NANJING, China (Reuters) - China marked 70 years since Japan’s Nanjing massacre on Thursday, invoking memories of the atrocity to remind Tokyo that the wartime past remains a bitter backdrop to an improving relationship.
Sirens wailed, calling citizens to silence, a bell tolled, and tens of thousands of people, including frail survivors, gathered for the reopening of a newly expanded massacre memorial in the former national capital in eastern China.
The six-week wave of killing by Japanese soldiers after Nanjing fell was among the bloodiest episodes of Japan’s invasion of China. Official Chinese accounts say 300,000 were killed.
For China, how Japan remembers the “Rape of Nanking” — as the city was then called in English — has become a test of how contrite its neighbour is about its brutal occupation of much of the country from the 1930s up to 1945.
Aged survivors came out to remind the world of the event. Chen Fubao, 75, clutched a black-and-white photo of his father, who was killed in the slaughter.
“We hope that the Japanese government, especially those in the nationalist factions, will admit the truth in history and learn from the Germans,” he told Reuters. “They should not cover up their crimes any more.”
Beijing and Tokyo have been moving in recent months to ease long-running tensions over history, territory and energy and commemorative propaganda has avoided harsh words about Japan’s current leaders.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is due in China soon, more than a year after his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, broke the ice with a visit. Top Chinese leaders stayed away from the memorial activities in Nanjing.
But the potency of wartime memories was clear in Thursday’s ceremonies. Tearful survivors, officials and young people struck a “peace bell” that rang out over the crowd.
Qiu Xiuying, 80, said her mother had been killed in the massacre and an aunt injured. “So every time there is a memorial, my tears will naturally flow,” she told Reuters.
While China insists that Japanese troops killed 300,000 men, women and children in the weeks that followed Nanjing’s capture, raping, torturing and mutilating many victims, some Japanese historians say the number was much lower. Some apologists for Tokyo’s military past deny the massacre even happened.
An Allied war tribunal put the Nanjing death toll at about 142,000.
Zhu Chengshan, curator of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, told Xinhua news agency that there was no doubting that 300,000 died.
Xinhua accused Japanese doubters of “selective amnesia”.
“Curing this disease is not hard and sufferers often fully recover,” it said. “But when it strikes a country or a nation, treating it is not easy.”
Writing by Chris Buckley; editing by Nick Macfie and Roger Crabb