CUPERTINO, Calif. -- When a group of activists organized a panel discussion on Japanese troops' massacre of residents in the Chinese city of Nanjing nearly 70 years ago, they were not prepared for the overwhelming response.
"We got a bunch of seniors to show up and they packed the place. We were shocked. We thought people got over things like this," political activist Ignatius Ding said of the 1991 discussion.
"At the end, they said, 'You people have to do something about this because the war ended without full closure because Japan never really admitted anything.' Some of the people could not even find their relatives."
Sixty years after the end of World War II, a group of Chinese Americans in the Silicon Valley are helping organize an international movement that seeks to hold Japan accountable for atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers throughout Asia.
During the "Rape of Nanking" of 1937-38, Japanese troops are believed to have slaughtered thousands in the former Chinese capital. Civilians were reportedly raped, used for bayonet practice and killing contests, burned and buried alive, used for biological experiments and otherwise tortured and killed.
The Chinese government estimates that 35 million people died in China alone as a result of Japan's occupation from 1931 to 1945, Ding said.
The bitter feud over Japan's wartime invasion of China made headlines in April when violent demonstrations erupted throughout China to protest the Japanese government's approval of textbooks that critics say gloss over its military aggressions. The 1997 best seller "The Rape of Nanking" by Chinese American writer Iris Chang also helped galvanize the movement.
"Everybody knows about the Holocaust in the West, but nobody knows there was a tragic event that happened in Asia at five times the scale during that war," he said. "That's why we refer to it as the forgotten Holocaust."
Chinese American activists see their biggest opportunity in the war crimes redress movement is Japan's attempt this year to join an expanded United Nations Security Council.
The activists, part of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, helped organize an online petition signed by more than 40 million people seeking to block Japan's bid. They're also calling for a boycott of products produced by Japanese companies that produced artillery for wartime Japan.
Japanese officials have made public apologies for the country's wartime occupation of its neighbors. Most recently, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking to Asian leaders at the Asian-Africa summit in Indonesia in April, expressed "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for Japan's colonial rule and aggression.
"Japan's leaders have apologized on various occasions so far," said Yuka Ejima, a spokeswoman for the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. "It's nonsense to say that Japan hasn't apologized to the Asian people."
But activists want a strongly worded government apology backed by the Japan's Parliament, compensation for victims, Japanese textbook reform and laws that punish Japanese citizens who deny or distort their country's wartime past.
"Preserving the truth is very important. This is the only way for healing to take place between the Japanese and Chinese people," said Betty Huang, who chairs the Global Alliance. "If they don't officially apologize to the Chinese people, Japanese officials will repeat the wrong history again."
The Chinese American activists have also helped file class-action lawsuits in Japan and the United States seeking compensation for "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery and prisoners of war forced to labor for Japanese companies.
None of the lawsuits have succeeded yet, but activists say their campaign is gaining publicity and momentum.
"When we first started, the Japanese government didn't pay any attention to us. We were totally insignificant," said Cathy Tsang, one of the movement's organizers. "Now they're starting to pay attention."