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By L.A. Chung

War for remembrance

Iris Chang, who committed suicide November 9 at age 36, recovered the memory of Japan's greatest crime

L.A. Chung is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News

On a brisk and bright November morning, I joined some 400 others in a funeral service for writer and journalist Iris Chang.

I did not know her well; I am active in a journalism group that had once awarded her a scholarship and so encouraged her to write. Many who came to her funeral in the rolling Northern California hills she loved were also not intimate acquaintances, but had been touched in some way.

We came to this place south of San Francisco to pay respects to the young woman who had shined a klieg light on an event in history that Westerners were quite possibly forgetting: The Rape of Nanking.
That's how it has been frozen into the lexicon of Chinese-Americans. Not The Nanking Incident. Not The Nanking Massacre, an often-used descriptor, but The Rape of Nanking. It meant babies bayoneted. Women brutally raped and mutilated. Men flayed and used as target practice. Although repeated over and over by relatives, the horrific stories of what happened during those weeks were quickly receding into oblivion.

Chang's 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, however, catapulted the phrase into the public lexicon. It was on The New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks and was translated into several languages. It introduced many to the barbarism committed against civilians by Japanese soldiers in the old Chinese capital in the winter of 1937-38.

Readers in Japan no doubt remember Chang's book in a different way: for the firestorm of controversy it kicked up among conservatives, especially among ultra-right-wing nationalists who call the incident "the so-called Nanking Massacre."

Charles Burress, a respected colleague and friend from my days at the San Francisco Chronicle, was one of the only US journalists to report on the controversy that Chang's book ignited in Japan.

The substantive criticisms had to do with two issues. First, the number of deaths. Chang used the 300,000 figure found on a Japanese diplomat's telegram; Burress noted that estimates range from 10,000 to 450,000. Second, Chang's assertion that the Japanese government had done little to atone for its complicity and must apologize and pay reparations.

Jimmy Estimada

In a 1998 confrontation with then Japanese ambassador Kunihiko Saito on US public television, Chang asserted that Japan had never offered an official apology. Perhaps she was alluding to the country's 1995 parliamentary resolution obliquely expressing "deep remorse" (hansei) for "actions carried out by our country in the past." Saito, according to transcripts, said, "As to the incident in Nanking, we do recognize that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military." The camera turned back to Chang, who replied, "Did you hear an apology? … It is because of these types of wordings and the vagueness of these expressions that Chinese people, I think, are infuriated."

Why does any of this matter 67 years later? Because of the future.
Anger, say some, is palpable in China, even as many Chinese study Japanese, and even as many Japanese students go to China to study. A Beijing candlelight vigil in Chang's memory was canceled by police on November 22 because, one organizer said, some in the group had a history of organizing anti-Japan protests in the capital. A reader recounted to me in wonder how his parents came back from a tour in China, struck that their guide wouldn't even allow a picture of himself to be taken next to a Japanese car. Memory-and the power of memory-often create an unseen obstacle, even when two nations have mutual interests.

"The whole issue had scar tissue growing over it, but it had never really healed," Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times. Chang "sort of threw the curtain back on a period that the Chinese Communist Party and the Japanese hoped was shrouded in official declarations of a new collaboration. But it turned out there was a lot of unfinished business."

By the time Chang's book came out, even the number of people in the US who had memories of The Rape of Nanking was growing smaller and smaller. Chang's sense of panic that the event would become a mere footnote in history-or even denied-was her motivation. Her description of overflowing rooms during her book tour, of "people weeping on my shoulder" and expressing relief that such a book was finally written, said as much.

More dialogue is finally taking place. In 2001, The Rape of Nanking Conference was held in San Francisco's Japantown, attended by Japanese officials and Japanese-Americans. US Representative Mike Honda read a tribute to Chang into the Congressional Record after her death.

In the end, I came to Chang's funeral for what she managed to do: tell the story, in ugly detail, before the generation who lived it passed on. The reason why Chang's book was important-whether it was the definitive scholarly examination of The Rape of Nanking or not-was the renewed discussions it instigated, and for the voice of survivors to be heard.

For that, I thank Iris Chang. What happens between nations now is a matter for both to decide how much truth they can agree upon.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.