Healing Historical Wounds | Facing History & Ourselves

Healing Historical Wounds

How do two nations who share a past of violence, war, and atrocities forge a new relationship?
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • Genocide

There is not one cure or step to take in forging new relationships between two nations who share a past of violence, war, and atrocities. In 2002 the Harvard Asia Center hosted a specific conference on World War II in East Asia to initiate one possible step. Some of the most prominent scholars in East Asian history gathered together from China, Japan, Canada, Europe, and the United States. In framing the context of the event Professor Ezra Vogel stated: 

It would be naïve to think that a work of scholarship can by itself greatly advance the healing process between the two nations. But there are political leaders and media spokesmen in both countries who recognize the need for people in their nations to work together. We hope that our progress toward a more objective common understanding of the China War will encourage and assist them in their efforts. . . .

By any standards, the China War is one of the most neglected periods in modern East Asian Studies. Some scholars have begun to take an interest in how the history of that war is viewed and interpreted. There have been studies of the diplomacy around the China War, of Chinese Communist base areas, of relations between the Guomindang [the Nationalists] and the Communists. But few conferences had been held on the nature of the war itself. My commitment to bringing together Japanese, Chinese, and Western scholars to study the China War stemmed from my sense of the deep sentiments that separated the Chinese and Japanese and my hope that scholars working together to gain objective understanding could contribute not only to scholarship but also to the healing of historical wounds.

Scholars seeking to understand the China War confront frustrating barriers: the lack of availability of crucial materials, linguistic difficulties, and intellectual frameworks that do not easily transcend national and disciplinary boundaries. To transcend these barriers, we need scholars in each country who are prepared to join scholars elsewhere to broaden the scope of issues we raise, to share our materials and research findings, and to strive to achieve a common objective understanding of what actually happened.

Several years ago in Japan, a conference was held between Chinese and Japanese scholars to examine what happened in World War II. Both Chinese and Japanese scholars present at the conference reported that the presentations became so polarized and acrimonious that there was little real academic exchange. I believed that if Westerners organized such a conference it might provide a more neutral setting that would enable Chinese and Japanese as well as Western scholars to engage in academic discussion. I began to make plans for such a conference. 1

  • 1 Vogel, China at War, xv–xiv.

A monument at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall depicts the state of fear and dishevelment faced by Chinese civilians during the war in Nanjing.

Judy Katz

Vogel’s commitment highlights the important role scholarship and the exchange of ideas can play and invite a step in healing the scars and horrors of war. But it is just one of many efforts that must continue to take place. Historian Takashi Yoshida, currently a professor at Western Michigan University, believes the legacy and memory of the Nanjing Atrocities carries other burdens as well. Professor Yoshida wrote in 2006:

Nanjing has been a mirror of larger attitudes and geopolitical imperatives. Understand the historiography of the massacre, and you will find that you possess a useful index to society and politics of each historical moment in the decades since 1937. It is no wonder that ethnocentric narratives of Nanjing prevailed at the time of the war, during which Japan, China and the United States all found it necessary to promote mass killing in the name of the state and justice. It is understandable that news reports of the testimonies of Nanjing at the Tokyo Trial appalled many Japanese during the occupation, when the military was entirely discredited. It is no surprise that the authorized PRC [People’s Republic of China] accounts at the height of the Cold War blamed the United States for abetting Japanese atrocities in Nanjing. It is, finally, no wonder that the history of Nanjing was rediscovered in the United States in the post-Cold War period, just as the hitherto accepted history of the Pacific War had largely disregarded the experiences of Chinese immigrants.

How will the history of Nanjing be told in Japan, China and the United States 20 years from now? Will it be possible for all of these governments and peoples to share a single narrative of the Nanjing Massacre? I am afraid not. The various authors of Nanjing literature may never agree on a definition of truth, giving readers a wide range of narratives from which to choose their own preferred history of Nanjing. Nevertheless, it has already been possible to many individuals in all three nations to overcome the limitations of ethnocentrism and nationalism in their thinking about Nanjing. Motivated by the ideal of universal human rights, concerned persons may eventually be able to agree on an international history of the Nanjing Massacre whose objective will be to produce a more harmonious future. Such a history would seek neither to exploit, nor to exaggerate, nor to rationalize atrocity. Instead, it would articulate an understanding of events that values human life without regard to ethnicity, nationality, religion, or gender. 2

  • 2Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 182–83.

A monument of a woman holding a child stands at the front of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.


Connection Questions

  1. Professor Ezra Vogel reflects on the role of scholarship to “advance the healing process.” What might scholars be able to accomplish that politicians cannot?
  2. What are the central points Professor Vogel asserts as necessary steps for China and Japan to move forward? Compare these steps with the viewpoint of Professor Takashi Yoshida. Which perspective do you find more convincing? Why?
  3. In Professor Vogel’s recollection of the conference he recalled many questions that surfaced during the meeting. These included:
    • Why do Japanese officials still go to visit Yasukuni Shrine?
    • Why do Japanese some textbooks say Japan “advanced into” and not “invaded,” China?
    • Why are some Japanese reluctant to acknowledge the horrors their nation caused during World War II?
    • What acknowledgement and apology will the Chinese find acceptable?
    • To what extent are the demands for acknowledgement and apology motivated by wartime grievances and to what extent are they motivated to gain political or diplomatic advantages today?
    What do those questions suggest about the challenges in moving forward. Which questions seem most intractable which seem easiest to resolve? Choose one question you found most compelling and write a short answer. Be prepared to share the question and your response with your classmates.
  4. What would it take for two individuals to have a shared understanding of history? What about two nations? Is having a shared understanding enough? Under what conditions does understanding lead to action?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Healing Historical Wounds," last updated March 14, 2016.

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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