“Shanghai Girls” and Imperial Japanese invasion of China

Recently, I have been reading interesting books about Japan. I wanted to write down my thoughts that were provoked by the contents of the book.

“Shanghai Girls” is written by Lisa See who has Chinese heritage by her father’s side of the family.  The book is about two beautiful Chinese sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai in 1937 immigrating to San Francisco. Why is this book about Chinese girls the topic of my Japanese blog, you might ask? There is one scene in this book that left a big impression on me. While the sisters and their mother were escaping the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese imperial forces on their way to Hong Kong, they took a shelter in an abandoned country farm house. There, they were discovered by the Japanese soldiers and experienced horrific violence. The mother hid away the sisters to protect them, and she was brutally gang-raped by numerous Japanese soldiers. The mother knowingly sacrificed herself to prevent the daughters from suffering. However, the older sister, Pearl, somehow went to check on the mother, and was caught by the soldier and experienced the same despicable fate as her mother.

Historically, in 1937, the Japanese had defeated Chinese forces at Shanghai and seized Nanking. There Japanese troops committed the greatest atrocity of an incredibly brutal war: the ‘Rape of Nanking’, in which an estimated 300,000 civilians were slaughtered. Just like the book’s depiction, women were gang- raped if they were not killed. These acts were for all in the name of their Japanese living God, Emperor Hirohito. This type of siege continued until the end of World War II in 1945.

If you are interested in the topic of the Living God, Hirohito, please view my past blog, “Godless in Japan”.

What is shocking to me is that the piece of history about Japanese atrocities in China and other Asian countries is barely taught in the history classes in modern Japan. Until this day, there are huge numbers of Japanese people who are ignorant of what war crime was committed by Imperial Japanese forces.  From my junior high and high school History classes on the topic of World War II, I remember that I was taught about Nazi Germany and Holocaust, but I don’t remember anything about what Japanese did in other part of Asia.  We were taught about the Pearl Harbor attack which triggered the all-out war involving Japan, but not in any details.

After I left Japan and lived in the United States in my 20s, I met some people from China and other Asian countries. Most people in my generation (or younger) do not have the first or the second hand knowledge of ugly acts by the Japanese military during the war. However, in some occasions, I met some older generation of people who knew about the horrific acts by the Japanese soldiers. They remember the soldiers being extremely evil and heartless. I don’t recollect if they actually experienced, or if they heard the stories from someone they knew.

I recently did some research on the topic of the Japanese collective ignorance of their past war crimes, and encountered this excellent article by a Japanese journalist who moved to Australia while in junior high school. I highly recommend reading the article on bbc.com “What Japanese History lessons leave out“.

In Japanese history education classes, they spend long hours learning about the “Shogun” and “Samurai” feudal era, but skim over the modern history including the World War II. They go through the history since the beginning of time chronologically, and no time is left at the end of the school year to go through the modern developments. The Japanese government has at most authority in approval of the teaching materials, and their “approved” history text books tend to treat the “Rape of Nanking” as a mere foot note without giving any details.  Japanese politicians in power who are conservative and nationalistic do not want the past war crimes to be discussed out in the open.

The Japanese students do learn about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ultimately ended the war. There is an overwhelming sentiment in Japan that Japanese were the victims of the war who suffered tremendously. However, they do not realize that the Japanese caused horrendous autocracies in other part of Asia and victimized the people there.

I can compare this collective ignorance to “Holocaust Denial”. Some citizens are claiming that Holocaust did not happen, or Holocaust happened, but it was not a big deal. My question is: if you do not have the comprehensive knowledge of what has happened in the past and admit your guilt, how can you behave better and avoid making the same mistakes in the future?


Side note:

There are not many Japanese literature that include the topic of Japanese Imperial invasion of Asian countries.  I wanted this book, “Shanghai Girls” to be available in Japanese, so I could recommend my Japanese friends to read. I couldn’t find the Japanese version on-line. I even inquired to the author, Ms. Lisa See about the availability in Japanese language. Sadly, most of her other books by Ms.Lisa See are available in Japanese, but this particular book was not published in Japan.  I wonder if the Japanese publisher is shying away from it due to the military rape scene that may cause a negative reaction in Japan.


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