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Nanjing's 70-year-old ghost story

By       Message Philip Dorsey Iglauer     Permalink
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Memories stay with people. Bad memories can haunt you like a ghost. History works like this as well, like an Asian horror movie. The history of the Pacific War torments China and Japan – indeed, all of Asia and the Pacific. But like a Japanese onryo, or vengeful spirit, the ghosts of Nanjing indiscriminately torment the innocent and the guilty. Karl Marx’s observation that “The history of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” is as true for 21st century East Asia as it was for 19th century Europe. The only problem is, the ghosts of Nanjing are for real, so how do we exorcise them? How can China and Japan rid themselves of the nightmare of the Nanjing Massacre and finally put the past behind them? 

In East Asia, historical wounds are still festering. Seventy years on, and the memories of Nanjing continue to haunt the Japanese, as well as the Chinese. The ghosts of Nanjing feed an increasingly bitter competition of nationalisms. But Japan’s leaders only hurt their country with jingoism, as a perception of Japan’s former aggression is revived and overshadows the country’s many accomplishments. 

The bitterness of the war years is frequently summoned to the present by Chinese feelings of injustice and a Japanese sense of being unfairly singled out for wrongs committed decades ago. When the re-certification of a history textbook in Japan can spark weeks of riots across China in April 2005, sending crowds thousands strong vandalizing Japanese businesses and consulates, it is clear the value of history in East Asia is palpable. 

The waves of anger were touched off by Tokyo imbuing credibility into claims made in the New History Textbook, published by a right-wing Japanese group. In one demonstration, some 10,000 angry protesters surrounded Jusco supermarket run by Japanese firm Aeon in the bustling port city Shenzhen, a hub of foreign investment in South China. Many saw the government as sanctioning a whitewashing of the history of Imperial Army atrocities in Nanjing during Japan’s 1937 invasion of China. 

The riots vividly illustrate how the memories of Japan’s former aggression, seared into minds of present-day Chinese as feelings of injustice, are unwittingly resurrected as expressions of patriotism. China sees a Japan that is boorish and unapologetic. In fact, hardly any of Japan’s junior high schools have actually adopted the text - just 18 out of more than 11,000, according to one news report. But to the Chinese, it’s enough that the government even extended its seal of approval to such a book. 

Now, the ghosts of Nanjing will be channeled into a number of new films. In December, as the world observes the 70th anniversary of the “Rape of Nanjing,” at least three films are starting or are already in production this year (by directors Yim Ho, Stanley Tong and Lu Chuan), in addition to the American production Nanking, which screened at Sundance in January, and focuses on the point-of-view of Westerners in Nanjing when the city succumbed to the Imperial Army’s onslaught. With that, 10 years after the publication of Iris Chang’s incisive work, the Nanjing Massacre has become a cinema sensation. 

Unfortunately, extremists in Japan have a film of their own: The Truth About Nanjing. Its theme is predictable, as will be the reactions. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), too, exacerbates bitter feelings, inflaming painful memories with peremptory remarks that deny Japan’s responsibility for atrocities committed by the country’s Imperial Army in the 1930s and ’40s.  

But ironically, the caustic remarks of mainstream Japanese leaders hurt themselves most. Japan has the most to pay for its recalcitrance, not China. The more these LDP politicians run their mouths the more they drag Japan’s national image through the mud, soiling what would otherwise be an inspiring record of peace, prosperity and freedom. 

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By denying the past today, Japan will be condemned to forever re-live the shame of what it did in the 1930s and ‘40s. Thoughtless behavior and insensitive quips overshadow Japan’s accomplishments and re-cast the nation in its image of two generations ago. Who will be able to identify with an image of a Japan calloused by a shameful history? 

Expressions of Japanese nationalism, even now, make headlines and incite emotional demonstrations. This is because the images that it invokes in the minds of Chinese – and in the minds of people all over Asia - are invariably informed by haunting recollections of the country’s wartime atrocities, such as the images summoned from Tokyo’s incursions into China. The rape and massacre of civilians in Nanjing upon the city’s collapse in December 1937 – including women, children and the elderly – are quintessential examples of the Japanese Army’s brutality.  

These images provoke anxiety over the safety of loved ones and a visceral desire to protect the vulnerable. And these same images prevent the Japanese from demonstrating old-fashioned patriotism. What’s more, Chinese nationalism gets a boost. 

In 1972, Asia’s greatest cinematic hero became the champion of everyone who recognizes right from wrong and yearns to defend the downtrodden. That was the year Bruce Lee’s breakthrough film, “Fist of Fury,’’ titled “The Chinese Connection’’ in the U.S., screened for the first time in San Francisco. 

Who was not outraged by the Japanese man mocking Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, at a park entrance, as he pointed to a sign reading “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed?’’ And who was not stirred when Chen – inspired by a real-life patriotic insurgent – broke the sign in half with a jump-spinning dropkick? Or when he destroyed a framed calligraphy penned by Japanese imperialists declaring China the “Sick Man of Asia?’’ 

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The actor Bruce Lee and the symbols he destroys in the film are vital to Chinese nationalism. Indeed, every country’s nationalism is about piecing together images that the people can be proud of and rally around. These images inculcate patriotic feelings; in patriotism, symbolism is everything.  

In a way, Chinese nationalism became more compelling than Japanese nationalism because appeals to universal sentiments. Anyone can identify with defending the downtrodden against unprovoked aggression. Japan’s denial of the past retards the country’s ability to recover from the war just as it stunts the country’s relations with China and Korea.

Japan’s denial of the atrocities it committed in Nanjing inflames an infection the Imperial Army left more than 70 years ago. Leaving historical wounds to fester makes demonstrating Japanese patriotism impossible. 

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A former reporter in Seoul, Philip Dorsey Iglauer is third-place winner of the 2007 Iris Chang Memorial Essay Contest and Communications Officer at the International Cooperative Agricultural Organization, South Korea.

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