The Nanking Massacre occurred in the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which started in 1937.

After seizing the city of Nanjing (Nanking) on Dec. 13, 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army killed a large number of Chinese war prisoners and civilians.

Eighty years on, the incident still remains one of the thorny issues concerning the perceptions of history that are straining relations between the two countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a Dec. 13 ceremony in Nanjing to mark the 80th anniversary of the incident. It was the first time he has attended the annual event in three years, but he didn’t deliver a speech.

Xi apparently tried to avoid upsetting Japan while demonstrating his intention to place great importance on history in this landmark year.

Japan’s relationship with China is certainly on the mend. We can say that it is now easier for the two nations to take a calm look at such history-related issues.

With regard to what happened in Nanjing eight decades ago, the main bone of contention has been the number of victims, which has contributed to complicating the controversy.

In China, the government has adopted the official view that 300,000 people were killed in Nanjing by Japanese soldiers, a figure based on the ruling by a war tribunal held in the city after World War II. Chinese politicians have often referred to this number.

But there are quite a few Chinese historians who think there is not sufficient evidence to back up this view. Since these historians cannot voice their opinions in public or the news media, the diversity of views about the issue among Chinese researchers has not become widely known to the Japanese public.

Meanwhile in Japan, estimates of the death toll by experts range from the tens of thousands to 200,000. But few Japanese historians deny that such a large-scale massacre took place.

Reams of records and testimonies indicate that lax military discipline was a serious problem for the Imperial Japanese Army at that time. There is no denying that massive atrocities were committed in the city by Japanese soldiers.

There have been Japanese publications and Internet articles claiming there was no massacre in Nanjing. Such arguments appear to have gained traction in Japan in recent years.

This trend is sometimes reported in China in a way suggesting that this view has become mainstream in Japan.

In addition to the difference in position between Japan, the perpetrator, and China, the victim, various other factors, including differences between the status in the two countries concerning freedom of speech and academic freedom and, sometimes, political aims and intentions, have hampered efforts on both sides to acquire an accurate and objective understanding of what occurred.

We hope that researchers of both countries will study the incident and exchange views and opinions in a calm and steady environment.

The number of victims, even if it is an important historical fact, is not necessarily essential information for learning lessons from history.

Japanese writer Yoshie Hotta (1918-1998) wrote a novel about the incident titled “Jikan” (Time), which takes the form of a diary written by a Chinese intellectual caught in the middle of the furious rampage.

In that novel, the protagonist says, “It was not that tens of thousands of people died. The fact is that one individual died after another and the toll reached tens of thousands.”

As 80 long years have passed, the number of witnesses to the horrors has dwindled, causing the memories of what happened to fade.

People and groups trying to prevent Japan’s shameful past from coming to the fore may gain further influence in the coming years.

If Japan cannot face up to its past, however, that would be a real shame to the nation.

While taking pride in its postwar development as a pacifist nation that renounces war, Japan should not lose the courage to confront unfortunate chapters of its history.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 17