|The Rape of Nanking: Reasons
by Walter Zapotoczny
The Japanese generals who took time out to toast the early success of their
China campaign in 1937 drew their jubilation not only from the quick rout of
the numerically superior enemy, but from deep cultural roots. By the very act
of fighting they were fulfilling the ancient role of the samurai – the medieval
warrior whose fate was conquest or death. The Japanese warriors in China
found plenty of both. Within two years after they swarmed over the Great Wall
from attack points in occupied Manchuria, the Japanese had swept south and east
1,200 miles. On the way their 600,000-man force suffered 60,000 casualties and
killed two million Chinese. Among those killed where civilians, butchered in a
distinctly un-samurai-like orgy of murder at Nanking. The factors that lead
to this uncharacteristic behavior can be traced to: the economic conditions
that existed in Japan and the need for markets, the characterization of the
Chinese people as morally deficient, harsh Japanese military training, and the
circumstances on the ground leading up to the assault on Nanking. Debate
continues between deniers of the genocide conducted at Nanking and those who
cite the historical record. Perhaps the continuing debate has its origins in
the same factors.
In his book New History of the World, J. M. Roberts writes, "When
Japan's wartime economic boom finally ended in 1920, hard times and social
problems followed even before the onset of the world economic depression. By
1931, half of Japan's factories were idle. The position of the Japanese peasant
deteriorated as millions were ruined and many had to sell their daughters into
prostitution in order to survive." The political consequences were soon marked
by the intensification of national extremism. The collapse of European colonial
markets and the entrenchment of what remained of them behind new tariff
barriers had a shattering effect. Japanese exports of manufactures were down by
two-thirds, making Japan's export outlets on the Asian mainland critical.
Anything that seemed to threaten Japan's markets provoked intense
Even as they were engaged in a struggle with the Chinese Communist Party, the
Chinese National People's Party and Chinese nationalism had done well with
Russian help, to this point, and was beginning to reassert itself in Manchuria.
The Japanese presence in Manchuria went back to 1905 and the theater was
critical to them. At first the Chinese acquiesced, but in the 1920s began to
question Japanese presence, with support from the Russians, who foresaw danger
from the Japanese pushing their influence towards Inner Mongolia. There had
been armed conflict in 1928 when the Japanese had tried to prevent the
Nationalist Chinese soldiers from operating against warlords in north China
whom they found it convenient to patronize. In 1929, the Chinese came into
conflict with the Russians over control of the railway which ran across
Manchuria and was the most direct route to Vladivostok. This conflict impressed
the Japanese with the new vigor of Chinese power. At this time the effective
power in Manchuria rested with the commanders of the Japanese forces there. In
1931 those commanders organized an incident near Mukden, which they used as an
excuse for taking over the whole province. There followed the setting up of a
new puppet state, Manchukio. Assassinations in Tokyo led to the establishment
of a government much more under military influence which expanded the quarrel
with China. In 1932 the Japanese replied to a Chinese boycott of their goods by
landing forces at Shanghai. In the following year, they came across the Great
Wall to impose a peace, which left Japan dominating a part of historic China
and trying unsuccessfully to organize a secessionist north China.
By 1937, Japan was engaged in a full-scale war with China that they continued
to call 'The China Incident'. Japan's expectations of a quick victory over
China were shattered when the battle for Shanghai stretched on for several
months before that city finally fell in November 1937. The imperial troops
advanced toward Nanking, the capital city of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist
government, with heightened aggression, raiding small villages and razing
entire cities to the ground. The Japanese army's march to Nanking created
multiple factors that made the subsequent atrocities in Nanking highly likely.
These were the combination of several factors, both old and new. First, the
near robbery-like requisitioning by Japanese soldiers caused the breakdown of
their discipline. Quite a few cases of murder and rape recorded in private
diaries were its natural consequence. In this respect, the Japanese troops
degenerated into a pre-modern army living off the land to support themselves.
Lack of logistical preparation for the Nanking campaign due to the typical
decision-making process in the Japanese military— local command dragging the
central authority—was its major cause. Second, strong anti-Japanese feeling
among the Chinese population in the region and the frequent encounters by
Japanese troops with straggling and plainclothes soldiers led to the killing of
POWs as well as ordinary civilians. Japanese soldiers conducted such ruthless
killing because they were highly sensitive to and scared of the plainclothes
soldiers. In this respect, the Japanese were fighting a new type of war against
the 'inner front' as the German soldiers had done in Belgium in World War I.
Third; both sides resorted to burning for their own strategic or tactical
purposes. The Chinese conducted a 'scorched-earth' policy and burned huge areas
to deny the advancing Japanese troops any supplies—a campaign of destruction in
line with their own tradition. Japanese soldiers frequently burned houses and
villages to deprive Chinese irregulars or plainclothes soldiers of their
staging bases. Other cases were attributable to the breakdown of discipline
such as Japanese soldiers' carelessness or the sadistic pleasure they found in
seeing houses in flames.
In December 1937, the Japanese army swept into the city of Nanking and within
six to eight weeks, by most accounts, massacred more than three hundred
thousand civilians, and raped eighty thousand women. According to Roy Brooks in
his book When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies &
Reparations for Human Injustice, "the Japanese turned murder into
sport." They rounded up tens of thousands of men and used them for bayonet
practice or decapitation contests. Sometimes they simply sprayed gasoline on
them and burned them alive. Some men were skinned alive, tortured to death with
needles, or buried up to the waist in the soil, where they were ripped apart by
German shepherds. The Chinese women suffered far worse. Many of them were
mutilated horribly after being raped. The Japanese even forced fathers to rape
their own daughters, or sons their mothers, or brothers their sisters, all in
an attempt to further degrade the victims. The Japanese were equally brutal to
the small children. Babies were tossed into the air and bayoneted as they came
down. Some were thrown into vats of hot oil and water. Despite compelling
documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts, including some by Japanese soldiers,
and photographic evidence, Japanese revisionists continue to reject charges
that war crimes and atrocities that occurred there. This revisionist view is,
to a large extent, associated with the resurgence of Japanese imperialism and
militarism supported by the United States.
From the beginning of the armed conflict in July 1937, the Japanese government
and its supporters, including the mass media, stressed that Chinese
Nationalists had planned and initiated armed struggle. According to the
official view, Japan had been seeking peace in Asia, only to be dragged into an
unwanted military conflict with China. Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro's decision
to dispatch additional forces to China received enthusiastic support from the
large national newspapers. In an article in Asahi titled "Obviously
Planned anti-Japanese Armed Conflict; Firmly Decided to Dispatch to Northern
China; Determined Statement by the Government to China and Other Countries,"
the editor used boldface to emphasize that this incident was no doubt an
anti-Japanese armed conflict. He went on to say that, the incident was
carefully planned by China and the Japanese government sincerely hopes that the
Chinese side will immediately reflect on its attitude and that peaceful
negotiations will be instituted in order not to worsen the circumstance. The
media stressed that the Chinese soldiers and guerrillas were recklessly killing
innocent Japanese civilians as well as combatants. Japanese casualties
inflicted by unlawful Chinese shootings at the Marco Polo Bridge and other
places were widely reported in the newspapers. When approximately 3,000 Chinese
troops in Tongzhou attacked Japanese forces as well as civilians and killed
some 200 Japanese and Korean residents, the Japanese war correspondents
described the event in detail and expressed outrage. Asahi, for example,
detailed Chinese looting and destruction in the Japanese community as well as
the stabbing and killing of women, children, and infants. In another article on
the same page, the Asahi correspondent Tanaka, who had met survivors
of the incident, described his feelings of unprecedented fury and declared that
July 29th must not be forgotten.
The official view of the time was clearly stated in elementary school
textbooks. In the fifth-year geography textbook, written for 10 and 11year-old
children, which came into use in 1936, Japan was defined as consisting of the
Japanese islands mainland Honshu, Hokkaido, South Sakhalin, Shikoku, Kyushu,
Taiwan, Ryukyu Islands, the Kurils and the Korean peninsula. In the sixth-year
geography textbook available in 1936, a description of Manchukio was added in
the chapter on Asia. The textbook stressed that relations between Manchukio and
Japan were extremely close and that Manchukuo was Japan's lifeline. According
to the textbook explanation, Japan endorsed Manchukuo independence as soon as
it became independent, then withdrew from the League of Nations, and has been
making a substantial effort to develop this nation Manchukuo and to maintain
peace in Asia. After the China Incident in 1937, the textbook was again
revised. The 1939 sixth-year geography textbook emphasized that Japanese
efforts to preserve coexistence and co-prosperity with China, as well as
Japanese development and sacrifice, were contributing to the development of
Chinese transportation and foreign trade. In addition, the textbook blamed
Chinese leaders for their incorrect attitude and for their provocative
anti-Japanese ideology, both of which had led to the China Incident. Japan,
according to the textbook, has been urging China to reflect on its mistaken
policy toward Japan and continually carrying out its mission of eternal peace
To condemn Japan as evil ignores many of the factors already mentioned, but
does not mean that there were no aspects of Japanese military training that
made Japan's forces more prone to violence. In his book The Nanjing Massacre in
History and Historiography Joshua Fogel writes, "The bulk of Japan's
frontline troops were poor farmers, industrial workers, and criminals, people
who had rough lives of hard work and minimal reward." Once in the Japanese
military system, they were treated harshly. Soldiers were routinely slapped and
beaten by their superiors. Whole units were penalized with forced marches or
punitive exercises for the actions of just one member. Complaints brought even
worse retribution. Ideologically, Japanese were taught that their imperial
hierarchy lay at the center of the world morality and that the Japanese were
superior to all other peoples. As part of this philosophy, China was made the
focus of contempt. Initially, some Japanese intellectuals used China in order
to develop a more confident Japanese identity. Anti-Chinese attitudes spread in
Japan as the popular voices of journalists and politicians condemned China as
backward and encouraged Japanese expansion into Chinese territory. By the 1930s
Japanese school textbooks taught students to believe in Japan's superior
position in Asia, to view China as a civilization in decline, and to consider
Chinese people morally deficient. This view permeated the Japanese military,
leading to racial slurs and contempt. Soldiers were told that expansion into
China was Japan's destiny and that heroic behavior sough victory and death. The
overall atmosphere of the Japanese military life created soldiers who followed
orders, ignored personal feelings, and treated anyone beneath them with the
same contempt that they experienced themselves.
Economic conditions, a mixture of harsh discipline and indoctrinated disdain
created the potential for the Nanking Massacre, but to release that potential
required the fourth and most important factor: the circumstances leading up to
the assault on Nanking. The Japanese attacked Shanghai and began bombing
Nanking in August 1937 with the expectation that all of China would fall in a
matter of months. Instead, the siege of Shanghai required four months of bloody
fighting. This angered the Japanese high command and the frontline soldiers who
had watched their comrades die at the hands of the despised Chinese. When
Shanghai finally fell in November, military planners and leaders turned their
eyes to the Chinese capital, Nanking, with the goal of retribution. Commanders
pushed their units toward Nanking, quickly outpacing supply lines and telling
their men to survive on what they could scavenge. Soldiers robbed villages they
passed through and Chinese they came across. Peasants were forced to carry
equipment and goods for the Japanese troops. Villages were razed in order to
efficiently end any threat of resistence. Brutalities were excused in the name
of war and capturing Nanking, and conquering the capital grew in importance
with each new atrocity. The Japanese knew that their job was to kill the enemy,
and the barely acceptable conditions of the frontline warfare grew worse,
thereby amplifying the animal natures of these soldiers as they marched toward
Nanking. To further encourage their men, officers promised women and plunder.
When the soldiers reached Nanking, their expectations of revenge, sex, and
goods combined with the heightened desire to make an example of Nanking and
prove Japan's dominance.
John Rabe writes in his diary Good Men on Nanking, "The Japanese march
through the city in groups of ten to twenty soldiers and looted the shops. If I
had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it. They smashed
open windows and doors and took whatever they liked, allegedly because they
were short of rations. I watched with my own eyes as they looted the cafe 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. Some Japanese soldiers
dragged their booty away in crates, others requisitioned rickshaws to transport
their stolen goods to safety."
In 1946, the Chinese prosecutor for the International Military Tribunal for the
Far East (IMTFE) charged that Japanese troops had committed atrocities at
Nanking in 1937. They stated the Japanese reason was to crush forever all will
to resist on the part of the Chinese people. There was hardly a debate
about the incident, called 'The Rape of Nanking,' until the establishment of
formal diplomatic ties between Japan and the People's Republic of China in
1972. The lack of new information up to this point and original research
allowed a rough consensus to form about the issue. The Chinese and the
Westerners accepted the IMTFE indictment or ruling as their version of the Rape
of Nanking, leaving no room for further discussion. In his book Nanking:
Anatomy of an Atrocity, Masahiro Yamamoto writes, "The extremely
negative image of pre-World War II Japan painted at the IMTFE had such a strong
influence, even on the academic world, that few people voiced opposition to the
IMTFE version of the Rape of Nanking."
The next round of debates about the Rape of Nanking started in the summer of
1982 when Japanese news media reported that the Education Ministry had directed
writers of Japanese high school history textbooks to revise or modify the
descriptions of modern historical events, including the Rape of Nanking.
According to the initial Japanese news reports, among the revisions advised by
the ministry regarding the China-Japanese conflict of 1937–45 was the change
from "invasion" of China into "advance" to China. Although it became known
later that there was no instance of such a change urged on any textbook, the
news soon spread to other countries. There were, however, other revisions
suggested by the ministry, including one concerning descriptions of the Rape of
Nanking, with more emphasis on the provocation by the Chinese side as well as
the deletion of the specific number of victims. The governments of Asian
countries that had been subjected to Japan's aggression before and during World
War II filed immediate protests with the Japanese government.
From the end of the war until the early 1970s, some Japanese revisionists, such
as Tanaka Masaaki, a World War II veteran, tried to discredit the conclusions
of the Tribunal as 'victor's justice,' but their efforts received little
attention. From the 1970s on, the dominant view, that a massacre occurred in
Nanking in 1937-38, has increasingly been challenged by revisionists, including
conservative politicians, World War II veterans, scholars in various
disciplines, business executives, and popular commentators. Outraged by the
revisionist challenges, progressives, who supported the IMTFE indictment,
responded quickly to refute revisionist claims that the Massacre did not occur.
The struggle between the two camps has raged since and the contest over how to
characterize the Nanking Massacre along with other Japanese wartime atrocities
From the 1950s on, as the Cold War took shape, the progressives endured a
rising challenge from what they called "reactionary forces" and they struggled
to resist what they regarded as a revived imperialism and militarism. In the
face of Communist threats, a conservative Japan gained renewed support from the
United States who looked for allies in the region. The Japanese government
began to insist that textbooks were polluted by dangerous distortions. The
Ministry of Education subsequently increased its control over textbook
authorizations, and one-third of school textbooks were rejected as not meeting
new government standards. The Ministry demanded that textbooks avoid tough
criticism of Japan's role in the Pacific War, and the government regarded as
inappropriate any description of Japan as invading China. From the mid 1950s
until the 1970s, the description of the Massacre completely disappeared from
In Making of the Rape of Nanking: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the
United States, Takashi Yoshida writes, "The end of the Cold War,
Emperor Hirohito's death, the loss of conservative party dominance in domestic
politics, the more inclusive textbook descriptions of Japanese wartime
atrocities, and the growing awareness of wartime devastations in Asia and the
Pacific caused by Imperial Japan all combined to heighten the intensity of the
disputes over the Nanking Massacre throughout the 1990s." While discussed
and debated in Asia, the Rape of Nanking remains an obscure incident. Unlike
the atomic explosions in Japan or the Jewish holocaust in Europe, the horrors
of the massacre at Nanking remain virtually unknown to people outside Asia. The
massacre remains neglected in most historical literature published in the
In the History Channel's program entitled "The Rape of Nanking" in its "History
Undercover" series on August 22, 1999, one of the themes presented was an
alleged cover-up of the Rape of Nanking for half a century by the Japanese. But
the heated controversy and debate about the incident in Japan appears to be
more than enough to prove that there was no cover-up. Instead, many Japanese
scholars and journalists have discussed this issue openly and tried to obtain
the truth. Although quite a few of them disagree with the prevailing opinion in
the United States and in other Western countries, it is obvious that the
expression of disagreement is not necessarily an act of cover-up.
The history of Nanking has been altered over time to meet the needs of changing
societies in different sociopolitical contexts. While the details and the
number of deaths continue to be debated, most historians agree that the Nanking
massacre was an atrocity, in which 80,000 or more Chinese civilians and
surrendered soldiers were killed and tens of thousands of women raped following
the Japanese capture of the city. In Japanese publications seeking to deny or
greatly minimize this event, a word like "so-called" is often placed in front
of one of these names. Some seeking to link the event rhetorically or
structurally with the more widely-known Holocaust in Europe during the Second
World War use the term "Nanking Holocaust."
In conclusion, despite compelling documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts,
including some by Japanese soldiers, and photographic evidence, Japanese
revisionists continue to reject charges that war crimes and atrocities that
occurred there. This revisionist view is, to a large extent, associated with
the resurgence of Japanese imperialism and militarism supported by the United
States. The debate continues as many Japanese find it difficult to accept the
past actions of the Imperial Army while some search for the truth. Perhaps the
old sense of moral superiority stands in the ways of acceptance. The truths and
the actions of the conquerors of Nanking have their roots in the economic
conditions in Japan which helped to foster the characterization of the Chinese
people as beneath the Japanese and morally deficient. Bolstered by this sense
of superiority, harsh military training, and the horrific conditions that the
Japanese soldier had to endure on his way to Nanking, the atrocity committed
there was perhaps inevitable, as is the continuing debate about its very
Show Footnotes and
. L. Russell. The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese Ware Crimes. (Liverpool: Greenhill Books, 2005), 134.
. Timothy Brook. Documents on the Rape of Nanking. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 11.
. J. M. Roberts. The New History of the World. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 927.
. Roberts, 928.
. Yamamoto, Masahiro. Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. (Westport: Praeger Publishing, 2000), 67.
. Roy Brooks. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies & Reparations for Human Injustice. (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 104.
. Laurence Rees. Horror in the East: The Japanese at War 1931-1945. (London: BBC Books, 2001), 67.
. Takashi Yoshida. Making of the Rape of Nanking: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States. (New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2006), 12.
. Yoshida, 14.
. Joshua A. Fogel. The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000), 17.
. Fogel, 18.
. John Rabe. The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe. (London: Little Brown and Co., 1998), 87.
. Yamamoto, 9.
. Yamamoto, 234.
. Yamamoto, 238.
. Fogel, 72.
. Yoshida, 129.
. Iris Chang. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 6.
. Yamamoto, 235.
Brook, Timothy. Documents on the Rape of Nanking. Ann Arbor: University
of Michigan Press, 1999.
Brooks, Roy. When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies &
Reparations for Human Injustice. New York: New York University Press,
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.
New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Fogel, Joshua A., The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.
Berkley: University of California Press, 2000.
Rabe, John. The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe.
London: Little Brown and Co., 1998.
Rees, Laurence. Horror in the East: The Japanese at War 1931-1945.
London: BBC Books, 2001.
Roberts, J. M., The New History of the World. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2003.
Russell, L. The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes.
Liverpool: Greenhill Books, 2005.
Yamamoto, Masahiro. Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. Westport: Praeger
Yoshida, Takashi. Making of the Rape of Nanking: History and Memory in Japan,
China, and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press,
Copyright © 2008 Walter Zapotoczny.
Written by Walter S. Zapotoczny. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Walter Zapotoczny at:
To read more from the author, go to his web site at http://www.wzaponline.com.
About the Author:
Walter lives in Pennsylvania. He is pursuing his masters degree in history and
writes articles for numerous publications. He is currently writing an historical
fiction novel about the Einsatzgruppen (a task force of mobile killing units
that operated in German-occupied territories during World War II).
Published online: 05/27/2008.