The selective history of the Nanjing Massacre

Understanding the Nanjing Massacre is vital to understanding China-Japan relations. Too bad almost everyone gets these five things wrong.

Just the Basics

  • The Nanjing Massacre is a perennial bogeyman in Sino-Japanese relations, emerging on a regular basis to sour ties, often when doing so is convenient to either party

  • Both China and Japan are guilty of selectively framing the event for their own purposes

  • Despite Chinese protestations to the contrary, Japan is not without contrition, nor has Beijing always vowed to 'Never Forget'

Mistake Nr. 1: The Nanjing Massacre has always been important to China

While the events in Nanjing occurred almost eighty years ago, the massacre has recently re-entered the popular Chinese consciousness, and in particular has emerged as a key talking point for Beijing. Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the Nanjing Massacre was long neglected by the Chinese government due to the influence of Maoist rhetoric as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domestic and international agenda. Since the 1980s it has become a useful political tool for the Chinese government against Japan.

The fact that the issue of history in Sino-Japanese relations only emerged in the 1980s was due to China’s own silence on the issue. During the post-war period, China’s relationship with Japan and the West was characterized by memories of injuries suffered by China during its ‘Century of Humiliation’. Chief among these injuries were the decades of colonization by, and war against, Japan.

The issue of Nanjing was not mentioned or highlighted during much of the post-war period, specifically from 1949 until the early 1980s. This silence was due to the effects of Maoist thought and the actions of the CCP leadership. Prior to the 1980s, the Nanjing Massacre, along with other painful events in 20th century Chinese history, were actively ignored by the CCP leadership. This was due to the fact that, following 1949, China’s leaders sought to shake off the country’s image as the ‘sick man of Asia’ by emphasizing the victories and fortitude of the Chinese people in the face of Western imperialism and Japanese aggression.


Consequently, historical incidents of victimization and weakness were often omitted in official rhetoric (none of the texts in the official nine volume Selected Writings of Mao Zedong mention Nanjing in any historical significance), save instances in which they reinforced the image of Chinese resistance and strength. Authoritarian control and censorship of the historical narrative in Maoist China permitted no deviation from the official historiography. This monopoly of the official narrative saw efforts by Nanjing historians in the 1960s to study the massacre squashed by the government and the research suppressed.

After the war, many nations (including China) which had suffered under Japanese rule sought reparations; however, due to pressure from the United States, China waived its rights to compensation. After President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the normalization of Sino-American relations in the same year, Japan and China also normalized relations, with Beijing reaffirming its waiver of reparations. China continued to downplay historical grievances throughout the following years in order to entice Japanese capital and investments

Whereas the legacy of colonialism has played a fairly minor role in China's modern relations with the West – especially since Deng Xiaoping’s tenure – Japan’s colonial legacy, and specifically the issue of the Nanjing Massacre, remains controversial. During the 1980s and 1990s, as the economy became more robust China sought to institutionalize a critical narrative of Japan’s conduct in the war and to officially repudiate Tokyo. Indeed, the event perfectly encapsulated the unresolved legacy of conflict with Japan, as well as how history has become a political tool.

Mistake Nr. 2: Only Japanese nationalists co-opt the Nanjing Massacre

The death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping saw a moderation in official narratives. For the first time in decades, the issue of China’s victimization was more freely discussed and research encouraged. As market reforms were implemented and the infallibility of Maoist thought waned, the Chinese leadership gradually began redirecting the national focus away from class based revolutionary thinking towards more pragmatic nationalism. Chinese nationalism was moulded around the core theme of a sense of shared insecurity as well as the lessons of past weakness and subsequently the drive towards future security.

Chinese nationalism in turn became “not just about celebrating the glories of Chinese civilization; it also commemorates China’s Century of National Humiliation. Humiliation has been an integral part of the construction of Chinese nationalism. Heroism and victimization are inseparable antipodes complementing a collective identity,” writes Qian Fengoi in Let the Dead be Remembered: Interpretation of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. The role (or lack thereof) of Nanjing throughout Maoist China, later during the tenure of Deng and into the 21st century, has been very fluid.


It was only in 2014, under the direction by China's new leader, Xi Jinping that China held its first national commemoration for the Nanjing Massacre


Thomas Berger in The Politics of Memory in Japanese Foreign Relations hits the nail on the head: “collective memory [can be as] much about the present and the future as it is about the past. Societies do not search for the past per se; rather they are trying to define a usable past,”

Nanjing has become highly useful to the Chinese government, which, since the 1980s, has repeatedly used the tragedy and the ‘history card’ in general to further its aims concerning Japan. Specifically, Nanjing has become a tool for Beijing to increase nationalist sentiments in the population in an “era when the old Maoist ideology is rapidly losing its appeal and when rival political groups [have] become eager to demonstrate their nationalist credentials,” notes Berger.

For instance in 2005, anti-Japanese sentiment was a weapon in the power struggle between the Shanghai Gang (supporters of retired president Jiang Zemin) and the Tuanpai faction of Hu Jintao. In part to demonstrate his nationalist credentials, Hu designated the Nanjing memorial as a national heritage site and supported the creation of the Sino-Japanese Joint History Project; to be discussed in detail later. Similarly, it was only in 2014 that China held its first national commemoration for Nanjing, an event orchestrated by Xi Jinping to cement his nationalist credentials as China’s new leader.

Mistake Nr. 3: Japanese text-books deny the Nanjing Massacre

Sino-Japanese relations originally soured in the 1980s due to the 1982 textbook controversy, in which Chinese officials became incensed by the wording of government sanctioned textbooks concerning the Nanjing Massacre. The textbook controversy followed on the heals of a major Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) electoral victory in Japan, and growing historical revisionism and patriotism. Similarly, anti-Japanese sentiments were fostered and exploited by Beijing as China became increasingly self-confident and less reliant on Japanese investment.

Indeed, the original controversy surrounding textbooks revolves around the wording of one of the eight textbooks sanctioned by the Ministry of Education. The remaining seven address aspects of Japan’s war history in a self-critical manner, and these seven comprise over 99 percent of the textbooks in circulation; the offending book is used in less than one percent of Japanese schools, mainly by right-wing private schools.

Prior to 1982, survivors of the Nanjing Massacre were discouraged from speaking out, yet following the textbook row, were called upon by the government as official witnesses in order to score political points against Japan. Similarly, until the 1980s, the sites of the killings were not even marked and only in 1985, following demands by anti-Japanese protesters, did the CCP designate Nanjing as a museum site. The museum sports the number ‘300,000’ emblazoned on the exterior, following Deng Xiaoping’s statement that “China should erect memorials to engrave the fact of Japanese invasions in response to attempts by Japanese politicians to cover up Japan’s war crimes in China.”


Annual high profile visits by Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates all the nation's war dead (including war criminals) regularly cause anger in China.


Since the 1980s, China watchers have noted that “problems [have] reappeared on an almost annual basis in the form of protests over textbook content, the nature (or lack of) Japanese apologies to the Chinese, ‘gaffes’ by Liberal Democratic Diet members relating to the war, Japanese prime-ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and so on.”

For instance, On October 14th 2016, Japan announced that it was withdrawing funding from UNESCO after the organization agreed to include disputed Chinese documents on the Nanjing Massacre in its The Memory of the World register. Japan is one of UNESCO’s largest donors, and Tokyo’s cancellation of this year’s funds will result in the organization missing out on $38.5 million.

More recently, a book by Toshio Motoya - owner of APA Hotels, one of Japan's largest hotel chains - denying that the Nanjing Massacre took place were found to be widely distributed at his companies outlets, with copy available in every room and for sale in gift shops. This in turn led to a rebuke by the Chinese government and a boycott by Chinese hotel booking websites in January, 2017. Similarly, in November 2017 the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery expelled one of its most prominent members, Dr. Katsuya Takasu, for social media statements denying the Nanjing Massacre.

Mistake Nr. 4: The Japanese wholly refuse to acknowledge their wartime past

The discourse in Japan concerning wartime atrocities in general, and Nanjing in particular, is characterized by China and some in the West such as the late Iris Chang, as revisionist, jingoistic, and wilfully ignorant to contemporary findings.

Such views are lent credence by the regular appearance of opinion pieces and newspaper articles in Japan questioning aspects of the Nanjing Massacre, as well as the existence of best-selling war-crime deniers such as Nobukatsu Fujioka. Consequently, Chinese anti-Japanese sentiment is stoked by incendiary actions such as those of Japanese right wing groups who organized a conference in 2000 entitled ‘The Verification of the Rape of Nanjing: The Biggest Lie of the 20th Century.’


A statue of the late American author Iris Chang clasping her book The Rape of Nanking can be seen at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, China


Despite Chinese allegations to the contrary, historiographical discourse in Japan concerning Nanjing is not monolithic, rather the issue has openly been a topic of discussion in Japan far longer than in China or the West. As early as the 1950s, activists in Japan formed the Japan-China Friendship Association; an organization based on remembering and atoning for Japan’s war crimes. Moreover, after the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, Japan executed Matsui Iwane in 1948, the commander of the troops involved in the Nanjing Massacre.

Many Japanese intellectuals and advocates have campaigned for proper recognition and the assumption of responsibility for Japan’s war crimes, including Nanjing. For instance, Inega Saburo fought three major legal battles between 1965 and 1997 against the Japanese government to maintain objectivity in the national school curriculum and its texts. Following the normalization of relations between China and Japan in the 1970s, Honda Katsuichi wrote a best-selling Japanese language account of the Nanjing Massacre based on the accounts of Chinese eyewitnesses.

The issue of Nanjing in Japan has become associated with war crime deniers and right-wing jingoistic rhetoric, and while said factors are part of the discussion, there exists genuine efforts by Japanese historians to look into the tragedy and question long held assumptions and attitudes.


Matsui Iwane parades through Nanjing in 1937, following the city's capture by Japan.


Despite such efforts, there has been considerable tension in China as a result of the actions of Japan and its often insensitive actions when dealing with its wartime past. The official Japanese admission of culpability has been guarded and oblique. Moreover, “growing resentment of Chinese pressure and Japan’s emotional fatigue over [wartime] history have served to make China the ‘odd man out’ in Japan’s foreign policy – the logic being that the Chinese government must have ill intentions towards Japan,” according to Ming Wan in Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic and Transformation.

This notion appears to many in Japan to be reinforced by the overtly opportunistic and political nature of China’s rhetoric regarding Japanese war crimes, as well as the substantially more amiable relations enjoyed between Japan and other Asian nations. South Korea and Taiwan along with others also suffered under Japanese oppression, yet have fostered far stronger links with Tokyo, moderating their stance on wartime issues, while focusing on future cooperation.

Such cooperation is demonstrated by Emperor Akihito’s statement of regret in 1990 and Japan’s formal written apology to South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 1998, an overture not extended to China. Seen by Beijing as a serious snub, the incident highlighted that since the early 1990s, Japan is unwilling to accept moral judgment from China, especially after the events in Tianamen Square and as greater knowledge of China’s own human rights abuses became known.

Mistake Nr. 5: No effort has been made to bridge the gap

The issue of Nanjing has become highly politicized, with estimates of the number of victims in mainline Japanese and Chinese interpretations differing by as much as a power of ten. The popularized death toll of 300,000 is seen as unquestionable by Chinese officials, with Coble M. Parks noting that “Chinese writing on Nanjing [has] become a virtual ‘numbers game’ in which the emphasis of historical writing is to maximize the sheer number of victims”- leading to “the moral and political implications of the discourse about Nanjing [becoming] engulfed in a reductionism focusing solely on the numbers.”

This emphasis on numbers and the disconnect between Chinese and Japanese historians makes itself apparent in the language employed. Events in Nanjing are often referred to as the ‘Nanjing Incident’ in Japan, whereas China categorizes the tragedy as a ‘Grand Massacre.’ By way of comparison, it is interesting to note the similarities between Chinese modifiers pertaining to Nanjing (Grand Massacre) in comparison to Japanese ones (Incident) and Chinese characterizations of the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement (June 4th Incident) and the event’s name in the West (Tiananmen Square Massacre).


Statue depicting a 13 year old boy carrying his dead grandmother on display at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing, China.


The Sino-Japanese Joint History Project initiated by Hu Jinato encapsulated many of the issues involved in the history controversy. China and Japan sought to come to agreements over their shared history, and although “both were in agreement on the general direction, they disagreed on the interpretation of most major events.” An ontological rift hampered work, with Chinese historians insisting on objective laws and the underlying course of history, as per Marxist tradition, and the Japanese emphasizing contingencies and various complex factors that influenced events.

The publication of the project’s report was delayed in 2007 by Beijing, on fears that its contents could negatively affect the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. The project itself was poorly received and its final report in 2011 clearly demonstrates that “political judgment, popular sentiment and academic study [are] often intertwined.”

Despite its many failings, the report is indicative of a greater willingness in China and Japan towards serious dialogue and demonstrates a symbolic, yet nonetheless important break in the conventional protectionism surrounding national historiographies. The project demonstrates that the issue of Nanjing remains highly contested. For decades, the tragedy was relegated to the shadows by the Chinese government, yet with the jettisoning of Maoism and the need for a unifying nationalism, Nanjing returned with a vengeance.

Often used as a tool against Japan, Nanjing has accumulated a mythology of sorts, in which at times nebulous facts are treated as unassailable orthodoxy. Differing interpretations and memories of the past in Japan and China have seen politicians and historians form alliances, with each side espousing its version of the past as truth.

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A version of this article was originally published by Global Risk Insights

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.