Horror denial a festering sore
5:00AM Saturday March 03, 2007By David NcNeill
Chinese students mourn the victims of the 1937 massacre in Nanjing during a memorial ceremony in 2001. Photo / Reuters
The photographs are sickening, a gallery of horrors from a gruesome war where the casualties were counted in the millions: Decapitated and disembowelled bodies, dead babies discarded in ditches, hollow-eyed skulls staring from a jumbled pile of human bones.
After five minutes, the mind starts to numb; 10 and the air in this converted warehouse feels still and heavy, like the weight of history is seeping through the doors.
The newly opened Chukiren Peace Museum nestles among swathes of identikit houses in a suburb north of Tokyo, watched over by a pensioner; a foot-soldier in what Czech writer Milan Kundera calls the struggle of memory against forgetting.
The 80-year-old curator, Fumiko Niki, has spent much of her life at war with Japan's conservatives.
"We are in a very dangerous period," she says. "Awareness of Japan's role in wartime is fading."
The core of the museum's collection is the testimony of 300 Japanese Imperial Army veterans who confessed while in custody in China to committing atrocities there, including rape, torture and infanticide.
Graphic video and photographic evidence showing some of the Army's most brutal crimes is held in the archives. Ultra-rightists have already threatened to burn the museum down and the elderly staff are studying the unfamiliar world of high-tech security.
"You won't find these things in school textbooks," says veteran Tsuyoshi Ebato, who helped compile this archive. The testimonies include an account of a sergeant-major who raped and killed a Chinese woman, then cannibalised her with his unit.
Ebato says he trained recruits to use captured Chinese for bayonet practice. "Terrible things like this happened all the time," he says.
"Now people are saying that they never happened. Japan wants to keep a lid on a stinking pot."
Across Tokyo is the office of the right-wing internet broadcaster Channel Sakura. There are no pictures of war atrocities here. Instead, swords and rising-sun flags decorate the walls along with portraits of the Emperor and poems to fallen Japanese soldiers.
Since it was set up two years ago, Sakura has pumped out nationalist programmes to its small audience. Now its president is planning to direct a big-budget documentary arguing the 1937 "Rape of Nanjing" - one of history's most notorious war crimes - was a hoax.
"Nanjing is a lie, it is as simple as that," says Satoru Mizushima. "It is Chinese propaganda, backed up by left-wingers in this country."
Mizushima says the photos in the peace museum are faked, that former Japanese soldiers like Ebato were "brainwashed" by "Chinese communists" while in captivity, and that the war crimes documented there never happened. "It is all perfectly clear and we're going to prove it."
Such views have long existed on the fringes of Japanese politics, but the movie is backed by at least a dozen lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic (LDP) and opposition parties; Tokyo mayor, Shintaro Ishihara; and a panel of university lecturers. And in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the makers arguably have a leader who is closer to their world view than any Japanese premier in decades.
Abe has made no secret of his distaste for the way the history of the war in China has been recorded. Before becoming leader, he was one of a group of LDP politicians who strongly backed a history textbook downplaying or removing references to Japan's war crimes in Asia, including Nanjing.
The textbook refers to the rape of the city as "an incident" and rejects the higher casualty estimates. China claims 300,000 died; revisionist historians in Japan put the figure anywhere between zero and 40,000.
"Where did they dispose of all those bodies?" asks Mizushima, jabbing what he says are doctored photos from Iris Chang's 1997 bestseller The Rape of Nanking (Nanking is the English name for Nanjing).
"The Nazis had to build ovens to kill Jews. But we don't have the same ideology as the Nazis. We weren't trying to wipe out Nanjing or the Chinese."
Chang's book, criticised for its inaccuracies and use of doctored photos, called the rape and looting "the forgotten holocaust".
Nanjing continues to poison one of the world's most important bilateral relationships.
Over 80 per cent of young Chinese in a recent survey cited the rape as the issue they associated most with Japan. Anti-Japanese sentiment, fuelled by nationalism and government propaganda, has grown steadily in China, culminating in a series of riots and boycotts, and prompting Beijing and Tokyo to set up a joint education panel in an attempt to lay the historical ghosts to rest.
But the 20 academics on both sides admit they are struggling. "It is very difficult indeed," says Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, who is part of the Japanese delegation. "But we have to find some way of narrowing the gap between us."
Talk of hoaxes incenses Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, said recently there was "ironclad" evidence that the massacre took place.
A new United States movie on the rape, featuring Woody Harrelson, is being released and at least another half-dozen more are in the pipeline to mark the 70th anniversary of Nanjing.
Beijing plans its own film, based on Chang's book, a move that prompted Japanese politicians to announce their own "study group" to counter what they say is a looming wave of anti-Japanese sentiment.
It was the prospect of these new projects that also spurred Mizushima into action. "We cannot let these distorted views of history spread throughout the world. We're not doing it because we're anti-Chinese; we simply want to tell the truth."
He rejects all accusations of Japanese war crimes in Asia, including the sexual enslavement of 200,000 women and the forced employment of millions of Chinese and Korean labourers.
"Koreans and Chinese want to save face by saying that we enslaved them, but their own parents sold them into prostitution and slavery. They're crying like women about what happened to them."