“After raping them we would also kill them . . . they would flee once we let them go. Then we would ‘bang!’ shoot them in the back to finish them up . . . perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman . . . but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”
—Japanese soldier testimony from Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking”
Ever since I first came to China in 2006, I’ve been afraid of Nanjing — not the city itself, but what happened there in December of 1937. So when I was invited last month to accompany artist Makoto Fujimura on his trip to lecture in Nanjing, I was terribly confused.
I neither wanted to confront the open wound of this event myself, nor did I think art had anything to do with its healing. I’ve always felt that government reparations are what were needed, not art. Art seemed useless.
However, through the comments of three friends, I’ve realized something much deeper than political relations is at stake in Nanjing. And in the end, not only did I go — but I now have a sense of faith in the useless.
The first comment came from my Chinese friend Xiao Bei.
“I don’t hate the Japanese for what they did in Nanjing,” he said. “I hate that they don’t admit the extent of it, that they write their children’s textbooks to downplay it. I just want to see that they’re human, too — that they can acknowledge the evil.”
For a long time, what’s been keeping me from reading about and going to Nanjing — one of the most historically important cities in China — is a simple fear of confronting evil. I knew vaguely of the six-week reign of horror when the Japanese army entered the city on December 13th of 1937, but that’s all. And I’ve always been intimidated by the story of Iris Chang, who after researching and publishing her seminal text, The Rape of Nanjing, for seven years committed suicide.
In a way it has always seemed to me that, following Chang’s example, to go further into the knowledge of such darkness is to venture out into evil itself. Thus I was never willing to go near it. But that’s exactly what Xiao Bei wanted the Japanese to do. I felt maybe that’s what I needed to do, too.
The second comment that pushed me closer to faith in the useless was from Mako on the first night of his trip to China.
“I’m excited about going to Nanjing,” he began, “because putting a problem in the open is an act of creation. When that doesn’t happen, the soul hardens. And there’s been so much silence about Nanjing.”
That night I felt for the first time that I had words to describe what was happening inside of me — a hardening of the soul. I knew confronting Nanjing would demand something of me; I would be implicated simply by being human. It would ask me to mourn and weep, to be soft and to be hurt. In fear of being overtaken by emotions that I couldn’t control, I was hardening a part of myself that’s essential to being human — empathy.
While Mako’s words gave me the first hint that art, creation itself, might have something fundamentally powerful to contribute towards reconciliation, I wouldn’t say I was convinced yet. Just curious. However, the next day I did buy Chang’s book and begin reading.
Days later when we arrived in Nanjing, I spoke with an organizer of the event, Jeremy. He explained “We didn’t invite Mako here as an advertisement or propaganda, but rather because [we] wanted to create a certain kind of space.”
In Nanjing, Jeremy and his associates live day to day with its ethos, the racism against the Japanese, the pain of the local people; it’s like white noise, always there, muting the rest of life. But he’s not interested in formal political apologies.
By the time I sat down in the auditorium of about 400 people, mostly Chinese students from the Nanjing Arts Institute, I was nervous with anticipation. Would Mako apologize on behalf of his ancestors? How would it tie into his art?
What happened was not what I expected, not at all.
Mako just talked about his art like he always does. The only thing specific to Nanjing was that when talking about his personal experience with 9/11 and the need for art to come to terms with true evil, he mentioned Nanjing as a parallel example of “pure darkness.”
“Yes,” I thought, “more on that. Tell them how sorry the Japanese are . . . ”
But he didn’t. He talked about how good art claims that both evil and beauty exist. It was all about art, and it felt useless.
As Mako ended his lecture and asked the audience for questions, I thought the whole thing had missed the point. But then the most curious thing happened: people began asking questions.
They didn’t mention the Rape of Nanjing either, but every comment danced around the shadow of it. One girl spoke up saying that she disagreed with Mako’s claim that true beauty requires implicit sacrifice. She said she would like it better the other way.
Another disagreed that vulnerability was required for communication, and said that the way to communicate was to make yourself strong enough to participate in dialogue, not weaker. Then the event ended.
It’s taken me weeks since then to think over what exactly happened that night. Something had been exchanged, I just wasn’t sure what. Mostly I kept reflecting on the words of Xiao Bei, Mako, and Jeremy — “I just want to see that they are human,” “what’s needed is an act of creation,” “we’re making a certain type of space.”
Slowly I’ve begun to realize that something more fundamental than an apology was being exchanged that night. We had gone farther, deeper, and to more places than a specific apology on Nanjing could go. We talked about evil, beauty, sacrifice, and true communication — all components of human-ness.
I think it’s possible that people like me, who are interested in Nanjing and the reconciliation of the Japanese and Chinese, could have called Mako’s lecture and the entire event useless. And in a sense that’s true. The event wasn’t utilitarian; like good art, it wasn’t employed for some function.
But the event really was a creation of space where things essential to being human were discussed, and it has since dawned on me that perhaps it’s in just this kind of space where seeds of reconciliation might actually be planted.
And this is where faith in the useless is required, because what’s at stake is the conviction that something happens in the space that art creates.
The effects of art are by no means measurable. But what about empathy? What about the capacity to communicate? Isn’t a lot at stake when we behold beauty? Isn’t it useful for becoming human?
What was wrong with the Rape of Nanjing was not simply one country’s aggression towards another, but that for six weeks evil and darkness reigned. Beauty was not allowed to exist, and thus humanity wasn’t either. But art confronts exactly that situation because by its existence it asserts that beauty does exists, and that creation of something new is possible.
The essence of good art is the same essence at work in Oskar Schindler’s factory, John Rabe’s safety zone, and Iris Chang’s truth-telling — an act of hope in a disintegrating world. The glory of these stories is that people do something, even when that something is small and seems useless in the face of overwhelming evil. But that takes faith — faith that something bigger is happening than the little you are contributing.
So art might seem useless. The body can survive without it. Politics and economies could go on, and relations between Japan and China will continue. But the soul won’t survive — and neither will our human-ness unless beauty exists. The six weeks of Nanjing are a continual reminder of that.
By putting faith in the useless, Mako’s event challenged the Japanese/Nanjing loss of humanity. It was one step in rehumanizing the exchange between two cultures, it was one person of Japanese descent asserting his humanity, and even if not measurably useful, it’s invaluable. It’s certainly beautiful.