Nanjing by the Numbers

A new report on the 1937-1938 massacre doesn't settle the contested issue of how many people died -- but it points to a much more significant new consensus between Japan and China.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The "Rape of Nanking," in which invading Japanese soldiers slaughtered and raped a massive number of Chinese civilians, has long been a flashpoint in formal relations between Beijing and Tokyo, as well as a subject capable of arousing strong feelings among the general population of both countries, particularly in China.

The debate was recently reopened by a joint report issued by the governments of China and Japan. But while most newspaper accounts have focused on the remaining points of disagreement — including the still-disputed death toll — they’ve tended to miss the larger significance of the report: that historians appointed by both countries did, for the first time, agree that the Japanese army committed atrocities during the war and that Japan’s illegal acts of aggression were the main cause of hostilities.

Ever since the end of the Pacific War in 1945, characterizations of what happened in Nanjing have varied widely depending on whom you ask. At one end of the spectrum, the unfortunate historical episode that began with Japanese troops entering Nanjing in early December 1937 has been referred to as China’s counterpart to the Holocaust. At the other end, it has been treated as a predictably bloody wartime effort to assert control over a captured city. Historians in Japan have typically estimated the number killed at between 20,000 and 200,000 Chinese citizens (with those on the far right tending to veer toward small casualty figures), while historians in China have often insisted that more than 300,000 people died, the great majority of them non-combatants. It is not a debate likely to be easily resolved. In the chaos of war (and the conflagration in question was especially chaotic), careful records of the murdered are seldom kept, and accounts of mass burials and burnings of bodies indicates that, in this case, we are likely never to know precisely how many civilian deaths occurred.

Given this background, it was unsurprising that the joint report, written by an officially convened group of China-based and Japan-based historians, failed to come to a consensus on the Nanjing Massacre’s death toll.  It is also worth noting that this was apparently not the only issue on which the Chinese and Japanese language versions of the report that were released simultaneously diverged. Some news stories note that there was also a split, for example, on whether the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937, a famous battle between China’s National Revolutionary Army and the Imperial Japanese Army, was triggered by an "accident"; the Japanese version insisted this had been the case, while the Chinese one left open the possibility that Japan had conspired to bring that conflict about, as China has long claimed. And the section of the report dealing with post-1945 history was withheld, apparently at the request of the Chinese delegation, whose members seemed to be concerned over discussions of more sensitive recent historical events. (A Japanese television clip on the report was even reportedly blacked out in China for its use of footage related to a very different massacre, the one that Chinese troops carried out in Beijing in June of 1989.)

It would be too much to hope that any joint report over the causes and events of the Pacific War would reach accord on every issue. But as partisan as the debate on the Nanjing massacre has often seemed, a close reading of the new report shows that the divide in it over the number killed in that city is not exclusively a political standoff. Instead, it largely reflects scholarly concern over the reliability of the numbers — on both the Chinese and Japanese sides. And it would be unfortunate if the lack of agreement over death tolls obscured the significant new points of consensus.

The main points of agreement constitute a major step forward in Sino-Japanese relations. For years, there have been some historians in Japan moving toward a more moderate position on Nanjing, but there have also been periodic efforts by Japanese officials to sidestep or minimize the issue of Japanese culpability and misbehavior, their sentiments echoed by a small number of textbooks authorized for use in Japan’s classrooms. Japanese leaders have historically ignored pleas to acknowledge fully the extent to which Japan was responsible for Pacific War-era devastation and violence not just in China but also in Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. So, all in all, the report has much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, coverage of its release in the United States has tended to focus on the continued disagreement over the massacre’s death toll. The same has been true in much of the Japanese press. Chinese papers, by contrast, while taking note of the disagreement over numbers, have typically led with what is arguably the much bigger story — Japan’s acknowledgment, in an official report, that the war was due to Japanese aggression.

Still, the report could be a very welcome harbinger of movement away from the old fights about the Pacific War. The "textbook controversies" have unfolded over several decades, but the postmillennial years have been particularly fraught, with high-profile protests in China and South Korea over how the war is taught and memorialized in Japan (even while some Japanese historians and others in Japan have repeatedly called for a more forthright acknowledgment of Japanese wartime atrocities both at home and abroad).

There will probably never be full agreement on the Nanjing numbers. But precise death tolls are not, ultimately, the real issue at hand. The real issue is China’s desire that Japan accept responsibility for a tragedy of such great scale and violence. The new report, then, gets to the heart of what has angered victims and their descendents — Japan’s past refusal to acknowledge unequivocally the extent of its historical violence and aggression. In an East Asia increasingly interconnected by economics, politics, and culture, Japan’s subtle shift may well ease tensions enough that, in the end, the numbers will become a matter of scholarly discussion rather than the political and cultural flashpoint they have been for decades.

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