Bodies of victims of the Nanjing Massacre beside the Qinhuai River outside Nanjing's west gate in 1937. Photo: Wikipedia

December 13, 2017, marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese Imperial Army’s seizure of Nanjing, then capital of Nationalist China. What occurred next, with alleged weeks of mass executions, rapes, torture, looting and arson, is steeped in controversy and poisons relations between China and Japan and their peoples to this day.

This year is also the 20th anniversary of Iris Chang’s 1997 book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

Weaving contemporaneous letters and diaries, government intelligence reports, war-crime investigations and testimony with modern oral history, The Rape of Nanking arrived at a time when the events at Nanjing had been largely forgotten in the English-speaking West. That could no longer be said after the book’s appearance. Chang’s book achieved remarkable sales and was showered with praise from leading academic historians and others. Chang herself, a mere 29 years of age when the book was published, was feted at book signings and other public events.

The Rape of Nanking

Chang’s book meant that a new front had been opened in the historiographic conflict over Nanjing – a war to win the minds of English-language readers, especially in the US. The battle was soon joined. Along with the praise, both Chang and her book were also savaged with criticism, and not just in Japan, where her passionate critique of Japanese behavior sparked outrage. Circles within the Western academic community began publishing strident criticisms.

These criticisms were repeated and amplified for years. As it turns out, a concealed hand was involved in much of this criticism’s torrent – Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

While undisclosed until now, the Foreign Ministry financed and promoted an English-language “public relations” campaign aimed at discrediting and vilifying Chang and her book. This campaign ran 10 years, beginning shortly after publication of the book and continuing for four years after her death in 2004, and culminating during the 70th anniversary of Nanjing’s occupation.

Principal weapons used in this campaign included writings of several internationally renowned historians. The ministry’s public relations apparatus advertised these writings as modern, objective and scientific. The reality is far different. Instead, through consistent exaggeration, error and misquoting, these writings fashioned a fictionalized and stereotyped version of Chang and The Rape of Nanking. As such, they threaten to distort public and academic understanding of this most disputed of events.

Camouflaged hand of Japanese Foreign Ministry

Bitter and persistent criticism of Chang and her book appeared in Japan Echo, a Tokyo-based periodical that published English-language translations of articles originally written for Japanese audiences. In August 1998, February 2000 and December 2007, Japan Echo featured articles that drew a bead on The Rape of Nanking. Japan Echo’s December 2007 issue coincided with the 70th anniversary of the actual Rape of Nanking/Nanjing Incident.

Japan Echo republished all of its Nanjing articles, plus two new ones, in a book commemorating the 70th anniversary titled An Overview of the Nanjing Debate.

The book’s announced aim rejected a “balanced” sampling of the full range of views regarding Nanjing on the ground that this would mean introducing “political viewpoints that are based on evidence of questionable authority.” Rather, the promised goal was to present conclusions of historical research about Nanjing that were “in compliance with modern, scientific standards.”

Bitter and persistent criticism of Iris Chang and her book appeared in Japan Echo, a Tokyo-based periodical that published English-language translations of articles originally written for Japanese audiences

Later advertising described Nanjing Debate as seeking to present a “more objective, scientific approach to this important historical issue.” (This advertising was featured on back interior covers of Japan Echo issues from June 2008 to April 2009 and front interior covers from June 2009 to April 2010.)

While unrevealed in Nanjing Debate and the relevant three Japan Echo issues, the periodical was founded, funded and distributed by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of its “public relations” responsibilities.

A private corporation, Japan Echo Inc, was set up as the periodical’s publisher. The Foreign Ministry provided funding for its self-described “foreign-language PR publication” in the form of appropriations renewed annually without competitive bidding and distributed copies to “intellectuals overseas,” including scholars, university libraries, media organs, and research institutes. As of 2010, the Foreign Ministry was purchasing and distributing 50,000 copies of Japan Echo each year.

Without this backing, Japan Echo could not have continued in business, and when the Japanese government cut funding in early 2010, the magazine promptly folded.

These facts are known because of the reaction of Japan Echo’s editor and publisher when the Foreign Ministry’s money was cut off – they “outed” the truth in the editor’s “Japan Echo gets the ax” article and a “Letter from the Publisher” in the final April 2010 issue.

There was no mention of the Foreign Ministry’s role, however, where it would have mattered most to readers – within the pages of Nanjing Debate and the relevant issues of Japan Echo. Had the Foreign Ministry’s involvement been disclosed, readers would have been instantly alerted for possible bias. But it was not.

‘Modern, objective and scientific’ historiography

Disclosure of the ministry’s role would have also drawn closer attention to the discrepancy between Nanjing Debate’s promise of a modern, objective and scientific treatment of Nanjing’s occupation and the reality of the writings within its pages. For that advertising was false. Those pages instead feature invective and venom – Chang and The Rape of Nanking are said to be irritating, offensive, slanderous, crude and dissembling. Chang should be “ashamed of herself” – she is not just wrong but “perversely so.” She offers “bizarre conspiracy theories” like Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. This is just a short compendium of the putdowns.

The accusations within Nanjing Debate and the related Japan Echo issues are also predominately wrong. The starkest example of this issues from the pen of Joshua Fogel, a respected scholar of Japanese and Chinese history.

Fogel accuses Chang of “an astounding level of ignorance” when she writes that research on Nanjing in Japan can be career- or even life-threatening. Fogel introduces this section by accusing Chang of acting “perversely” in “making obvious claims contrary to what is observable and verifiable.”

He originally wrote these words in Japan Echo’s February 2000 issue. Yet when they were republished in 2008, evidence not only showed that Chang was correct, but it included evidence bearing Fogel’s own historiographic fingerprints.

In 2000, historian Takashi Yoshida stated that the Japanese “revisionists” who believe Nanjing was a fabrication “risked their professional careers and even their lives,” and receive “threatening messages, including death threats,” when they speak out. This disclosure occurred in a book Fogel edited for the University of California Press in 2000, The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.

In 2007, Fogel’s colleague at York University in Toronto, Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, writing in the book Complicating the Picture, disclosed: “Ultranationalist thugs deny any moral wrongdoing on Japan’s part and they issues threats of death or violent confrontation to silence anyone who says otherwise. Some of the authors in this volume have received such threats in the mail, over the phone, or in person at public lectures.”

In that book’s preface, Professor Wakabayashi thanked Fogel, who had “commented on drafts” of the very chapter in which the death threats were revealed.

Fogel’s harsh accusation also ignores other well-publicized evidence. On a related issue regarding frustrated efforts to secure a Japanese translation of The Rape of Nanking, Fogel dismisses Chang’s “unsubstantiated claims that the publishing house Kashiwa Shobo was bending under pressure from ‘right-wing Japanese organizations.’”

Yet a November 11, 1998, e-mail from the publisher to Chang finds it explaining that: “As we have indicated before, our publishing company is subject to considerable attack and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we have put ourselves in a life-threatening situation in publishing this book.”

This section of the e-mail was first published in The New York Times in May 1999, prior to the original publication of Fogel’s Japan Echo article, and it was more completely quoted in 2006 in Yoshida’s The Making of the ‘Rape of Nanking’: History and Memory in Japan, China and the United States, two years before the unaltered republication of The Controversy over Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking.

In spite of all of this, Fogel’s “astounding level of ignorance” claim was republished in Nanjing Debate on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanjing and remains unmodified to this date.

In short, the Japan Echo writings fashion a fictionalized and stereotyped version of Iris Chang and The Rape of Nanking. As such, they threaten to distort public and academic understanding of this most disputed of events, especially in the English-speaking world to which they were directed.

These errors, however, startling as they are issuing from the pens of some of the otherwise finest professional historians in the world, are perhaps of secondary importance to the undisclosed role of Japan’s Foreign Ministry. Historians compete among themselves and may not always follow “Marquess of Queensbury” type rules. Here the ministry placed a hand on the scales of the debate. Japan Echo selected shrill weapons for distribution by the ministry, writings that were uniformly directed against Iris Chang, then likely perceived as the ministry’s enemy or even arch-enemy.

Meanwhile, the vast volume of writings from Japanese scholars claiming that Nanjing truly involved a “great massacre” were omitted, even though “strengthening [Japan’s] international public relations in a balanced manner” was one of the Foreign Ministry’s standards in establishing Japan Echo. While Nanjing Debate eschews a “balanced” presentation of views on Nanjing, such a view could not be extracted from the pages of the Foreign Ministry’s PR magazine even if it were desired. Japan Echo never published them and the ministry did not distribute or promote them.

The Foreign Ministry’s intervening hand was also shrouded in the shadows. Had the ministry’s connection been disclosed where it mattered most – the pages of Nanjing Debate and the three relevant issues of Japan Echo – it would have instantly alerted readers to potential bias and brought into closer focus the big gap between the promise and the product. The English-language reader is instead disarmed by this concealment.

Moreover, like Imperial Japanese PR operations such as the “100 man beheading competition,” the concealment of the Foreign Ministry’s role is counterproductive.

Under the 1951 San Francisco Treaty restoring its sovereignty, Japan’s postwar government bound itself to the judgments of the Tokyo and other war-crimes trials, whose findings of Nanjing deaths range from 100,000 to 300,000. Postwar Japanese governments have also issued a long line of apologies for Imperial Japan’s conduct. Yet the pages of the Foreign Ministry’s undisclosed PR magazine find those death estimates being sharply criticized and minimized. As such, it calls into question the sincerity of Japan’s postwar apologies and even its treaty commitment by creating at least the appearance that Japan’s government is keeping its fingers crossed behind its back.

It is possible that Chinese and Japanese readers would more readily see through the real nature of Japan Echo’s efforts and Nanjing Debate. But like Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, those works were directed primarily at the English-language West, where events at Nanjing were long overlooked.

As the historiographical “war” over Nanjing has moved to this Western front, the impact of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s deceptive counteroffensive may have much greater impact.

For those interested, a more detailed exploration of this subject by Randy Hopkins may be found at is a retired Texas trial lawyer and a senior auditor at Portland State University, Oregon, with a focus on Japanese history in the 1930s and general East Asian history.

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