*** World War II : Rape of Nanking

World War II: The Rape of Nanking (1937-38)

Rape of Nanking

Figure 1.--Here we see the bodies of Chinese victims that have been dumped by the Qinhuai River, a tributasry of the Yangtze. The Qinhuai which dlows through central Nanking. We don't believe these people were killed by the river, but dumped there so the river would sweep the bodies away diwnstream.

"I am proud of our Japanese soldiers. I am positive that they will not act in a repulsive manner against civilians. There may be pictutes showing inhuman acts committed by Japanese soldiers, but it is improbable what they represent is true."

--Shingo Takahishi, journalist, 1937

"Five thousand prisoners were taken to the Yangtsee River to be executed by machine gun. Bayonets were used to finish them off. I felt a demonic excitement. ... as they cleaned up the piles of bodies. There were solduers, old, young, and children. I have never felt anything like it in my life."*>

--Shisano Koresu, 19th Infantry Regiment, 1937

Naking was a priority target for Japan as it was the Nationalist capital. Japan took the key Chinese port city of Shanghai after an unexpectedly tough fight (early November 1937). This was not what the Japanese expected. The Battle for Shganghai was the first serious resistance to the Japanese expansion that begn with the Meiji Resoration (1870s). The Japanese Imperial Army was supported by a rolling carpet of aerial bombardment moved up the Yangtze River valley toward the Natioanlist capital at Nanjing. This was China's heartland. Chiang abandoned his capital (December 8, 1937). The Japanese expected the seizure of the Chinese capital to end the War. American public opinion was somewhat diverted by the attack on the gunboat Panay (December 12). Finally the Japanese entered the city (December 13). And the Japanese y decided to put an end to Chinese resistance by teaching them a lesson that they would never forget. The resulting orgy of mindless killing ranks among the most horendous attrocities of modern times. The intensity of the Japanese killing was reported in detail by several European observers at the time, both diplomats and journalists. Even the then Japanese Foreign Minister reported after an inspection trip in January of 1938 that the "Japanese Army behaved ... in [a] fashion reminiscent [of] Attila [and] his Huns. [Not] less than 300,000 Chinese civilians slaughtered, many cases [in] cold blood." [Koki as quote in Chang] The population of Nanking was about 0.60-0.70 million, including about 0.15 million soldiers. Some Chinese civilins managed to flee the city, but about 0.50 remained in the city when the Japanese seized it. The Japanese proceeded to kill about 0.09 million soldiers and 0.20 million civilians. These are only estimates, some believe even more were killed.

Operational Orrders (August 1937)

Shortly after the incidebnt at the Marco Polo Bridge launching the Second Sino-Japznse War (July 7, 1937), the Japanese moved to control the narative. It was important to avoid admiting that the had launched a war. This would hve triggered the Amedrican Neutrality Laws and cut off trade with the United States, inckuding scrap iron and oil. This woukd have seriously impacted the Jspanese economy. The Army also wanted changes in rules governing the handling of Chinese captives. Emperor Hirohito ratified a directive lifting all constraints on the treatment of Chinese prisoners of war (POWs). This is not to say this was something that the Emperor had initiatd, but he did not qyestion it. He gave his approval. The new directive advised that the term 'POW' not be used. Most of the Jaspanese Army would be committed to the effort to conquer Chuna (1937-45). They would fiught a 8 year war involving most of the Japanese Army, yet at the end of the War, thgere woukd be no POWs to turn over. Major General Tomitarō Horii asJapan was preparing to launch the Pacific War, issued a 'Guide to Soldiers in the South Seas' (late-1941). He ordered Jozabese soldiers not to loot or kill civilians. The purpose was to prevent a repeat of atrocities that the Imperial Army was committing in China. This only applied to his command andevn there was unevenly enforced.

Battle for Shanghai (August-November 1937)

The Japanese after the incident of the Marco Polo Bridge quickly seized Tianjin and then drove for the key port of Sghanghai. Chzang did not want to commit his army, but for Shanhhai he had no choice. He knew his forces were not capable of ctopping the Japanese, but he also knew that the Chinese people would not accept acquiesence to the Japanese advances. The Chinese fought a series of set piece battles with the Japanese. The Japanese were shocked at the level of Chinese resistance, but brought in added forces. The Japanese committed terrible attrocities both on Chinese soldiers and civilins. This proved to be the conventional phase of the War. The Chinese would never again challenge the Japanese in conventionsl operations. The best divisions in the Nationalist Army were shattered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy Chinese resistance. After suffering a series of defeats, the Chinese adopted the strategy of trading of "space for time". The Nationalist Army refused to engage the Japanese in pitched battles in which it could be cut off and destroyed. Rather they engaged in delaying actions around important northeastern cities. The objective was to allow to allow important professionals and officials to flee west into safe interior cities. There was also an attempt to move key industries.

The USS Panay (December 1937)

Pearl Hsarbor was not the first surprise allack on yje U.S. Navy. American public opinion was somewhat diverted by the attack on the gunboat Panay (December 12). A Japanese artillery position commanded by a Colonel Hashimoto fired on the ships, hoping that it might precipatate a war with America and end civilian influence in the Japanese Government--finalizing the "Showa Restoration." Panay flew an American flag as well as had Americn flags painted on the awnings and topsides. December 12 was a clear, sunny day with perfect visability. At about 1330, three Japanese Navy bombmers attacked Panay followed by 12 more planes that dive-bombed and 9 fighters that strafed. The attack was deliberate lasting over 20 minutes. As Panay began sinking, the Japanese sraffed the lifeboats and river bank. The incident was dismissed at the time as the result of overzelous local commanders. Given this wa aoordunared Army/Navy attack, one has to ask if the Japanese commndr did not want prying eyes as his men moved into Nanking. It needs to be stressed that such close Japanese Army/Navy cooperation was not common.


The Japanese commander was General Matsui Iwane. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (朝香宮鳩彦王) was the other major commander. He was given the honor of leading a final assault on the city. Gen. Matsui (1878-1948) was the son of a former Sanurai. He had adestinuished military career with assignments aquainting him with European powers and diplomats. At the time Japan invaded Manchuria, he was attached to the Army General Staff between (1931). He was a member of the Japanese delegation to the Geneva Disarmament Conference (1931-32). He was a member of the Supreme War Council afyer which he was prompted to general rank (1933). He commanded the Taiwan Army, meaning Japanese forces on Taiwan, called Formosa at the time (1933-34). He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, 1st Class (1934). He again served on the Supreme War Council (1934-35). He retired (1935). After Japan launched the Second Sino-Japanese War by invading China proper (July 1937), Matsui was recalled to active duty. He was given command of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force--the primary Japanese invasion force. He must have been frustrated atthe siff opposition tghe Chinese put up in Shanghai. He did not get the sift glorious victory tht he expcted. And then he was given command of the Central China Area Army. He thus oversaw the conquest of central China driving up the Yangtze River from from Shanghai toward the capital of Nanking/Nanjing. He was thus in command of the troops entering Nanking. Matsui and other Japanese commanders were under the illusion that taking Nanking would end the war. Which is why Matsui decided to make an example out of the city. What is not known is to what extent this was discussed with other Japanese officials. What is notable is tht Gem Matsui had had more contact with the West thn most Japanese officers. Gen. Matsui was tried for war crimes fter the war, found guilt, and gung (1948). The second leading officer involved was Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981). The Prince founded a collateral branch of the Japanese Imperial family. He was a career Army officer. He became a part of the Imperial family by marrying a daugter of Emperor Meiji. He was thus an uncle of Emperor Hirohito. Pince Asaka was commander of Japanese forces in the final assault on Nanking (December 1937). -


Naking was a priority target for Japan as it was the Nationalist capital. Becazuse it was the czapitl, there wre diplomats abd journalists in the city. Some of what transpired was witnessed by creditable foreigners. Something that was not the case in Japanese-occupied China where many other Japanese killing actioins took place. Surprisingly, on of the most importnt was of all people a NAZI--John Rabe. John Heinrich Detlef Rabe (1882-1950). He was a German businessman and NAZI Party member who reported on Japnese attrocitis aftr the seixzure of Nnking . He tried to protect Chinese civilians during the ensuing humanitarian nightmzre. He helpd establish wht became known as the Nanking Safety Zone which was designerd to protect 250,000 Chinese people from out-right murder. He was th official Germnn diplomt in the city. He acted as senior chief of the European-United States diplomtic group that remained in what had ben the Chinese capital wgen the Japanese Army entered the city. The Geramns had ben supporting the Nationlists. The stiff resistrnce put up by the Chinnese in Shgbghzi was in large part the result of Germn suppoort nd trainong. At the time, The NAZI regime was shifting its support from the Ntionslists to the Japamese.

Chinese Soldiers

The Nationalists had evacuate Nanking, but there were still many soldiers in the city that had not yet left. The Japanese upon entering Nanking began bergan murdering Nationalist soldiers. This was the practice throughout the War. At the end of the 7-year war in 1945, tyhe Japanese dus bit hve aby Chuinese POWs to turn ovr. Thy had nujrdered them all. The Japanese military command specifically ordered the execution of Chinese POWs. As many of the poorly led and disorganized soliders had discarded their uniforms, the Japanese often simply rounded up men of military age. Company commanders were ordered to meet to discuss the best way of doing this. One suggestion was to offer the POWs fair treatment and to then divide them in to "groups of 50". An Imperial Army officer advised that once they consented to having their arms bound "the rest was easy". [Chang] Killing methods varied. Officers used their swords to cut off heads. Enlisted men used bayonets, often on men tied up in batches. In fact one officer explained that this was a good training device to harden soldiers. This officer wrote after using his sword to sever a priosioners head, "I felt something change inside of me. I don't know how to describe it, but I gained strength somewhere in my gut." [Shogo] Photographs from Nanking shows rows of severed heads. [Yin and Young]


Next came the civilians. Japanese soldiers as a reward for taking a Chinese town were normally given 3 days to do as they please, including rape and pillage. In the case of Nanking the rape, killing, and pilaging of the civilian population continued for nearly 2 months. The Japanese soldiers proceeded to shoot thousands down in the street, incliding the elderly, women and children. Shop keepers were ordered to open their shops which were then looted and the owner killed. Japanese soldiers used both living and dead Chinese soldiers and civilians for bayonet practice. They mutilated, tortured, and maimed untold Chinese. These were not all assembly-line, dispassionate murders. Reports indicate that the Japanese hung Chinese by their tongues and threw some in acid. The Japanese dismembered victimes, used grenades. Others were impaled, and flayed. [Chang] No one knows how many rapes occurred. One estimate suggests that 80,000 women were raped. [Yin and Young] Soldiers collected women by the truck load. They were then allocated to groups of soldiers for gang raping after which they were normally mutilated or shot. [Kozo] Not only was there mass murder, but the Japanese made theater of it. We see countless photogrphs of peole beding nurdered in front of apprecitive auduences of Jap;nese soldiers. One American woman wrote, "There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night--one of the girls was but 12 years old. ... Tonight a truck passed in which there were 8 or 10 girls, and as it passed they called out "Ging ming! Ging ming!"--save our lives." [Vautrin] One victim who was 8-years old at the time described her experiences. First her grandparents and parents were shot in front of her. Then her older sisters were killed. She was bayonetted three times and left for dead. A Marine on Okinawa found photographs of women being totured on a dead Japanese officer. Thousands of children were in fact bayonetted. [Shuqin] Children not killed outright when the women were collected often died from abandobnment and starvation. So many men, women and children with machetes that the soldiers often tired and to rest. Many Chinese shot or butchered, but not yet dead were burried alive. [Mills] Some were burried slive without a first being wounded. The news stories flowing out of Nanking to the international press caused the Japanese Army to estanlish brothels which were staffed with women seized from occupied countries, initially Korea. These were the so called comfort women. European diplomats tried to stem the killing. A NAZI official was ekected to lead this group. He even appealed to Hitler to interceed with the Japanese Government. Rabe wrote. " During their attrocities, no difference was made between adults and children. There were girls under the age of 8 and women over the age of 70 who were raped and then, in the most brutal way possible, knocked down and beat up. We found corpses of women on beer glasses and others who had been lanced by bamboo shoots." [Rabe] While these brave men and women saved individual Chinese, mostly women, they had little impact on the overall wave of saveget directed at the Chinese.

Japanese Media

The international media reported the Rape of Nanking in great detail. Accept for the Shanghai fighting, this was unusual. It cemented the image of Japan in the in the Western mind thast Jaoan ewas a brutal, barbzorus people. This was esopecilly true in America where the missionary movement was aksoi have a huge impact bon public opinion. Of course very little of this leaked out in Japan where the media was totally controlled by the military. The primary theme was thatJapan was bringing stability and order China which was being terrorized by war lords and bandits. But there was also articls about the brilliant martial achievements of the Japanese Army. We note a newspaper reporting on two officers in acompetiton to cut down as any people as possible. Of course we know that they ahey were involved im murdering innocent civilians. A headline read. " The bold headline reads, "'Incredible Record' - Mukai 106 – 105 Noda—Both 2nd Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings". We can't read the rest of te articlle, but surely it must have suggested combagt and killing Chinese war lord solduers and banditsterrorizing the poor Chinese people. Apparently the Japanese public bought such nonsence. There were many victories to report in China, but this got a little strained when the Chinese continued to resist nd th war draggedon. After the War, reports of Japanese atrocities reached the Japanese publicasar of war crune triaks. For the the most part they were dismissd and continue to be dismissed as gross exagerations.

Japanese Denials

Today in Japan the 'Rape of Nanking' is mostly said to have been grosely exagerated. We see comments like, "Everyone is probably familiar with at least some version of the story about what happened next. To this day the 'Rape of Nanking' is a cornerstone of anti-Japanese sentiment in Communist China, however, their claims are undoubtedly immensely exaggerated. It seems clear that some terrible atrocity did happen in Nanking but the accounts vary wildly and in subsequent studies a great deal of the supposed 'evidence' has been found to have been fabricated or tampered with." Some Japaanese authors deny that these events ever took place. [Yin and Young] A typical example of work by Japanese historians or researchers is Iris Chang's Errors: "Iris Chang's Rape of Nanking is a book that fails to heal but rather sears all efforts for good international relations because it prioritizes passion at the cost of basic historical facts. We cannot ignore the book's inability and refusal, as witnessed by the usage of numerous doctored photos, to differentiate between fact and war-time propaganda." One of the articles quoted is by Shudo Higashinakano, Professor of Intellectual History, Asia University, Tokyo who denies the Nanking attrocities and typically turns the discussion to the atom bomb and the view that Japan was a victim not an instigator of war. [Higashinakano] Another assessment by Higashinakano Shudo says this message was written by Harold Timperley, "an advisor to the Chinese intelligence service", not Koki. Timperley was in fact a journalist reporting to the Manchester Guardian. Like most foreign journalists in China at the time, he was sympathetic to the Chinese because of the outrages perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Arnmy.

Other Incidents

There is a depressingly long list of other terrible incidents in China. Following the fall of Nanking, the Imperial Army committed chilling attrocities on a wide scale in Hannkow, Wahu, Souchow, and other cities. [Timperley] An observer from from American gunboats at Hankow observed Imperial Army soldiers killing large nimbers of captured Chinese soldiers. The Japanese forced Chinese soldiers to walk a gang plnk and when their heads bobed above the surface they were shot. [Dorrance] And of couse ythis folloed by terrible incidents in the Pacific, especilly Shanghai and Manila.

Public Awarness

It is unclear just to what extent the Japanese people were aware of what was being done in their country's name. Some operations such as chemical and biolgical warfare. The attrocities against civilians are a different matter. Here we are unsure how the Japanese press reported on the war in China. We note one report in which two Japanese officers competed in a formal contest as to who could more rapidly behand Chinese. The winner won by one Chinese head. The contest was reported in the Japanese press. Of course soldiers returning from China must have talked about their experiences. How accuarely they described their behavior and how it was disseminated we are not sure. We also are not sure to what extent such reports affected public attitudes toward the War. Of course Japan was not a fubctioning democracy and public opinion did not have the same importance as in the United States and Britain. Even dictatorships are, however, concerned with public opinion, primarily with how to manage it.


Unlike the later Holocaust in Europe, the Japanese in China found it difficult to hide their attrocities. They were widely reported at the time by the international press. There were in China substantial numbers of foreign businessmen, diplomats, educators, journalist, military personeel (in costal ebclaves and river gunboats), and missionaries. As Japan until December 1941 was not at war with the countries from which these individuals came, they could not prevent accounts from reaching Western newspapers. While Chinese accoints could be dismissed as "war propaganda", these reports from Europeans and Americans as well as the terrifying photographs could not be dismissed and had a major impact on public opinion in the West.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic Books: New York, 1997).

Dorrance, Albert. Manager of the standard Oil Company in Hankow.

Shudo Higashinakano, "California State Assembly Should Indict the Atomic Bomb Droppings on Japan," Sankei (newspaper) September 5, 1999.

Hirota Koki, Japanese Foreign Minister, 1938.

Takokoro Kozo. Japanese soldier.

Mills, Ami Chen. "Breaking the Silence", interner site accessed December 29, 2002.

Rabe, John. Leader of the International Safety Zone Committee and head of the NAZI Party in Nanking. Rabe returned to Germany with a film and began lecturing. The Gestapo confiscated the film and denounced him, prdering him to stop all lectures.

Timperley, Harold. Japanese Terror in China (Modern Age Books: New York, 1938).

Tominaga Shogo. Imperial Japanese Army officer.

Vautrin, Minnie. Head of Studies at Jinling Girls College . Vautin never recovered from her experieces. She returned to America in 1940 and had to be instituionalized. She eventually committed suiside.

Xia Shuqin. Chinese victim.

Yin, James and Shi Young. The Rape of Nanking (Innovative Publishing Group of Chicago, 1996), 328p.


* This quote comes from a British compiled video, "Japan's War in Colour". We had trouble understanding the quite. Is it at [16:40-17:35]. Let us know if you can transcribe the quote better.


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Created: 6:39 PM 1/12/2022
Last updated: 11:00 PM 2/27/2022