Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East, a blog chronicling Sino-Canadian relations.

His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, FACTA Magazine, The Japan Times, The Diplomat and Asia Times, among others.


The Role of Historiography in Sino-Japanese Relations: The Nanjing Massacre

The history of East Asia is dominated by Japan and China, two nations whose historical interactions have often been bloody, and whose modern cohabitation in Asia remains greatly influenced by the specter of the past. The Second Sino-Japanese War lasted from 1937-1945 and saw far-reaching destruction, loss of life and significant Japanese conquests in China. Following the famed July 7th 1937 skirmish at the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing, the Empire of Japan began its conquest of mainland China.1

In December 1937, Japanese troops assaulted Nanjing after pursuing retreating Chinese garrison forces.2 Following the fall of Nanjing, Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) forces intermingled with Chinese civilians in efforts to elude capture by Imperial forces. The blurring of lines between military and civilian personnel, combined with Japanese frustration and anger over causalities and the pace of the campaign, created a deadly state of affairs.3

There followed a six week long “orgy of violence,” which saw widespread killings, acts of cruelty, torture, systematic rape, wanton destruction and primal barbarism.4 Such acts were the products of revenge, the symbolic nature of Nanjing as the Nationalist capital and the easing of restraints by Japanese officers concerning troop behavior. Death toll estimates, and indeed the events in Nanjing in general, are subject to much discussion, with figures ranging from 30,000 to 300,000 killed.5 Japan's defeat in 1945, and the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 marked the end of the colonial era in China, with the new central government striving to strengthen the nation, prevent future subjugation, and regain international prestige.

During the post-war period, China's relationship vis-à-vis Japan and the West was, in general characterized by longstanding memories of the litany of insults and humiliations faced by the imperial regime during the preceding century.6 Whereas the legacy of colonialism has played a fairly minor role in modern relations with the West, especially since Deng Xiaoping's tenure; Japan's colonial legacy, and specifically the issue of the Nanjing Massacre remains heated and controversial.7 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 the PRC reaffirming its waiver of reparations.8 China continued to downplay historical grievances throughout in order to entice Japanese capital and investments to bolster its nation-building efforts. There exists a widely recognized link between Japanese aid and investment in China and 'compensation', with twenty billion dollars given by Tokyo in the 1990s alone.9

Ghosts of the Past, Politics of the Present

Whilst the events of Nanjing occurred over seventy years ago, the massacre has only recently re-entered the popular Chinese consciousness, and in particular has emerged as a key talking point of the Chinese government.10 The tragedy's profile in the public consciousness is in the ascendency, yet the Nanjing Massacre was long neglected by the Chinese government due to the influence of Maoist rhetoric as well as the Chinese Communists Party's (CCP) domestic and international agenda. This paper argues that the discourse surrounding the Nanjing Massacre is marred in political machinations, and complicated by conflicting historiographies. Specifically this essay shall highlight the use of the Nanjing Massacre by the CCP for political gain, as well as the ongoing moral and historiographical debate in Sino-Japanese relations. The issue of Nanjing11 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 Asia12 by emphasizing the victories and fortitude of the Chinese people in the face of Western imperialism and Japanese aggression.13 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),14 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.15 Such actions were due to the fact that “only three dates had been considered of real importance; the Mukden Incident in 1931, the invasion of China in 1937 and the Japanese surrender in 1945. Nanjing didn't fit into Chinese Communist lore, [for] Nanjing had been held by the Kuomintang; the victims were in the Nationalist camp.”16

Chinese Nationalism & China's Century of Humiliation

The death of Mao and the rise to power 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.17 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.18 Chinese nationalism was molded 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.19

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.”20 The role (or lack thereof) of Nanjing in Maoist China, later during the tenure of Deng and into the 21st century has seen “collective memory [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 useable past.”21

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.22 Specifically, Nanjing has become a tool for the CCP government to increase nationalist sentiments in the population23 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.”24 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.25 In part to demonstrate his nationalist credentials, Hu designated the Nanjing memorial as a national heritage site26 and supported the creation of the Sino-Japanese Joint History Project; to be discussed in detail later.27

A Textbook Case of Multiples Histories

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.28 The textbook controversy followed on the heals of a major Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) electoral victory in Japan, and growing historical revisionism and patriotism.29 Similarly anti-Japanese sentiments were fostered and exploited by Beijing as China became increasingly self-confident and less reliant on Japanese investments.30 Chinese action concerning Nanjing is largely driven by political expediency.

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.31 Similarly, until the 1980s, the sites of the killings were not even marked and only in 1985, following demands by anti-Japanese protestors, did the CCP designate Nanjing as a museum site.32 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.”33

The issue of national histories has come to be a dominant issue in Sino-Japanese relations, since the 1980s, “problems 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.”34 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, as well as the realization that “each nation involved in WWII produced its own specific national memory of that shared history [only] emerged in the 1960s.”35

During the 1980s and 1990s China sought to institutionalize a critical narrative of Japan's conduct in the war and to officially repudiate them.36 The discourse in Japan concerning wartime atrocities and Nanjing in particular is characterized by China and some in the West such as the late Iris Chang, as revisionist, jingoistic and willfully ignorant to contemporary findings. Such views are lent credence by the regular appearance of opinion pieces and newspaper articles37 questioning aspects of the Nanjing Massacre, as well as the existence of best-selling war-crime deniers such as Nobukatsu Fujioka.38 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.”39

Most of Japan is Not in Denial

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.40 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.41 Moreover, Japan executed Matsui Iwane in 1948, commander of troops involved in the Nanjing Massacre following the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.42 Many Japanese intellectuals and advocates have campaigned for proper recognition and assumption of responsibility for Japan's war crimes, including Nanjing. Inega Saburo fought three major legal battles between 1965 and 1997 against the Japanese government to maintain objectivity in the national school curriculum and texts.43

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.44 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 per cent of the textbooks in circulation; the offending book is used in less than one per cent of Japanese schools, mainly by right-wing private schools.45 Consequently the state of affairs in Japan sees:

nearly all Japanese accept the claims that the Nanjing Massacre certainly occurred. Probably a substantial majority also acknowledge that the incident was a six-week orgy of torture (much of it sexualized) and the murder of unarmed civilians. Most Japanese also recognize that failure to acknowledge and apologize for actions such as the Nanjing Massacre will hinder the development of better relations with China in the future.46

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. 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.”47 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 Chinese government must have ill intentions towards Japan.”48

China Loses the Moral Highground, Japan Suffers Apology Fatigue

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 Japan's formal written apology to South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 1998, an overture not extended to China.49 Seen by Beijing as a serious snub, the incident highlighted that “the Tiananmen Square Protests,50 and greater awareness of the Chinese government's own human rights record have significantly reduced Japanese willingness to accept moral judgment from China.”51

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 “Chinese writing on Nanjing [having] become a virtual 'numbers game' in which the emphasis of historical writing is to maximize the sheer number of victims”52- leading to “the moral and political implications of the discourse about Nanjing [becoming] engulfed in a reductionism focusing solely on the numbers.”53 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,54 whereas China categorizes the tragedy as a 'Grand Massacre'.55
The Sino-Japanese Joint History Project encapsulates many of the issues involved in the history controversy. Chinese and Japanese 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.”56 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 which influence events.57 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 was poorly received and its final report in 2011 clearly demonstrates that “political judgment, popular sentiment and academic study [are] often intertwined.”58

Despite its many failings the report is indicative of greater willingness in China and Japan towards serious dialogue and demonstrates a symbolic, yet nonetheless important break in the conventional protectionism surrounding national historiographies.59 As the aforementioned project demonstrates, the issue of Nanjing remains highly contested. Following decades of mutual wariness after WWII, China and Japan have re-established diplomatic and economic ties, yet historical wounds continue to sour relations. At the center of said discord is the legacy of Japanese war crimes in China, and in particular the 'memory' of the Nanjing Massacre.

For decades the tragedy was relegated to the shadows by the Chinese government, yet with the emergence of market-capitalism 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 has seen politicians and historians form alliances, with each side espousing its version of the past as truth.

Works Cited:

Askew, David. “The Nanjing Incident: Recent Research and Trends.” in Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. 2 (April 4th 2002): (accessed March 22nd).

Berger, Thomas. “The Politics of Memory in Japanese Foreign Relations.” in Japan in International Politics: The Foreign Policies of and Adaptive State. ed. Thomas U. Berger, Mike M. Mochizuki & Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007: 179-213.

Buruma, Ian “Memories of the Nanjing Massacre are Drenched in Politics: War and Remembrance.” in Far Eastern Economic Review. 153, no. 36 (1991): 51-52.

Cairns, Alan. “Coming to Terms with the Past.” in Politics of the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices. ed. John Torpey, New York: Rowmann & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2003: 63-91.

Coble, Parks M. “Writing About Atrocity: Written Accounts and Their Contemporary Uses.” in Modern Asian Studies Special Issue. “China in World War Two, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory & Legacy.” 45, no. 2 (2011): 379-398.

Fengoi, Qian. “Let the Dead be Remembered: Interpretation of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial,” in Place of Pain and Shame: Dealing with 'Difficult Heritage.' ed. William Logan & Keir Reeves, New York: Routledge, 2009: 17-34.

Gamble, Adam & Takesato Watanabe. A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and Their Warning to the West, Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc, 2004.

Hein, Laura. “War Compensation: Claims Against the Japanese Government and Japanese Corporations for War Crimes.” in Politics of the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices. ed. John Torpey. New York: Rowmann & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2003: 127-149.

Seo, Jungmin “Politics of Memory in Korea and China: Remembering Comfort Women and the Nanjing Massacre.” in New Political Science. 30, no.3 (2008): 369-392.

Seraphim, Franziska. War Memory and Social Politics in Japan 1945-2005. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. NewYork: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Wan, Ming. Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic and Transformation. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006.

Wang, Mingde & Maaike Okono-Heijmans. “Overcoming the Past in Sino-Japanese Relations?” in The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs. 46, no.1 (2011): 127-148.


1Adam Gamble & Takesato Watanabe, A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and Their Warning to the West, (Washington: Regnery Publishing Inc, 2004), 252.

2Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (NewYork: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 423.

3Gamble & Takesato, 258.

4Laura Hein, “War Compensation: Claims Against the Japanese Government and Japanese Corporations for War Crimes,” in Politics of the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices, ed. John Torpey, (New York: Rowmann & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2003), 141.

5Spence, 423.

6Qian Fengoi, “Let the Dead be Remembered: Interpretation of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial,” in Place of Pain and Shame: Dealing with 'Difficult Heritage,' ed. William Logan & Keir Reeves, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 21.

7Parks M. Coble, “Writing About Atrocity: Written Accounts and Their Contemporary Uses,” in Modern Asian Studies Special Issue, “China in World War Two, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory & Legacy,” 45, no. 2 (2011): 380.

8Mingde Wang & Maaike Okono-Heijmans, “Overcoming the Past in Sino-Japanese Relations?” in The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, 46, no.1 (2011): 129.

9Thomas Berger, “The Politics of Memory in Japanese Foreign Relations,” in Japan in International Politics: The Foreign Policies of and Adaptive State, ed. Thomas U. Berger, Mike M. Mochizuki & Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), 190.

10Berger, 195.

11Subsequent mentions of 'Nanjing' are to be viewed as denoting the Nanjing Massacre, unless otherwise stated.

12Qian, 19-20.

13Qian, 19.

14Jungmin Seo, “Politics of Memory in Korea and China: Remembering Comfort Women and the Nanjing Massacre,” in New Political Science, 30, no.3 (2008): 382.

15Qian, 19.

16Ian Buruma, “Memories of the Nanjing Massacre are Drenched in Politics: War and Remembrance,” in Far Eastern Economic Review, 153, no. 36 (1991): 51.

17Qian, 21.

18Jungmin, 383.

19Qian, 21.

20Qian, 22.

21Berger, 183.

22Ming Wan, Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic and Transformation, (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 152.

23Seo, 383.

24Berger, 195.

25Mingde & Maaike Okono-Heijmans, 134.

26Qian, 20.

27Mingde & Maaike Okono-Heijmans, 134.

28Qian, 17.

29Berger, 195.

30Berger, 195.

31Buruma, 51.

32Qian, 19-20.

33Qian, 22.

34Coble, 380.

35Franziska Seraphim, War Memory and Social Politics in Japan 1945-2005, (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006), 188

36Hein, 127.

37“Regarding the 'Numbers' of the Nanjing Massacre Incident,” in Shukan Bunshun (May 26th 1994)
“Arguments Over Number of Nanjing Massacre”(Oct. 22 1992) & “Won't Japan Fare Well if it Doesn't Admit the Nanjing Massacre” (May 19th 1994) in Shukan Sincho
“Excavation! New Data Proves the Fabrication of Nanjing Massacre” (Jan. 2002) in Bungeishumju Ltd.

38Gamble & Takesato, 273.

39Alan Cairns, “Coming to Terms with the Past,” in Politics of the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices, ed. John Torpey, (New York: Rowmann & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2003), 74.

40Cairns, 73.

41Seraphim, 188.

42Hein, 134.

43Hein, 128.

44Berger, 192.

45Buruma, 129.

46Hein, 141.

47Cairns, 73.

48Ming, 151.

49Ming, 154.

50It is interesting to note the similarities in language usage between Chinese modifiers pertaining to Nanjing (Grand Massacre) in comparison to Japanese ones (Incident); and Chinese characterization of the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement (June 4th Incident) and the image in the West (Tiananmen Square Massacre)

51Ibid, 154-155.

52Coble, 397-398.

53David Askew, “The Nanjing Incident: Recent Research and Trends,” in Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 2 (April 4th 2002): (accessed March 22nd).

54Askew, (accessed March 22nd).

55Gamble & Takesato, 289.

56Mingde & Maaike Okono-Heijmans, 135.

57Mingde & Maaike Okono-Heijmans, 135.



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