‘Nanking’ may reopen old wounds

That ‘Nanking’, the powerful new US documentary on the rape of the city of that name, has been approved for domestic screening in China reveals the fact that the ghosts of the gruesome events 70 years ago still haunt Sino-Japanese relations. The weekend release of the film coincided with the 70th anniversary of the full-scale invasion of China by the Japanese Imperial army, with the China Film Group approving ‘Nanking’ as one of a limited number of foreign films allowed for release on domestic screens this year.

The documentary focuses on a group of Western missionaries and businessmen who remained in the city of Nanking during the massacre and tried to set up a safety zone for Chinese refugees. It uses original material from their journals and diaries, mixing it with archival film footage of 1937 and chilling testimonies by survivors. Despite its credentials — it is co-directed by Oscar-winning documentary director Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, and has won rave reviews at the Sundance festival in the US — the documentary is likely to inflame old nationalist tensions between the two Asian neighbours.

For China, the Nanking massacre remains a raw wound that has never healed. Many in China believe the Japanese never properly atoned for the atrocities committed by the Imperial army. Although referred to as the Asian Holocaust, the massacre remains obscure and is little understood by many outside Asia. In late November 1937, the Japanese Imperial army launched a massive attack on Nanking, the new capital of the then Nationalist China. When the walled city fell on Dec. 13, the Japanese army unleashed pillage, murder and rape which lasted for six weeks. The city was transformed into a mass graveyard with tens of thousands of men mowed down by machine guns, used for bayonet practice, burned and buried alive. An estimated 20,000 to 80,000 girls and women were raped, mutilated and murdered. Even 70 years on, China and Japan still disagree on the number of people that perished during the massacre. Chinese historians say well over 300,000 people were murdered. The post-war Tokyo war crimes tribunal established that 142,000 civilians died there.

Last month, a group of Japanese parliamentarians created a furore when they said archive documents showed only 20,000 people had been killed and China was exaggerating the numbers for propaganda. Western historians agree the massacre was of horrific proportions, but expand little on its chronology and reasons. In his book Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War II, Robert Leckie summed it up as: “Nothing the Nazis under Hitler would do to disgrace their own victories could rival the atrocities of Japanese soldiers under Gen. Iwane Matsui.”

The US has found itself increasingly drawn into this historical row. Last month the Congress passed a resolution demanding an unambiguous apology from Japan for coercing Asian women to work in the military brothels. Now ‘Nanking’ — a US-made documentary, produced

by Ted Leonsis, former vice-chairman of AOL, is bound to add more layers to the neighbours’ discord. As director Guttentag noted before its Chinese premiere, one would be hard pushed to find another event that is 70 years old but can still stir up so much controversy. — IPS