A few days ago I went to a place in Nanjing that I knew was not going to be a pretty sight — the Nanjing Massacre Museum and Memorial which documents the Japanese invasion of the city in the 1930s which is estimated to have killed about 300,000 people. Many people have heard of the “Rape of Nanjing” and I felt that as a visitor to Nanjing it was important to go and see the museum and understand what really happened.
The entrance to the memorial is quite stark and bleak, everything is painted in black and there is almost no grass. Little speakers cleverly disguised as rocks play very somber music right out of a dramatic movie which, if you ask me, was a bit over the top. One area has survivors’ footprints set in bronze. But in general, the memorial area is grim, which, I suppose, is the whole point.
The museum however itself is extremely well done, walking people through the background of the attack and showing pictures from the scenes around the city at the time. They also have true stories from survivors, and also from Japanese soldiers who were there at the time and can admit to what happened. It is not a pretty sight to see pictures of women being forced into comfort stations, and bodies burnt or decapitated or worse. And it is extremely well documented.
It was only when I got to the area that is the actual excavation pit where they found the bodies that it really hit home — that I was standing on the very spot where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were murdered. Many of the bodies bore signs of brutality, such as nails hammered into skulls, knees and hands. Even babies’ skeletons showed bullet holes to the head. How any person can do such things to anyone is of course beyond anyone’s comprehension. All of the other visitors looked on, shaking their heads, saddened by the nature of the event.
As someone who has lived in Japan and seen so much beauty in its culture and people, it was really hard to reconcile the brutal things that the army did during these times with the wonderful, kind, and generous nature of the Japan that I know and love. But, an army does not represent a whole country. The American soldiers who were recently exposed in Afghanistan for setting up kill squads and make games of shooting civilians do not represent the average kind-hearted American person who would never hurt another human being. Yet every army commits atrocities. Governments do terrible things to their own people. And it happens in countries across the world, regardless of religion or economics. The rape of Nanjing happened in 1937, but it seems like at some level of human nature, things don’t change. It makes me wonder if violence and cruelty is just something that is hard wired into our genes. Perhaps it is something that we will never fully get out of our systems.
Anyway, although it was a hard thing to go and see, I would actually recommend a visit to the Massacre Museum, just to understand the event which has shaped Nanjing and will forever be an important part of its history.