Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in The Nanjing Massacre

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The Nanjing Massacre[edit]

Memorials in Nanjing claim there were 300 000 victims, including the Nanjing Massacre Museum[1]

The Nanjing Massacre was an incident which occurred at the time of World War II, where Japanese soldiers allegedly looted, raped and murdered their way through Nanjing.[2] However, there are few facts about the Nanjing Massacre that are universally accepted as truth.[3] The time frames claimed for the massacre ranges from three weeks, starting December 13th,[3] to three months between December 1937 and February 1938[2], and neither the geographical extent of the conflict, nor the number of victims have been agreed upon.[4] The number of victims ranges from 100[2] to 300 000[1].



The purpose of history as a discipline is generally seen as finding the truth about the past.[5] However, it's debatable whether it's actually possible to find an objective, historical truth, or if such a truth exists. The Nanjing Massacre is one example which presents a challenge to "positivist empiricism"[4] in history. Different sources claim different facts about the event, and additionally, there's a lack of primary sources due to Chinese suppression of the event at the time.[2] This is problematic, since sources are key in historical investigations and constructing a historical narrative.[6] Additionally, all sources need to be examined for propaganda, particularly photographs, as they were an effective means of producing convincing propaganda.[7]

Daqing Yang argues that the closest one can get to a historical truth is through convergence in arguments made by different historians. He identifies four points on which historians have been converging with regards to the Nanjing Massacre:

  • The Japanese army committed large-scale atrocities.
  • The soldiers were acting under orders, not performing random acts of violence.
  • Poor military tactics and confusion among the Chinese army contributed to the high number of losses.
  • The Western International Safety Zone helped save many Chinese lives.[4]

However, the issue with using consensus as a method to construct a common truth is that historians might never completely agree. For example, historians are not agreeing on the number of victims in Nanjing. The main problem is a lack of evidence; when there aren't enough reliable sources, historians are very limited in their research.[6] The sources that do exist tend to be biased or incorrect, thus hindering historians from finding the true number of victims.


Memory and Truth[edit]

The debate in Japan over the events of the Nanjing Massacre has been ongoing. While the Japanese government does not dispute that a large number of atrocities were committed against Chinese civilians both on the path to Nanjing and during the siege of the city, the exact amount of deaths is still a subject of contention. The 2010 Japan-China Joint History Research Committee could not come to a determination on the number of casualties in the massacre between China's minimum figure of 300,000 and Japan's maximum of 200,000.

Coherence vs. Correspondence[edit]

Philosophy can be a useful tool when determining the validity of either side in an argument over a single truth. Coherence theory regards truth as that which follows an individual's subjective set of beliefs without validating a single objective truth. In this case, Japan's national identity of valuing the notions of pride and honor may cause a distortion in one's beliefs of what their nation is truly capable of. Correspondence theory instead posits that truth is defined by how accurately it relates to a universal set of laws and facts. The Chinese prioritization of the first-hand accounts of victims as the most legitimate and accurate depictions of the truth, so as to not allow reality to be distorted by deniers, can be seen as a following of the correspondence theory of truth.

Debate within Japan[edit]

The debate over the Nanjing Massacre within Japan has been viewed by some experts as emotionally charged and between two extremes. A view of skepticism over the Chinese testimonies could earn one a label of being an apologist for Japanese fascism and imperialism. On the other hand, some view raising concern over the Massacre as anti-Japanese racism.


Truth in Sociology[edit]

truth is defined very differently by various schools of sociology. The two most well-known and contrasting definitions are from positivism and interactionism, whereby the former believes that truth exists externally and can be obtained by scientific methods, whilst the latter claims that truth is only a social construct and need to be emphatically understood.

Singularity of Truth - a phenomenologist’s view[edit]

There is no consistent agreement on the definition of truth by sociologist. However, given that the positivists’ work is to a degree similar to the historians in this case, we decide to focus on the interactionists’ part where truth and reality have alternative meanings.

Phenomenologists, also known as symbolic interactionists believe that reality is only constituted by people’s view of it- hence there are indefinite versions of truth in the universe. In the Nanking Massacre example, truth is understood to be the soliders; victims; civilians and every individual that took part in the war’s experince of it. That essentially means there is no single truth in studying the incident, as the people involved would have had each of their own distinctive experience and view of it, taking into account of the disruptive and chaotic nature of wars.

Challenges in Obtaining the Truth[edit]

As Marx Webber claims, the only way to obtain truth is by “verstehen”- emphasise with people who lived through the exact experience. Accommodating phenomenological methods into research, truth ought to be gathered from the eye-witnesses, in qualitative and detailed forms in order to retain its authenticity. However this often poses a great challenge in practical for the researchers, as given the sensitivity of the incident of Nanking Massacre, witnesses are reluctant to reveal their personal experience and the recall process could be particularly traumatic for the victims of the holocaust. On the other note, the wrongdoers in the massacre, the soldiers and authority are even more hindered to speak about the incident, as they are either still in denial of the event or are too guilty or ashamed to admit their past.

Different Truths in the Nanjing Massacre[edit]


  1. a b How to Visit Nanjing Massacre Museum « China Travel Tips [Internet]. 2019 [cited 27 November 2019]. Available from:
  2. a b c d Fogel J. The Nanjing Massacre in history and historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2000. Available from:
  3. a b Dixon J. Dark pasts. London: Cornell University Press; 2018. Available from:
  4. a b c Yang D. Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing. The American Historical Review [Internet]. 1999 [cited 24 November 2019];104(3):842-865. Available from:
  5. Dunning W. Truth in History. The American Historical Review [Internet]. 1914 [cited 25 November 2019];19(2):217-229. Available from:
  6. a b Howell M, Prevenier W. From reliable sources: an introduction to historical methods. 1st ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 2001
  7. Higashinakano O, Kobayashi S, Fukunaga S. Analyzing the "photographic evidence" of the Nanking massacre. Tokyo: Soshika; 2005. Available from: