Emily Matson ’12
Perspectives of the Nanjing Massacre from Chinese and Japanese College Students in Beijing
Although it occurred in World War II, the Nanjing Massacre still has a marked impact on Sino-Japanese relations today. Both the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and Japanese governments have used the event for their own agendas. In the PRC, the government currently overemphasizes the Nanjing Massacre in secondary education. In its patriotic education, the PRC emphasizes the Nationalists’ cowardice in abandoning the city before the Japanese invasion. This is a “look at how much better we are now!” type of view on history. In addition, the attention on Japanese WWII atrocities tends to place current PRC weaknesses in the shadow.
In Japan, a fierce debate between the progressives (those who wish to portray the Nanjing Massacre as it occurred and come to terms with Japan’s “national shame”) and the revisionists (those who wish to “revise” history by toning down the Massacre or even denying it occurred) has been going on since the 1980s. In Japanese secondary education, although the Nanjing Massacre is usually mentioned, it is only mentioned briefly, and with scant attention to detail.
For my research, I wanted to gauge the prevalence of the Nanjing Massacre in Chinese and Japanese society today by interviewing Chinese and Japanese college-aged students in Beijing. In my interviews, I asked them when they had first learned about the Massacre and what their initial reactions were. In addition, I asked them how the Japanese military was portrayed to them in school, whether or not they had discussed the Massacre with friends or family members, and whether or not their viewpoints on the Massacre had changed over time. I was also interested in the media sources they had been exposed to which dealt with the Massacre (movies, books, documentaries, etc.) and whether or not they had Japanese/Chinese friends. For my Japanese interviewees, I was also interested in seeing if their views on the Massacre had changed or not after they had arrived in China to study abroad.
In my results, it was interesting to note that all of my Chinese interviewees – no matter where in China they were from (I had interviewees from Dalian in the far Northeast to Guangdong in the South, to Yunnan in more of the Southwest), they had all received extensive secondary educational information on the Nanjing Massacre. Their textbooks generally used very strong language to describe the Japanese military (such as 残暴, meaning ruthless and brutal). Most of my Chinese interviewees were also shown graphic pictures when learning about the Nanjing Massacre. They were all aware of the biased nature of their “patriotic education” – while the Japanese invasion of China in WWII was heavily emphasized, atrocities committed by the Chinese government, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, were often skipped or glossed over. Many of my Chinese interviewees had Japanese friends, and did not connect the modern Japanese people with the past at all.
For my Japanese interviewees, they were all very aware of the toning down of the Nanjing Massacre and other WWII atrocities in their education. However, I was surprised to find that two of my three interviewees were part ethnically Chinese, and were aware of the Massacre from the time they were little. Although the required curriculum lacked detailed information on the Nanjing Massacre (only a brief overview), there was more information in the supplementary materials, which one of my interviewees read to find out more. The Japanese interviewees were concerned that not more Japanese were aware of the Nanjing Massacre.
In summary, both my Chinese and Japanese interviewees, all of whom were educated and college students, were quite aware of their respective governments’ agendas, and the subsequent biases in their public education. There was a general consensus that while it was important to learn about (accurate) history, it was also important to move into the future. None of my Chinese interviewees demonized the Japanese or connected them with the past, and all had developed a marked capability to distinguish between the historical deeds of a nation and the individuals which live in it at present. It was encouraging for me to have such productive dialogue with my interviewees. Although they are by no means a representative sample of the Chinese and Japanese nations, I hope that they can help usher in an era of mutual understanding and cooperation between China and Japan.