The Rape of Nanking


Did the Minnesota Historical Society decline to host the local premiere of an important new film about the Rape of Nanking because MHS was concerned about offending Japanese-Americans?

The top MHS official who decided to decline that opportunity says concern about offending Japanese sensibilities had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision. Zilch, zero, nada. But an email from a different MHS official gave the opposite impression. The email said: “Because of our close relationships with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities, we don’t know if this [Minnesota Historical Society] is the right venue in which to show the film.”

This is an ambiguous tale with many entry points, but each entry leads to a wider tale containing knowledge, sadness, wisdom or … what?

First, the very latest:

The film, Nanking, was shown at the Walker Art Center.

Now, the historical event:

In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army conquered and subjugated China, employing a level of brutality against civilians that beggars the imagination. The city then called Nanking by the west (now Nanjing) was the capital. After bombing the city (the bombing of civilian areas was still a relatively new and shocking practice) the Japanese occupied the capital and, in the next six weeks killed an estimated 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war.

The Japanese soldiers also raped tens of thousands of women and young girls. The War Crimes Tribunal that later took evidence of Japanese atrocities estimated 20,000 rapes in the first two months of the occupation. U.S. diplomats as well as many Western eyewitnesses who ran schools, hospitals and businesses in Nanking, documented the events. There is even extensive newsreel footage.

Then the book:

In 1997, American writer Iris Chang published “The Rape of Nanking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” which became a bestseller and brought a new level of attention to the rapes and slaughter. Chang campaigned for a greater official Japanese acknowledgment and apology for the atrocities. In 2004, Chang, 36, committed suicide. Chang’s parents are expected to attend the Wednesday showing of the film at the Walker.

The new film:

A film, inspired by Chang’s book, based on the diary entries of the Western witnesses, contemporary newsreel footage, and the testimony of surviving Chinese and Japanese participants, will be released to theaters on Dec. 12. Several Hollywood and foreign film stars (Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Jurgen Prochnow) appear as the western witnesses, reading passages from the journals and letters written by the real witnesses. The film, which I have previewed, is mesmerizing but unrelentingly tragic. It was accepted by the Sundance Festival and shown there earlier this year.

The Japanese denial:

As a general matter, post-war Japanese society has not dealt with the crimes of World War II as forthrightly as post-war Germany has. Why is this? How much does it matter? This resonates with the recent controversy in Congress over a resolution declaring that Ottoman Turkey had committed a genocide against Armenians during World War I. Modern Turkey still strongly resists this acknowledgment.

There is still an active movement within the nationalist wing of the Japanese political spectrum to minimize or deny that the atrocities occurred. (This is true in Germany also, but a much more fringe phenomenon.) A film reflecting the denial is in production.

This entry point into this hydra-headed tale could lead to a long discussion (but won’t here) about how various societies, including our own, deal with unpleasant, unflattering chapters from our past and what is the best way to deal with them.

Where to premiere the film?

Kaimay Yuen Terry of Edina, former president of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota, was born in Hong Kong in 1940, under Japanese occupation. She came to America in 1958 and has lived in Minnesota for 30 years. Terry is part of a “loose network” of activists interested in keeping alive the memory of the war crimes committed in Asia during World War II. Earlier this year, after seeing a preview of “Nanking,” she agreed to work on arrangements for its Minnesota premier.

In July, Terry wrote to her friend, Sherri Gebert-Fuller at the MHS, with whom she had worked in the past, to inquire about the MHS hosting the premier. Gebert-Fuller is the MHS director of corporate and foundation support. It would not be her call, but she took the request to those who would decide such a proposal. After some such discussions, Gebert-Fuller wrote the smoking-gun email back to Terry:

“Because of our close relationships with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities, we don’t know if this is the right venue in which to show the film.”

Terry was mightily offended. She took this statement — and still takes it — to mean that MHS felt it might offend its Japanese-American friends if it brought additional attention to a shameful chapter about which some Japanese are still in denial

She demanded to know why MHS, when it staged an exhibit on Anne Frank and the Holocaust bit a few years ago, didn’t worry that it might offend Minnesotans with German heritage. She rejected the notion that Japanese-Americans would even favor such a whitewashing of the history of World War II, (noting that a Japanese-American congressman, Mike Honda of California, is chief sponsor of a resolution demanding that “the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery”).

Terry wrote that the thinking of the MHS decision-makers might have been shaped by a long campaign by the post-war Japanese governments to present themselves to history, not as the perpetrators of crimes against Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, etc., but as the “victim” of the American atom bomb. In her e-mail back to MHS, Terry wrote that “powerful lessons of war and peace among nations can be learned by being faithful to history.” She suggested that such faithfulness was the role of the Minnesota Historical Society.

On the subsequent round, the MHS told Terry that they were declining to host the premiere for issues that had to do with scheduling and facilities and budgets and expertise and other reasons. Terry asked for a meeting to see if some of those issues could be worked around. Meanwhile, she lined up the Walker as the venue for the premiere. She stayed angry at the initial response and believed it was the only time she was given the real reason.

Korean Quarterly

Martha Vickery of the Korean Quarterly learned of the exchange between Terry and MHS and wrote about it in her newspaper’s fall issue. In that story, a different MHS official said that Gebert-Fuller’s account of MHS’ reason for turning down the premiere had been incorrect, that there had been a breakdown of communications due to some mistakes made by Gebert-Fuller.

The Tutu analogy

But what mistakes? How did Gebert-Fuller get the idea that concern about offending Japanese-Americans was the reason for the turndown? Especially because of the controversy over St. Thomas University’s decision to disinvite Archbishop Desmond Tutu from a campus appearance — apparently for fear of offending local Jews — it seemed important to find out whether another important local cultural/educational institution was engaging in similar logic.

I spoke to Daniel Spock, director of the Minnesota History Center Museum. He stated flatly and in as many ways as he could think of that MHS had declined the opportunity entirely for reasons of budget, staffing, scheduling and facilities, had not acted out of any political reasons whatsoever, favored the movie being shown, was glad the Walker was showing it.

“The decision was made without the perception of pressure or any actual pressure from the Japanese community,” Spock said. “We are not deniers of the Rape of Nanking or anything like that… We’ve waded into a number of controversies in the past… We actually see it as part of our mission to explore difficult issues…to shine light on the past.”

But how did Gebert-fuller come to write to Terry: “Because of our close relationships with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities, we don’t know if this is the right venue in which to show the film”?

Spock said he had no idea. “She’s sorry that she said that… She just went where it really wasn’t appropriate for her to go.”

I hated to do it, knowing that this kerfuffle must have caused pain and embarrassment to her, but I called Gebert-Fuller. If she had told me that she had made up the idea that concern over Japanese-Americans sensibilities was a reason for the decision, or misunderstood something that was said, I would not have written this post. But she didn’t.

Gebert-Fuller said that the official MHS version of what had happened should come from Spock. I said I had the version. No thought had been given to the possibility of offending anyone. Zero/ Zilch. Nada. Nothing had ever been said about it. But no good answer to the question: Why had she written what she wrote to Terry?

She replied: “I thought I was talking to a friend.”

Okay, I get that too. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that, because you were talking to a friend, you told the truth. She replied: “I’m a very honest and open person.”

So there you have it. To me, the odds are that Gebert-Fuller was indeed telling Terry what she had heard at the meeting (but which she wasn’t supposed to tell). But it’s probably also true that on other days and other issues, the Minnesota Historical Society is deeply and bravely committed to shining light on the past.

I’m trying to imagine what I would have done with this story if I still worked for the paper. And I think the answer is: Zero. Zilch. Nada. And maybe that would have been fine too. See the film.