Clues to the past: The lost Sino-Japanese war photos

By China blog staff
BBC News

Media caption,
Zou Dehuai talks through some of his favourite pictures

As China gears up for a grand commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two, hundreds of never-before-seen historic photos have surfaced, shedding new light on a part of history that once scarred the country.

Unlike most widely circulated war documents in China that captured gory beheadings and mass graves, these photos offer a human touch, and a less known side of history - they came from private photo albums previously owned by Japanese soldiers who fought in the Sino-Japanese War, known in China as the Anti-Japanese War.

Zou Dehuai, a 25-year-old Chinese man who has travelled to Japan a few times, bought the albums on eBay and from dozens of flea markets and second-hand book stores with the help of Chinese friends based in Japan.

"I now have about 20 albums of more than 3,000 photos on war," he said.

"For many people, these albums are meaningless because most of them are just family or group photos. But after I studied more details, I realised some of them carry great significance."

Image caption,
Zou Dehuai collected the photos via eBay and on trips to Japan
Image source, ZOU DEHUAI
Image caption,
This photo shows a 20-year-old woman, believed to be the wife of the album's owner
Image source, Zou Dehuai
Image caption,
The photos may have faded but Mr Zou says the album covers are still 'fine'

Mr Zou said he has about a dozen Chinese friends in Japan who look out for these albums. Most are from his hometown, Qingdao, a coastal city in China that was once under Japan's occupation and only a short distance from Japan.

Mr Zou paid between a few hundred and several thousand Chinese yuan for each album.

New ones appear for sale online constantly but most are lost in the market and no-one bothers to find out what the back stories are.

The more popular and expensive ones are those that show cruel killings, but Mr Zou was more attracted by the subtle ones that dig deeper into people's lives.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
This photo was part of a 1943 album in Mr Zou's collection - showing a Japanese soldier with his friends, who later died in battle

One of his favourite albums may have come, he thinks, from a Japanese journalist who travelled with the army to China.

The absence of a military leader on the first page, the reflection of the photographer's tripod, and a few photos that look like self-portraits make the album stand out among the rest.

Photos in this album show ordinary Chinese girls on the streets of Nanjing, a city occupied by Japan in the war and where massacres killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese.

The girls are captured smiling for the camera in their traditional Chinese cheongsam dresses.

The photographer is seen in another city, Suzhou in southern China, posing by a wall daubed with slogans saying "kill all Japanese bandits who rob and rape".

Image source, ZOU DEHUAI
Image caption,
This photo came from an album bearing red Japanese characters which read "Prohibited"
Image source, ZOU DEHUAI
Image caption,
This photo comes from the same album, showing a group of students indicating it was a school

Another album Mr Zou found very interesting was possibly from a school headmaster, who had photos labelled with three red Japanese characters - "Prohibited".

In one of the photos, the owner of the album sits in the centre of a group photo with students and a man whose robe had a few characters that indicated it was school.

In another, we see photos labelled "Prohibited" showing dead bodies lying on the ground - someone carefully wrote down "Chinese soldiers' bodies".

Mr Zou explained that after the war, Japan tried to clean up all materials that documented what happened, so many photos were labelled with "Prohibited".

It was unclear how the headmaster obtained these photos. He may have never travelled to China, but Mr Zhou says perhaps collecting photos was his way of participating in the "sacred cause" of the war.

Image source, ZOU DEHUAI
Image caption,
Mr Zou believes the school headmaster was a worshiper of war during the time the photos were taken

Many were beautifully put together. Even though most of their colours have faded, the intricate patterns on some of the book covers still look amazingly fine.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Mr Zou also observes how frequently a person appears in an album - This soldier was seen in several photos
Image source, Other
Image caption,
The photo pictured on the right depicts the soldier's military combat uniform

Nobody knows how these albums came to be lying in the corners of second-hand book stores in Japan.

Mr Zou wondered whether maybe for some families, it was a painful memory to put behind them, and for others, perhaps it was a good thing to sell for money during the economic depression after the war.

Sporting a slicked-back hairstyle and a shiny silver stud earring, Mr Zou is obviously no historian. He works as an editor for the history section of a website.

One of his bigger projects is collecting old photos and interviews of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide regime in Cambodia, which saw the deaths of around two million people.

For all the albums he collects, Mr Zou says he checks whether the photos are coherent, how frequently each person appears and whether the handwriting matches throughout.

A shoulder badge, a board on the tower house, a street sign - every detail matters.

"It's not hard to determine whether the photos are authentic or not. All the details say something," he said.

"It would be hard to forge this kind of albums, because frankly it would cost a lot of time and money, and it's hardly rewarding."

Image source, ZOU DEHUAI
Image caption,
Many family and group photos in the albums, like this one, provide interesting clues
Image source, Other

While Mr Zou plans to keep some of the albums private, he will share most of them or even sell them.

"I collect these albums not to remember hatred, but to avoid repeating the same pain," he emphasised.

"They teach us a lesson: war is cruel and there is no winner."