Rape of Nanjing

After having captured the Nationalist Chinese capital city of Nanjing, three divisions of Japanese troops were allowed to kill, rape, loot, and burn.

Summary of Event

Japan had begun absorbing parts of China in 1895 with the annexation of Taiwan, followed by Manchuria in 1932, Jehol Province in 1933, and Inner Mongolia in 1935. In the latter three, a pattern was established: Local Japanese field commanders initiated military action, after which the Tokyo higher command would debate but finally back up their actions, and then the Chinese Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek would submit to a local settlement to avoid major confrontation. The Japanese attitude toward the Nationalist government and the Chinese people came to be contemptuous. In July, 1937, a clash occurred outside Beijing and, when the Chinese did not back down, the Japanese army was forced to choose between withdrawal and full military assault. Dismissive of Chinese military capability, they chose the latter course, hoping that a quick defeat would topple Chiang, neutralize China, and free Japanese troops for expected confrontations with the Soviet Union. [kw]Rape of Nanjing (Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938)
[kw]Nanjing, Rape of (Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938)
Rape of Nanjing
[g]China;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[g]East Asia;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[c]Military history;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
[c]Terrorism;Dec., 1937-Feb., 1938: Rape of Nanjing[09600]
Chiang Kai-shek
Matsui, Iwane
Asaka, Yasuhiko
Muto, Akira
Hashimoto, Kingoro

The key to rapid conquest was Shanghai, the gateway to the Yangtze Valley and central China. Once Shanghai was taken, the passage to Nanjing, the Nationalist capital 170 miles inland, would be easy. Chiang committed the cream of his officer corps and best-trained troops to the battle for Shanghai, but he lost the majority of them in a suicidal stand against naval and air bombardment that began in August and lasted into November. With the Japanese forces bogged down in street fighting, the higher command formulated a strategy that would outflank the Shanghai fortifications and expedite the drive on Nanjing, which many in the Japanese army and government expected to be the final campaign. The overall commander of the expeditionary force was General Iwane Matsui, a slight, tubercular man pulled out of retirement by the emperor himself. He had been a pan-Asian idealist earlier and, although he advocated the drive on Nanjing, there is nothing to indicate that he held any enmity toward the Chinese, whose language he spoke fluently. The flanking forces he drove toward Nanjing, however, were hard to control. Indications of their mood were shown in the bombing, strafing, and looting of cities and villages along the way.

Many in the Japanese high command, including Matsui, believed that negotiations for a cease-fire should have been initiated before attacking Nanjing. Chiang had indicated willingness to negotiate, although at the same time he issued orders that Nanjing was to be defended to the last, despite its indefensible position and its lack of military value. In any case, Japanese moderates were overridden and no terms were offered. The assault began on December 9, with a creeping artillery and air barrage that shattered all resistance by December 13. On December 17, with the Nanjing atrocities already beginning, Chiang, who had moved his government inland, issued his historic address rejecting all negotiations and calling for a people’s war to the bitter end.

As the attack on Nanjing began, General Matsui was removed from personal supervision of field operations and confined to theater command. Emperor Hirohito’s uncle, General Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, was appointed to the Nanjing operation. His headquarters issued secret orders to kill all captives, referring presumably to the Chinese troops trapped in the besieged city. Under him were the field commanders whose troops perpetrated the Nanjing outrages: Lieutenant General Kesago Nakajima of the Sixteenth Division, General Heisuke Yanagawa of the Nineteenth Corps, Lieutenant General Hisao Tani of the Sixth Division, and Colonel Akira Muto. Muto was in charge of billeting troops, and he moved soldiers from encampments safely outside Nanjing into the city, where the holocaust took place.

The Chinese never formally surrendered the city. Their retreat was unplanned and disjointed, and about seventy thousand troops were trapped inside. About three-fourths of the city’s population of one million fled, with Japanese firing on boats in the Yangtze, killing thousands as overloaded junks capsized. Many people were trampled in the confusion. As the Chinese authorities departed, they turned over supplies and effective authority to a self-appointed committee of twenty-seven foreign residents—American, British, German, and Danish missionaries, academics, and businesspeople—who established a safety zone of about two square miles in the northwest part of the city. Working tirelessly to protect a refugee population that reached a total of one-quarter million, they protested to Japanese authorities without result and restrained countless acts of individual brutality by their sheer presence, although they were never formally recognized by the Japanese. It was their diaries, letters, reports, film, and reminiscences that provided the four-thousand-page record of the atrocities in Nanjing for history and for the Allied war crimes trials.

The remains of South Station in Shanghai, which the Japanese ravaged before attacking Nanjing.


Systematic looting began as soon as Japanese troops reached the city. Evidence of command complicity lay in the organized nature of the looting and the fact that army trucks were used. Later, even refugees were stripped of their pitiful possessions. Arson was also systematic; efficient thermite strips were used to burn whole sections of what had been one of the loveliest cities in China. Tricked by notices promising good treatment, disarmed Chinese soldiers, and later virtually all males of military age, were bound and murdered by machine gun or bayonet. Many were staked and used for bayonet or sword practice. Prisoners were roasted over fires, doused with kerosene and set on fire, burned with chemicals, disemboweled, or buried up to the neck before torture.

Rapes occurred more and more frequently and increasingly flagrantly, often on the street in broad daylight. Pregnant women, girls as young as nine, and women as old as seventy-six fell victim. Some women were gang-raped, were raped and then murdered, or saw their children murdered. Others were rounded up and kept for months in sexual bondage at camps.

The grisly statistical totals for the seven weeks from December, 1937, to February, 1938, when the carnage finally subsided, are difficult to determine; official sources are often biased and the eyewitnesses were unaware of the bigger picture. Many deaths went unrecorded because of the difficulty of keeping wartime records in China. A high estimate of the death toll is 300,000; the true number is almost certainly more than 150,000. There were more than twenty thousand rapes. The overall economic loss was impossible to determine. Japanese army warehouses were filled with looted valuables. Some officers, including Nakajima, retained small fortunes in plunder, but most items were sold to defray army expenses. A study on a limited sample of individuals estimated that the average farmer lost the equivalent of 278 days of labor and the average city dweller lost 681 days. Nanjing would take more than a year to begin its economic revival.

On December 12, as Nanjing was falling, Japanese forces under Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto bombed and sank an American gunboat, the USS Panay, twenty-five miles upriver from Nanjing. Lifeboats were strafed and the craft was machine-gunned from a nearby Japanese gunboat. Two American tankers, two British gunboats, and two British-flag steamers were also bombed. Four American crew members were killed and sixty were wounded; two British crew members and countless refugees were also killed. Hashimoto, an ultranationalist zealot, had done this on his own initiative in defiance of standing policy to avoid provoking the West. In contrast to the Nanjing outrages, the Japanese government apologized officially and privately and offered indemnities, which were accepted by the United States and Great Britain with little protest.


The attitude of the Japanese army and government at first was to ignore the events at Nanjing, treating them as a matter for the army and accepting the army’s bland fictions minimizing the horror. Later, however, Nanjing veterans on leave boasted openly of their depredations. In December, newspapers had even reported a grotesque sort of contest between two lieutenants racing to see who could cut down the most Chinese with their swords, referring to the race as “fun.” The authorities were forced to suppress virtually all mention of atrocities. Even decades later, Japanese school texts avoided the subject, and prominent officials have asserted that it never happened.

The Imperial Japanese Army almost never punished a soldier for excesses (punishment was reserved for lack of aggressiveness), so punishment had to wait for the war’s end. Matsui, who had scolded his subordinates for their complicity (they laughed at him), retired after Nanjing, built a temple, and held services for the dead of Nanjing. Even though he was less guilty than most, he offered no defense and so was the only prominent officer executed specifically for the Nanjing atrocities at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal. Muto was executed for war crimes in the Philippines, Hashimoto was given a life sentence, and Prince Asaka, protected by his royal connections, escaped prosecution.

Nanjing had a crucial effect on the course of the war. Japan might have won the war either with an acceptable offer of terms or with an immediate drive past Nanjing into the interior. Instead, the brutal tactics at Nanjing clearly failed to shock the Nationalists into negotiating and allowed them time to reorganize to carry on the war. This left the Japanese with the sole alternative of creating collaborationist governments, which were divided and subject to the same independent field commands that had produced the Nanjing incident. Japan’s actions in China cost it any credibility in negotiations with the United States. The breakdown of these negotiations produced the impasse that made Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor possible.

The atrocities in Nanjing had a consciousness-raising effect on Japan’s reputation in the court of world opinion, particularly on American public opinion. Newspapers in the United States began reporting on the sinking of the USS Panay almost immediately. Reports on the larger disaster at Nanjing came more gradually but were regular after December 30. Photographs were taken by foreigners, and even by the ingenuous Japanese, of horrible scenes. Chinese shops that processed the film smuggled out duplicate prints. There was even motion-picture footage taken by the Reverend John Magee of the carnage, footage that was later used by the isolationist organization America First to frighten Americans into staying out of war. So many, however, were moved to anger and sympathy that the film was withdrawn. Nanjing was one of the great atrocities of World War II. Never quite overshadowed by the more massive but impersonal Holocaust, it remained the benchmark for personal savagery and exemplified the dilemma posed by the rights of noncombatants in any profound nationalistic or ideological conflict. Rape of Nanjing

Further Reading

  • Brook, Timothy, ed. Documents on the Rape of Nanking. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Collection of primary sources that document the rape of Nanjing. Divided into two parts addressing both letters and documents during the time of the invasion and records of the judicial proceedings that followed.
  • Butow, Robert J. C. Tojo and the Coming of the War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. More than a biography of Prime Minister Tojo, this book delineates the military-bureaucratic environment that produced the decision to go to war with the United States. A classic and a foundation for subsequent scholarly works on the political history of Japan’s part in World War II. Excellent bibliography and index.
  • Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Vivid, horrifying account of the Nanjing attack from viewpoints of Japanese soldiers, Chinese civilians, and Westerners.
  • Coox, Alvin D., and Hilary Conroy, eds. China and Japan: Search for Balance Since World War I. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1978. Predominantly analytic account that discusses the emperor’s role in the war. The Nanjing atrocities are seen as a watershed in the “pure military” line toward China. Some of the articles later became major works.
  • Crowley, James B. Japan’s Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930-1938. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. The major monograph on diplomacy, bureaucracy, and military decision-making. Particularly good resource for information on Sino-Japanese relations behind the scenes, in which Nanjing becomes only a part of a larger picture composed of hard decisions, misperceptions, lost opportunities, and situational imperatives. A thorough and scholarly work covering territory not dealt with elsewhere.
  • Eastman, Lloyd. “Facets of an Ambivalent Relationship: Smuggling, Puppets, and Atrocities During the War, 1937-1945.” In The Chinese and the Japanese: Essays in Political and Cultural Interactions, edited by Akira Iriye. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. A thoughtful and intriguing glimpse behind the obvious national hatreds at the fraternization, trade, and other cooperative ventures between the two sides. Offsets the brutality of Nanjing with instances of mutual accommodation. Eastman makes no apology for the widely observed Japanese arrogance.
  • Fogel, Joshua A., ed. The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. This collection of essays analyzes the Nanjing massacre and the ways in which the issue has become a political controversy.
  • Hsue, Shu-hsi. The War Conduct of the Japanese. Shanghai, China: Kelly & Walsh, 1938. Includes hastily compiled essays on Japanese atrocities in China. Exceedingly detailed, this volume is designed as an archive for war crimes charges and to inform public opinion. Based on International Safety Zone Committee sources and international publications.
  • Morley, James W., ed. The China Quagmire: Japan’s Expansion on the Asian Continent, 1933-1941. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Part of the seven-volume Japanese Taiheiyo senso-e no michi, translated with additional chapters and commentary. Reflecting a Japanese academic (liberal) view, it accepts all of the occurrences at Nanjing but tends to dwell on the decision-making context of the war as a whole.
  • Wilson, Dick. When Tigers Fight: The Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945. New York: Viking Press, 1982. One of the most balanced condensed military histories of the war available. Presents astute judgments of all the major military leaders on both sides. Heavily anecdotal, with a preference for extensive quotes. Accessible style makes this an excellent work to start with on this subject.

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