Nanking Massacre: Its Significance for Our Current Generation

What does Nanking Massacre mean to the current generation? To the average American, it probably means nothing and is something they probably have never heard of before. To the average Chinese American, it probably also doesn’t mean very much except that it might be something that they have heard their parents or grandparents mentioning it during some family meals or gatherings. To the Japanese who are under 45 years old, they probably also don’t know much about it. Is the Nanking Massacre just a historical relic of the past that has no significance in the 21st century, or is it something that has deep significance not only for China, but also for the U.S., Japan, and the whole world?

What Was the Nanking Massacre? To address the issue raised in the title of this article, let’s first briefly discuss what was the Nanking Massacre. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945), Japan on September 18, 1931 invaded Manchuria, the northeastern part of China. Then she invaded Peking on July 7, 1937. After a three-and-a-half month ferocious battle from mid-August to late-November 1937, Shanghai fell. Then on December 13, 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Nanking, the then-capital of China. Since the Chinese Nationalist troops already began their western retreat to set up a war-time capital in Chongqing, Nanking was basically left defenseless. Nevertheless during the next six weeks, the Japanese Imperial Army ruthlessly massacred about 300,000 Chinese, most of them being civilians with many women and children, and also raped more than 20,000 Chinese women and girls, ranging in age from younger than 10 to older than 80. Thousands and thousands of Chinese were slaughtered using all kinds of gruesome killing methods, such as chopping off heads in execution style, bayoneting live people in competition, burying people alive in mass graves, locking people up in buildings and then torching the buildings, raping and then killing women and girls. It was one of the most massive and inhumane massacres in the history of mankind.

Was That History Documented? That part of history was well documented by many Chinese, Japanese, and Western eyewitnesses, including educators, missionaries, businessmen, foreign diplomats, soldiers, and the press, and real-time films of many of the atrocities were smuggled out of China and then shown in the Western mass media and also shown to Western political leaders. One example is the 105 minutes of film that the American episcopal priest John Magee, also the Chairman of the Nanking Committee of the International Red Cross Organization, took in December 1937 ( Furthermore, this part of history was also well recorded in many contemporary diaries, such as those of John Rabe (a German), Minnie Vautrin (an American), and Tsen Shui-fang (a Chinese). However, in spite of this overwhelming amount of evidence, Japan has continued to deny the very existence of the Nanking Massacre, making claims that it was nothing but a natural consequence of war, or the numbers were hugely exaggerated, or that the whole thing was fabricated by the Chinese.

Do People Know About That Part of History? For about 60 years from 1937 to 1997, overwhelming majority of the people in the world, outside of China, did not know much about the Nanking Massacre, and most likely had never heard of it. It was only after Iris Chang in 1997 published her best-selling book Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, then more people outside of China have heard of the Nanking Massacre, but it was still a very small minority. Another 17 years later, now 77 years have elapsed since the Nanking Massacre and 69 years have elapsed since the end of WWII, still not only that most of the Japanese, aside from the older Japanese, don’t know anything about that part of history, most of the people in the U.S. and the West also have never heard about that part of history.

Why? The people in Japan don’t know about that part of history, because the Japanese government does not want to admit that their country could have inflicted such terrible and inexcusable acts toward other human beings. In their history textbooks, this part of history is completely whitewashed. This part of history is also essentially not discussed in American high school history courses (or high school history courses of other countries of the Western world). Why the American people, and the people of the Western world in general, also don’t know about this part of history? This is even more puzzling taking into account that the U.S. was the country that controlled and shaped the reconstruction of Japan after WWII. So what role did the U.S. government play?

U.S. Policy Toward China Since 1949: Beginning shortly after the end of WWII, because of the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party winning the civil war in China, the U.S.-China relationship has not been good. For about 70 years, with the possible exception during the short period before and after the Nixon visit to China, the U.S. policy toward China has been to surround, isolate, and weaken China. As China became stronger from both the economic and military perspectives, especially during the last 5-10 years when China has become the world’s second largest economy, the U.S., instead of adopting a policy that could lead to a win-win-win situation (the third win is for world peace), has adopted a very antagonistic policy toward China, and has recruited countries like Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam to serve as her front-line pawns to implement her antagonistic policy.

There are many happenings that one can point to for reaching the above conclusion. Due to length limitation, this article gives only a few examples.

Shortly after the end of WWII, the U.S. did not prosecute any of the Japanese scientists, doctors, or leaders who led Japan’s deadly, inhumane, and massive biological and chemical warfare. Why? It was in exchange for getting their knowledge and data associated with developing those weapons of mass destruction. This has been documented in several books and articles, including those by American medical historians. Unfortunately, it is still not a well-known fact to the American public. The U.S. likes to use double standards. On August 26, 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “The use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria last week was undeniable and that the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable for a ‘moral obscenity’ that has shocked the world’s conscience.” But on the much more massive use of biological and chemical weapons that Japan unleashed on China during WWII, do we hear Kerry or Obama mentioning moral obscenity?

The U.S. also decided not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito even though he was a hands-on emperor who was fully aware of and approved what Japan did during the war. If the Emperor of Japan did not do anything wrong, then that helps the Japanese people to feel that their country also did nothing wrong, and Japan was the victim, and not the aggressor. Therefore, Japan does not need to acknowledge and apologize for the so-called atrocities of WWII.

On December 25, 1953, the U.S. had no right at all to decide unilaterally to include the Diaoyu Islands as part of the Ryukyu Islands whose administrative rights would be handed over to Japan in 1972. This complicity by the U.S. helped to create a dispute which should not have existed in the first place. Furthermore, especially in the last few years, the U.S. has on many occasions stated an internally inconsistent foreign policy: On the one hand, the U.S. says that she doesn’t take a position regarding the territorial sovereignty of these islands, but on the other hand, she says that these islands are covered under the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. In other words, the U.S. is willing to go to war in Asia that it has no moral or legal reason to be involved, unless the reason is to weaken China at all cost.

Several Japanese prime ministers, including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and many Cabinet members have visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 convicted and executed Japanese WWII war criminals are enshrined. How would we feel if the German chancellor pays homage at a memorial site for Adolf Hitler? On numerous occasions, Japan’s political leaders have made statements denying various atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Asia during WWII. They have denied the Nanking Massacre, as well as other atrocities such as Comfort Women (euphemism for sex slaves), biological and chemical warfare, live vivisections, and slave labor. This is in spite of overwhelming evidence, including documented interviews by the Japanese teacher/journalist Tamaki Matsuoka with over 250 former Japanese soldiers, most of whom were stationed in Nanking during the Nanking Massacre period (see her 2010 documentary film “Torn Memories of Nanjing”). But where are the moral outcries from our U.S. political leaders, especially keeping in mind that they always emphasize the importance of human rights, and it was the U.S. who guided and oversaw the reconstruction of Japan?

Manipulating Public Opinion Regarding China: In order to justify such antagonistic policy toward China, the U.S. government and mass media have consistently been negative and critical of Chinese government actions, so that a negative spin is usually given to almost everything that is happening in China. They accuse China of many things, such as:

  • Causing the U.S.’s unemployment problem because China provides inexpensive labor, while ignoring that is just the natural consequence of a free enterprise system
  • Cyber attacks when it is the U.S. who has engaged in the largest cyber espionage in the world as clearly revealed by Edward Snowden
  • Aggressive military actions destabilizing peace in Asia when the U.S. has multiple military bases surrounding China and a massive 7th fleet patrolling the seas around China
  • Currency manipulation when it is the U.S. who has been printing massive amounts of money devaluing the dollar

Such anti-China and anti-Chinese political propaganda is pervasively contained in the words and actions of Western political leaders and mass media. (See also the new book Target China by F. William Engdahl.) This is not denying that there are many important issues facing China that China should handle significantly better.

Is it any wonder that a 2014 Gallup survey found that China, not Iran, is now America’s No. 1 enemy?  [1]  The atmosphere has been poisoned so much that it will be very unpleasant for Chinese Americans, especially for their children and grandchildren. What is overlooked is that Chinese Americans care for and love their adopted country, and they want the U.S. to be a successful and prosperous country, a country where their children and grandchildren live and will live.

What Should We Do About It? Therefore the issue of the neglect of the Nanking Massacre is very much intertwined with the U.S. policy toward China. We now discuss what should Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and other people of the world do about it.

  • Americans:  The fact that most Americans have never heard of the Nanking Massacre, as well as other Japanese inflicted atrocities, is definitely related to the complicity of the U.S. government. In their policy to confront, surround, and weaken China, the U.S. is using Japan as her frontline pawn, and so is willing to overlook Japan not owning up to her massive and inhumane atrocities of WWII. Yes, occasionally the U.S. government may voice some comments that are critical of Japan, but the U.S. definitely has not pressed the case nearly to the extent that it deserves.

    As Americans, what should we do to remedy this situation? The U.S. policy to help Japan whitewash the history of WWII in Asia is a policy that is erroneous, unjust, dangerous, and leads to conflicts and potential wars. The U.S. cannot and should not continue to use force to impose its will on other countries. Recent history has clearly demonstrated that such a policy is ineffective, extremely costly in terms of our country’s economics and American lives, besides creating instability and armed conflicts. When our government’s actions are detrimental to the welfare of the American people and also to world peace, and when those actions are not consistent with the American values we so proudly proclaim, then criticizing our government is both patriotic and the right thing to do. All of us, as Americans, must apply pressure to our elected leaders and those running for office that we must not continue such erroneous, unjust, and dangerous policy. Instead, we should adopt a policy that respects China’s sovereignty and works jointly with China to solve the many pressing issues facing the world, but still allowing fair competition. This then could result in a win-win situation for both countries, as well as contributing to world peace.

    Those of us who are Chinese Americans and bi-culture may be in the best position to understand and assess this part of history. Many of the elderly among us had personally experienced the Sino-Japanese War. Most of our parents and grandparents had suffered through the Sino-Japanese War. Furthermore, we are in a good position to assess the positives and the negatives of each society, then and now. However, this is a double-edge sword, because we may be accused, fairly or unfairly, as being biased toward China. Nevertheless, we must be courageous and stand up to voice our opinion.

  • Chinese:  How do China and the Chinese people view the Nanking Massacre? Being the victims of Japan’s atrocities, the Chinese people of course remember the Nanking Massacre, as well as the sufferings of the sex slaves, the victims of biological and chemical warfare, and the slave laborers. During the first 30 years or so of its existence, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was trying to consolidate a vast new country, win recognition from the world as the legitimate government of China, and suffering and recovering from the Cultural Revolution. During those 30 years, China did not give proper attention to the victims or consistently and properly press Japan on these issues. During the next 30-plus years, China started to pay more attention both internally and externally. Internally, China included more coverage of this area in her history books and courses, established new museums dedicated to this part of history and generally provided more coverage in other museums, and provided more support (although still insufficient) to the victims. Externally, China has taken a stronger stand to press Japan to face up to history, and to the U.S. to discontinue her antagonistic policy. In the past decade, China has increased her activities in all these areas, culminating in declaring in 2014 two national commemoration dates: September 3 to commemorate Japan’s surrender at the end of WWII and December 13 to commemorate the Nanking Massacre.
  • Japanese:  Japan and the Japanese people must realize that it is to their long-term benefits that they face up to this part of history. Unpleasant as it is to acknowledge the terrible atrocities that the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted on the people of Asia, that is the only way that Japan can coexist peacefully with her neighboring countries. That is the only way to keep Japan from reviving and repeating her blind and deadly militarism and expansionism. Keep in mind that following such a path of reviving militarism and expansionism not only leads to great sufferings for the people of her neighboring countries, but it also leads to great sufferings for the Japanese people. We especially applaud those courageous Japanese and Japanese Americans who have been in the forefront of keeping this part of history alive and resisting the Japanese government’s attempt to whitewash this part of history.
  • Other People of the World:  They should also urge Japan to acknowledge and apologize for what they did in WWII, as was done by Germany. That is the only way for Japan to join the civilized world of nations and the only way so that those kinds of atrocities will not be repeated again in the world. At the same time, people of the world must see through the façade of the U.S.’s China policy, that it is a dangerous policy that is not good for China, the U.S., Japan, as well as the rest of the world.

Answer to Original Question:  The Nanking Massacre is not just a historical relic, but it still has deep significance for the whole world for the following reasons:

  • It reminds the world what one country can do to another country, the unimaginable atrocities that people of one country can inflict on people of other countries.
  • Although more than 70 years have elapsed, Japan, unlike Germany, is still denying what happened in spite of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
  • The U.S.’s complicity in not pressing Japan to own up to her historical responsibilities and colluding with Japan to carry out an erroneous, unjust, and dangerous policy to surround, isolate, and weaken China.

Learning from the Nanking Massacre can lead to profound benefits for the people of China, the U.S., Japan, and the rest of the world. Unless we fully face up to these issues, the world is a much more dangerous place for everyone on earth. This kind of ugly history could repeat itself, and could lead to instability and war. It could adversely impact our livelihood, and especially the livelihood of our children and grandchildren.


[1] “Poll: China, not Iran, now USA’s top enemy,” USA Today, February 20, 2014:


Acknowledgement: I would like to thank David Chai for a valuable comment on an earlier draft of this article.

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