June was a month where ‘digital detox’ was consciously assimilated into my lifestyle. Then, I had begun picking up good reads instead of my mobile device and immersing in eloquent prose rather than 5-minute Youtube videos. One result of these conscious choices have been a heightened awareness. I quote my earlier piece about refugees in Southeast Asia – “absence is silent (and) for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware”. It is for this same reason, to remain grounded in spite of privileged and comfortable lives, that I write this second piece on awareness. Thankful for the time I’ve had for reflections, reading and attending meaningful discussions, here’s another issue we do not talk about enough, the Rape of Nanking.
Those in the first row were beheaded, those in the second row were forced to dump the severed bodies into the river before they themselves were beheaded. The killing went on non-stop, from morning until night, but they were only able to kill 2,000 persons in this way. The next day, tired of killing in this fashion, they set up machine guns. Two of them raked a cross-fire at the lined up prisoners. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Triggers were pulled. The prisoners fled into the water, but no one was able to make it to the other shore.
– Japanese Military Correspondent, Yukio Omata
Women suffered most. No matter how young or old, they all could not escape the fate of being raped. We sent out coal trucks from Hsiakwan to the city streets and villages to seize a lot of women. And then each of them was allocated to 15 to 20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse.
– Takokoro Kozo, a former solder in the 114th Division of the Japanese army in Nanking
A visceral description of the episode of mass rape and mass murder across 6 weeks continues on every page of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. She uncovers the facts and findings regarding what she calls “6 weeks of horror”, tying together quotes from witnesses, victims and perpetrators. It is astonishing the extent of damage and dehumanizing acts that these soldiers inflicted upon the residents of Nanking in a concentrated span of 42 days. Even more surprising, is how the occurrence of the massacre has been swept under the carpets over the years. With most Japanese military records on the killings kept secret or destroyed shortly after the surrender of Japan in 1945, historians desperately trying to tell the story for those who suffered in this episode race against time to interview remaining survivors and discover the truth about the holocaust. In the words of Chang, “an event that 60 years ago made front-page news in American newspapers appears to have vanished, almost without a trace… the history of 300,000 murdered Chinese might disappear just as they themselves had disappeared under Japanese occupation.” Worse, there have been Japanese politicians who have insisted that the Rape of Nanking was a hoax and a fabrication. 60 years on from the rape, the Japanese as a nation “are still trying to bury the victims of Nanking – not under the soil, as in 1937, but into historical oblivion”.
It is, to me, terrifying, that we allow geo-political priorities to mask truth about history for the lessons of history will never be learnt if they are forgotten. Chang asserts that forgetting the rape (or worse, denying it) would be akin to committing a second rape.
We are complacent to think that history will never repeat itself and we are less adept than we think at learning from our past. The Rape and Nanking teaches us lessons of what Chang calls the “shadow side of human nature”. The atrocities committed were only possible with the government’s propaganda and conditioning of its people to believe in rationalizations of their killings – teaching the Japanese soldiers that the Chinese were “less than pigs” and ripping these soldiers of their dignity to cumulate deep-seated hatred. It warns us against the concentration of power in the government and the importance of international checks and balances so no country can produce efficient killing machines of its people with ideology.
Most importantly, we should be embarrassed and even appalled at the frightening ease with which our minds can accept genocide. Just as the people 60 years ago had been, we are all passive spectators to the unthinkable. By keeping this episode of history under the carpets, unspoken, we are dismissing the lessons that cost 300,000 lives in Nanking and many more to date with genocides that have remained ignored. Search up the recent Bosnian and Rwandan crisis, each a repetition of history that we have time and again remained silent about. The numbers and our cruel oblivion will surprise you.
It is sometimes challenging to find relevance in complex issues that we are afraid to unpack, especially when our realities are comfortable and safe. There is a story about a teacher who illustrates the concept of inequality through a classroom activity – seated in neat rows and columns in the classroom, every student is given a paper aeroplane to throw into the basket positioned at the front of the classroom. Clearly, the students in the front row have an advantage. Accompanying this advantage (that they have, by no means, earned through their own effort), is oblivion toward their advantage. Similarly, we would be selfish and ignorant to think of our privilege as our entitlement; silly to believe that the rape of Nanking has nothing to do with us. It is until those at the front row turn behind them and listen to the woes of those seated in the rows at the back, that we begin to preserve the most valuable qualities of ourselves that make us human. Our awareness protects us against forgetting kindness, abandoning gratitude and replacing our hearts for humanity with oblivious self-centeredness. In a time where information is so easily accessible to us than ever before, it is ironic (and almost embarrassing) that we fail to pursue truth and lend our voice to tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves.