PERHAPS the most appalling thing about the Japanese invasion of Nanking in December, 1937, is not the bloody fact of the occupation itself, but that the facts of the event are in dispute. For three months, Imperial Army troops murdered, raped, tortured and burned Chinese citizens, and to this day, elements of the Japanese government deny it ever happened, or play a numbers game, attempting to downsize the casualty list.
It's as if a curtain of amnesia has been drawn across the former empire.
Commonly accepted numbers today include 340,000 killed, 80,000 women raped, a cultural heritage burned to the ground or stolen and shipped to Japan. As many as 30 million Chinese died during the 14-year war.
The "Rape of Nanking" was not a secret. It was widely reported at the time and was considered representative of the Japanese military presence in China. It also helps explain the anger the Western world felt toward Japan as war broke out. Among historians, Nanking ranks with horrors like the Holocaust and the Turkish slaughter of Armenians.
But bookshelves are filled with Holocaust studies and relatively little is devoted to Nanking or China. The exception is Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking," which has spent months on the New York Times' bestseller list.
There is hunger to know more -- whether the curiosity is about Nanking or about mankind's darker impulses remains to be seen -- and Chang has become a kind of historian-touchstone, crossing the country to speak about the subject. She will give a free talk 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University of Hawai'i Campus Center Ballroom.
Chang's own grandparents barely escaped the area. "Even if it's played out in our living rooms on CNN, Americans have a hard time caring about atrocities that place far away from us," said Chang, speaking from her home in Sunnyvale, Calif. "While there may be a bit of racism involved, what's happening in the former Yugoslavia these days is between Caucasians, and Americans don't care about them either."
Research wasn't that hard. "There are thousands of pages of primary source documents on the subject in four different languages -- English, German, Chinese and Japanese -- that were either published contemporaneously or afterwards."
As she dug deeper, Chang found herself appalled and horrified. The facts were so much worse than she imagined. Women raped until they bled to death. Babies killed by being tossed from bayonet to bayonet. Men used to fill ditches under the Imperial tanks. Contests between soldiers to see how quickly they could lop off heads of bound prisoners. The Japanese also took snapshots of their victims as souvenirs, and their deeds were reported glowingly in Japanese newspapers, as if slaughter had become a kind of national sport.
"We're still seeing these kinds of atrocities in places like Rwanda or Bosnia or Indonesia. And we might be even in a worse situation today because of nuclear weapons. We still have in the human species the same dark impulses that launched the Rape of Nanking," Chang said.
Even so, a kind of numbness crept in. Photographs of Nanking horrors that once upset Chang simply became part of the research landscape, and then it was upsetting to realize that as well. She speculated that immersion in such events leads to a psychological deadening, a defense mechanism, and helps explain why so many went to their deaths without fighting back.
"The pain of writing the book would frighten me at moments when I'd least expect it," said Chang. "I was trying very hard not to let these atrocities poison the other aspects of my life. I'd find myself taking a walk around the park, or shopping, or doing something on my own, and gruesome images would pop into my brain when I'd least expect it. Put me in a foul mood for the whole afternoon. So -- as I thought I was becoming desensitized, I really wasn't."
And she found herself becoming tolerant of little things "that would have really bothered me months earlier. I felt extraordinarily lucky for the life that I have. Perspective."
Chang's public speaking connects in ways that her skills as a writer cannot. She sees, for example, that audiences become emotionally moved when confronted with the massacre. "The outpouring of emotion often leaves me drained," she said. "I certainly didn't expect that.
"It's been the most remarkable journey. The last three years, ever since I started, it's been as if I've been moving through a dream."
It has imprinted upon her the impermanence of existence, how life can be a brief flicker in the darkness.
"Just as Auschwitz has become symbolic of the entire Holocaust, Nanking has become an emblem of what happened in China. Somewhere between 19 and 35 million Chinese died, and it's hard to argue that Nanking may even have been the worst episode of the war. It's just the one we know most about. Some villages were destroyed so thoroughly they ceased to exist."
Was Nanking a case of troops running amok, or official occupation policy?
"We don't really know," said Chang. "It's difficult to find the high-level source documentation. There WAS a kill-all-captives directive in place in Nanking that appears to have been sanctioned at high levels. There was a policy to depopulate certain regions in China, and it may have been more systematic than many would like to believe today."
More research is needed, notes Chang, and she finds it suspicious and frustrating that the official documentation needed was given back to Japan in the late 1950s, where it has disappeared. "It's stunning," she said. "Eli Rosenbaum, head of the office of special investigation in the Justice Department, has turned his attention to the whole issue of Japanese war atrocities, and he was flabbergasted to discover the records missing from the national archives."
One of the main surprises for Chang was the international flavor of the incident. It involved far more than Chinese or Japanese. A small group of foreign-born missionaries, educators and businessmen created a safe zone in Nanking, saving tens of thousands of Chinese, and were largely responsible for getting the word out around the world. Ironically, the leader was John H.D. Rabe, a Nazi.
"The facts of the massacre transcend race, nationality and ethnicity. It's a human rights issue that affects us all. You can't judge character based on skin color or heritage. I'm often asked how writing this book has changed my perception of Japanese-Americans.
"I have to emphasize that some of the greatest supporters of this book have been Japanese-Americans. I hope some veterans of the 442nd and the 100th Battalion come to hear my talk, because they were present in Europe at the Nazi death camps."
In the spring, the Japanese ambassador to the United States attacked the book, claiming it was "erroneous, one-sided and filled with inaccuracies," said Chang. "But he was unable to cite a single example for that allegation when he was grilled by Japanese reporters. The Simon Wiesenthal Foundation responded even before I could with a very strong protest letter, chastising the ambassador. The (People's Republic of China) and even my publisher wrote letters of protest.
"Then these Japanese revisionists held a press conference in Tokyo to denounce me personally and claim atrocities in China never happened at all. It was the most outrageous world-class lie! Other historians started calling and congratulating me for stirring this up. It was better than winning an award. It meant that the book had really struck a raw nerve."
Kashiwa Shobo acquired the right to publish the book in Japan. "I've heard that it's no exaggeration that they've put themselves in a life-threatening situation. I really applaud their courage," Chang said. "There are powerful forces in Japan today that are still trying to suppress this history. There is no difference between them and Holocaust deniers."
While mail comes to Chang from all over the world, none -- not one letter -- has come from Japan.
"Should Japan own up to this facet of their history? I think we should also look at how the Armenian massacres inspired Hitler. If the perpetrators go unpunished, or if the world turns a blind eye, then that sends out a very clear signal to present and future dictators."
Thanks to worldwide media, it's become more difficult to get away with atrocities. "Without the Internet, we wouldn't know what's going on in Indonesia today," said Chang.
"The truth has a tendency to come out, but people have to remain ever-vigilant to allow the truth out. What the U.S. government did in returning war records to Japan was unconscionable. Maybe we need a global oral history project to record the testimonies of survivors of the Pacific War before those links dies out. There's a very narrow window of opportunity facing us."
Rape of NankingWhat: Author Iris Chang speaks
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: University of Hawai'i Campus Center Ballroom