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TikTok Spurs Frenzy over Fake Photos of Nanjing Atrocities

On the morning of August 29th, Evan Kail, the owner of St. Louis Park Gold & Silver, a Minnesota precious-metal dealership, received a batch of packages containing valuables for appraisal. Throughout the day, Kail, who is thirty-three, picked through the haul, mostly assorted coins and jewelry. He noted the condition of the contents of each parcel and estimated the value, making a mental note of any interesting objects that could be filmed for his popular TikTok account, @pawn.man.

In the early afternoon, Kail arrived at a package that contained, to his surprise, an album of wartime photographs, featuring two embossed dragons rising out of a leather cover. The pictures inside appeared to have been compiled by a U.S. Navy sailor during a tour of the western Pacific in the nineteen-thirties, when American troops were sent to the region to protect national interests, particularly in the Philippines. As Kail browsed the pages, he remembered the message that he had received, three weeks earlier, from the book’s owner: “It’s kind of disturbing.”

Most of the initial photographs showed benign scenes and indigenous vistas: well-swept temples, captive elephants, and buffalo plowing Saigon fields. Around fifteen pages in, Kail turned a leaf and exclaimed, “Holy shit.” Human carnage filled the next five pages: the spilled remains of people caught in heavy bombings; the falling body of a decapitated man, his head already on the ground; the charred, slumped cadaver of the driver of a burned-out vehicle; and what appeared to be an image of a public execution via lingchi, the archaic method of killing known to Westerners as “death by a thousand cuts.” Many of the photographs bore the caption “Nanking Road,” the former name of a Shanghai street, which Kail said that he mistook at first for the city of Nanking.

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army entered what was then the Chinese capital city of Nanking—today known as Nanjing. Eyewitness reports by American missionaries and military officers, Nazi Party members, diplomats, and foreign correspondents describe a range of atrocities committed by the invaders. They killed P.O.W.s, disembowelled and beheaded Chinese citizens, and, according to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which was held from 1946 to 1948, raped an estimated twenty thousand Chinese women and murdered more than two hundred thousand people. (Many sources state that these figures are conservative.) One Japanese veteran of the invasion later said, “There are really no words to describe what I was doing. I was truly a devil.”

Despite a wealth of corroborating testimony from both victims and perpetrators, the events in Nanjing have often been overlooked and even denied. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, some records were destroyed by the Japanese Army and others were lost by Chinese authorities. At times, Japanese leaders proved reluctant to admit to and atone for wartime wrongdoing, and the Chinese government initially stifled research into the massacre. Then, in the nineteen-eighties, a cadre of right-wing Japanese politicians and intellectuals attempted to whitewash the atrocities committed in Nanjing by rewriting school textbooks about the events. In 1994, Japan’s newly appointed Justice Minister, General Nagano Shigeto, told a newspaper that “the Nanjing massacre and the rest was a fabrication.” These compound factors had the effect of cumulative suppression. When, in 1997, the late Chinese American writer Iris Chang published “The Rape of Nanking,” it included the subtitle “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.”

Some of this history was known to Kail, who had majored in Japanese Studies at the University of Minnesota. If the photographs in the album he had received were authentic, he reasoned, they might provide additional documentary evidence of a controversial atrocity. For two days, he weighed his options. He estimated that the album could be worth more than ten thousand dollars, which made it an unviable acquisition for his business. “I don’t want to buy anything expensive that is going to sit here months,” he said. “I’ve made that mistake before with wartime memorabilia.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker