The Road to Nanjing: Bitter Memories, New Attitudes

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

NANJING, China — In the name of their Emperor, Japanese soldiers swept through this former Chinese capital in 1937-38 and reportedly slaughtered at least 300,000 civilians in some of the worst atrocities ever recorded.

Over the years, survivors of the “Nanjing Massacre” here have recounted incidents of men, women — many of them pregnant — and children of all ages being gunned down, raped, bayoneted, beheaded and set afire by the soldiers during the rampage from December 1937 through February 1938.

“I never want to see such a horrible thing ever again,” said Xi Hungmei, 68, recalling his boyhood days in 1945 when the Japanese army still occupied the city.

Fifty-five years after the occupation began, the son of the imperial symbol in whose name such wartime brutality was carried out begins a historical first visit to China starting Friday.

The five-day journey by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to Beijing, Shanghai and Xian has revived controversy about the former Emperor’s war responsibility, with many of the actual Chinese survivors of Japanese aggression in Nanjing and elsewhere remaining bitter and unforgiving about the past.

But if the opinions of younger generations of ordinary Chinese citizens are any indication, time may have healed many of those longstanding emotional scars.

“The Japanese Emperor really doesn’t affect us in our daily lives,” said a young mother in Nanjing, who, like many other Chinese, laughed when asked about the sensitive subject. “Most people in China are more concerned about trying to make money and live better lives.”

Economic survival and progress has necessitated that the Chinese people focus more on their own needs in the 1990s and less on the battles of the past, according to Wang Yanping, associate professor of the Foreign-Language Literature Department at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

The controversy over former Chinese “comfort women,” however, still needs to be openly addressed if the two countries are going to develop more solid relations, asserts Wang.

Li Naining, an engineer at the Nanjing Radiation Centre of the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences here, shares that view.

“They must tell the truth to their people,” Li said of Japan’s leaders. “They should not cover it up — this was something that really happened!”

“All the money in Japan couldn’t begin to repair the physical damage and spiritual loss of the Nanjing Massacre alone,” says Xi, the former coal miner who saw with his own eyes the terror caused by the Japanese soldiers.

That was more than a half-century ago, however, and many ordinary Chinese people like Xi now seem ready to welcome Japan’s modern monarch to their country this week.

But as Sino-Japanese relations move to a new but uncertain age, Xi says he has one important message he wants to send to young Japanese people: “Never forget the past.”