13 December 2011

Book Review: The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, ****

Japanese soldier beheading a Chinese man

In December 1937, in what was then the capital of China, one of the most brutal massacres in the long annals of wartime barbarity occurred. The Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanking (Nanjing) and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenseless city but systematically raped, tortured, and murdered many thousands of Chinese civilians. The story of this atrocity continues to be denied or minimized by the Japanese government, though some in Japan do recognize it. Based on extensive interviews with survivors and newly discovered documents in four different languages (many never before published), Iris Chang has written an emotional account of that disgraceful episode.


This is a deeply disturbing book to read. Chang writes in highly charged prose, where her emotions and deep resentment often take precedence over her factual research. This is a pity. Her effort is invaluable, she has exposed an Asian holocaust to the world. But her credibility is tarnished by her exaggerations. Not that these exaggerations change much in terms of the basic message she is trying to convey: there was a horrendous rape of Nanjing, the Japanese should acknowledge it and the world should know about it.

I was flabbergasted when visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo: there, in the war museum, a panel lets visitors know that in Nanjing the Japanese authorities did not perpetrate any massacre, only some Chinese soldiers who hid under civilian clothes were dealt with severely... Amazing that democratic Japan, well into the XXI century, would still have this nonsense up in one of their most famous museums.

Nonetheless, Chang's case would have been stronger had she avoided hyping hard facts which are so stark and crude they did not need any hyping. In any case, this is a must-read for anyone interested in the Japanese campaign in China in the 1930s.

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