15 Questions re: Jeff Kingston’s Japan Focus Essay (2008) Regarding the Nanking Massacre

Statue of author and journalist Iris Chang at the Nanking Massacre Memorial in Nanjing, China | Image via Behind the Curtain

Dr. Jeff Kingston is a historian of contemporary Japan who occupies a number of important positions at Temple University’s Japan campus.

In 2008, he published the following essay on the subject of memorials and Nanking Massacre controversy; this essay is the focus of the questions that follow:

Jeff Kingston, “Nanjing’s Massacre Memorial: Renovating War Memory in Nanjing and Tokyo,” Japan Focus, August 22, 2008 <http://japanfocus.org/-Jeff-Kingston/2859>.

In 2010, he followed up with another visit to China’s various war museums in Sichuan province, and wrote an excellent essay about that experience for the Japan Times.  (A compendium of his rather impressive output for that newspaper is available here.)  I was pleased to meet Dr. Kingston in Chengdu in fall 2010 when he was preparing one of those essay, and very much enjoyed a roundtable that included Dr. Kingston, Chinese composer/intellectual Gao Ping, myself, and a large number of “beverages with Chinese characteristics.”

Inspired by Kingston’s work, I took a trip myself to Nanking in December 2010 and wrote briefly about that visit here, with some original photographs.

A note in italics for my students at Queen’s University:

Please read the whole of Dr. Kingston’s 2008 essay (linked in bold face above) with the exception of the sections labelled:

“Politicizing History” // Monolithic Myths: Fragile Relations // Conclusion

You should then respond to one or more of these questions in the form of a comment of about 200 words on this entry.  I recommend using your first name and last initial to identify yourself, or you can get creative and send me an e-mail with your assumed name so I know who you are.   Please include the number(s) of the specific question to which you are responding! 

Also, be aware that the first two paragraphs are a quick set-up simply to show that the writing concerns a very contemporary issue, circa 2008; there is no need for readers to get too hung up on the details of those two paragraphs and the essay begins in earnest in paragraph 3. 

15 Questions re: Jeff Kingston’s Japan Focus Essay (2008) Regarding the Nanking Massacre

1. What is the relationship between the larger theme of China’s “century of humiliation” and the memory of the Rape of Nanking?  Is it historically accurate to call the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 the culmination of the “century of humiliation”?

2. What problems and opportunities does Nanking represent for “patriotic education” in China?

3. A note, and then a question: Kingston writes that the Chinese government/ Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chose not to commemorate the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 2008, and that this might be cause to see an emerging moderation from the CCP.  I write about the commemoration of July 7, the Marco Polo Bridge, in 2005, when anti-Japanese themes were at full volume, and now they are back in 2012 to full volume.  The easy question: What was the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, and why should it be commemorated or at least recalled?

4. What is Yasukuni Shrine, and the Yushukan Museum?  Is Kingston justified in juxtaposing the two museums (Yushukan and Nanking Massacre Memorial)?  Is it fair to say that Kingston accurately shows how the museums are actually in dialogue with one another?

5. Where does the title “forgotten holocaust” with regard to Nanking come from?

6. Why does China take such pain to emphasize the casualty figure of 300,000 deaths in Nanking in 1937-38?  How is this different from the official count for the massacre from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials, 1946-48)?

7. In what ways does Kingston believe that “the numbers debate” or undue focus on “the abacus of history” plays into the hands of Japanese revisionists (who wish to reduce the historical significance of Nanking or deny it altogether)?

8. Regarding periodization: Histories of the Battle of Shanghai and the Rape of Nanking tend to be taken more or less separately.  Does Kingston’s essay point us in the direction of a new periodization where the Battle of Shanghai and the Nanking Massacre who are seen as part of the same fabric?  Might this solve also the question of “300,000 deaths” in the Nanking inferno?

9. What role did the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) play in defense of Nanking in 1937?  Why did the CCP for so long avoid telling the story of the massacre to the Chinese people?  (Hint: It has something to do with Taiwan, and the year 1949; check your lecture notes.)

10. What happened to the KMT (Kuomintang/Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek and the leading party in the Republic of China) general who was in charge at Nanking?  Does the behavior of Tang Shengzhi fit in with General Iwane Matsui’s 1932 allegations about the selfishness and disunity of Chinese generals and warlords?

11. Cindy Zhang’s e-mails to Dr. Kingston are an interesting example of a contemporary view of the Nanking Massacre.  Why does the author solicit these views, rather than simply convey the content of the museum that it is his task to review?

12. Cindy Zhang says she is somewhat emotionally removed from the history of the Nanking Massacre even as she is seeking to understand it.  Is this the right attitude to take?  Why or why not? Shouldn’t she be empathizing with the victims?

13. Cindy Zhang brings to light problems created by the Chinese government’s consistent recent portrayal of itself as a historical victim, especially as regards Nanking. What kind of problems are these?

14. Dr. Kingston notes what he perceives as the hallowness of the “Peace Tower” and reflective lake that forms the end of the museum experience.  While you may not yet have been to the museum yourself, can you think of why this might be?  Could the CCP instead mount a kind of montage about the need for revenge or lay out specific goals for overtaking and beating Japan in other ways?

15. Take a survey of the endnotes and citations at the end of Kingston’s extensive essay.  Does this appear to be a credible piece of scholarship?  Focusing in at endnote #9, would you be comfortable citing the same essay that Kingston does, or would you need to read it first?

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the Official English Homepage


  1. To get things going on the comment thread, as regards #8 and the Battle of Shanghai, I would be provocative and say: I don’t care about the numbers debate at the moment, but what I want to assert is the centrality of Shanghai to not just Chinese but world history. How could any history of any event in China in the 20th century avoid that city? So linking it to Nanking is certainly logical, just as Oxford University professor Rana Mitter’s linking it to Beijing in the 1920s is so appropriate.

    Incidentally, there is perhaps in the present context a bit of irony in that the Japanese media (Yomiuri Shimbun, no less) is now worried about Chinese naval power sprung from the shipyards of Shanghai itself. One cannot escape Shanghai…

  2. As regards #5, the idea of a holocaust in East Asia is directly linked to Iris Chang’s book, and her assertions that the atrocities in Nanking are comparable to those that occurred in Europe during WWII, but that instead of getting the publicity that hounded the fallout of the Nazi holocaust, the Nanking ‘holocaust’ simply paled away off the international scene, by means of Japanese cover ups, and perhaps even a feeling of apathy, or unwillingness to intercede on the part of the powers-that-be. Her aim, a cause which has been seized upon by the NMM, is to ensure that the Rape gets the recognition as an atrocity that it deserves, and that the Japanese will be forced to come to terms with what they did, and made to pay reparations in much the same way the Germans were.
    For #8, I would say that Shanghai and Nanking undoubtedly have to be dealt with together – events at Shanghai were highly influential in deciding the course of action taken by the Japanese both on the way to Nanking and when they got to Nanking. Perhaps if Shanghai had fallen as the Japanese expected it to, and the invasion went to ‘plan’ (what plan there was) the Japanese would not have absolutely destroyed Nanking in the way that they did. The Japanese had previously tried to take Shanghai (1932) – it was of key importance in East Asia and the constant thwarting of the Japanese desire to control it must have been a point of major contention, and I think fueled the brutality shown to the Chinese thereafter. In relation to the numbers debate, if Nanking and Shanghai are considered two sides of the one coin, there is no doubt that victim numbers would reach, if not exceed, those given by the Chinese government.

  3. Ryan M
    5. Where does the title “forgotten holocaust” with regard to Nanking come from?

    The phase of ‘Forgotten Holocaust’ was coined by Iris Chang in her book ‘The Rape of Nanking’. The ‘Forgotten Holocaust’ refers to the comparison with the Jewish Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War which was well publicised and documented were as the ‘Rape of Nanking’ is not as well known by the outside world and so is seen as overlooked. The Chinese feel that the Japanese have been let off the hook with regards to the massacre.

    7. In what ways does Kingston believe that “the numbers debate” or undue focus on “the abacus of history” plays into the hands of Japanese revisionists (who wish to reduce the historical significance of Nanking or deny it altogether)?

    Dr Kingston refers to the ‘numbers debate’ as a possible error to which the Japanese revisionists are using to disprove other factors of the Rape of Nanking using the theory that if the Chinese have emphasised the numbers of the dead what else have they emphasised to make it look worse on the Japanese? I f the Chinese had not have stuck so absolutely to the figure of 300,000 the revisionists would not be able to attack the figures and would not be able to argue their points as strongly as what they can. The Chinese governments unwillingness to lower the figure has left itself open for attack.

  4. Glad to see Jeff’s work being examined in a scholarly setting! He’s my favorite uncle!

    Jackie H.
    Adjunct Professor
    Emerson College
    Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing

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