*** World War II : Japanese war crimes and attrocities -- masacres of Chinese civilians

World War II: Japanese War Crimes and Attrocities--Massacres of Chinese Civilians

Japanese crimes and atricities
Figure 1.--Japanese General Matsui Iwane after entering Nanking ordered that the city be destroyed to break the spirit of the Chinese people. We do not know if he received authorization for his actions or acted aloneg, but we know that he was never sanctionedfor what transpired. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (朝香宮鳩彦王) was commander of Japanese forces in the final assault on Nanjing. The Nationalisrs abandoned the city, but Gen. Matsui. proceeded to burn and destroy large areas of the city. But the attacks was also directed on the people of the city. The Japanese soldiers launched a incomprehensibly brutal campaign of atrocities against both captured soldiers and civilins. The soldiers literally butchered an estimated 200,000 men and boys in a wide range of killing actions. And the killing was not just men and boys. They also raped a huge number numbrr of women and girls, many of whom were mutilated or killed in the process. The precise numbers will never be known. There is no doubt about what transpired because of the number of foreign diplomats and journalists in the city. Here a Japanese soldier is preparing to behead a Chinese teenager for no real reason. He has been forced on his knees, his hands tied behind his back and his sit pull down so the soldier can land an unobstructd blow. Notice the obsrvers whom look to be enjoying the beheading. Many killing actions had much larger crowds of soldiers watching. the sword had a powerful resonance with Japanese officers, but it was just one of the many ways in bwhich the Japanese murdered the people of Nanking.

Killing of Chinese civilians by the Japanese military was routine. Often they occurred after taking a city or as reprisals for gureilla activity. Japanese soldiers as a reward for taking a cHinese town were normally given 3 days to do as they please, including rape and pillage. The most notorious incident was the Rape of Nanking (1937-38). Another major incident was wide-scale killings after the Doolittle Raid (1942). There is a long list of other terrible incidents. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and Chinese war historians estimate that the Japanese killed outright or were indirectly respnsible for 10-30 million deaths in China. Some even belive the total was higher. These deaths resulted from massacre by the Jpanese army, bombing of civilian populations, mistreatment of slave labor, starvation and germ and chemical warfare. The single most horendous incident was the Rape of Nanking. Many other Chinese cities suffered greviously.

Rape of Nanking (1937-38)

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 Chin's heartland. Chiang abandoned his capital (December 8, 1937). The Japabese expcted 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 quoted 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, many believe far more people were killed.

The Doolittle Raid (April 1942)

The news from the Pacific was an unrelenting series of disasters. America needed a victory. The only intact offensive force in the Pacific was Americais carriers. Army Air Corps pilot with B-25s trained for carrier take offs. The B-25 was a medium bomber never intended for carrier use. Carrier commander Afm. "Bull" Halsey led a taskforce made up of Hornet and Enterprise. It was a risky operation as it committed half of the Pacific fleet's carrier force to a very dangerous operation. The B-25s took off from Hornet. It was the first blow to the Japanese home islands. The raid was led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle. The physical damage was inconsequential, but the psychological impact was immense. Most of the Amrican aviators managed to crash land in China and were helped to reach saftey by Chinese civilkians. The Japanese in retaliation conducted wide-scale reprisal killings. They may have killed as many as 0.5-0.7 million Chinese men, women, and children. The Japanese Navy was so embarassed that they rushed forward Admiral Yamaoto's plans to bring the desimated American Pacific Fleet to battle at Midway Atol.

Other Incidents

There is a depressingly long list of other terrible incidents of Japanese soldiers killing Chinese civilians. . 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 plank and when their heads bobed above the surface they were shot. 【Dorrance】 The killing of Chinese was not limited to China itself. There is also the killing of Chinese in occupied areas of Southeast Asia to be considered, most notably in Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia).

Killing Methods

The Japanese had a wide range of way in which they murdered civilians in huge numbers. In one way they were different than the NAZIs in Euope. In many ways, they were differet, but there also mamy similarities. The NAZIs began the War with up front and personal ways of killing people--mostly shooting their victims. This bothered SS commander Heinrich Himmler. He thought that it was putting undo stress on SS men doing the killing--mostly by shooting. This and concerns over efficinchy caused Himmler to order the industrialization of mirddr leading gto the death camps. The Japanese never did this. Japanese commanders did not ghink that killing people was stressful on their men. In fact theu used killing such as bayoneting as a way of training gthrir new recruits. Both the NAZIs and Japanese used bombing as a way of killing civilans, but this is an inefficent method of killing. The primary meyhod of killing used by the Japanese and NAZIs was starvation--restrictung the access of civilians to food. The Japanese and NAZIs both used shooting as a primary killing methos. Other methods widely used by the Japanese included beheading, burying alive, burning alive, bayonetting, beating, rape, hard labor, chemical and biological weaons, and other methods. One metiod the Japanese did not use to any extent was hanging. There were also many gruesome means of torturing people to death.

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 accounts 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.

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


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Created: December 29, 2002
Last updated: 2:19 PM 9/14/2023