The Rape of Nanking
The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

By Iris Chang. 314 pp.
Basic, new edition 2012. $15.99.

This passionate book, recently reissued, is bristling with facts, figures, and the memories of witnesses. They put flesh on the awful dimensions of the human tragedy that followed the Japanese Army’s occupation of what had been China’s capital. Pain, anger, horror, desperation, inhumanity, morality, heroism—all have human faces thanks to author Iris Chang’s emotional engagement and deep research.

And therein lies a twist. Acclaimed in the media when it was first published in 1997, this bestseller drew withering fire from many respected historians for a variety of reasons. Some questioned Chiang’s facts, like the civilian body count (80,000–300,000) she claimed the Japanese brutally piled up in mind-numbing ways that perhaps only the SS might also have dreamt up. Some argued with her depiction of Japanese wartime culture as the inevitable continuation of its bloodthirsty heritage. Some denied that postwar Japan denied its wartime faults. And they had some real points.

But given what torture and slaughter Japan would inflict during, say, the Bataan Death March or its building of the Burma Death Railway, or its decades-long insistence that “comfort women” were willing, it’s hard to resist Chang’s account. The Rape of Nanking’s popularity made her a leading advocate for the 1990s movement demanding Japanese recognition of and compensation for war crimes. She committed suicide in 2004, a victim of depression. This book remains essential reading; not coincidentally, its visceral history illuminates today’s tricky relationship between China and Japan.