Monday, August 24, 2015

The Rape of Nanking



September 2nd will be the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender at Tsingtao, China.  This event loomed large in my life when I was a tot.  My father, who had fought in the miserable island battles of WWII in the Pacific, was among a contingent of Americans from the 1st and 6th Marines, sent to the surrender ceremony and kept on to guard the Japanese soldiers while they waited for repatriation.  Those Americans then spent months guarding Chiang Kai-shek’s supply lines in his war against Mao Zedong.  My intention was, and is to write, next week, about my dad’s experiences in China.  Then, by chance, a few of days ago, I watched a film that had been in my Netflix queue for a long time.  I had no idea what it was about or why I put it there.  The film is called John Rabe, and before I saw more than a few seconds of it, the words “the rape of Nanking” fell into my head.  You will learn next week why I took an interest in that part of history.  The film knocked me out.



Fair warning #1, for today:  the facts of this tale are horrifying.




During the Second Sino-Japanese War, in August of 1937, the Japanese, despite their far-superior military might, had a hard time capturing Shanghai.  The Chinese, though doomed to lose, fought hard, and the Japanese, though ultimately victorious, sustained many casualties.  When they went on, in December, to capture Nanking—then the capital of China—they were determined to make an easy job of it, by beginning with a killing attack, using all their might.  Hopeless of any defense, Chiang Kai-shek abandoned the capital and withdrew to the interior of the country.  General Tang Shengzhi, put in charge of defending Nanking, decided that the troops and the people there would never surrender, but fight to the death.  What ensued was a bloodbath of more than biblical proportions, which still has political repercussions all over Asia and pollutes Sino-Japanese relations to this day.


The memorial in China



I cannot bring myself to describe the incidents in detail.  Cold statistics are as close as I can get because it is just too painful to allow this story sink too deeply into my imagination.  Somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 civilians and disarmed soldiers were massacred.  This wide numerical range is the result of an international scholarly consensus.  Chinese scholars put it at the higher number.  From everything I have read this week, 200,000 dead seems like a realistic figure.  Rapes, of varieties it turns my stomach to read about that I cannot bring myself to describe, were committed in their thousands every day.



In charge of the Japanese troops at the time was Prince Asaka, a member of the Japanese Imperial family.  Asaka was sent on this assignment as a form a censure for having a “not good” attitude.  Hirohito hoped his service in Nanking would give him a chance to make amends for whatever his wrongdoing had been in Tokyo.  Asaka proceeded to egg his troops on to secure a brutal victory and did nothing to rein them in when their attack turned into an orgy of bloodshed.  But, when it was all over, the Prince was not among the perpetrators found guilt at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal in 1947.  Those tried were executed.  Asaka went free thanks to a deal that General MacArthur made with Hirohito to grant him immunity.

The Imperial Prince Asaka


There is now a small but highly vocal group of Japanese nationalists who deny that the atrocities ever took place.   Based on reports from its own soldiers at the time, the Japanese government, however, has admitted to the killing of civilians and to other violence.



The most notorious of the Japanese crimes was a contest between two Second Lieutenants, which was reported in the newspapers on the Japanese home front.  They had a bet to see who would be the first to behead one hundred Chinese using nothing but a sword.  2nd Lt. Mukai killed 106 and his opponent in the race, 2nd Lt. Noda killed 105, but since in the heat of battle, they could not tell who got to 100 first, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun newspaper declared that the contest would go into “extra innings” until one of them reached 150.  Fun and games.

Newspaper clipping of the beheading contest with the score


With the approach of the Japanese, most Westerners fled the city.  Twenty-seven foreigners stayed, with the express purpose of establishing a safe zone where they could save the lives of Chinese civilians.  Among them were five journalists.  Fifteen of the group formed a committee to run the safety zone, which included the foreign embassies and the major installations of the Western companies, missionary enclaves, a women’s college, a hospital, and an electrical generating plant.   The Nanking Safety Zone sheltered 200,000 people and was responsible for saving most of their lives.

John Rabe


A German business man, John Rabe, was elected as its leader.  He had worked in Nanking for 27 years and was, at the time, the General Manager of the Siemens AG plant.  Because he was German and a member of the Nazi Party, it was thought that he would have greater influence with the Japanese leadership in China.  The movie that inspired this post is largely based on his experiences during the siege and carnage.  He kept a diary that has been published in English as The Good German of Nanking. 

Dr. Robert O. Wilson

Also notable among the westerners who stayed was Robert O. Wilson, MD.  He was born in Nanking of American missionaries.  He came back to the States in the 20’s, went to Princeton and Harvard Medical School.   He was the only surgeon in Nanking during those brutal times.  He also kept a diary.



If you have not seen it, I urge you to watch the film John Rabe.  The script, the photography, the art direction are all wonderful.  The acting is superb.    Wait till you see Steve Buscemi as Robert Wilson.



Fair warning #2: When you watch the film, you will fall in love with a member of the Nazi Party.  .Here is the trailer.



Next week, a couple of days before the anniversary of the Japanese surrender, I will tell you my father’s war stories.


Annamaria - Monday

25 comments:

  1. I didn't know someone had finally made a film about John Rabe -- such a fascinating story! IIRC he would have starved to death after WW2 if not for the care packages sent by Chinese people whom he saved (I could be wrong about this).

    I spent a lot of time at the Nanjing Massacre memorial in Nanjing. There is a large exhibit hall dedicated to the foreigners who helped save Nanjingers during the war. One of them was an American woman -- missionary? Mildred something? Another fascinating, tragic story. She helped save many people, returned to the States and eventually committed suicide because she could not live with what she had seen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lisa, I was hoping you would weigh in on this. I confess that I watched that movie twice in one week. It was that good. There are a few sentences about John Rabe's end. The part of the people of Nanjing in his life in war torn Germany are documented in the Wikipedia entry about him.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rabe

      Delete
  2. Ah, here she is:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnie_Vautrin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for this, Lisa. In the film, Minnie Vautrin's role is highly fictionalized and she, as a character, is replaced with a French woman. We historical fiction writers do that. We try to tell the emotional truth, but sometimes means reporting the background in a way that serves the story, rather than the hard facts. I think the screen writer did a great job of telling the Nanking story.

      I also realized that I am horning in on your territory with two posts about China. Please see me as guarding your place rather than usurping it. I am going back to China and the wartime islands of Pacific next week.

      Delete
    2. Are you kidding?? I love that you're writing about this! I just don't have the energy or the chops to do these kinds of historical pieces -- China is a big country with a ton of ground to cover. Have at!

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Stan, though you have never spoken to me much about it, I know that you spent your young life among people who convinced themselves that their fellow human beings were vermin and could be treated as such. Tears are also my response.

      Delete
  4. Difficult to believe that such a thing happened in a civilized society. But looking around, in some pocket of the world it's still going on.
    I was at a zoo once and there was a sign saying, 'the next exhibit is the most dangerous animal on the face of the planet'. It was a mirror of course.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We always say that the second most dangerous mammal in Africa is the hippo.

      Delete
    2. Right you are, Caro. Parts of Africa and the Middle East are home to the 21st century version of Homo Monstroiens. Just five days ago, those Isis devils beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old archeological scholar because he would not betray the whereabouts of Syrian antiquities that they wanted to unearth and sell, to bankroll their brutality. I wish I believed in hell. But it would be too good for them.

      On the other hand there are people like him (and John Rabe and Robert Owen). Khaled al-Assad suffered torture and was willing to die to save the art of his culture's past. We are the best of species and the worst of species. Isn't that why we write the stories we do?

      Delete
  5. This is a terrific film, Annamaria, thanks for bringing it to people's attention. The more I learn about Japanese atrocities in China, the more I wonder why the Chinese don't have a visceral hatred of the Japanese. Or maybe they do? Lisa?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They most certainly do, James. In part this is kept fresh by the government to provide a convenient target for nationalist outrage, but it is also genuine. The fact that as far as China (and many others) are concerned that Japan has never fully apologized for its WW2 atrocities keeps the wounds fresh. Google "China" and "Anti-Japanese" demonstrations, and you'll see what I mean. At the same time, there is a ton of business conducted between Japan and China, so it is a complicated relationship.

      Delete
    2. I never research or write about WWII without thinking of you, Jim, and your marvelous novels on the subject. I grew up during and in the aftermath of my family's experiences--not just my father's but three uncles' (my mother's brothers who came home). One of my uncles did not make it through.

      The centerpiece of my blog next week is about my father's direct experience of the Chinese response when the Japanese were poised to go home. I think you will appreciate the eyewitness evidence, even getting it second hand from me. I will report what I heard directly from my dad. I so wish he were still here to tell it for himself.

      Delete
    3. Can't wait to read that post; it's great you're keeping his stories alive.

      Delete
  6. There is very little in the news today to suggest we've grown more civilized in eighty years. Correction, make that eight-thousand years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeff, while in college, I wrote a sci-fishort story where the twist at the end was that Earth is an insane asylum for another planet. I only wish our mother planet had chosen a separate rotating rock from the criminally insane.

      Delete
    2. I am afraid you are right.

      Delete
    3. Jono, Maybe sometime during this millennium we will find another place to go, or to send the miserable, homicidal SOB's somewhere else--somewhere not as lovely as our beautiful planet, which deserves so much better than it gets from us.

      Delete
  7. The litany of mankind's atrocities is endless. But for every atrocity, there's a lengthy list of matches, be they Rabe or Schindler or Rusesabagina or... Unfortunately, too often, the stories aren't known or remembered or told. Sometimes they don't survive the atrocity, but that makes them no less meaningful. The atrocities are, of course... atrocious. But I choose to focus on the ...what's the word for heroic acts of benevolence???

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. EvKA, we are of one mind on this score. Which is why I wanted to emphasize John Rabe and Robert Owen. I hope you will watch the movie. They are not 100% wonderful. But I did fall in the love with them. Obviously.

      Delete
    2. 'atrocity' translate into latin as 'atrocitate', and "heroic acts of benevolence" translates into latin almost directly: heroica actus benevolentiae. So I hereby coin the term 'heroicactate'. Okay, so maybe it doesn't have the same ring to it... :-)

      Delete
    3. Okay, I screwed up. Instead of 'heroicatate' (which would have the latin flare), it should be 'heroicacity.' How's that? :-)

      Delete
  8. EvKa, you certainly have a way with words. I am envious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. :-) Thank, Jono. Unfortunately, all too often, my 'way' with words involves murdering them...

      Delete
  9. I read this column late, but I just have to say. It seems that there are a lot of holocausts out there, and it brings tears to my eyes and Peter, Paul and Mary to my ears-"when will they ever learn?"

    ReplyDelete