The 1937 Nanking Massacre and divergence. Lessons learnt through a historiographic approach.

Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi’s 8 meter wide and 4 meter high Nanjing Massacre Mural. located today in the Maruki Art Museum, Japan.

Climbing through the tangled web of theoretical dichotomies which plague formal academic historicism, undermines valuable inquiry and allows holocaust denial, how can historians pursue a tangible form of useful history?

Unless you are familiar with it, jargon loaded paragraphs such as this one above makes it incredibly hard to understand the debate surrounding the historical arguments of the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937. If you are reading this blog, and aren’t a Macquarie undergraduate, then you have probably Googled your way here via search terms the likes of; Nanking, historiography, divergence, convergence, massacre or something similar which means I, (the author) can assume you know the right terminology to understand this debate. If you don’t look them up. The purpose of this work is to give you a brief insight into the passionate debate surrounding the alleged ‘Rape of Nanking’. I hope you can apply the lessons learnt from this case study to boarder historical inquiries.

Why look at Nanking?

Charles Maier has labelled the Nanking massacre as “the emblematic massacre of the Pacific War[1], and summarily states how the event plays a central role in the recently highly politicised historical arguments between Japan and China.[2] It can be seen as an event, embodying inextricable links between nationalism, historiography, memory and politics and it is this reason why studying such representations of Nanking is so worthwhile.

What is the problem?

The problem is historical inquiries are essentially subjective pursuits, so how can historians use some tangible form of truth to bring those responsible to justice? Or are events of the past inevitably so buried by the dichotomies presented in theoretical historical enquiry, that any pursuit is useless? A dangerous trend has emerged amongst right wing historians in Japan which utilizes holes in the theory of history to pursue a flawed historical narrative, fundamentally based upon exploiting the inequities in theoretical history. Key Japanese historians Osamichi Higashinakano[3], Masaaki Tanaka[4] and others use these loopholes to deny the Nanking massacre, argue it as a Chinese fabrication, and portray Japanese militarism in East Asia before and during World War Two as necessity. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East of 1946 also known as the Tokyo post war trials did not succeed in the same way as the Nuremburg proceedings did. Problems with consistency and the process used to reach the verdicts produced, has led some to argue a bias victors case of justice. The proceedings created an aura of confusion surrounding the subsequent historical narrative. Add to this; Japanese nationalism and war guilt, Chinese nationalism and theoretical dichotomies in historical studies, and the result is one of the most heated historical problems facing East Asia today.

The divergence and lessons learnt.

The historical literature on this topic is typified by divergence rather than convergence, therefore historians need to accumulate a large body of works on the topic and critically examine them through extensive comparison. The historicism is roughly split into two sides, right wing Japanese scholars who deny the massacre, and everyone else who believes a massacre took place. The extent of that massacre is debated, but its existence is generally not denied by others outside of right wing Japanese circles. Straight away it can be seen that the right wing denial stands as an outlier in a transnational perspective. Therefore this should indicate something is awry. Closer inspection of both the arguments articulated to validate denial claims reveals almost a complete reliance on the theoretical problems of history, rather than evidence based arguments. Basing a historical perspective largely on a theoretical possibility, and not evidence is not substantial enough to produce valid history! This path leads to views the likes of Higashinakano’s and Tanaka’s denial.

Comparing the two sides through a collective analysis of academic literature can be used to delineate the core arguments of each side, and historians can see that denial is the least likely conclusion. It is apparent that the historians who deny a massacre at Nanking in 1937-38, rely heavily on the intricacies presented by the problems in theoretical history. These problems stemming from the nature of history as a subjective representation of the past, render the hypothetical notion of a widely conjured myth of a massacre at Nanking an unfortunate reality. However if historians are to pursue a tangible form useful history for both educating the contemporary and informing the future, historians should  weigh up claims by all parties along the historiographic spectrum equally, the evidence they use and how they articulate their claims and conclude which is the more likely. Upon doing this consultation with the wider body of existing professionalised historical knowledge, historians will be able to perceive a higher degree of truth. In turn from this, the moral and ethical lessons from the past can be learned and applied to modern society.

After all, isn’t that why we study history?

Further reading:

  • Bob Tadashi Wakanayashi.2007. The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38, Complicating the Picture. New York
  • James Burnham Sedgwick. 2009. Memory on Trial: Constructing and Contesting the ‘Rape of Nanking’at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946–1948. Modern Asian Studies
  • Hau-Ling and Lian-hong. 2010. The Undaunted Women of Nanking. The Wartime Diaries of Minnie Vautrin and Tsen Shui-Fang. Southern Illinois University Press
  • Supling Lu.2004. They were in Nanjin, The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals. Hong Kong University Press.
  • Takashi Yoshida. 2006. The Making of the Rape of Nanking. History and Memory in Japan, China and the United States. Oxford University Press


[1] Charles Maier, 2000. Foreword’ in Joshua A Fogel’s; The Nanking Massacre in History and Historiography University of California Press. p. 7.

[2] James Burnham Sedgwick. 2009. Memory on Trial: Constructing and Contesting the ‘Rape of Nanking’at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946–1948. Modern Asian Studies,43. p 1232.

[3] Higashinakano Shudo. 2005. The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction: A Historian’s Quest for the Truth. Asia University. Tokyo.

[4] Masaaki Tanaka. 2000.What really happened in Nanking: the refutation of a common  myth.Sekai Shuppan


4 comments on “The 1937 Nanking Massacre and divergence. Lessons learnt through a historiographic approach.

  1. sarahellem says:

    Hi James,

    I want to congratulate you on an excellent piece of work. To be completely honest, your opening sentence completely threw me but after I came back and continued reading, I realised that was the purpose which is well done! I think you are to be commended for your extensive research of material by Japanese (and I assume Chinese?) historians. That must have been difficult to find in English or have translated! It is evident you are very passionate about this area of history which is truly wonderful, it is so enjoyable to read a piece of work written with so much enthusiasm and passion. I do find it fascinating that there are any historians who are able to deny something that so clearly happened in everyone else’s eyes. Do these historians have any particular reason for not believing the evidence? I understand from your work that they don’t believe in evidential history, rather theoretical possibility. May I ask what theory supports the denial of this massacre? Thanks for a great read James!

    Sarah Ellem

    • jamesvilimaa says:

      Thank you! Since Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking, (1997) there has been an explosion of English translated texts, including Tanaka, Higashinakano, and many more. If you would like a more extensive further reading list i would be more than happy to email you a bunch of great texts, or even the full essay. Luckily for me, i have close friends who can translate a bit of the texts for me which was very helpful. In regards to the reasons for their denial, i can only speculate and assume, but given their political affiliations with the extreme far right wing in Japan i would be quite confident in stating political motivation. Many who deny do claim to believe in evidential history, (see the opening statements in Tanaka (2000) and Higashinakano’s (2005) works, however if we were to measure their work by their own standards they would fail. These deniers claim to dispute the evidence however their works are blatantly full of omissions or mistakes, which is strongly evident when one compares and contrasts with the wider body of evidence. As a result they repeatedly fall back on the possibilities allowed through the problems encountered in the subjective construction of history. That is the main verifier of their claims. There will always be problems when history, a fluid subjective pursuit, is brought into realms demanding the opposite such as courts.

  2. sarahellem says:

    Thanks James, your knowledge of this event is inspiring! It is at least heartening to know these Nanking deniers are not seen as the most reputable historians on this issue. I would definitely like to read your essay if you don’t mind sending a copy, it sounds fascinating! I don’t particularly want to put my email up here so have sent you a Facebook request. Thanks, and again – well done!

  3. bejglover says:

    After listening to your presentation in class, i actually looked forward to reading this article. The first sentence seemed a little dry, but i like how you brought it back into focus and then allowed it to turn into something conversational to connect with the reader. You made it seem as though you really wanted this article to be for anyone at any level of intelligence in order to express your concerns about the debate surrounding how the history of Nanking is represented. I learnt something about a topic I had never known of before, which is always good. Last of all, i love the closing sentence. It’s quirky and keep the article light hearted after some serious talk, but it still makes the reader wander off thinking what the principle aims of history really are after an article about historiography. Overall a very enjoyable and well written article.

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