China in Focus #9: China’s Holocaust

October 31, 2012 | 8:57 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

“But the rape of Nanking had, for the Japanese, its own devastating revenge. It 1) solidified China into an indomitable will to resist the invader ; 2) so demoralized Japanese military discipline that they are now, to the world’s amazement, suffering one smashing defeat after another.”

While those words may appear to be the handiwork of the propagandists behind the “patriotic education” campaign animating the Chinese youth protesting the Japanese government’s decision to purchase a few small islands in the East China Sea, they were actually written by the editors of Life magazine on 16 May 1938. They accompany a set of comparatively restrained but still horrifying images, taken in secret by an American missionary, of scenes from a six-week reign of Japanese militarist terror in the southern Chinese capital that ended the lives of an estimated 300,000 Chinese men, women and children.

What happened in Nanjing was not an isolated incident. Japan’s occupation of China was as perverse and sickening to the human heart as the Holocaust in Europe, but it is not as well remembered. Commemoration of the Holocaust is a defining feature of post-war Germany’s national identity. “Never again” is a lesson learned by every schoolchild, not only in Israel, but also in Germany, and in the United States. But outside of the country, China’s holocaust is little more than a paragraph in the longer story of the Second World War.

While there has been a lot of soul-searching in Japan about the war, most Chinese people see a Japanese government that is uncomfortably less willing than Germany to remember its crimes against humanity, or to remind its citizens of the militarism that led to them.

This perception shapes Chinese attitudes about the current crisis, which escalated dramatically when Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara claimed he would attempt to buy the disputed islands. Ishihara, a Japanese nationalist, denies the Chinese holocaust. He is not alone. The magnitude and brutality of the war crimes committed by Japan in Nanjing were not fully articulated in Japanese textbooks until 1997, and are still hotly debated. Some leading Japanese politicians insist on regular displays of respect to individuals known to be responsible for atrocities committed against the Chinese people. Former and prospective future prime minister Shinzo Abe visited a Japanese war shine containing Class A war criminals earlier this month. To Chinese observers, that is the equivalent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel ceremoniously laying a wreath at a cemetery holding the remains of the Nazi officers who stood in the docket at Nuremberg.

The gap between U.S. sensitivities to the Jewish and Chinese holocausts is apparent in recent statements from U.S. officials expressing a false equivalence between contemporary Japanese anxieties about the rise of China and Chinese fears of a resurgent Japanese militarism. Jeffrey Bader, a veteran China hand who severed in the Obama administration as the senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, put it this way:

“Owing to their history of hostility over much of the twentieth century, China and Japan easily succumb to nationalist passions whenever a bilateral incident takes place, especially one that involves territorial disputes and arrests.”

Imagine what would happen if a senior Obama administration official wrote that same sentence but substituted “Israel and Germany” for “China and Japan”. Referring to the Japanese invasion of China and the atrocities of its occupation as a history of mutual hostility would be as offensive to the May 1938 editors of Life magazine, and most of the U.S. public at the time, as it is to most Chinese people today. U.S. officials feel no embarrassment when they think and speak about the history of the China-Japan relationship in this way. “Never again,” in this context, is a lesson they either never learned or have long forgotten.

Contemporary U.S. observers of the relationship seem more concerned about Chinese nationalism than the offensive provocations of Japanese politicians like Ishihara and Abe. U.S. media coverage of the island crisis highlights the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. The reporting often depicts the protests as the self-serving orchestrations of a Chinese government bent on filling the minds of its citizens with hateful propaganda. If that is true it would be a cause for concern. But there is reason to doubt whether the uglier manifestations of the protests are the desired outcome of Chinese government efforts to promote “patriotic education.” The most striking evidence to the contrary is the Nanjing Memorial.

My first visit to the memorial was in the fall of 1989 in the company of a group of U.S. undergraduate students and a Chinese history professor. It is located on the grounds of a mass grave containing the scattered remains of an estimated 10,000 Chinese men, women and children slaughtered by Japanese soldiers in 1937. The grave was discovered in 1984, adding to the list of other mass graves uncovered during the city’s post-war economic reconstruction.

When I first saw the museum it was little more than a small collection of rooms with disorderly sets of truly horrid photographs tended by a handful of untrained workers. My students sat on metal folding chairs in the middle of one of the rooms and watched a short 16mm black and white film explaining the photographs. We were the only ones in the museum. Few Chinese ever visited.

I took another seven groups of students to the memorial during my tenure as the director of the CIEE Cooperative Language and Study Program at Nanjing University. I observed steady but modest improvements to the museum until I left Nanjing in 1994, but the experience was always the same. Many students felt, as I did, that the Chinese government seemed to pay insufficient attention to this terrible yet important chapter of Chinese history. Students were also impressed by the final room, which contained a dusty collection of Japanese paper cranes and apologetic comments left behind by Japanese visitors to the museum, including former soldiers who had participated in the slaughter.

Today the memorial is a massive modern complex artfully constructed according to designs inspired by Israeli and American museums to the Holocaust. It was packed with Chinese visitors during my visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October. The focus of the curators is on the meticulous documentation of everything that happened. Some of the most compelling exhibits are the diaries and testimony collected from Japanese, American and international witnesses to the torture, rape and slaughter of Nanjing’s civilian population. Equally impressive is a huge wall of neatly organized binders containing the records of individual cases.


The curators close with a focus on the future. The Japanese cranes are now neatly displayed along a long black wall that exits into a sprawling public park dominated by a towering statue of a Chinese woman holding a baby and a dove. A single word, “peace” is inscribed on the base in Chinese and in English. Behind her are the speeches of the outstanding Nanjing high school graduates selected to preside over annual “peace day” ceremonies held in the park at the end of every school year since the new museum was completed. They call for reconciliation between the peoples of Japan and China with words that invoke the spirit of Nelson Mandela.

The winner of this year’s U.S. presidential election should visit the Nanjing Memorial, in the company of his Asia experts, during the next U.S. state visit to China. It won’t solve a single one of the many difficult and unresolved problems between our two countries, but it will help U.S. leaders and their advisors better understand the Chinese leaders on the other side of the negotiating table, as well as the conflicted hearts and minds of the people they govern.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.