China says it might counter a Japanese bid to submit wartime letters by suicide pilots to a UN heritage programme with documents of Japanese atrocities during the Nanking massacre.
Earlier this month, Minamikyushu city in southern Japan, the site of a base where young kamikaze pilots trained for their final missions, applied to list pilots' final letters to their families with the Memory of the World Programme of the UN cultural organisation, Unesco.
Beijing's move was revealed to non-mainland journalists during a two-day tour - organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - to the former Chinese capital, which today uses the post-war pinyin spelling Nanjing . It was where defeated Chinese troops and residents were subjected to mass rape and slaughter after the Japanese invaded.
China and Japan are locked in an acrimonious dispute over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyus in China and Senkakus by Japan, which currently occupies them. Relations between Asia's two most powerful nations deteriorated further after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine war memorial in December and Naoki Hyakuta, an executive at Japan state broadcaster NHK, called accounts of the Nanking massacre propaganda.
Although the exact number of casualties is not known, China says 300,000 civilians and soldiers died in the six-week spree of rape, murders and destruction when the Japanese military entered the then capital on December 13, 1937, shortly after they attacked Shanghai.
Some foreign academics put the death count lower, including the China historian and former Yale professor Jonathan Spence, who estimates that 42,000 soldiers and citizens were killed and that 20,000 women were raped, many of whom later died.
The visiting journalists were given a guided tour of the Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall, which is built on the site of mass graves and houses a museum dedicated to the invasion.
"Japan has repeatedly denied historical facts," said Wang Han , deputy curator of the Nanking Archives. "We have to make the international community aware of the facts."
China has not yet made a formal application to Unesco, but Wang said: "We have the intention [to do so] and we will see what steps should be taken."
The journalists were shown documents - some of which were produced by the Nationalist government before 1949 - disclosing the number of bodies buried in the city, and civilians' accounts of how their homes were ransacked by Japanese troops.
Xia Shuqin, 86, who survived the onslaught, told journalists how Japanese soldiers killed eight members of her family, including her mother and two sisters after they were raped. Xia blacked out until she heard the crying of her four-year-old sister. She awoke to find herself soaked in blood and surrounded by decomposing corpses.
"For 10 days, we hid among the dead. We were miserable," said Xia, who recovered after an elderly couple moved her to the International Safety Zone, a refugee camp set up by foreign residents to shelter 250,000 people.
The journalists were also taken to the former residence of John Rabe, a German national who had worked for Siemens in the city since 1931 and who later became the chairman of the safety zone's committee. Rabe's residence sheltered about 600 people in his courtyard, around which he hung Nazi flags to warn Japanese troops not to trespass on his property, said Yang Shanyou, director of the safety zone memorial hall.