Refuting Denial | Facing History & Ourselves

Refuting Denial

Japanese historians challenge historical deniers of the Nanjing atrocities. 
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At a Glance

reading copy


English — US


  • History
  • Genocide

History education and documentation were the focal points for historian Ienaga Saburo. His successful suit against the Japanese government to change the method by which history textbooks were adopted and how events like the Nanjing Atrocities and the institution of military sexual slaves are included greatly impacted Japanese society.

Despite Ienaga’s efforts, since the 1970s ardent Japanese nationalists continued to use history education as a platform to promote their political views. Criticizing what they perceived as a liberal view of history, these Japanese public figures, intellectuals, and politicians critiqued the depiction of wartime atrocities in textbooks and called for yet another revision of texts. Some publically dismissed the extent of Japanese wartime atrocities and called for a revision of history texts once again while at the same time expressing nostalgia about the era of prewar empire in Japan and Japanese power in the region. 1  

In response, Japanese historians such as Fujiwara Akira (1922–2003) and his allies within Japan established the “Nanjing Massacre Research Group” in the 1980s. Their efforts to present and publish research on what occurred between 1937 and 1938 in Nanjing, China, within Japan stands as a direct reaction to the escalation of nationalism directed at erasing the culpability of Japan’s wartime actions.

As an effort at countering and challenging historical deniers, Fujiwara published the following essay, “Nankin jiken o do miru ka” (How to see the Nanjing incident), on the 60th anniversary of the occupation of Nanjing in 1997:

Sixty years have passed since imperialist Japan began its total war of aggression in China in July 1937 and, in November of that year, committed large-scale atrocities during the occupation of Nanjing, the Chinese capital....

In Japan today, some forces still refuse to acknowledge the war of aggression and persist in affirming and glorifying the war. And these war glorifiers focus particularly on denying the facts of the Nanjing massacre. Just as Nazi glorifiers focus particularly on denying the facts of the Holocaust, the symbol of German war crimes, their Japanese counterparts are vehement deniers of the Nanjing massacre, which symbolized the war crimes committed by Japan. Now, sixty years later, researchers must investigate the Nanjing incident in order to stop these denial arguments and demolish the glorification of war....

When Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered in August 1945, the state officially acknowledged the war of aggression and the Nanjing massacre committed by the Japanese army. The Potsdam Declaration denounced Japanese aggression and specified the punishment of war criminals. After the surrender, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convened in Tokyo. In November 1948 the court handed down its judgment that the war was a war of aggression for which Japan was responsible, and it also acknowledged that 200,000 people had been massacred in Nanjing. Then, in article 11 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty concluded in San Francisco in 1951, Japan signaled its acceptance of the judgments of the war crimes trial about the war of aggression and the Nanjing massacre. And because most Japanese, having experienced the horrors of war welcomed the Peace Constitution and were deeply critical of the war, they, too, accepted the treaty.

But this provision was disregarded almost as soon as the treaty came into effect. Because the postwar purge of public officials was lifted around the same time, right-wing activists returned to politics in force. The affirmation and glorification of the war began with a publishing boom in war books and the assault on history textbooks for being critical of the war....

One focus of the present movement of politically motivated historical revisionism is the denial of the facts of the Nanjing massacre. In order to counter the views of these war glorifiers and “liberalists” who distort history for their own purposes, it is up to us to make the facts clear. However abhorrent these events are to Japanese, that they occurred is a fact, and only confronting these facts can they become “lessons for the future....”

Recently the denials of the Nanjing massacre have centered on the question of numbers. At the beginning, the war glorifiers had labeled the massacre as an “illusion” or a fiction, but this view was completely bankrupted by advances in scholarly research. So now they are reduced to arguing about the number of victims, to the effect that because the numbers are small, it was not a massacre. This debate limits the time frame and geographic extent of the events in order to calculate as small a number of victims as possible [calculations refuted by recent scholarly works in both China and Japan]....

. . . Yet another question that must be addressed is why Japanese became the perpetrators. Believing in emperor-system militarism, poisoned by sexism and ethnocentrism, without offering any resistance whatsoever, they became the perpetrators of a massacre. Understanding the conditions that made this possible is essential to preventing such offenses of history from ever happening again. 2

Connecting Questions

  1. Fujiwara Akira notes the efforts of “war glorifiers” to deny the extent and severity of violence that occurred in Nanjing beginning in December 1937. What is the intent and impact of denying the details and impact of mass violence? How is historical denial different than historical revisionism? What are the possible motivations for an individual to deny aspects of their nations’ history?
  2. How can individuals and groups respond to attempts to deny the past? What steps did Fujiwara Akira take? Consider his essay “How to see the Nanjing incident.” Who was his primary audience? What was his argument? Which words, phrases and ideas from this passage stand out? How might his identity as a Japanese scholar influence how people respond to his words? Should his identity matter?
  3. Seventy five years after the Nanjing Atrocity, the Japanese Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura stated:

    In history, there is both light and shadow. ...I do not say that all of Japan's past history was splendid and correct. There are matters on which we must reflect. But I think it is also necessary to once again teach our children about the splendor of Japan's proper traditions and culture. 3

    What are respectable parameters to hold in balancing a nation’s painful history with a nation’s history of splendor, traditions, and culture?

  • 1Editorial Board, “Shinzo Abe’s Inability to Face History,” Washington Post, April 26, 2013, accessed January 1, 2014, Craig Dale, “A More Militaristic Japan? Shinzo Abe’s Party Now Controls Both Houses,” CBC News, July 22, 2013, accessed January 1, 2014. Note the final section, “History’s Lessons.”
  • 2 Fujiwara Akira, “Nankin jiken o do miru ka” [How to See the Nanking Incident] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1998), 7–13, quoted in de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition, 1289–90.
  • 3“Education Minster: Japan to Review Statements on History,” Asahi Shimbun, January 29, 2013.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Refuting Denial," last updated March 14, 2016.

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


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