Nanking Massacre

The Nanking Massacre (Chinese: 南京大屠殺, pinyin: Nnjīng Dtshā; Japanese: 南京大虐殺, Nankin Daigyakusatsu), also known as the Rape of Nanking and sometimes in Japan as the Nanking Incident (南京事件, Nankin Jiken), refers to what many historians recognize as widespread atrocities committed by the Japanese army in and around Nanking (now Nanjing), China, after the capital's fall to Japanese troops on 13 December , 1937 in the Battle of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) (later to become a part of World War II). War crimes committed during this episode include looting, rape, and the killing of civilians and prisoners of war. The extent of the atrocities is debated, and recognition of the event is a point of diplomatic dispute between China and Japan.

In China, the event is a major focal point of Chinese nationalism. In Japan, opinion among the public about it is divided, with some sentiment, especially among conservatives, that the Nanking Massacre has been exaggerated (if not fabricated) as a diplomatic weapon directed against Japan. Such opinions are considered to be historical revisionism among the Chinese, and as such, they continue to generate anger and resentment.


Events leading to the Massacre

Following the Mukden Incident in 1931, Japan began its invasion of Manchuria. Because the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT) were engaged in the Chinese Civil War they were distracted from the reality of Japanese advances. However, in 1937, following the Xi'an Incident, the Chinese communists and nationalists agreed to form a united front. The KMT then formally started an all-out defense against the Japanese threat. However, the Chinese army was poorly trained and equipped: some regiments were armed primarily with swords and hand grenades and few had anti-tank weaponry. Despite their difficulties, it is likely that China fielded the largest army in the world at the time in terms of troop numbers. Following the Battle at Marco Polo Bridge, which formally started the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese were swift in capturing major Chinese cities in the northeast.

The incident is considered as the most infamous event in the Japanese invasion of China. In August of 1937, the Japanese army faced strong resistance and suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of Shanghai, effectively destroying the possibility of conquering China in three months. The Battle in Shanghai was bloody as both sides faced attrition in urban hand-to-hand combat. Many historians today believe that the traumatic situation in Shanghai nurtured some of the psychological conditions for Japanese soldiers to march on Nanking later on. By mid-November the Japanese had captured the city with help of naval bombardment. The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo decided not to expand the war due to heavy casualties incurred and the low morale of the troops. However, on December 1, headquarters ordered the Central China Area Army and the 10th Army to capture Nanking, then the capital of the Republic of China. The Japanese army contained many army reserves who had families back home and expected to return home once the campaign in Shanghai was over. This combined with the trauma of from the Battle of Shanghai nurtured strong sentiments of hate towards the Chinese.

After losing the Battle of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek knew the fall of Nanking would be simply a matter of time. Leaving Gen. Tang Shengzhi in charge of the city for the Battle of Nanking, Chiang and many of his advisors flew to Chongqing, China's wartime capital for the next seven years. Although walls of defence were constructed, they were never effectively used. In the absence of an organized retreat, the situation before the Japanese entered Nanking was chaotic. On December 13, the Japanese entered a city virtually free of any military resistance.

Japanese atrocities

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A woman was brutally raped and killed.
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The executed were burried in the "Ten Thousand Corpse Ditch"
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Heaps of dead bodies wait for disposal on the wharves of Hsiakwan, the port suburb north of Nanking.

Witness accounts from the period state that over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanking, Japanese troops engaged in an orgy of rape, murder, theft, and arson. The site of some of the most gruesome atrocities committed during the ordeal was the Nanking hospital. Bandages were torn from the flesh of the wounded, casts were smashed with clubs, and nurses were repeatedly raped.


Historians estimate that 20,000 (and sometimes up to 80,000) women from as young as seven to the elderly were raped. According to historians, rapes were often performed in public during the day, and often in front of spouses or family members. It is believed that rape was systemized in a process where soldiers would search door to door for young girls. It is said as well that many women were taken captive to be gang-raped, and some were kept to be raped again. It is considered that it was common for a woman to be killed immediately after being raped, usually by mutilation. According to the testimonies, some women were forced into military prostitution as comfort women. It is even believed that the Japanese troops often forced families to commit acts of incest: sons were forced to rape their mothers, fathers were forced to rape daughters. Monks who had declared a life of celibacy were forced to rape women for the amusement of the Japanese. Instances of Chinese men forced to rape corpses were not uncommon during the occupation. While the rape peaked immediately following the fall of the city, it continued for the duration of the Japanese occupation.


According to historians, immediately following the fall of the city, Japanese troops searched for former soldiers. During their search, they captured thousands of young men, most of whom were civilians. Many were taken to the Yangtze River, where they were machine-gunned so their bodies would be carried down to Shanghai. Others were used for live bayonet practice. It is believed that decapitation was a popular method of killing for the Japanese troops. Reports of soldiers being exhausted from decapitating prisoners were common. According to other reports, some Chinese were burned, nailed to trees, or hung by their tongues, and some women had their breasts cut off. Witnesses recall Japanese soldiers throwing babies into the air and catching them with their bayonets. Pregnant women were often the target of murder, as they would often be bayoneted in the belly.

Theft and arson

It is said that as much as two thirds of the city was destroyed as a result of arson. According to reports, Japanese troops torched newly built government buildings as well as the homes of many civilians. There was considerable destruction to areas outside the city walls. Soldiers pillaged from not only the wealthy but the poor as well. Japanese soldiers were given a free hand immediately following the fall of the city. This resulted in the widespread looting and burglary. General Matsui Iwane was given an art collection worth $2,000,000 that was stolen from a Shanghai banker. To aid the Japanese war effort, soldiers collected every bit of metal including hinges on doors following the United States embargo on scrap metal.

Death toll estimates

There is some debate as to the extent of the war atrocities in Nanking, especially estimations of the death toll.

The issues involved in calculating the number of dead lie in defining the geographical range and time period of killing as well as the question of what "type" of killing is to be included in the definition of the term "massacre". On one side is the view that the geographical area of the incident should be limited to the few square kilometers of the city known as the Safety Zone. Another view to define "Nanking" as the old walled city of Nanjing. Some historians include a much larger area around the city. The Xianquan area is the suburbs of Nanjing city (which is about 66 miles). Because the entire Jiangsu province fell under the administration of Nanking, some historians also include six xian (counties) around Nanking starting from Suzhou, at the western edge of Jiangsu province.

The period of the massacre, hence, is naturally defined by the geography of the massacre. The Battle of Nanking ended on December 13, when the divisions of the Japanese Army entered the walled city of Nanking. The Tokyo War Crime Tribunal then defined the period of the massacre to the ensuing 6 weeks. Conservative estimates say the massacre started from December 14th, when the troops entered the Safety Zone, and that it lasted for 6 weeks. Those who define the Nanking Massacre as having started from the time the Japanese army entered Jiangsu province push the beginning of the massacre to around mid-November to early December (Suzhou fell on November 19), and stretch the end of the massacre to late March 1938.

Another point of debate is the question of whom to count as the victims of Japanese atrocities. Historians agree that the Japanese army indiscriminately killed many civilians in Nanking city, and that these should be counted in the death toll of the massacre. Over the course of the campaign through China, the Japanese army did not take prisoners of war and summarily executed Chinese soldiers during or after combat. Moreover, the army executed plain-clothed guerilla combatants who were hiding among civilians. It is unclear how many innocent civilians were wrongly accused of being guerilla combatants and were dispatched in this manner.

To make matters more difficult, archival evidence such as burial records only state the body count and not which type of group to which each body belonged. Therefore, it provides no means to distinguish whether bodies were the result of "legitimate" or "illegitimate" killing. Many different categories of varying legitimacy exist: soldiers killed during combat, surrendered soldiers summarily executed after the battle, plain-clothed guerilla combatants, plain-clothed soldiers hiding among civilians, civilians wrongly suspected of being guerrila combatants, or those bystanders attacked during the period of indiscriminate killing, rape and looting (which all the scholars deem to be illegitimate).

In the International Military Tribunal for the Far East or the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, death toll is given to range between 200,000 and 300,000. The death toll reckoned at the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, is the official estimate engraved on the stone wall at the entrance of the "Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military's Nanking Massacre" in Nanjing.

In 1947 at the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, the verdict of Lieutenant General Tani Hisao, the commander of the 6th Division, quoted the figure of more than 300,000 death tolls. Apparently the estimation was made from burial records and eyewitness accounts. It concluded that some 190,000 were illegally executed at various execution sites and 150,000 were individually massacred. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated in its judgment that "over 200,000" or "over 100,000" civilians and prisoners of war were murdered during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation. That number was based on burial records submitted by two charitable organizations, the Red Swastika Society and the Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong), the research done by Smythe and some estimates given by survivors.

At the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals, the Nanking Massacre death toll was presented either as "more than 200,000" or "more than 100,000". The extent of Japanese atrocities shocked the world as well as the Japanese public of the time.


China and Japan have acknowledged the existence of war atrocities. However, disputes over the historical portrayal of events has been the root of continuing political tensions between the China and Japan.

Widespread atrocities committed by Japanese in Nanking were first reported to the world by the Westerners residing in Nanking city's Safety Zone. For instance, on January 11, 1938, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Harold Timperley, apparently tried to cable a similar estimate but was censored by the Japanese authorities in Shanghai because his report said that "not less than 300,000 Chinese civilians" were slaughtered in cold blood in "Nanjing and elsewhere." His message was relayed from Shanghai to Tokyo to be sent out to the Japanese Embassies in Europe and the United States. Also, dramatic reports by American journalists of Japanese brutality against Chinese civilians, in addition to the Panay incident which also occurred after the occupation of Nanjing, helped turn American public opinion against Japan and, in part, led to a series of events which culminated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Two Japanese sublieutenants, Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi said to be competing with each other to see who could kill one hundred Chinese first. The bold headline said, "Contest to Kill First 100 Chinese with Sword Extended When Both Fighters Exceed Mark--Mukai Scores 106 and Noda 105"
Two Japanese sublieutenants, Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi said to be competing with each other to see who could kill one hundred Chinese first. The bold headline said, "Contest to Kill First 100 Chinese with Sword Extended When Both Fighters Exceed Mark--Mukai Scores 106 and Noda 105"

Interest in the Nanjing Massacre did not begin until 1972, the year China and Japan normalized their relationship. In China, to foster the newly found friendship to Japan, the Communist Government under Mao Zedong ostensibly suppressed the mention of the Nanjing Massacre from public discourse and media, which the Communist Party directly controlled. Therefore, the entire debate on Nanjing massacre during 1970 took place in Japan. In commemoration of the normalization, one Japanese major newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, ran serialized articles titled "Chugoku no Tabi" ("Travel to China"), written by journalist Katuichi Honda, which detailed the atrocities of the Japanese Army within China, including the Nanjing Massacre. In the series, Honda mentioned an episode in which two officers competed to slay 100 Chinese with their swords. The truth of this incident is hotly disputed and critics seized on the opportunity to imply that the episode, as well as the Nanjing Massacre and all its accompanying articles, were largely falsified. This is regarded as the start of the Nanjing Massacre controversy in Japan. The debate concerning the occurrence of killings and rapes took place mainly in the 1970s, during which Chinese official statements about the event came under attack because they relied heavily on personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence. Also coming under attack were the burial records presented in the Tokyo War Crime Court, which were said to be fabrications by the Chinese side of the debate.

The controversy flared up again in 1982 when the Ministry of Education censored any mention of the Nanjing Massacre in a school textbook. The reason given by the ministry was that Nanjing Massacre was not a well-established historical event. The author of the textbook, Professor Saburō Ienaga, sued the Ministry of Education in an extended case that was eventually won by the plaintiff in 1997. Also, a number of cabinet ministers as well as some high ranking politicians made comments denying atrocities committed by the Japanese army in the World War II and were subsequently forced to resign after protests from China and South Korea. In response, a number of journalists and historians formed the Nankin Jiken Chōsakai (Nanjing Incident Research Group). The research group collected large quantities of archival materials as well as testimonies from both Chinese and Japanese sources. A competing group with a revisionist bent was headed by Masaaki Tanaka. However, the debate ended in the collapse of the revisionist side. In his presentation of the denial argument, Tanaka presented the diary of Major Iwane Matsui. It was revealed that Tanaka altered, deleted or even added his own writing in nearly 600 places to support contention that the Nanjing Massacre is false (that it had never occurred). The falsification was discovered by historian Yoshiaki Itakura. Itakura himself was much closer to the revisionist side, but he severely criticized Tanaka's distortion. Moreover, Japanese imperial army records, as well as a number of personal records by Japanese soldiers reporting the killings and rapes, made denial impossible in the public forum. One Japanese veteran group for army officers attempted to disprove the massacre by conducting a survey among the members who participated in Nanjing campaign but their attempt ended up as proving the existence of the massacre beyond doubt.

On the Chinese side, the public perception of Nanjing Massacre and Japan itself has made a U-turn after Jiang Zemin became the head of state. Historically, Chinese nationalism and the legitimacy of the communist government are defined by their struggle against the Japanese aggressor and their eventual victory. In Japan, as far as Japanese academics are concerned, the controversy over the existence of atrocities ended in the early '90s. Both sides accept that killing did occur; however, disagreement exists over the actual numbers, which depends on the standard of inclusion of archival or anecdotal evidence, definition of the period of the massacre, as well as geographical coverage.

The controversy was related outside Japan by some journalists who followed the domestic debate but interest in the West remained muted until the publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang in 1997. Even though the standard of historical research was described as highly flawed by both sides of the debate in Japan, it did bring the controversy to a much wider western audience.

Currently, no notable group, including right-wing nationalists, deny the existence of the killings and the debate has shifted mainly to the death toll, to the extent of rapes and civilian killings (as opposed to POW and suspected guerrillas) and to the appropriateness of using the word "massacre". Apologists insist that burial records from the Red Swastika Society and the Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong) were never cross examined at the Tokyo and Nanjing trials, arguing therefore that the estimates derived from these two sets of records should be heavily discounted. They also admit that personal records of Japanese soldiers do suggest the occurrence of rapes, but insist that this does not determine the extent of rapes. Moreover, they regard personal testimony from the Chinese side to be propaganda. They also point out that there are no documented records of the rapes, unlike the burial records that exist and document the killings, and therefore argue that the assertion of mass rape is unsubstantiated. Apologists further insist that the majority of those killed were POWs and "suspected guerrillas", which they consider to be legitimate killing, so that the use of descriptive word "massacre" is inappropriate.

However, within the public the debate still continues. Those downplaying the massacre have most recently rallied around a group of academic and journalists associated with the Society for the Creation of New Textbooks. Their views are often shared in publications associated with conservative, right-wing publishers such as Bungei Shunjū and Sankei Shuppan. In response, two Japanese organizations have taken the lead in publishing material detailing the massacre and collecting related documents and accounts. The Study Group on the Nanjing Incident, founded by a group of historians in 1984, has published the most books responding directly to revisionist historians; the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan's War Responsibility, founded in 1993, has published many materials in its own journal.

The Society for the Creation of New Textbooks produced history textbooks for junior high school and submitted them to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry ordered corrections in 137 places. After the corrections, the book passed the 2001 inspection. This has again caused fury from Korea and China, both sides demanding reinspection. The book was published and wrongly appeared as a best-seller, because of the systematic distribution of most of the 750,000 copies by the Society for the Creation of New Textbooks. The 2002 rate of adoption of this textbook in schools was only 0.039%.

In October 2004, the Japanese manga comic book "Kuni ga Moeru," or "The Country is Burning" by Hiroshi Motomiya was suspended from the manga anthology Weekly Young Jump because it "depicted the Nanking Atrocities as 'real.'" Certain Japanese politicians and civilians wanted the manga censored or removed because they claimed that the incident never occurred and there was no proof of it. "Kuni ga Moeru" is a historical fiction about a Japanese bureaucrat during the Showa Era (1926-1989). The controversy arose when the author copied a photograph from the time, emphasizing the Japanese uniforms on the soldiers. The photo's authenticity cannot be verified and thus incited cries that the author distorted the history.

Related topics

Further reading

  • Askew, David "The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone: An Introduction" Sino-Japanese Studies Vol. 14, April 2002 (Article outlining membership and their reports of the events that transpired during the massacre)
  • Askew, David "The Nanjing Incident: An Examination of the Civilian Population" Sino-Japanese Studies Vol. 13, March 2001 (Article analyzes a wide variety of figures on the population of Nanjing before, during, and after the massacre)
  • Brook, Timothy, ed. Documents on the Rape of Nanjing, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999. ISBN 0472111345 (Does not include the Rabe diaries)
  • Chang, Iris, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Foreword by William C. Kirby; Penguin USA (Paper), 1998. ISBN 0140277447
  • Hua-ling Hu, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking: The Courage of Minnie Vautrin, Foreword by Paul Simon; March 2000, ISBN 0809323036
  • Fogel, Joshua, ed. The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. ISBN 0520220072
  • Honda, Katsuichi, Sandness, Karen trans. The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese Journalist Confronts Japan's National Shame, London: M.E. Sharpe, 1999. ISBN 0765603357
  • Kajimoto, Masato "Mistranslations in Honda Katsuichi's the Nanjing Massacre" Sino-Japanese Studies, 13. 2 (March 2001) pp.32-44
  • Rabe, John, The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe, Vintage (Paper), 2000. ISBN 0375701974
  • Yamamoto, Masahiro, Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity, Praeger Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0275969045
  • Tanaka, Masaaki, What Really Happened in Nanking, Sekai Shuppan, 2000. ISBN 4916079078
  • Yoshida, Takeshi "A Japanese Historiography of the Nanjing Massacre (", Columbia East Asian Review, Fall 1999. (A much longer and more detailed version of this article is in above in the work edited by Joshua Fogel)
  • Takemoto, Tadao and Ohara, Yasuo The Alleged "Nanking Massacre": Japan's rebuttal to China's forged claims, Meisei-sha, Inc., 2000, (Tokyo Trial revisited) ISBN 4944219059
  • Young, Shi; Yin, James. "Rape of Nanking: Undeniable history in photographs" Chicago: Innovative Publishing Group, 1997.

External links

fr:Massacre de Nankin fi:Nanjingin verilyly ja:南京大虐殺 zh:南京大屠殺


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