now both governments are demanding apologies -- Japan for the anti-Japanese demonstrations, China for what it considers Japan's failure to give a full accounting of the atrocities committed by its troops during the long, bloody invasion of China in the 1930s.

How could events that took place more than 60 years ago cause such a ruckus?

The Japanese invasion of China resulted in the outright slaughter of millions of Chinese, many of them in massive acts of maniacal cruelty typified by the siege and capture of Nanking in December 1937.

While the western world was concentrating on an approaching Christmas that marked a slow economic rise out of the Depression and on Adolf Hitler's continuing "diplomacy" in Europe, the bloodbath of Nanking made some headlines but relatively little impact outside Asia. The conservative estimate of civilian deaths at the hands of Japanese soldiers in and around Nanking was 260,000. Some experts place the figure at 350,000.

This was one city, in a period of less than two months. France and Belgium each lost over 100,000 civilians in the whole course of World War II. Great Britain lost 61,000. But the Chinese at Nanking were literally slaughtered by the thousands -- beheaded, bayoneted, burned alive, machine-gunned. Their bodies choked canals, rivers and ponds until the water actually ran red.

And in the bitter memory of the Chinese, it was not just the loss of life, but the cruel élan with which the Japanese carried out the atrocities. At the height of the slaughter in Nanking, a Japanese soldier noted that "a pig is more valuable now than the life of a human being. That's because a pig is edible."

In Iris Chang's remarkable book, The Rape of Nanking, (Basic Books, 1997), she relates how the Japanese veteran who made that diary entry explained his descent into such disregard for fellow human beings. He wrote her that he and his comrades were taught and trained to see their own lives as of no value in the greater scheme of Japan's (and the emperor's) glory.

"If my life was not important," wrote Azuma Shiro, "an enemy's life became inevitably much less important... This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of the captives."

Here's how one Japanese officer put that philosophy into practice, urging his troops to bayonet bound Chinese prisoners standing at the edge of the graves they had dug for themselves. "You have never killed anyone yet, so today we shall have some killing practice. You must not consider the Chinese as a human being, but only as something of rather less value than a dog or cat."

Consider this little news item from the Japan Advertiser, December 7, 1938, just a week before Japanese invading forces captured the Chinese capital of Nanking

"Sub-Lieutenant Mukai Toshiaki and Sub-Lieutenant Noda Takeshi... in a friendly contest to see which of them will first fell 100 Chinese in individual sword combat before the Japanese forces completely occupy Nanking, are well into the final phase of their race, running almost neck to neck."

Get it? Neck to neck. Pretty funny. Apparently most of Mukai and Noda's "points" were scored by beheadings. The Japanese were big on beheadings. A sad staple of war crimes trials at the end of World War II was the photographs of Japanese soldiers with samurai swords raised above their heads beginning the fatal arc that would decapitate the prisoners bowed on their knees before them.

Nagatomi Hakudo, now a doctor in Japan, recalls with great remorse the December day in 1937 when he, a young soldier, was guarding some Chinese prisoners:

"Then the Japanese officer proposed a test of my courage. He unsheathed his sword, spat on it, and with a sudden mighty swing he brought it down on the neck of a Chinese boy cowering before us. The head was cut clean off and tumbled away...blood spurting in two great gushing fountains from the neck. The officer suggested I take the head home as a souvenir. I remember smiling proudly as I took his sword and began killing people."

Many photos from the long and bitter Sino-Japanese War throughout the 1930s show Chinese heads lined up in grim rows after the slaughter, some with cigarettes stuck between their lips. Japanese soldiers really knew how to yuck it up.

As to the "competition" mentioned in the news item, a week later the Advertiser ran a follow-up story, showing the two officers standing proudly with palms crossed on the pommels of their samurai swords. The headline beside the picture reads, "Contest to Kill First 100 Chinese With Sword Extended When Both Fighters Exceed Mark -- Mukai Scores 106 and Noda 105."

At this point certain sensitive students of human nature are just itching to point out atrocities and excesses that can be laid to Americans and other westerners in combat. Yes, let's stipulate that, but let us also note that such incidents have been by and large aberrations, isolated, not condoned, not policy and usually punished. The Japanese atrocities in the war against China and in the rest of the World War II were, by contrast, routine, on a massive scale and often not only condoned but encouraged by the Japanese military and by a psychosis of superiority that went right up to the emperor.

In his forward to Iris Chang's book William H. Kirby, Professor of Modern Chinese History and chairman of the Harvard University history department, notes:

"The Japanese sack of China's capital was a horrific event. The mass execution of soldiers and the slaughter and raping of tens of thousands of civilians took place in contravention of all rules of warfare. What is still stunning is that it was a public rampage, evidently designed to terrorize. It was carried out in full view of international observers... And it was not a temporary lapse of military discipline, for it lasted seven weeks."

While Japan has paid hundreds of millions of yen in reparations to various Asian countries as amends for the Imperial Army's depredations, it has managed to maintain a less than contrite disposition about the tens of millions of lives it took during the years it sought to impose its "Co-Prosperity Sphere" on Asia (not to mention trying to drive the United States out of the Pacific.)

Its history text books continue to gloss over the realities of the war and popular sentiment in Japan continues to be indignant and even vengeful over those individual Japanese who have sought to apologize to the Chinese and other Asians.

In the current flare-up, a spokesman for the Japanese foreign ministry "deplored" the fact that "no sufficient account was provided on the (recent) violent acts that are impermissible on any grounds."

The Chinese vice foreign minister Wu Dawei countered that the government of Japan refuses to face "historical issues correctly." It was chaste diplomatic language to cover a record of military savagery for which many in both the East and West feel Japan has never given a full account or expressed proper contrition.



TCS Daily Archives