The Rape Of Nanking: A Brief History Of One Of The Worst Things Ever Done
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a gruesome affair
On December 13, 1937, the Japanese army committed one of the greatest wartime atrocities of history when they carried out a systemic slash-and-burn campaign against the Chinese people of Nanking. They butchered thousands of people while raping women, torturing children, and mutilating anyone who stood in their way. How could humans inflict such suffering upon their fellow man? What could have possibly led to such an abomination?
As the Japanese army pushed towards Nanking in August 1937, they fought a bloody and casualty-heavy battle against the Chinese. Both sides were fighting a war of attrition that often got so heated that weapons were abandoned in favor of hand-to-hand combat in city streets. In November, the Japanese army took Shanghai, and on December 1, they were ordered to take the Republic of China’s capital, Nanking.
To the Chinese's great misfortune, the Japanese were much better-prepared for the war. Their Navy quickly took control of China's ports, making it impossible for the Chinese people to receive relief.
The Japanese army carried out similar tactics on their way to Nanking
The Rape of Nanking officially took place over the six weeks that followed December 13, but the massacre occurred long before the Japanese ever arrived in China's capital. During the army’s march to Nanking, they inflicted brutality upon anyone they came across simply because they were encouraged to do so by their superiors. A Japanese journalist embedded with Imperial forces at the time noted that "The reason that the [10th Army] is advancing to Nanking quite rapidly is due to the tacit consent among the officers and men that they could loot and rape as they wish.”
The Chinese army retreated, leading to mass chaos
If the Chinese army had stayed in Nanking, things wouldn't have been peachy keen. There still would have been mass deaths, but it’s possible that the massacre could have been staved off or at least mitigated. As the Japanese forces moved towards Nanking on December 12, however, General Tang Sheng-chi ordered his men to retreat, leaving the civilians to fend for themselves.
When the Japanese army arrived in Nanking the next day, they immediately brought the city to its knees. They dug holes to bury locals up to their waists so they could be torn apart by dogs, and they hanged citizens by their tongues. Japanese troops rounded up whatever Chinese soldiers they could find and took them to the Yangtze River, where they were tied together and machine-gunned to death with no means of escape. Men, women, and children faced brutal sexual assaults and mutilation at the hands of Imperial forces. It's impossible to count the numbers of victims of the assault, but it’s believed that by the end of the six-week massacre, 300,000 people were dead, with 20,000 of them raped or mutilated in the process.
The Japanese military went door-to-door committing atrocities
Due to the classification of Japanese military records until the end of World War II and the abject horror of the massacre, eyewitness accounts are our primary sources of what happened in 1937. Many diary entries from the time describe the Japanese military going door-to-door raping women as they pleased without any retaliation. One such account comes from Reverend James M. McCallum on December 19, 1937:
I know not where to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet ... People are hysterical ... Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.
A "killing contest" allegedly occurred during the massacre
At the time of the massacre, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun reported that two soldiers held a race to see who could kill 100 people first using only a sword. Since 1967, this report has been disputed by scholars, specifically Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, who says that the story was concocted to raise the national fighting spirit. Such a contest does seem a bit excessive in an event that had already earned the title of "massacre," but considering everything else we know the Japanese military did, it's certainly not unbelievable.
The entire city was looted
While the Japanese army terrorized the people of Nanking, they also looted the city's businesses and homes to ensure that anyone who survived had nothing left at the end of the day. A German inhabitant of the city, John Rabe, wrote of the looting in a diary entry from December 13, 1937:
It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs. These people had presumably been fleeing and were shot from behind. The Japanese march through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and loot the shops ... I watched with my own eyes as they looted the café of our German baker Herr Kiessling. Hempel's hotel was broken into as well, as [was] almost every shop on Chung Shang and Taiping Road.
General Matsui was found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal
Within a week of ordering the assault on Nanking, General Iwane Matsui realized that he had made a massive error. On December 18, five days into the six-week siege of the capital, Matsui said:
I now realize that we have unknowingly wrought a most grievous effect on this city. When I think of the feelings and sentiments of many of my Chinese friends who have fled from Nanjing and of the future of the two countries, I cannot but feel depressed. I am very lonely and can never get in a mood to rejoice about this victory... I personally feel sorry for the tragedies to the people, but the Army must continue unless China repents. Now, in the winter, the season gives time to reflect. I offer my sympathy, with deep emotion, to a million innocent people.
Matsui's sympathies weren't enough for the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. On November 12, 1948, the IMTFE found the general guilty of deliberate and reckless disregard of his duty to ensure that his men followed the laws of war, and he was sentenced to death. In their decision, the IMTFE said:
The Tribunal is satisfied that Matsui knew what was happening. He did nothing, or nothing effective to abate these horrors. He did issue orders before the capture of the city enjoining propriety of conduct upon his troops and later he issued further orders to the same purport. These orders were of no effect as is now known, and as he must have known ... He was in command of the Army responsible for these happenings. He knew of them. He had the power, as he had the duty, to control his troops and to protect the unfortunate citizens of Nanking. He must be held criminally responsible for his failure to discharge this duty.
A Nazi tried to save as many Chinese people as he could from the atrocities
Remember ol' John Rabe back there, the German man who so meticulously detailed the chaos in his diary? Yeah, about him. One of the most detailed accounts of what happened in Nanking just so happened to come from a card-carrying Nazi. Curiously, despite his full support of Hitler, Rabe was horrified by the Japanese army's treatment of Nanking and risked his life to save his neighbors from their horrible fates. Throughout the siege, he documented the actions of the Japanese as well as his efforts to fight back over 12,000 pages, recounting how he dug foxholes to hide Chinese citizens, delivered rice through war-torn areas, and even personally stopped Japanese soldiers from raping women. In an entry from January 1, 1938, he wrote:
The mother of a young attractive girl called out to me, and throwing herself on her knees, crying, said I should help her. Upon entering [the house], I saw a Japanese soldier lying completely naked on a young girl, who was crying hysterically. I yelled at this swine, in any language it would be understood, 'Happy New Year!' and he fled from there, naked and with his pants in his hand.
Iris Chang was so affected by the massacre that she committed suicide in 2004
While many horrific stories from World War II came to light following its end, details of the massacre of Nanking are still emerging to this day. One of the most detailed accounts of the massacre, Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, was only published in 1991. Tragically, the task of wading through the evidence of the atrocities committed against her people (her grandparents were survivors) left Chang permanently scarred. Before the book was released, she said:
I wrote it out of a sense of rage. I didn't really care if I made a cent from it. It was important to me that the world knew what happened in Nanking back in 1937.
Following the release of the book, she was diagnosed with reactive psychosis, and in 2004, she was found in her car near Las Gatos, California with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Some members of the Japanese government deny that the massacre ever happened
An unfortunate but common reaction to discovering the disgusting truth about your country's wartime actions is to defend them or even deny them altogether. That's probably why, despite ample evidence to the contrary, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied in 2007 that the massacre ever took place. He's the not the only person who maintains that the Japanese treatment of the Chinese people was A-OK, either. Masaru Naya, a former senior officer in the Japanese military, stated "I'm sure that there were absolutely no Japanese soldiers' assaults on Chinese civilians," and an elderly soldier who took part in the massacre insisted that the city was quiet on December 13, 1937. Regardless of these denials, and perhaps even evidenced by them, it's clear that the Rape of Nanking scarred China and Japan forever.