Lately I feel I’ve been playing Devil’s Advocate quite a bit. I just hope nobody’s been offended. I have a habit of disagreeing with almost anything anybody says. I do it for the sake of conversation, to flesh out the forgotten assumptions, and see how well people have really thought about what they say. And in the cases where someone is talking about something I actually believe in, I still do it, pointing out the same little problems that I struggle with to get some insight on how they might be resolved, for my own sake! I think I’m just being genuinely curious, but I have a feeling the other person sometimes thinks I’m just doing it because I’m an ass.

Here’s an extreme example but a real one, for the sake of argument if you wish. I only read this online (on a facebook group about the Rape of Nanjing) but haven’t had an actual conversation, electronic or otherwise, with a person about it so this is all new material.

Numerous powerful politicians in Japan have openly denied the incidences of wanton rape, torture, and unprejudiced slaughter. In fact, the current prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi still visits the war shrine that houses the souls of some of the leaders of the perpetration of the Rpae [sic] of Nanking. To put this in perspective, imagine someone like Angela Merkel, or any powerful German politician, denying the Holocaust. Or as in the latter example, Mrs. Merkel visiting a shrine that commemorated Hitler, Himmler, or Hoess. Ridiculous, disgusting, and immoral to say the least.

First of all I admit that as far as I can remember that I had not heard of this massacre before this past Sunday night, although while living in Japan I did hear about two controversies involving it: Japanese history textbooks glossing over the actions of the Japanese military during the war and Koizumi’s visits to the war shrine. As I said, I knew very little of the former, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was about in the case of the latter. This is in part because I didn’t know anything about it beforehand, and quite possibly because what I was told about it was told to me by my Japanese family and friends through an only semipermeable language barrier. My instinctive reaction to the above quoted paragraph was to disagree completely. Even now, having read more about the Nanjing massacre and the Sino-Japanese war in general, I still don’t see Koizumi’s visits to the shrine as either ridiculous or disgusting, and certainly not immoral.

I realise this may offend people, so let me reiterate—I am not saying that the massacre is nothing to get upset about. It was an incredible display of human cruelty to say the least. But (the problems of revisionist histories aside, which are wrong) can we really say that visits to the shrine are “ridiculous, disgusting, and immoral”?

Let’s look at the analogy offered of visiting a shrine dedicated to Hitler. This is fallacious in that Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine honours almost 2.5 million people who died in the name of the emperor, wartime or otherwise—it is not a shrine specifically to the architects of the Nanjing massacre or even the war in general. However, there are about 1000 convicted war criminals included in their ranks, so maybe it is a minor point. The question is this: Would it be immoral to visit a shrine to Germany’s wartime dead, Hitler, Himmler, and Hoess among them, just as we honour ours on Remembrance Day?

The difficulty is in that the Germans and Japanese were the aggressors in the war, fighting for a cause which we consider to be immoral today. But even with that, I would suggest that remembering the dead, regardless of who they are, doesn’t carry with it approval of what they may have fought for. Perhaps it just sounds like I’m preaching forgiveness for all sins. Maybe I am. At the very least we should remember that young men with families and friends and lives ahead of them die on the enemy’s side just as easily as on ours and that that loss is no less lamentable. I would go as far as saying that there is nothing immoral in visiting even a shrine to Hitler, the de facto archetype of immorality himself, if only to remember the atrocities he, like the Japanese military, committed so that we might better ourselves for it.

So, as Douglas Adams said (in an entirely different subject but a debate nonetheless), “That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!” Or, since this is the internet, let the hate mail roll in!

Random FAQ Comments (8)

8 Responses to “Devil’s advocate and The Rape of Nanjing”

  1. Sakamura says:

    My job revolves around trying to find the best solution to a problem, and this often involves debating a well-debated point until everyone is tired of it. This has led me to doubt everything I do and know, and try to find the second possibility, or even the third one. I think it’s a good thing to be able to guess one’s ideas.

    On topic, my main concern with the behaviour you describe is the closeness. Let’s remember for a second that prior to WWII, Japan never had any major loss to any other country. They are “the” country, and everything else is their subordinates. That defeat scarred them very badly, and I do believe they are still resenting the fact. It’s been a mere 2 generations, most people who were born just prior to the war are still alive today, that makes a heckload of people who are not happy with that. Seeing that shrine, as an act in itself, I do not think it’s evil. Seeing that shrine in that context is a good fuel for less than noble sentiments by a group of the population.

    Same for black power, or women’s lib, or even for French people in Quebec to be recognized as something more than uneducated and uneducatable cheap labor. That’s simply too close to be taken for granted, a mere generation. Laws might change, but mentalities takes more time.

  2. GP says:

    Very good point. There were many things I saw in Japan that could be very well described in those terms, as simply as being in denial over something that happened, or in the case of their changing society, that was happening. (And of course this is not peculiar to the Japanese, it just happens that that’s what I’m familiar with.)

  3. Sakamura says:

    True. Again, with the opposite view, like you mostly say, these people are war veterans, people who served their countries to the best of their abilities. War atrocities happens, and to see it still happens today in this hyper-mediatized world (all these military martial courts for atrocities that were leaked since 9-11), let’s just imagine what it was back then. They are still veterans, they are still heroes, they are still the ones who gave their life to their country, and they come from everywhere in Japan.

    Let’s reverse roles, for the sake of it. Japan won. I wonder how many Chinese atrocities and American atrocities and Canadian atrocities they would be able to fish out.

    As an example, we can see Vietnam, we hear a lot about the way the soldiers handled themselves, mostly because it all ended up in a big stalemate. We can see the great movie Apocalypse Now, and see (in a dramatized fashion) how people handled themselves there. Are we to discredit all the Vietnam soldiers there because of what happened? We should if we would want to be consequent. Even if they were following orders.

    Fun to see the different possibilties.

  4. GP says:

    History is written by the victors.

    Sometimes I wonder along similar lines. I definitely believe morals are subjective. We all know that the atomic bombs were big and bad and did all sorts of damage, but for some reason we (the western powers who used them) never talk about the immorality of it. We justify it to ourselves as something that was needed to end the war, thinking of it in more in terms of an enemy that suffered a defeat in battle than a massacre of thousands of innocent lives.

    But of course I have a bias there, since I lived in Nagasaki and saw first hand how it affects people there even to this day. It is the same bias that anybody from Nanjing and the other areas that Japan occupied feels towards the Japanese people.

    The problem is that equating anger for one thing with moral superiority over it is an easy but dangerous step to take.

  5. Lita Chan says:

    According to the China’s official announcement at the League of Nations in 1938,the number of dead people in Nangking is about 20000.

  6. GP says:

    Really? That’s interesting. Most estimates today are much more than that. I also wonder who made the announcement, as I believe Japan had installed puppet governments in the areas of China they occupied at that time. If it was one of those, they’d hardly be credible. Even in 1938 some people had reported 300 000 dead. Of course these also could be exaggerations from the opposing side, but in better agreement to what historians say now.


    REGARDING TO Iris Chnag’s “The Rape of Nanking”
    There are few Japanese people that have read Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking”. This book has not been published in Japan though Iris Chang wished to translate into Japanese and published it in Japan. When “The Rape of Nanking” attached a lot of publicity in the United States, more than 90 errors in this book were pointed out by some Japanese historian groups. These errors included some errors as Japanese primary school pupils could point out. Probably Japanese people have read this book reviewed that Iris Chang had no experienced to learn about Japan. The Japanese publisher requested her to correct errors and rewrite, but she persisted to translate this book exactly. The publisher gave up finally. Because nobody wanted to make a fool of himself. If the publication of “The Rape of Nanking in Japanese” had realized, many Japanese people could have read this book and most of them would have doubted “the existence of Nanking Massacre” earlier. At present, there are few people believe the existence of Nanking Massacre in Japan.

  8. GP says:

    The big red flag that pops up here is that the errors were pointed out by Japanese historian groups. They’re not exactly the first group I’d run to for clarification on what atrocities the Japanese military may or may not have committed, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t fully trust everything the Chinese say about what attrocities may or may not have been commiitted against them. Neither side is going to be completely unbiased.

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