More than a half-century after the Japanese invasion of the ancient Chinese city of Nanking, a tense international literary tug of words has flared over the Japanese translation of a bestselling book in the United States, ''The Rape of Nanking,'' which was scheduled to be published in Japan this year.
The American publisher, Basic Books, and the Japanese company, Kashiwashobo, ended months of wrangling this week by canceling their contract for a translation of Iris Chang's chronicle of the Japanese Army's military atrocities in the Rape of Nanking, which involved the systematic killing of 300,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners in a city of fewer than 650,000 people in 1937.
From Tokyo, Kashiwashobo's editor in chief, Hiraku Haga, declared that he did not trust the book. ''It's biased, prejudiced and like wartime propaganda,'' he said.
In New York, the American publisher, John Donatich, issued a statement expressing regret. ''The contract between us stipulated very clearly that no modifications to the text or artwork of Basic's edition be made without the author's consent,'' he said, noting that the Japanese publisher and the author could not agree on changes.
Kashiwashobo had sought to add notes and eliminate photographs in the book over the objections of Ms. Chang. She said she suspected that those actions were motivated by threats from right-wing Japanese organizations that challenge her description of events. ''I think it is safe to assume that they were cracking under pressure from ultranationalist groups,'' said Ms. Chang, who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., and whose immigrant Chinese parents passed down stories to her as a child of the atrocities in Nanking.
''Denial,'' she added, ''is an integral part of atrocity, and it's a natural part after a society has committed genocide. First you kill, and then the memory of killing is killed.''
Japan has historically been reluctant to take responsibility for wartime atrocities, and some prominent Japanese officials, contend that the incident in Nanking never happened. In recent years there has been increasing pressure from left-wing historians and others to explore that past. But mainstream politicians and education officials still tend to play down that history, charging that the West has exaggerated accounts.
It is not the first time publishers have dueled over sensitive books that crossed borders. In 1997 Doubleday successfully sued to halt the publication of a Polish translation of an American biography of Pope John Paul II that had been heavily edited by the Polish publisher to tone down some of the words of the authors, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi and to remove references to the Pope's ill health, to Polish anti-Semitism and to criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.
With the increasing export of American books to other countries, it is likely that there will more literary debates about books that challenge sensitive views about local events. But so far such arguments are relatively uncommon.
''This is unusual,'' said Carolyn Savarese, vice president and group rights director for the Perseus Books Group, which includes Basic Books. ''In the 50 years that Basic has been publishing books around the world, that has never happened before, and I think that says a lot.''
Basic and Kashiwashobo initially struck an agreement to publish ''The Rape of Nanking'' in May 1998 despite interest from other Japanese publishers, Ms. Savarese said. As part of that contract, she said, Basic included the stipulation that ''no modifications to the text of the original edition could be made without the author's consent.''
The hardcover version of the book, a stinging indictment of the behavior of Japanese military in Nanking, was first published in the fall of 1997 in the United States to general critical acclaim.
Drawing on diaries of soldiers, contemporary interviews and news accounts from the time, Ms. Chang describes mass executions of prisoners of war, the rape and killing of women, the burning of homes and the hunt for young men who might challenge the military in the future. And she tries to explain what motivated the soldiers. Takokoro Kozo, who was a soldier in the 114th Divison of the Japanese Army, is quoted in the book as saying, ''Women suffered most,'' and adding, ''Perhaps when we were raping her we looked at her as a woman, but when we killed her we just thought of her as something like a pig.''
After the publishers signed the contract for a Japanese version of the book, the efforts to translate it faced problems almost immediately. Ms. Chang received a letter from a Japanese literary agency alerting her that several Japanese historians had declined to review the translation, and that one professor had backed out because of pressure placed on his family by ''an unknown organization.''
Later Kashiwashobo started sending her letters seeking corrections and annotations to material in the book after creating a group to review her work. Mr. Haga of Kashiwashobo said in an interview yesterday that the issue amounted to a contract dispute, and that his company was not responding to pressure from groups that disliked the book. His company did request changes, he said, but did not insist on them.
Kashiwashobo, he said, did receive a faxed threat demanding a halt to the publication of the book and was visited by members of an organization that ''did not make a verbal threat, but basically wanted to voice the concern that the book may influence the younger generation.'' But he noted that his company was pressing forward with plans to publish other titles that examine Japanese war crimes.
But in E-mail correspondence quoted by Ms. Chang, Mr. Haga wrote, ''As we have indicated before, our publishing company is subject to considerable attack and it's not an exaggeration to say that we have put ourselves in a life-threatening situation in publishing this book.''
Eventually the author and the Japanese publisher would trade letters debating suggested corrections and a proposal to eliminate certain photographs, like one showing Japanese soldiers bayoneting Nanking victims. Ms. Chang said she was told that the authenticity of the photograph was questionable because the shadows of the figures appeared too short for the winter.
Mr. Haga's correspondence indicates that he was also concerned about the picture captions and wanted disclaimers that explained that Kashiwashobo could not verify the authenticity of the pictures. ''If we publish the photos with caption translations exactly as found in the original, we will surely be open for severe attack from the right-wing conservatives, and we have no way to defend ourselves,'' he wrote in November.
With the termination of the contract, Basic Books announced that it would seek another Japanese publisher. ''I want the Japanese people to know the truth of the Rape of Nanking,'' Ms. Chang said. ''I want them to know a side of history that isn't properly taught in school. Like it or not, this is a part of their history.''Category: World War II in Asia