Hong Kong (CNN) -- The mayor of a Japanese city has sparked outrage after playing down a well-documented massacre of civilians in China's former capital more than 70 years ago.
An estimated 300,000 people died when Japanese troops invaded the city of Nanjing in China's Jiangsu province in 1937, unleashing a campaign of rape, murder and looting that became known as the Nanjing Massacre. The event was recently portrayed in a movie starring Christian Bale called "The Flowers of War."
But earlier this week, Takashi Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, told a visiting delegation from Nanjing that he believed only "conventional acts of combat" took place there, not the mass murders and rapes, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported. He repeated his assertion to Japanese reporters Wednesday.
"It is true that a considerable number of people died in the course of battle. However such a thing as so-called Nanjing Massacre is unlikely to have taken place," he said.
Tokyo's outspoken conservative governor Shintaro Ishihara on Friday said he agreed with the mayor of Nagoya's statement that the 1937 'rape' of Nanjing by Japanese troops never happened.
"What mayor Kawamura says is correct. I would like to defend him," Ishihara told journalists.
Ishihara believes that it would have been physically impossible for the former Japanese army to kill so many people in such a short period of time, Jiji press reported him as saying.
Tokyo on Wednesday said the official government position on the sacking of the city had not changed.
Spokesman Osamu Fujimura said: "We cannot deny that the killing of noncombatants, looting and other acts occurred" following the Japanese imperial army's advance into Nanjing....
"The historical facts of the Nanjing Massacre have been solidly proven. The claim by Kawamura is extremely irresponsible. We hope the mayor can admit the historical facts and draw lessons from the past," read a statement issued by Nanjing's information office and published by Xinhua.
A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry expressed support for the decision at a news conference Wednesday.
"We have made our position clear on the Nagoya mayor's denial of the Nanjing Massacre and already lodged a solemn representation to the Japanese side," Hong Lei said, in quotes carried by Xinhua. He added that China was closely monitoring the situation.
An editorial in the state-controlled Global Times Thursday urged China to put pressure diplomatically and economically on Kawamura to apologize or resign. "We strongly suggest China uses its diplomatic resources to issue sanctions on Kawamura and put pressure on Nagoya," it said.
"If needed, we can also downgrade economic cooperation with Nagoya to add weight to the incident. Such actions are totally morally justifiable. Most of the reckless Japanese officials to deny history like Kawamura had paid their price."
Still, the Japanese government scrambled to head off a full-blown diplomatic quarrel. The top government spokesman restated Japan’s official position that the massacre did, in fact, take place.
“This is a problem that should be appropriately resolved between the cities of Nagoya and Nanjing,” said the spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura.
The City Hall of Nagoya, an industrial city in central Japan, said it received what it described as a short and business-like e-mail on Wednesday morning from the city government of Nanjing saying that the Chinese city was temporarily halting all exchanges.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kawamura remained unrepentant, saying that he did not intend to retract the statement or apologize. He explained that his father had been a solider in Nanjing in 1945, and was treated kindly by city residents, which he said would have been impossible had an atrocity taken place there just eight years earlier.
“There are many opinions about the so-called Nanjing incident,” he told reporters, using the Japanese term for the killings in December 1937. “I have said I want to have a debate with people from Nanjing.”
Such disagreements between Japan and its neighbors have quieted from the early 2000s, when Junichiro Koizumi, then prime minister, angered many in China and South Korea by visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan’s war dead, included executed war criminals.
However, questions of history can still disrupt relations. In Kyoto in December, Japan’s prime minster, Yoshihiko Noda, was rebuffed by the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, when Mr. Noda asked for removal of a statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul that remembered women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II. The South Korean leader responded by asking for compensation for the surviving former sex slaves, most now in their 80s. Japan says war-related reparations were settled when it established diplomatic ties with South Korea after World War II.
source: Paul Armstrong, CNN , MARTIN FACKLER, New York Times,, AFP