Nanjing by the Numbers

In Foreign Policy, Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom write about a new joint report from the governments of China and Japan about the Nanjing Massacre and point out that despite remaining points of contention, a new consensus between the two countries may be emerging:

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.


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