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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Perspectives on World War II Nanjing Atrocities

 Last year I read and reviewed Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin.  This review, which was posted to Goodreads, is my most popular review to date.  It is reproduced for this blog below.

I read this book because I thought a novel would be a better way for me to read about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing. Reportage of atrocities can de-sensitize us so that they have less impact and you care less about the victims. Fiction with characterization where you see into the minds and hearts of the characters and see their lives in context should make you care more. Unfortunately, as other reviewers have said this is closer to reportage than fiction.

One of the problems is that Ha Jin wanted a Chinese viewpoint character while choosing to focus primarily not on the viewpoint character, but the American missionary Minnie Vautrin. This is an odd choice. The POV character, Anling, a Chinese Christian missionary, vanishes behind Minnie Vautrin for long stretches of the narrative. Yet she emerges from the shadows very poignantly when she experiences an inner conflict over her son. This is a genuinely complex character dilemma in a book where so many of the characters are as papery thin as fallen leaves. So by the end of the book I considered Anling a better choice of viewpoint than I had originally thought.

I also discovered a Japanese journalist's non-fiction book about these events in Ha Jin's author note. Ironically, I am pursuing reportage. I put it on hold. I know that Japanese authorities have done their best to try to suppress any accounts of these atrocities, so I want to find out how this Japanese author managed to write such a book. It's The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame by . Honda Katsuichi. I feel that I ought to give this book an extra star because it's leading me to this other one that sounds so significant.

 I  didn't follow up on The Nanjing Massacre by Honda Katsuichi until recently.  I have now completed my evaluation of this thorough history.  

      Honda went to China and interviewed a great many survivors.  He also had access to materials in Japanese such as war diaries by Japanese soldiers.  He deals with these war crimes in context to show that this behavior was characteristic of  the entire invasion, and not just the occupation of Nanjing. There were numerous atrocities committed en route to Nanjing.  There were also many thousands of  prisoners who were killed as a matter of policy.  Honda quotes a 1933 textbook used by the Japanese Army Infantry School called Studies in Methods of Fighting the Chinese Army. This textbook states that most Chinese soldiers are "drifters", so killing prisoners would have no consequences.  It seemed to me that the actual reason that  the Japanese army established this policy, was that they couldn't feed the prisoners.  Yet killing them was still a violation of the Geneva conventions which are a series of international agreements about the treatment of  military prisoners.  The last such agreement before WWII was in 1929.  See Wikipedia on the Geneva Conventions  

When I read the book I looked for examples of  courage and resourcefulness on the part of the survivors. Although some survived due to good fortune,  I did find accounts that illustrated bravery.  In some cases there was cooperation among groups of individuals that allowed them to survive.  I found this inspiring and illuminating. 

Honda got death threats as a result of having published this book.  The Wikipedia article about him   also discusses a lawsuit against Honda and the publisher of the book from two families related to Japanese soldiers that participated in a killing contest in Nanjing.  See Wikipedia on Honda Katsuichi   
It is important to check Wikipedia's source especially when the article isn't dealing with well-known facts. I was very interested to learn that the source in this case is a book called The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.  I have requested it through inter-library loan and hope to obtain it soon.

Given all the trouble that the author has encountered as a result of having written about events that the Japanese government has tried to either bury or minimize, why did he consider it so important to bring this information to light in Japan?  Honda says that refusing to fully acknowledge Japanese war crimes during WWII injures the credibility of Japan.  This is certainly true, but I should point out that Japan is scarcely unique in sweeping atrocities under the rug.  China has made political capitol out of being victims of Japanese invasion, but they also refuse to acknowledge their atrocities in Tibet.  I would also be remiss if I failed to add that the United States has not been especially good at acknowledging atrocities either.

I will say that I respect Honda Katsuichi for being willing to stand up for what is right.  His book is excellent scholarship and I would recommend it to anyone who wants in depth research on what happened in Nanjing during WWII.


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