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Looking East WW II: The Massacre and Violation of Nanking

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



China and Japan have been daggers drawn for close to a1000 years. In the 12th century, the Chinese emperor decided to invade Japan and a fleet was sent to conquer the islands. At that time the Japanese were not militarily as strong as the Chinese but legend tells us that a divine wind called the "kamikaze" emanated by a supernatural force and the Mongol fleet was annihilated. We do not know whether this is true or not but the Japanese believe in it. There is a possibility that the Mongol fleet was destroyed by a tsunami which is quite frequent in that region.

Japan then went into isolation and for the next thousand years it had very little contact with the outside world and no visitors were also allowed inside Japan. In 1853 things began to change and an American fleet made an entry into the Bay of Tokyo and forced the Japanese to open the door to trade and commerce. This was like a boon to the Japanese as they now began to imbibe western technology and tactics and soon built up a formidable military force. They built a powerful navy and many of their officers were sent abroad for training. This bore fruit in 1904-05 when the Japanese fleet inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian Navy. Czar Nicholas II had sent the fleet all the way from the Baltic Ocean to the Pacific and despite all the heroism the Japanese with superior tactics and technology completely destroyed the Russian fleet as well as captured the Russian commander-in-chief. This was the first time in the history of warfare that an Eastern nation had defeated a Western power and that too a formidable power like Russia.

This victory gave Japan tremendous clout and importance in East Asia and the Japanese emperor and think tank decided that Japan must exert its influence over the countries close to Japan. Another reason for the expansion of the Japanese Empire was economic. Japan needed raw material's as the Japanese islands had hardly any natural resources. The best course was to occupy mineral-rich Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Western powers and Russia had recognized the pre-eminent position of Japan in the Far East. They did not therefore interfere in Japanese expansionism. China had not modernized and its army and air force were still primitive. They were repeatedly defeated by the Japanese and had to cede Manchuria to Japan. Japan also captured the entire Korean Peninsula

The Japanese set up a puppet state in Manchuria called Manchukow and anointed the last emperor of China Pu Yi who had been overthrown as the ruler of the state. He became a puppet of the Japanese government. No country recognized the state and in protest, Japan left the League of Nations.

From 1931 onwards the Japanese decided to expand their influence in China and began to expand their role. The Japanese army attacked the areas which were not under their control and in 1937 they attacked Nanking which was the capital of China. The Koumingtanparty which was governing China at that time withdrew from Nanking setting the stage for a great massacre in the city.


Attacking Nanking

The Imperial Japanese army launched a ferocious assault and after a bloody battle, Shanghai was captured. The Imperial army now turned its attention to Nanking. General Chiang Kai Shek the head of the nationalist party decided to withdraw from Nanking without giving battle. This was a strange decision but all the same professional troops of the Chinese army were all withdrawn and the defense left in the hands of the irregular militia. He also passed instructions that Nanking was to be defended at any cost and forbade the civilian population to leave the city. Despite this thousands of Chinese left the city.

The Japanese entered the city on 13 December 1937. Some resistance was given by the militia but overall it was a walkover. The Japanese occupied the entire city except for the foreign quarter which housed the embassies and diplomats of western powers. At that time Imperial Japan was not at war with the western powers and hence they did not touch the western diplomats and their representatives but in other parts of the city, they established an iron rule and began to commit untold atrocities on the Chinese residents.

Nobody has been able to explain as to who gave the order for the killings and rape of this city. The Japanese leaders were tried for these offenses at the Tokyo tribunal and many hanged to death. But as can be seen by the dissenting judgment of justice Binod Pal the order for this massacre never came from the Japanese government but was probably taken by some local commanders.

Massacres and rapes

There is some evidence to suggest that Hirohito was not happy with the conduct of Prince Yusuhiko Asaka. He decided to give him a chance to redeem himself but the opposite happened. Prince Asaka left Tokyo on 5 December and landed the same day at Nanking. He had a meeting with the divisional commanders Lieutenant general Kesago Nakajima and lieutenant General Heisuke Yanagawa. He was informed by both the commanders that a Chinese army of 300,000 soldiers had been surrounded and was at their mercy. He was also was informed that the Chinese army was willing to surrender but it appears that the Prince had other ideas and give the order to kill all surrendered Chinese. It is one of the tragedies of history that none of these 3 were convicted as both the Lt generals died of natural causes in early 1945 and the prince though stripped of his title lived on till the age of 81 and died in 1981. As he was a member of the royal family he was not tried for any crime as per the orders of General MacArthur.

On December 13, the first troops of Japan’s Central China Front Army, commanded by General Matsui Iwane, entered the city. There was not much resistance but word had already spread of the atrocities and rapes committed by the Imperial army on its march to Nanking.

The Japanese army now began mass executions of Chinese soldiers and even killed hundreds of citizens to instill fear. They also carried away thousands of girls and women and systematically violated them and then executed them. Entire families were massacred and photographs are available of dead bodies littering the streets weeks after the massacre. The Japanese looted and burned at least one-third of the city.

To this day, the Japanese are unrepentant and I have seen video interviews of soldiers you took part in the massacres and many describe gleefully how they captured the Chinese girls and violated them. These videos were made 20 years after the end of the war.

At a conservative estimate, 300,000-400,000 Chinese citizens and soldiers were killed and about 500000- 700000 women violated. These are harsh figures but they are close to the truth, though many debate these figures.

Last word

The Japanese occupation continued till 1945 when the dropping of the atomic bombs led to the surrender of the Imperial army.

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MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 19, 2020:

Liz, thank you for your comment

Liz Westwood from UK on November 19, 2020:

It is shocking to appreciate some of the terrible wartime attrocities.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 15, 2020:

Tom, MacArthur had his own ax to grind but even Chiang Kai Shek was not in favor of trying the Japanese in fact many Jap generals were recruited by him to fight Mao and the communists.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 15, 2020:

Yes the German consul in the diplomatic quarter saved many Chinese but the prince responsible was never tried and he spent his time playing golf after the war.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 15, 2020:

Thanks, Pamela, well what cannot be cured has to be endured,

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 15, 2020:

Denise, Nice of you to have spared time and commented

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on November 14, 2020:

That is incredibly sad. I'm not sure why I never heard of this before but sometimes history glosses over some of the harsher details of war.



Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 14, 2020:

I did not know many of the details of the Japanese atrocities. It is shameful to say the least. The 2 bombs the U.S. dropped were necessary to end the war. They abused the American military prisoners as well. Thanks for writing about this horrid part of history so we don't forget.

I saw on the news this morning that Pakistan and India were still fighting at the border. I am sorry to hear about that.

I don't like the way we often can't comment on the articles of Hubbers, but know that I will always read your excellent articles, MG.

tom on November 14, 2020:

a shameful chapter,german consular general john rabe did save chinese,hirohito was not tried for warcrimes,macarthur said if emperor was tried,there would be violence

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