When it comes to the Nanjing Massacre, should Canada weigh in?

There are occasions when outsiders should recognize historical atrocities, writes David A. Welch. But new Ontario legislation wrongly wades into East Asian identity politics. Here’s why.


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February 13, 2017
An elderly couple touch the names of their relatives after sticking chrysanthemums onto the name list of victims who were killed during the Nanjing Massacre, at the Nanjing Massacre Museum during the Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province April 5, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Xu

Recently, two legislative bodies in Ontario have waded into a historical minefield. On Dec. 5, Liberal MPP Soo Wong introduced a private member’s bill (Bill 79) at Queen’s Park to designate Dec. 13 as Nanjing Massacre Commemoration Day. Four days later, Toronto City Councillor Jim Karygiannis asked his colleagues to “recognize the Nanjing Massacre as a crime against humanity and to honour the memory of the men, women and children who died.” Bill 79 has passed second reading and is now in committee; the Toronto City Council resolution is a done deal.

This is a mistake.

The Nanjing Massacre was truly a ghastly event. On Dec. 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army entered the city of Nanjing and, in clear violation of the laws of war, committed widespread atrocities against a defenceless civilian population, killing perhaps as many as 300,000 (the actual number will never be known).

Horrors such as this are certainly worthy of commemoration. But these two legislative initiatives are not about remembering innocent civilian victims: they are about demonizing Japan. As such, they dishonour the victims by instrumentalizing them for crass political purposes.

For three years, my colleagues and I at the Centre for International Governance Innovation have been engaged in a project titled “Confidence, Trust, and Empathy in Asia-Pacific Security,” the goal of which has been to reduce the dangers of conflict in an economically vital but politically explosive part of the world by finding ways of reducing mutual misperceptions of threat. True security rests upon a foundation of trust, a special kind of confidence grounded in the knowledge that another means you no harm. This knowledge, in turn, requires empathy, or the capacity to see the world from another’s perspective. In East Asia, empathy is in short supply.

In recent years, China has fanned the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment, partly for cynical reasons (an external enemy enhances national cohesion and regime legitimacy), and partly because many Chinese honestly believe that Japan is nostalgic for its imperial, militarist past, and continues to pose a latent threat to the mainland. It is hardly surprising that they believe this: China’s government-controlled media keep telling them so. Chinese citizens are fed a steady diet of anti-Japanese propaganda in the press and in the form of late-night television dramas depicting the heroic struggle of Chinese soldiers against barbaric wartime Japanese invaders. The Nanjing Massacre figures heavily in these anti-Japanese narratives.

"Bill 79 effectively endorses and encourages misperceptions of Japan."

In fact, long ago — and repeatedly — the government of Japan acknowledged and repented of the country’s imperial sins in Nanjing and elsewhere. While a handful of arch-nationalist revisionist cranks refuse to do so, they speak only for themselves. Sadly, the cranks get all of the attention. As a result, many people mistakenly believe that Tokyo denies that the Nanjing Massacre even took place.

Japan today is among the least militarist countries in the world. It is also a vibrant, successful, stable democracy where the rule of law and human rights prevail. Most Japanese today see their own government as the primary source of their wartime suffering, and have responded by internalizing anti-militarism. Since 1945, Japan has been a responsible and constructive member of the international community.

In short: Japan has learned from, and has moved beyond, its imperial past. It is hardly a country worth demonizing.

Bill 79 and Toronto City Council’s efforts to single out the Nanjing Massacre for commemoration effectively endorse and encourage misperceptions of Japan. As a result, they work against, not for, stability in East Asia. This is not the Canadian way. Canadians are peacemakers and bridge-builders, not pawns in others’ domestic and geopolitical games. Canadians promote empathy; they do not work to undermine it.

One finds ample evidence of lack of empathy in Japan as well, of course, where China’s anti-Japanese propaganda is commonly seen as part of a larger geopolitical project to rebuild a hegemonic Middle Kingdom order that would reduce smaller neighbouring countries to vassals or tributaries. This is an unfounded fear. China has enough trouble managing its own domestic challenges. Above all, China wants peace, prosperity, international respect, and a voice in regional and global governance commensurate with its size and economic weight.

Japan has learned from, and has moved beyond, its imperial past.

There are hyper-nationalist Chinese cranks, too, of course, and nervous Japanese can be forgiven for overestimating their importance, just as Chinese overestimate the importance of Japanese cranks. But while the Japanese commonly overestimate the Chinese “threat,” they do not respond by demonizing China. There are no calls for recognizing “Great Leap Forward Day” or “Cultural Revolution Day,” even though the death toll in both cases dwarfed that of Nanjing.

There are additional reasons to oppose Bill 79 and bemoan the Toronto City Council resolution: first, they threaten to undermine harmony here at home. More than 100,000 Ontarians have roots in Japan, and more than 700,000 have roots in China. Nothing good can come from fanning the flames of ethnic hatred here — except, perhaps, for cynical vote-counting politicians.

Second, these measures are dangerous precedents. By taking sides in one case, Queen’s Park would invite — and Toronto City Council already has invited — others to do the same. Ontario in general, and Toronto in particular, have more diverse populations than anywhere else in the world. There are not enough days on the calendar to commemorate every historical atrocity that drives an ethno-nationalist grievance.

There are occasions, of course, when it is appropriate for outsiders to recognize historical atrocities: for example, when the responsible state itself fails to do so. At present, for example, 29 countries and 49 of 50 U.S. states have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. International recognition in this case both raises awareness and holds the Turkish government’s feet to the moral fire. But what is in want of awareness in East Asia is not the Nanjing Massacre, but Japan’s repentance and the lessons it has learned.

Let us hope that the Ontario legislature sees the wisdom of avoiding this particular minefield before more damage is done. No one could possibly object to commemorating the innocent victims of war; but if we are to do so, let us make the commemoration inclusive, in true Canadian fashion, rather than divisive.