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

Figure 1.--.

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 in early November 1937. 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. Chiang abandoned his capital on December 8. Finally on December 13, 1937 entered Nanking. The resulting orgy of mindless killing ranks among the most horendous attrocities of modern times. American public opinion was somewhat diverted by the attack on the gunboat Panay on December 12. The intensity of the Japanese killing wasell reported by several European observers at the time. 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 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.


The Japanese began with the soldiers and the military command specifically ordered the execution of POWs. As many of the poorly led and disorganized soliders had discarded their uniforms, the Japanese simoly rounded up men of military age. Companmy 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] 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. 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] 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 denials

Today in Japan 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.

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 Island.

Other Incidents

There is a depressingly long list of other terrible incidents. 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]

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.

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: 4:31 AM 11/16/2011