I HAVE JUST BEEN GUT-PUNCHED BY THE NEWS that a dear friend and intellectual soul mate over the last several years, Iris Chang, was found dead in her car near Santa Clara, California.
Iris’s book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, had immeasurable impact on a collective historical amnesia problem not only in Japan, but also in the United States and around the world. This brilliant and beautiful writer and thinker was, to me, a modern Joan of Arc riding into the nastiest of battles calling for honest and fair reconciliation with the past.
We met via email years ago. She joined a quest I was on some years ago to try and get people to look seriously at the contemporary legal consequences of back room deal-making by John Foster Dulles on the eve of signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty, formally ending Allied Occupation of Japan on September 8, 1951. I wrote a New York Times piece on this subject, which appeared on 4 September 2001.
Whereas I thought I had found an interesting historical tidbit that had been neglected by historians and lawyers, Iris Chang knew that I had just wandered unsuspecting into a raging battle between Chinese and Japanese warriors over memory and the historical record. She called me, and we had a two hour phone conversation where she helped prepare me for the onslaught of criticism that would fly my way from those who wanted to preclude any discussion of Japan’s wartime responsibilities.
She followed up with her own New York Times articles on the debate about Japan, war memory, and what I called — America’s complicity in Japan’s historical amnesia. Unfortunately, her articles are not available on the internet.
We met several times in person, once after a talk I gave at De Anza College in Cupertino, California where she sat anonymously in the back of a room of 500-600 people interested in Japan’s war memory debate. This subject is one she owned — and was one that I had just stumbled into — but her brilliance and authority on this subject was tempered by intimidating modesty. She never let anyone know that she was there at De Anza.
We also shared a platform together at a conference organized in April 2002 by the University of San Francico Center for the Pacific Rim.
It would be irresponsible for me to suggest anything more than the authorities are suggesting about her death, but I would only add that I find it distressing and worrisome that two brilliant change-agents, Iris Chang and the late film-maker Juzo Itami, who made us see our worlds differently than we otherwise would — each supposedly committed suicide, after bouts of depression. I have never bought the story about Juzo Itami, whom I also knew and who was at war in his films with Japan’s national right wing crowd and yakuza.
I have no choice but to accept what has been reported about Iris’s death — but all I can say, and I can barely express anything sensible about this tragedy, is that the world has lost much in her passing.
Iris Chang wrestled with the tensions between conviction, faith, and communal lies. She was attacked from so many corners for her important work that she tried to untangle why truth was so frequently strangled by conviction, faith, and delusion.
We once discussed at length this passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Anti-Christ.” I don’t believe that Iris was a Nietzche acolyte, but what follows below captures much of what we were both struggling with at the time:
One step further in the psychology of conviction, of “faith.” It is now a good while since I first proposed for consideration the question whether convictions are not even more dangerous enemies to truth than lies. (“Human, All-Too-Human,” I, aphorism 483.)
This time I desire to put the question definitely: is there any actual difference between a lie and a conviction? — All the world believes that there is; but what is not believed by all the world! — Every conviction has its history, its primitive forms, its stage of tentativeness and error: it becomes a conviction only after having been, for a long time, not one, and then, for an even longer time, hardly one.
What if falsehood be also one of these embryonic forms of conviction? — Sometimes all that is needed is a change in persons: what was a lie in the father becomes a conviction in the son. — I call it lying to refuse to see what one sees, or to refuse to see it as it is: whether the lie be uttered before witnesses or not before witnesses is of no consequence.
The most common sort of lie is that by which a man deceives himself: the deception of others is a relatively rare offense. — Now, this will not to see what one sees, this will not to see it as it is, is almost the first requisite for all who belong to a party of whatever sort: the party man becomes inevitably a liar. For example, the German historians are convinced that Rome was synonymous with despotism and that the Germanic peoples brought the spirit of liberty into the world: what is the difference between this conviction and a lie?
Is it to be wondered at that all partisans, including the German historians, instinctively roll the fine phrases of morality upon their tongues — that morality almost owes its very survival to the fact that the party man of every sort has need of it every moment? — “This is our conviction: we publish it to the whole world; we live and die for it — let us respect all who have convictions!” — I have actually heard such sentiments from the mouths of anti-Semites. On the contrary, gentlemen!
An anti-Semite surely does not become more respectable because he lies on principle … The priests, who have more finesse in such matters, and who well understand the objection that lies against the notion of a conviction, which is to say, of a falsehood that becomes a matter of principle because it serves a purpose, have borrowed from the Jews the shrewd device of sneaking in the concepts, “God,” “the will of God” and “the revelation of God” at this place.
I am too sad to write more about her now.
Arafat’s passing has been grabbed by many as an opportunity to move the sorry state of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a new direction.
Perhaps those in Japan who reviled Iris Chang’s important work can step down from their strident defense of a white-washed history and find a course that leads to a more introspective and self-aware nationalism than is the case today.
— Steve Clemons
POSTSCRIPT: COMMENT BY IRIS CHANG IN INTERVIEW WITH KINUE TOKUDOME
This important and interesting clip was just sent to me by journalist-activist Kinue Tokudome in an October 1998 Ronza magazine interview. I thought some of you might like to read her words about historical memory and Iris’s support of those in Japan who want to reconcile the past and present.
From Kinue Tokudome’s interview with Iris Chang:
Are you planning to go to Japan after The Rape of Nanking comes out there?
I don’t know. All I do know is that I recognize that there are many sincere, wonderful and courageous people in Japan who want nothing more than to promote the truth, and these kinds of people – though in small numbers – can be found worldwide.
This is a human quality that transcends ethnicity and nationality. Such people recognize that what happened in Nanking and in other regions of China is a human rights issue, and that patriotism or nationality or ethnicity has no bearing on human rights issues. They see the larger picture.
I am one hundred percent behind those people in Japan, and I certainly hope to meet them one day.
— Steve Clemons