A Conversation with Tamaki Matsuoka: “The Conscience of Japan”

Before I show the conversation with Tamaki Matsuoka, I want to provide a little background on the woman who has spent more than 30 years of her adult life finding out what happened in Nanking during the Nanking Massacre of 1937/1938. Among other things, she interviewed over 250 former Japanese soldiers who were stationed in Nanking during that period and over 300 Chinese survivors of the Nanking Massacre. By correlating their stories, she established irrevocably that the Nanking Massacre was one of the most horrific atrocities ever occurred in the history of the human race. During an approximately six-week period beginning on December 13, 1937 just in the city of Nanking, the then capital of China, the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered approximately 300,000 Chinese (most were civilians, including women and children) and raped approximately 20,000 women and girls (including great grandmothers and young girls less than 10 years old).

She started on this project on her own when she was an elementary school teacher in Osaka, Japan. At first working alone on this project on weekends, holidays, summer breaks with funds initially from her own savings. Eventually, she wrote several books, including the 2002 book The Battle of Nanking – Searching for Forbidden Memories, which was awarded the “Japan Congress of Journalists Prize” that is given to distinguished journalists, and the 2016 book Torn Memories of Nanking that summarized her lifelong work. She also produced numerous documentaries, including the award winning documentary with a title “Torn Memories of Nanjing,” similar to the title of her later 2016 book.

Below is a conversation capturing hours of discussion that I had with Tamaki since we became friends 12 years ago. My questions are in regular font, and Tamaki’s answers are in slightly bigger font in Italics.

“Tamaki, why did you start on this project?”

“I was born in 1947 in Osaka, Japan. I studied history and became an elementary school teacher in 1982. In 1988 after reading several books written by journalists and professors investigating the history of the Nanking Massacre and also a large number of books and popular magazines trivializing or denying the massacre, I realized that there were drastically contradictory assertions about what actually happened in Nanking in 1937-1938. It was then that I decided that I will start my own investigation of that part of history.”

“Did you know that this project would consume you full time for the next 34 years?”

“I certainly did not anticipate that. But once I started, I just can’t put it down, although many times I was overwhelmed with the complexity and difficulty of the task. But I kept working on it, because this part of history is just too important to have left it without a clear-cut conclusion.”

“How did you manage it when you were working full-time as a school teacher and bringing up two young boys?”

“I will be lying to you if I say it wasn’t difficult. Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband, and he helped me out a great deal.”

“The Japanese government has always denied what happened during the Nanking Massacre, and there is a strong right-wing element of the society that looks upon activities like yours as treasonous. Did you feel threatened?”

“Yes, definitely. People in Japan who were trying to revise history started to slander me with condemning labels such as ‘traitor,’ ‘spy for Chinese Communist Party,’ ‘psychopath,’ or ‘a liar who receives bribes.’ Although I can ignore their accusations. But it was devastating to see how my two boys have to hear such accusations about their mother. Moreover, right-wingers have barged into the elementary school where I worked and into our meetings. They constantly attack me on the Internet. We just have to be brave and endure it, knowing in our hearts that we were just speaking the truth.”

“A key part of your accomplishment was that you were able to interview over 250 former Japanese soldiers who were stationed in Nanking during the Nanking Massacre period, and their testimonies correlated with the testimonies of over 300 Nanking Massacre survivors that you also interviewed. How did you accomplish that?”

“In October 1997 we set up the “Nanking Information Hotline” for three days in six Japanese cities (Tokyo, Kanazawa, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kumanoto). Thanks to the coverage in newspapers and TV about our grass-root initiative, we received a total of 130 calls, 13 of which were from ex-soldiers. Based on the information collected, we started to track down more and more ex-soldiers. When we first visited each of them, in the beginning they all stayed silent regarding the Nanking Massacre. So we put Nanking aside and chatted about the hardships during the war.”

We had to overcome significant cultural and political reluctance to talk about this sensitive subject. It took months or even years of building friendship with these veterans and gaining their trusts in the importance of the project that the veterans were willing to open up and discuss these long-held memories which they had not discussed for over half a century with anyone else (including their immediate family members). Gradually, almost half of them started to talk about Nanking. Over the years, we interviewed more than 250 ex-soldiers.”

“I supposed that with the Nanking Massacre survivors, they were also reluctant to discuss such personal experiences with you?”

“Yes, these were long suppressed terrifying dark memories of the past, including cultural reluctance to discuss being raped and political reluctance to discuss atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers when at times the Chinese government was trying to establish friendlier relationship with the Japanese government. Many times, I can clearly see from their expressions that it was an extremely painful experience for them to relive it. It took weeks, months, or even years to gain their trusts so that gradually more and more of them were willing to talk about it.”

“Can you recall some quotes from your interviews with former Japanese soldiers or Chinese Nanking Massacre survivors?”

“Yes, there are many quotes that I will never forget. Here are some quotes, first from Japanese soldiers, and then from Chinese Nanking Massacre survivors. [1]:

  • Tanaka Jiro (29 year-old Japanese soldier): “We dragged all of them (Chinese prisoners) out of the freight train hangar and made them sit down facing the shore. They sat down in knee-deep mud. When the command was given, they were sprayed with bullets at point blank range from machine guns that had been hidden in nearby trenches. They fell down, one by one, like dominoes. Blood-soaked, smoking pieces of flesh and clothing flew up into the air. Light machine guns that had been set up on the wharf took care of the several dozen or so of them who had jumped into the river. The muddy waters were soaked red with blood. What a miserable scene! Will such a wretched scene ever be seen again in this world?”

  • Deguchi Gonjiro (23 year-old Japanese soldier): “The day that Nanjing fell, there were mountains of dead bodies piled up outside the walls of the city. I felt something soft beneath my feet. Lighting a match to see what I was stepping on, I realized that the entire surface under my feet was like a carpet of dead bodies. There were dead bodies everywhere. I don’t know which unit was responsible, but they had all been killed by bayonets. There were women and children, but no soldiers.”

  • Deguchi Gonjiro (23 year-old Japanese soldier): “What the newspapers often refer to as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ is an indisputable fact, and people who deny this are lying.”

  • Teramoto Juhei (24 year-old Japanese soldier): “The Nanking Massacre happened. I saw it with my own eyes.”

  • Itsuki Makio (22 year-old Japanese soldier): “At that time, the Japanese thought of themselves as superior and did not treat the Chinese as human beings.” … “I heard that our company commander had issued an order saying, ‘Once you’re in Nanjing, robbery, rape, and murder are allowed.'”

  • Mitani Sho (18 year-old Japanese soldier): “Until now, I had no opportunity to tell my story. After sixty years, I can finally give my testimony. I am extremely grateful. As a Japanese, I often reflect deeply on this episode. Today, however, many Japanese deny that the Nanjing Massacre or military sexual slavery took place. What kind of people are they?

Here are some quotes from Chinese Nanking Massacre survivors:

  • Yang Mingzhen (7 year-old Chinese female survivor): “Japanese soldiers came back again that afternoon while my mother and I were lying on the kitchen floor. My father was so weak that he was just lying there. A Japanese soldier came up to my father, opened his eyes with his fingers and thrust a knife into his mouth. Then he came up to my mother and pulled her trousers down. As he wiped the soot from my mother’s face, she bit his hand. Livid, the Japanese soldier hit my mother’s face again and again and then raped her. After that, he started taunting her, twisting the barrel of his gun around inside her vagina. The other Japanese soldier pulled my trousers down and started taunting me, prizing open my still-firm vagina with his fingers. At any rate, they were prepubescent genitals, the genitals of a six or seven-year-old. I screamed out in pain. The Japanese soldier forcibly raped me. He was a beast. The two of them took turns raping my mother and I. Blood flowed in torrents, and it was so painful that I couldn’t even walk afterwards. My genitals became swollen and continued to bleed. Urine would dribble out uncontrollably and flow into my wounds, causing unbearable pain. I still suffer incontinence to this day and am unable to urinate normally. Even now, I still have to use diapers. My parents were killed.”

  • Zhang Xiuying (23 year-old Chinese female survivor): “I saw those things with my own eyes. On no account am I telling lies. I hear that there are people and politicians in Japan who say that the Nanking Massacre is a fabrication, but I honestly suffered these kinds of horrendous experiences, even having my daughter burnt to death. I am still enduring hardship in my daily life. I have a crooked finger as a result of the stabbing and I still can’t raise my arm, even sixty or more years later, after that beating with the rifle butt. How can Japanese people still say that the Nanjing Massacre is a fabrication?”

  • Zhang Xiuhong (11 year-old Chinese female survivor): “We are all brothers, whether Japanese or Chinese. Please don’t do bad things like the Japanese Army did before. Japan and China want to cooperate in a spirit of friendship. I want young people [in each country] to come together, to study, to work, and to build peaceful nations. Please don’t do anything bad.”

“Besides cultural and political problems encountered, did you run into language problems also?”

“Yes, I did initially. After I learned Chinese, then the Chinese survivors and I felt much closer.”

“Your Chinese is pretty good. And you worked very hard at it since you took over 100 trips to China and spent many weeks and months taking Chinese language lessons. What other problems did you encounter?”

“We encountered another major problem. It was a race against time. Because both the former Japanese soldiers and the Chinese Nanking Massacre survivors were very elderly people who are centenarians. Sooner or later, they will be all gone, and we want to make sure that we have their testimonies before that happens. We were always racing against this time bomb that can explode any moment. Similar situation occurred with the comfort women or sexual slavery issue. Fortunately, we were able to race successfully against this time bomb. We really want to thank them for entrusting their stories to us and into the history books.”

For many years until her retirement as a school teacher, Tamaki had a full-time teaching job and did this in the evenings and weekends. She used her own savings to finance her project. She has been able to recruit and mobilize a group of dedicated volunteers on this mission. In the face of frequent and vicious personal attacks, she has displayed great courage, dedication, and commitment to continue on her mission that has consumed 32 years of her adult life. That led to her earning the namesake “The Conscience of Japan.” It also led to Tamaki Matsuoka’s priceless gift to mankind:  Historical Truth.

It is especially meaningful to mention a quote from Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito of February 23, 2015 “It is important today, when memories of the war are fading, to look back humbly on the past and correctly pass on the tragic experiences and history Japan pursued from the generation which experienced the war to those without direct knowledge.”  We want to emphasize that this should be passed on to all the people of the world.


[1] All quotes are from the book Torn Memories of Nanking, by Tamaki Matsuoka, ALPHA Education, 2016, ISBN 978-0-9920550-I-1 (paperback). Parts of this English book, plus other material, have previously been published in several other books in Japanese and Chinese by Tamaki Matsuoka.

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2 Responses to “A Conversation with Tamaki Matsuoka: “The Conscience of Japan””

  1. Sharon Dolled says:

    I am glad that Tamaki has still been able to continue her work to seek out survivors of the Massacre at Nanking as well as soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army. She has recorded horrid crimes against the Chinese and others during WW II. This information still needs to be further brought into the schools for young students to become aware of the atrocities.

  2. Christina leung says:

    Your article makes the public aware of the significant work of Tamaki, as well as to add more concrete evidence & valuable testimony of the Nanking massacre.

    Your question to Tamaki, “Did you know that this project would consume you full time ……”, probably, a similar question applies to your website too. Various related articles in your website indicate numerous time, effort, & energy spent before publication. I understand your endurance because many years ago I worked on a web-page on the Chinese-Americans’ contribution to the development of USA.

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