World War two is well known for the list of atrocities that were committed, starting with the Nazi death camps where millions of European Jews were butchered along with hundreds of thousands of other "lesser" races like the Roma, and undesirables like gays and the disabled. There was also the bombing of civilian populations by all sides that culminated in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But there's a dirty secret, the magnitude of which likely means that it's been more than just the perpetrators responsible for maintaining its low profile. Before really going "to war" in 1941 against America and Britain, the Japanese warmed up in China by conducting one of the most barbaric campaigns since the days of the Mongol hordes. From 1931 to 1937, they worked their way across mainland China slaughtering as they went, until they finally captured the capital city of Nanking.
What was known at the time as the Rape of Nanking has faded from our collective awareness, even though we commemorate and memorialize the other atrocities. But hopefully that is about to change with a new documentary movie being released during the week of December 12, 2007. Nanking not only details the events of that horrendous nine week period from December 1937 to February 1938, it also commemorates one of the finest examples of courage and compassion in the twentieth century.
Up until the 1930s, much territory from the Virgin Islands to China and the Sea of Japan were under colonial rule of one kind or another, between the British, the Americans, the French, and the Dutch. China may have had nominal independence, but they danced to the tune played by the East India Trading Company and American business interests. American battle cruisers in Nanking and British occupied Hong Kong and Shanghai ensured everyone knew which way was up.
Everyone but the Japanese, who wouldn't play by the rules of the game and know their place as a good little country of priests and fancy tea ceremonies. While the governments of Europe fiddled, letting Hitler and Mussolini make test runs in Spain and what's now Ethiopia, Emperor Hirohito and Japan began their conquest of the Sino Peninsula. In 1931 they established their foothold in the Mongolian capital of Manchuria and used that as their launching pad to conquer the rest of China.
In the course of their invasion of the country, the Japanese army used germ warfare, releasing typhoid and the bubonic plague in front of them as they marched. By the time they had completed their conquest with the capture of the capital city of Nanking, they had killed between thirteen and sixteen million Chinese soldiers and civilians as they pushed westward.
In order to avoid biting off more than they could chew at the time, they avoided any direct confrontations with the British at the time, and bypassed the island of Hong Kong and the city of Singapore, sweeping across the mainland instead. In spite of being outnumbered nearly three to one in terms of soldiers, the only real resistance they ended up facing was during the last push in the summer of 1937 when the Chinese army held out against them for four months at Shanghai. When that city finally fell, an army of 50,000 set out to take Nanking.
Nanking in the twenties had been a city whose population had only numbered roughly 200,000, but refugees retreating before the invaders swelled that number into the millions. Before attempting to lay siege to the city, the Japanese carried out extensive bombing raids to weaken morale and crush the spirit of resistance. They must have been highly successful, because in spite of a defending army that vastly outnumbered them, they took the city in only four days. That's when the true carnage began.
After disposing of 90,000 prisoners of war (there was a 'no prisoner' edict issued by the Japanese high command in an attempt to dehumanize their soldiers in preparation for what they envisioned being a protracted war of conquest) they set to work on the civilian population. For nine a nine week period – December 1937 to February 1938 – they proceeded to rape any woman they could get their hands on between the ages of eight and seventy, and kill any male who was of military age.
But in the midst of an example of how low humanity can fall, something extraordinary took place that spoke to the potential of the human spirit for greatness. While the majority of foreign nationals had fled when the bombings had begun, a group of twenty American and European men and women remained behind. In the heart of Nanking they cordoned off a two and a half-mile square zone with Red Cross flags and declared it an international safety zone.
Within the confines of the zone, they sheltered over 300,000 civilians during the weeks of the sacking of Nanking. That this number also ended up matching the number of people who survived this period gives you a good indication just what the Japanese high command had meant by no prisoners. However, even that was superseded by the need to keep Europe and America from interfering with Japanese plans at this time, which explains the lack of direct action taken against individual foreign civilians and the cordon's success.
The movie Nanking has been created using as source material the letters and diaries of these extraordinary men and women, who refused to stand by and do nothing while those around them were slaughtered. They were a mixed bag of people: a doctor, a missionary teacher, a Nazi businessman, and a lawyer, to name a few; twenty people who protected three hundred thousand through sheer nerve and courage and the knowledge that nobody else was going to do anything for these people if they didn't.
The people who have created the movie Nanking have not just turned to the letters and diaries of the "International Committee", the name the twenty took for themselves, but have gone and tracked down citizens of the city who survived because of their intercession. Somehow — and considering the fact the Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge the scope of the crime, this is a minor miracle — they also managed to track down Japanese soldiers who were willing to talk about their experiences.
A cast of American, European, Chinese, and Japanese actors, including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, and Stephen Dorff, have taken on the task of recreating these people by reading excerpts from their letters home and any records they kept during that time. The producers have avoided the safe route of just offering a record of the times as seen by the victims and their saviours. Presenting the views of the Japanese soldiers, no matter what they end up saying, is proof of their integrity as it means that no matter how cut and dried the story appears they have still sought out potentially conflicting views. By putting a human face to the "monsters", it will also force us to realize that it was people, just like you and me, who committed the atrocities.
A testament to the movie's potential effectiveness can be seen by noticing who it has already inspired. I don't know if somebody approached him, or if he was just inspired on his own, but Lou Reed has written two new songs, "Gravity" and "Safety Zone", in response to the movie. For some reason, and I'm as much at fault when it comes to this as the next person, very few people seem to remember that Lou Reed is about more than walking on the wild side and has long been a keen observer and commentator of social and political events. Most of the time, his subtlety is such that people seem to miss the points he makes, but on occasion, he doesn't mince his words and lets you know exactly where he stands.
Perhaps it's because of that these two songs so vividly reminded me of his New York album from the eighties where songs like "Common Ground" called the Pope, Jesse Jackson, and Kurt Waldheim on their behaviour, and "Halloween Parade (AIDS)" brought the ravages of the disease home in a way no other song has matched. "Safety Zone" falls into the category of not mincing words as he methodically spells out what happened if you didn't make it to the safety zone.
"Gravity" is a short, driving song that is more open to interpretation. Given the context of the film it feels to me like Mr. Reed is saying that gravity keeps us here, but we can choose how we act or what we do in any given situation. Since we're here, we might as well make the best of it and follow the example of those who founded the safety zone.
The invasion of and subsequent sacking of Nanking sound like events from a more barbaric age, not the twentieth century. Then again, we don't have to look far into our own recent past for examples of behaviour that makes Nanking look like the norm in our world instead of the aberration it should be. Think of the recent excesses in the prisons of Iraq, and a government that says it doesn't object to the use of torture. Is the message being sent to soldiers in the field about the humanity of the people they meet much different from what the one the Japanese government gave their soldiers? We may not say "take no prisoners," but the reduction of an enemy to sub-human status is a given.
Perhaps Mr. Reed's song about gravity is a gentle reminder that we are all here, and that we all have the potential to do anything that's ever been done. I'm not sure, but it is something to think about and remember before passing judgment on someone else. Nanking is being released in theatres on December 12 and Reed's songs will be for sale on iTunes.