A Nanjing Massacre survivor’s story lives on digitally


“Japan, up to this moment, has still not officially apologized to China and to the victims of the war,” said Dr. Chang. “And If you don’t think what you did is wrong, you will repeat the same mistake. The Japanese need to understand what happened in their own history.”

Although Japanese prime ministers have not apologized for Nanjing specifically, they have made general, albeit belated apologies for war atrocities. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of World War II’s end, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama stated, “In the hope that no such mistake be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humility, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.” In 2005, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a similar statement of remorse.

But in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied any evidence that Japan forced “comfort women” into sexual slavery during the war. And in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, Abe pointedly did not apologize, despite expressing his remorse for Japan’s misdeeds.

When I asked Dr. Chang about the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall’s newest digital installation of Madame Xia, she iterated her support and enthusiasm.

“It’s very exciting,” Dr. Chang said. “It’s better than just a recording or a video. You’re forming a bond, like you’re asking a real person. And it’s so important for people to preserve and continue this. After we die, I hope that the next generation will continue to preserve the truth.”

Thus, it’s fitting that in a 1998 speech at Miami Dade College, Iris Chang specifically singled out the USC Shoah Foundation for its work with Holocaust victims. During her speech, she expressed a now prescient wish: that the Nanjing victims would receive similar media treatment.

“I think Steven Spielberg … has done a wonderful thing by creating the Shoah Foundation to film the surviving testimonials of Holocaust victims,” she said. “Historians should follow his lead and gather eyewitness accounts of Japanese brutality … which would create an even richer primary source material archive for future books. This would protect the victims from being written out of history by future revisionists. And there is a very small window of opportunity to do this, because the victims are dying.”

The USC Shoah Foundation, in collaboration with the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, began recording and collecting testimonies of Nanjing survivors in 2012. There are currently more than 100 survivors in their archives, a number of which are available through the Foundation’s Visual History Archive. It was in 2012 that Madame Xia first recorded testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation. The foundation came to her and videotaped her testimony in China. But to record this latest, more-interactive installation, Madame Xia had to fly out to Los Angeles. She recorded her new testimony over five days at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. She sat under bright lights, surrounded by cameras, for approximately three to four hours per day, with breaks. The team collected 13 to 15 hours of footage total, comprised of 600 different responses.

Questions were phrased to solicit answers that would be accessible for educational purposes, everything from “How old are you” to “What was your worst memory?” It even took questions from Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall visitors, who were asked, “If you could ask Madame Xia a question, what would it be?” Madame Xia was not given the questions before the interview, to encourage more natural responses.

The final, resulting dialogue simulation is made possible by IBM’s Watson, a question-answering system that runs hundreds of language algorithms at once. Madame Xia’s is the first NDT project that uses Watson exclusively.

“The primary concern for us is to take someone’s question and map it to the most appropriate response,” said Sam Gustman, chief technology officer of the USC Shoah Foundation. “When we do an interview, we have [a set number of] responses [from the subject]. Those never change. But we have tens of thousands of people who talk to these survivors. And we also have all kinds of people [who speak] different languages who are asking these questions.”

The more information that is fed into Watson, the more it is able to process and find patterns in “natural language” — the commonly spoken, unrehearsed manner that a person would use to communicate orally.

“We’ll be able to leverage the power of Watson as it grows, because there are so many people using it now,” Gustman said. “There’s so much being added to it that it overtook what we could do privately. With Watson, we get more functionality.”

“The goal is to create as human an experience as possible,” Gustman continued. “We’re continuing to work on the artificial intelligence so it feels more like a conversation. But at the same time, we’re also working on the display, so it’ll feel like you’re talking to a real person.”

He cited a project at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies in which researchers are perfecting an automultiscopic technology. It creates a simultaneous 3D effect for a large group of people, and it can be seen with the naked eye without the aid of 3D glasses or other peripherals. An early version of this technology was featured in Morgan Spurlock’s CNN documentary series, Inside Man.

That was 2014. Today, this technology is still years away from being implemented in common practice. But the USC Shoah Foundation planned ahead and attempted to make any recorded, raw footage “future-proof.” More than 100 high-end cameras captured Madame Xia’s every movement, facial expression and fidget, from every angle. That way, when the future does arrive, this automultiscopic 3D imaging can still be implemented, even if Madame Xia has passed away in the interim.

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