The obituary in The New York Times a few weeks ago caught my eye. I recognized the woman's name and vaguely remembered her picture. Perhaps it had appeared on a book jacket.

The obituary began has follows:"Iris Chang, a journalist whose best-selling book, "The Rape of Nanking,' a chronicle of the atrocities committed in that city by occupying Japanese forces, helped break a six-decade-long international silence on the subject, committed suicide on Tuesday near Los Gatos, Calif. She was 36....'

The timing of Chang's death was ironic. It happened only weeks before the 63rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor next Tuesday - an assault that killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and injured 1,143.

That was America's first exposure to Japanese infamy. But China's exposure had happened years earlier.

In fact, Chang's suicide occurred only weeks before the 67th anniversary of the Japanese army's massacre in Nanking that began on Dec. 13, 1937. For two months Japanese soldiers murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and raped more than 80,000 women.

Chang had unflinchingly crusaded to tell the world what had happened at Nanking. She had a passion to set history straight.

Until Chang wrote about it, the Nanking atrocities had largely vanished in the mists of history. The massacre rarely got more than a passing mention in Western books. And postwar Japan glossed over the Nanking horrors, if they were mentioned at all. Japan, in fact, prefers to ignore the death toll for Chinese civilians, including Nanking's, which varies from 10 million to 35 million.

Chang, a second-generation Chinese who grew up in America and was fluent in Mandarin, launched a personal campaign to expose Japan's atrocities after it invaded China in the lead-up to World War II.

She'd known about the Nanking murders and rapes since childhood. Her grandparents had escaped from Nanking shortly before the massacre, and she'd heard their stories.

Chang grew up to be a newspaper reporter but authored several books, all about China and Japan. But her special mission had been to tell the world - and the Japanese people - what happened at Nanking.

Her book - subtitled "The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II' - was published in 1997 to critical acclaim. It was a best seller in America and abroad.

In Japan, however, it was never published. Unlike Germany, which has acknowledged the Nazi Holocaust and educated its citizens for decades about Germany's wartime atrocities, the Japanese government insists on silence. Most Japanese history books end before World War II. How convenient for Japan to sweep its evil past under the carpet.

Even though Chang's book was never published in Japan, it provoked international outrage and demands for Japan to apologize to China for wartime atrocities and to pay reparations to Chinese survivors.

Japan's response has been feckless. The apology was limp; reparations were minimal, if nonexistent.

Japan's refusal to acknowledge its deeds during the occupation of China was a keen disappointment for Chang.

After all, the evidence of atrocities had been stark. In 1937, Japanese newspaper and newsreels had triumphantly shown pictures of smiling Japanese soldiers disemboweling civilians in Nanking. The photos and newsreels were shown to pump up home-front morale in Japan.

Chang was interviewed by a Singapore newspaper after "The Rape of Nanking' was published.

"I wrote it out of a sense of rage,' she said. "I didn't really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937.'

At the time of her death, Chang was researching a book about American soldiers in the Philippines shortly before Pearl Harbor. Many of the GIs were imprisoned by the Japanese.

According to her obituary, Chang had become increasingly depressed during her research and had to be hospitalized. After her release, she committed suicide.

It could be argued that her hopes for "The Rape of Nanking' were dashed - that her book did not compel the Japanese government to apologize to China, much less teach young Japanese the truth in history books.

But there are encouraging signs that older Japanese, though not the government, want the truth to be told.

A news report in September told of an 84-year-old Japanese veteran who traveled to China to atone for murdering Chinese civilians in 1940. He was accompanied by a group of Japanese civilians who wanted to learn about the past.

I like to think Chang read that story. It was confirmation that at least some Japanese want to atone for their past.

\ Rosemary Roberts is a News & Record columnist. Her columns run on Fridays.

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