Nanking Massacre – December 13, 1937

In violation of international agreements that Japan had signed Japanese soldiers assaulted China. Nanking, the capital of China at that time, was the scene of their greatest and most brutal actions.

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army, as it continued it’s assault against China, in knowing violation of an international agreement, reached Nanking, the Chinese capital, and began to loot, rape, torture, and murder all over the city. Soldiers who surrendered were shot or bayoneted and homes were looted, often in full view of the commanding officers. The atrocities committed were so barbaric that they rank among the worst of the twentieth century.

In the years before World War II, Japan began its series of military conquests in China. It was led by a group of officers who had either forced or persuaded the rest of Japan’s leaders to take these steps. Some who opposed their plans were killed. It was a reckless venture and a violation of an agreement that Japan had signed regarding international relations.

The militarists responsible for all that happened subsequently were completely indifferent to this agreement. They not only attacked China, beginning with the conquest of Manchuria in 1931, but they ignored virtually every known rule of law for dealing with civilians and prisoners during war.

The Tokyo War Crimes trials, the Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals, began in 1946 and exposed the details of what had gone on over the previous years. Its rationale for the indictments it handed down was the UN War Crimes Commission Report of a year earlier. In this report blame for all the atrocities was laid on both the government in Tokyo as much as on the commanders in the field.

The following are a few extracts from the damning indictments that were listed: “Inhabitants of countries which were overrun by the Japanese were ruthlessly tortured, murdered, and massacred in cold blood. Torture, rape, pillage, and other barbarities occurred. Despite the laws and customs of war as well as their own assurances, prisoners-of-war and civilians were systematically subjected to brutal treatment and horrible outrages, all calculated to exterminate them.”

Nowhere were these acts of bestiality more violently executed than in Nanking. On December 13, 1937, advance units of Japanese soldiers captured the city, China’s capital. The defenders, against the advice of General Chiang Kai-shek who commanded the Chinese Army, tried hard to hold out against the invaders but lost.

As soon as they entered the city the Japanese launched an orgy of cruelty and destruction. Women of all ages were raped, by individuals and by groups, then killed, as many as 20,000 in all. Soldiers who surrendered were shot, beheaded, or bayoneted. Others were mutilated and killed in other ways, often in the most bestial ways imaginable. Altogether about 300,000 died in these ways.

For the weeks following December 13, 1937, Japanese rapes and massacres continued. There were atrocities against civilians and mass executions. The enormity of the scale and nature of these crimes was documented by survivors and recorded in the diaries of Japanese soldiers. Nanking had been a city of 250,000 but as people retreated westward from the Japanese advance the city’s population swelled to a million by December of 1937.

On December 13, as the city fell, a large number of refugees tried to escape across the Yangtze River but were unable to get away because all the boats were missing. Some tried to swim but they were all shot by Japanese soldiers, some in the water, most at the river’s bank. Altogether 50,000 died at that location in a few hours.

In the streets, about 100,000 refugees or wounded soldiers were huddled, and they became targets for tank and artillery gunners. Dead bodies covered the streets. They became ”streets of blood“ in the course of a two-day massacre. Many Chinese soldiers moved around inside the city and changed into civilian clothes but that made little difference to their fate. Anyone who was suspected of being a soldier was arrested.

They were all sent outside the city in groups numbering from several thousand to tens of thousands and shot by machine guns. Any who were still alive were bayoneted. Gasoline was poured on some and they were burned alive. Numerous atrocities occurred all over the city, mainly on civilians. Japanese soldiers invented and exercised inhumane and barbaric methods of killing, including stabbing, striking off the head, and drowning.

A group of concerned foreigners formed an international rescue committee and established a safety zone for refugees within the city. Japanese soldiers ignored the rights of the foreigners and frequently entered the safety zone where they arrested young men. Every time they did so, the men they arrested were executed on the site. All the storehouses were emptied and everything else of value was seized, including jewelry, coins, and antiques.

There was an organized burning of buildings throughout the city. Nanking, once a beautiful historical center, was burned to ashes. The best that can be said about all this horror is that it conforms to some of the worst practices in wars from the ancient past. Citizens and soldiers alike were often terrorized by successive acts of such brutality and cruelty that they remained passive and submissive. The conquering army could thus proceed with its mission without having to worry about resistance from the conquered.

Women who did not readily submit to their rapists were tortured afterwards before being killed. The only ones who were allowed to live were the so-called “comfort women,” prostitutes who were forced to accompany the soldiers on their campaigns. After World War II, some survivors from this group successfully sued the military authorities. The brutal rape scenes of Nanking are matched by others since that time.

Gang sexual assault and rape with murder was commonplace during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971 and is described by Susan Brownmiller in her book, Against our will: Men, women and rape. Some aspects of the rapes of Nanking left scars for a long time. No Chinese woman from that time ever admitted that her child was the result of rape. The whole subject of Chinese women being impregnated by Japanese rapists remained so sensitive that it has never been thoroughly studied.

Rape victims finally received the recognition they deserved in the Bosnia Civil War of the 1990s. In that conflict Serbian soldiers singled out Muslim women and girls and raped them as violently as did the Japanese in China. For the first time in history there was a declaration by an international tribunal that these sexual crimes alone constituted a crime against humanity.

Three former Serbian soldiers were indicted on this charge in March of 2000. The things they did were just the same as those committed in Nanking, but fortunately their evils were raised to the highest level of international crime. Information about the Japanese activities was poorly circulated at the time but sufficient was known in western countries, especially in the United States, and thus strong condemnations were sent to Japan.

On one occasion, the Japanese officer in charge invited sailors from a Japanese boat that was anchored on the Yangtze River to witness the mass executions. A memorial building now stands on the spot where many of these mass executions took place. For decades, Japanese authorities denied that anything extraordinary had happened.

One eyewitness account did reach the Western World and was published in the New York Times in December of 1937 but the details were few. Not until the War Crimes Trials were held in Tokyo in 1946 was the full account recorded. Many who witnessed the terrible events told their story at that time.

There is one puzzling aspect of Japanese activities at Nanking that may relate to a friendship from an earlier time between Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary, whose memorial is in Nanking, and General Matsui who commanded Japanese forces when they captured the city. Sun Yat-sen had previously visited Japan on more than one occasion and met with General Matsui.

They became good friends and shared the same ideals for many of the problems of East Asia. Japanese Emperor Hirohito took a detailed interest in all aspects of the country’s military exploits but his focus on Nanking was intense. Could it be that he knew of the friendship between Matsui and Sun Yat-sen and was afraid that it might prevent his orders from being carried out?

Whatever the reason might have been for the Emperor Hirohito’s involvement in the fighting at Nanking, the records of the war show that he decided to interfere by appointing his uncle, Prince Asaka, as commander of all forces at Nanking. Matsui was not replaced but his authority was taken away because Prince Asaka had greater status. The first thing Asaka did was to send sealed orders to all the officers under his new command ordering them to execute all captives.

A note accompanying his orders told the officers to destroy the orders after reading them. Asaka knew that what he had commanded was wrong and that it was a flagrant violation of all international agreements for dealing with captured soldiers. He stayed on in Nanking until February 10, 1938. Matsui left the city soon after Asaka arrived.

The Rape of Nanking was the phrase used at the Tokyo trials to describe the atrocities that occurred there and the witnesses to what happened were many. Dr. Wilson, a native of Nanking who had been educated in the United States, saw his hospital filled to overflowing with patients who had received bullet or bayonet wounds, and women who had been sexually molested the morning after the Japanese captured the city.

This scene was repeated every day for the following several weeks. An older official from the Chinese Ministry of Railways described the scene in street after street. There were bodies lying everywhere, some badly mutilated. It was no use counting them. There were far too many. All of these personal reports were given to the prosecutors in the presence of the Japanese officers who were on trial.

Hsu, a member of the Chinese Red Cross, gave help in burying the corpses to avoid an epidemic. He counted as many as 43,000 then left off counting. The bodies had their hands tied with either rope or wire so he could not follow the Chinese custom of loosening anything that was tied before burial. Several survivors of mass killings testified how they were able to feign death by falling and getting covered with those beside them who were just shot.

Many of those had to endure thrusts from bayonets, a common Japanese practice to make sure that there would be no witnesses to their atrocities. An American professor of history, Miner Bates, at the University of Nanking told of numerous killings for each of which there was no provocation or apparent reason.

Bates also told of thirty college girls at his university being raped two days after the Japanese entered the city and a further eighteen three days later in different parts of the campus. All the other women were in a state of hysteria. Furthermore, his campus was next door to the Japanese Embassy so Japanese officials in the embassy must also have been aware of what was happening. Prosecutors asked Bates for the name of the officer in command of the Japanese troops at that time.

General Matsui was the answer, the man now standing in the court along with Koki Hirota, Japan’s foreign minister at that time. For most of the time during the Tokyo trials defense lawyers were silent in the face of damning personal testimonies but this time, because Matsui and Hirota were importance defendants it was different.

When Bates told the prosecution that he had sent reports of the atrocities to the Japanese Embassy, William Logan, who was defending the accused, immediately inquired if Bates’ reports had been sent to Tokyo. Bates assured him that they were sent but he was then asked how he knew. Bates informed him that he had received detailed accounts from the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, describing discussions he had had with Hirota over these very reports.

There were numerous additional personal testimonies added to these, many of them so gruesome that only the barest details should be recorded. The randomness and the cruelty of the ways that people were tortured before being killed all pointed to a deliberate policy, not just the actions of a few depraved individuals.

On the basis of massive amounts of evidence, twenty-eight Japanese officers were prosecuted for mass murder, rape, pillage, brigandage, torture and other barbaric cruelties upon a helpless civilian population. Eyewitnesses gave testimonies of the atrocities. Of the twenty-eight men, twenty-five were found guilty. Of the other three, two died during the trials, and one had a mental breakdown.

Seven criminals were put to death by hanging, sixteen were sentenced to life imprisonment, and two had lesser sentences. Of the seven who were hanged, four were executed for their involvement in the Rape of Nanking. Quite apart from the decisions at the trials, about one thousand officers committed hara-kiri suicide, in the days following Japan’s defeat. This form of suicide was a Japanese national tradition in the wake of failure.

Matsui pretended all through the trials that nothing more than a few incidents had happened. When asked if Prince Asaka, uncle of the Emperor Hirohito, had anything to do with all the crimes he strongly defended him. In fact, all of the emperor’s household was exempted from prosecution, despite extensive evidence of their involvement. This was a firm policy of the countries conducting the trials.

On the night before he was hanged, Matsui changed his mind about Nanking. In his words it was a “national disgrace.” He went further and said that the real culprit for all of it was Prince Asaka. Over the years that followed the trials, Japanese citizens maintained a denial of the massacre. During the war, because of the strict control of news, civilians knew almost nothing about atrocities. They heard only about heroic war figures.

The facts released during the Tokyo War Trials shocked the whole country. Many books were written on the subject. At that time, there was no public government denial of the massacre, but there was not any official public acceptance of responsibility either. From the 1960s to the 1980s deliberate efforts were made to deny the horrors of Nanking.

A highly controversial history textbook for schools was published in 1982. The Rape of Nanking was described as action in response to resistance from the Chinese Army. The nations of Asia were enraged and their anger made Japanese authorities reconsider the contents of the book.

By the 1990s, a different version of history made its way into school texts. These books now refer to the “Great Nanking Massacre,” in which Japanese soldiers conducted a rampage of looting, burning, and raping against international condemnation, and killed those who surrendered. Media sensitivity in North America has also changed since the 1930s. The reports that were published by the press and in magazines in 1937 would not be acceptable today because they might generate destructive hatred against the perpetrators.

Press reports on Rwanda, a similar event of mass murder, toned down the horror of the actual event. By contrast, the following are the kinds of reports carried in the Western press and journals in 1937 regarding Nanking: it was his job to complete the butchery of the Chinese defenders. He lined them up in batches and shot them all. It was a tiresome business killing them. Japanese sailors watched the executions.

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