This is the fourth in a short series by Larry Mark

NANKING, a documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman about the Japanese atrocities in Nanking, China prior to World War II, had its world premiere at Sundance this past weekend.

I came away from this film wanting it to be shown in every American and Japanese school and home.

While most Jews are familiar with the Nazi Holocaust and its atrocities, and some have an inkling of the German Jews who found refuge from Hitler in Shanghai, few know about the Japanese destruction of Nanking (now called Nanjing) in 1937 and 1938, and the role of two dozen Americans and a German Nazi in the saving of over 200,000 Chinese lives.

NANKING: EVEN IN THE DARKEST OF TIMES, THERE IS LIGHT shows the power of documentary filmmaking. The film details how the Japanese subjected the temporary capital of China, Nanking, to months of aerial bombings, followed by a ground assault that left the city in ruins.

A small group of Westerners banded together to create a Safety Zone, where 200,000 Chinese found refuge from the Japanese.

The story is told with recollections by actual Chinese survivors, by Japanese soldiers who are still alive, and by readings from the letters and diaries of eyewitnesses. These readings feature Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway.

Over the course of less than 2 months, Japanese soldiers raped approximately 20,000 women, and then usually stabbed them to death when they were finished; and murdered 200,000 of Nanking’s Chinese residents. A group of 22 Americans and Europeans however, were able to save 200,000. One of the saviors, a devoted Nazi, later returned to Germany, where he was ostracized and forced into poverty.

Just as Bitberg, a cemetery that includes Nazi SS troops, exists in Germany, NANKING shows that in Japan, a memorial to the leaders of the atrocities was built and remains to focal point and celebratory site for Japanese nationalists. The Yakasuna shrine in Tokyo includes tributes to fourteen Japanese Class A war criminals. The rejection of Japanese guilt is so great in Japan, that Japanese crew members and three associate producers hired for the Japanese segments of this film quit the project and refused to work on it.

The genesis of this documentary occurred when Ted Leonsis, Vice-Chairman of AOL, while on vacation, read a copy Iris Chang’s obituary in The New York Times and became interested in her book, THE RAPE OF NANKING, that contributed to her depression and suicide at the age of 36 in 2005. For several days, the picture of Chang kept staring at Leonsis (I suppose that housekeeping did not empty trash regularly). Was it a message from beyond the grave?

Leonsis decided to keep the obituary and read Chang’s award winning book. Afterwards, he realized, with the anniversary of the December 1937 atrocities approaching, he had a great story that needed to be told. And fortunately the film will be distributed before the 70th anniversary.

Hopefully, every school child in America will know the name of Minnie Vautrin and the other Westerners, who in the face of the Japanese war machine, saved countless lives. Vautrin, like the author of the book, later committed suicide from the stress and trauma of the events.

While the Sundance opening film, CHICAGO 10, is hoping to spur young American to take a stand and become politically active, I believe that NANKING is better positioned to accomplish this and easily more inspiring and riveting.

About the author

Laya Millman


  • Laya:

    Just as a matter of historical accuracy, I feel compelled to point out that Yasukuni Shrine (not Yakasuna) was not built specifically to honor WWII war criminals as your post suggests.

    Yasukuni Shrine is the main “gokoku jinja” or “country protecting shrine” in Japan. It was established in 1869 to honor the spirits of those soldiers who died in the Boshin War, the civil war that ended the Tokugawa government and led to the Meiji Restoration.

    Each prefecture has a “gokoku jinja”. These shrines house the spirits of everyone who has died in war in the service of the Emperor. Each prefectural shrine houses the spirits of the dead from that prefecture. In a sense, these shrines are the equivalent of military cemeteries in the US.

    Yes, it is more than a little problematic that the shrine also houses the spirits of WWII war criminals and that Japan cannot seem to come to grips with its legacy of atrocities during WWII.

    But, hey, George Armstrong Custer is still buried at West Point. Japan’s not the only country that can’t deal.

  • Hey Ephraim, it’s not actually my post. As it says in the first line, it’s a guest post by a fellow at Sundance. That having been said, good spot. Where do you happen to know all that from?

  • Oops. My bad.

    I lived in Japan for a decade, and the issue of Yasukuni Shrine, or, more specifically, the issue of official visits to it by the Emperor or politicians, always generated a lot of controversy. The Chinese and Koreans, of course, never fail to go apeshit if anyone in the government visits the place.

    A lot of people in Japan are very ashamed and remorseful about what their country did in WWII. But they also hate it when foreigners remind them of it, and so they get defensive. Nobody likes being lectured.

    Just like with the Jews and Grmany, some wounds will never heal.

  • I agree with Ephraim. Some Japanese will not face its war crimes

    But at least at USMA-West Point, cadets and visitors can openly question whether to honor Custer or Mickey Marcus or whomever they wish in the cemetery, and the U.S. President is not laying a wreath on Custer’s grave.

    In Japan, the shrine that contains the souls of many soldiers, including Class A War Criminals, is a site that is used by nationalists for demonstrations, specifically because it honors those who expanded Japan’s colonial ambitions.

    Yes, it took a century for America to realize Custer was not a saint; and it took decades for Germany to face its realities, and it will take decades for Japan and Austria to face their historical issues.

    Thanks for correctnig the spelling and the info on the shrine

  • The issue of the “Rape of Nanking” is huge in Japanese/Chinese political relations. There is something called the Textbook crisis, which is basically where the Japanese don’t talk about the atrocities committed by them in their textbooks, and so the Chinese are upset about it every few years.

    Just as there is an uproar when a major Japanese official visits Yasakuni, every time a new textbook is published it takes a while for relations between the two countries to be normalized.

    For the record, this same trend has not occured in Korea, with the issue of “comfort women.” An even less well known travesty of war where the Japanese set up a system for the abduction and abuse of young women (mostly Korean) for the purpose of making them into government-sanctioned prostitutes.