Nanking Massacre

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The Nanking Massacre (Simplified Chinese: 南京大屠杀; Traditional Chinese: 南京大屠殺, pinyin: Nnjīng Dtshā; Japanese: 南京大虐殺, Nankin Daigyakusatsu), also known as the Rape of Nanking and sometimes in Japan as the Nanking Incident (南京事件, Nankin Jiken), refers to the widespread atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in and around Nanking (now called Nanjing), at that time the capital of China, after it fell to Japanese troops on 13 December 1937.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, which is near Nanking and already existed at the time of the Massacre


Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, which is near Nanking and already existed at the time of the Massacre


Battle of Nanking

 Heaps of dead bodies wait for disposal on the wharves of Hsiakwan, the port suburb north of Nanking. (photographed by Murase Moriyasu,  of the 17th Motorized Company of the Supply and Transport Regiment.)


Heaps of dead bodies wait for disposal on the wharves of Hsiakwan, the port suburb north of Nanking. (photographed by Murase Moriyasu, of the 17th Motorized Company of the Supply and Transport Regiment.)

See Battle of Nanjing

Following the Mukden Incident in 1931, Japan began its invasion of Manchuria, China. Because the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT) were engaged in the Chinese Civil War they were distracted from the reality of Japanese advances. However, in 1937, following the Xi'an Incident, the Chinese communists and nationalists agreed to form a united front. The KMT then formally started an all-out defense against the Japanese threat. However, the Chinese army was poorly trained and equipped: some regiments were armed primarily with swords and hand grenades and few had anti-tank weaponry. Despite their difficulties, it is likely that China fielded the largest army in the world at the time in terms of troop numbers. Following the Battle at Marco Polo Bridge, which formally started the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese were swift in capturing major Chinese cities in the northeast.

In August of 1937, the Japanese army faced strong resistance and suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of Shanghai, effectively destroying the possibility of conquering China in three months. The Battle in Shanghai was bloody as both sides faced attrition in urban hand-to-hand combat. By mid-November the Japanese had captured the city with help of naval bombardment. The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo decided not to expand the war due to heavy casualties incurred and the low morale of the troops. However, on December 1, headquarters ordered the Central China Area Army and the 10th Army to capture Nanking, then the capital of the Republic of China.

After losing the Battle of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek knew the fall of Nanking would be simply a matter of time. Leaving General Tang Shengzhi in charge of the city for the Battle of Nanking, Chiang and many of his advisors flew to Chongqing, which became China's capital for the next seven years. On November 11, 1937, after securing control of Shanghai, the Japanese army advanced towards Nanking from different directions. In early December, the Japanese troops were already in the outskirts of Nanking.

On December 9, the Japanese troops launched a massive attack upon the city. On the 12th, the defending Chinese troops decided to retreat to the other side of the Yangtze River (Yangzi Jiang). On December 13, the 6th and 16th Divisions of the Japanese Army entered the citys Zhongshan and Pacific Gates. In the afternoon, two Japanese Navy fleets arrived.



Eyewitness accounts from the period state that over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanking, Japanese troops engaged in massacre. War crimes committed during this episode include the killing of civilians and prisoners of war, rape, looting, arson. It is not known how many Nationalist soldiers were trapped within the walled city and disguised themselves as civilians, but a large number of deaths also occurred to civilians including women and children.

The testimonies came from various sources, most cited one being the ones the Westerners who opted to stay behind in order to protect Chinese civilians from certain harm, including the diaries of John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin. An American missionary, John Magee, stayed behind to provide a 16mm film documentary and first-hand photographs on the Massacre. Others include first-person testimonies of the Massacre survivors, the field diaries of Japanese military personnel as well as the testimonies of Japanese soldiers which were collected at later period by Japanese veterans organisations.

Immediately after the city's fall, a group of foreign expatriates headed by John Rabe formed the 15-man International Committee on November 22 and drew up the Nanking Safety Zone in order to safeguard the lives of civilians in the city, where the population ran from 200,000 to 250,000. It is likely that the civilian death toll would have been much higher had this refugee zone not been formed. Rabe and another American missionary Lewis S. C. Smythe, the secretary of the International Committee who was also a professor of Sociology at the University of Nanking, recorded atrocities of the Japanese troops and constantly filed reports of complaints to the Japanese embassy.



Immediately following the fall of the city, Japanese troops embarked on a frenzied search for former soldiers, in which thousands of young men, civilian or otherwise, were captured. Many were taken to the Yangtze River, where they were machine-gunned so their bodies would be carried down to Shanghai. Thousands were led away and mass-executed.

Others were reportedly used for live bayonet practice. Decapitation was a popular method of killing, while more drastic practices include burning, nailing to trees, or hanging by their tongues. Some people were beaten to death. The Japanese also summarily executed many pedestrians on the streets, mainly on pretext that they might be disguised soldiers in civilian clothing. Women and children were not spared of the horrors of the massacres. Many women were first brutally raped then killed.

The slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases or rape and brutality almost beyond belief. Two bayoneted cases are the only survivors of seven street cleaners who were sitting in their headquarters when Japanese soldiers came in without warning or reason and killed five of their number and wounded the two that found their way to the hospital. (Robert Wilson, letter to his family, Dec. 15)

They not only killed every prisoner they could find but also a vast number of ordinary citizens of all ages.... Just day before yesterday we saw a poor wretch killed very near the house where we are living. (John Magee, letter to his wife, Dec. 19)

They [Japanese soldiers] bayoneted one little boy, killing him, and I spent an hour and a half this morning patching up another little boy of eight who had five bayonet wounds including one that penetrated his stomach, a portion of omentum was outside the abdomen. (Robert Wilson, letter to his family, Dec. 18)



Rapes were often performed in public during the day, and often in front of spouses or family members. A large number of them were systematized in a process where soldiers would search door to door for young girls, with many women taken captive and then gang-raped, and then killed immediately after rape, often by mutilation. Any resistance would be met with instant shootings. While the rape peaked immediately following the fall of the city, it continued for the duration of the Japanese occupation.

Thirty girls were taken from language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heartbreaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night--one of the girls was but 12 years old....Tonight a truck passed in which there were eight or ten girls, and as it passed they called out "Ging ming! Ging ming!"--save our lives. (Minnie Vautrin's diary, Dec. 16, 1937)

It is a horrible story to relate; I know not where to begin nor to end. Never have I heard or read of 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. (James McCallum, letter to his family, Dec. 19, 1937)


Looting and Arson

(This section needs citation of testimonies from Foreigners residing in Nanking.)

It is estimated that over one-third and as much as two-thirds of the city was destroyed as a result of arson. Whether this was caused by Japanese or by Nationalists leaving the city is still disputed. Still, there was considerable destruction to areas outside the city walls. Soldiers pillaged not only from the wealthy but the poor as well. Japanese soldiers were given a free hand immediately following the fall of the city. This resulted in the widespread looting and burglary. To aid the Japanese war effort, soldiers collected every bit of metal including hinges on doors following the United States embargo on scrap metal.


War Crime Tribunals

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(Please add info of the tribunals. Please put the testimonies of atrocities presented in the trials here because it will immunise testimonies from delete/edit war.)



(This section contains allegations which are not properly sourced, and/or controversal images, which might also not be properly sourced. The section is not meant as an endorsement or rejection of these allegations. Please find citations (preferably with archival source citations) then transfer them to the appropriate section.)

(This section also contain many interpretation of the event by modern commentators. Please transfer such commentaries to "debate" section)

Battle of Xuzhou. From a Princeton University  exhibition of photographs and missionary documents of the Nanking Massacre.


Battle of Xuzhou


The Massacre is considered to be the most infamous event in the Japanese invasion of China. The event continues to be a source of controversy between China and Japan. In Japan, opinion among the public is divided, with some sentiment, especially among conservatives, that the Nanking Massacre has been exaggerated (if not fabricated) as a diplomatic weapon directed against Japan despite eyewitness accounts and videos taken by Europeans on site. Some Japanese historians continue to maintain the Nanking Massacre is propaganda on the part of the Chinese Communist Party, although most Japanese people have now recognized that the atrocities did in fact occur. In China, however, the event is a major focal point of Chinese nationalism. Any attempts to question the Massacre's authenticity are considered historical revisionism, and as such, continue to generate anger and resentment.

The extent of the atrocities is debated, with numbers ranging from the present Chinese Communist Party's claim of a non-combatant death toll of 300,000, to the claim of the Japanese army at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that the death toll was military in nature, and that there were no organized massacres or atrocities carried out on civilians. In the death sentence against the commander of the Japanese army in Nanking, General Matsui Iwane, the number was set at 100,000.

More than 300,000 Chinese civilians had been killed. The time period of the massacre is not clearly defined, though the period of unruly carnage lasted well into 6 weeks after, until early February 1938.

Thousands were led away and mass-executed in excavations known as "Ten Thousand Corpse Ditches".

Historians estimate that 20,000 (and sometimes up to 80,000) women from as young as seven to the elderly were raped.

Witnesses recall Japanese soldiers throwing babies into the air and catching them with their bayonets. Pregnant women were often the target of murder, as they would often be bayoneted in the belly, sometimes after rape.

The site of some of the most gruesome atrocities committed during the ordeal was the Nanking hospital. Bandages were torn from the flesh of the wounded, casts were smashed with clubs, and nurses were repeatedly raped.

According to reports, Japanese troops torched newly-built government buildings as well as the homes of many civilians.

General Matsui Iwane was given an art collection worth $2,000,000 that was stolen from a Shanghai banker.

According to testimonies, other women were forced into military prostitution as comfort women. There are even stories of Japanese troops forcing families to commit acts of incest: sons were forced to rape their mothers, fathers were forced to rape daughters. One pregnant woman who was gang-raped by Japanese soldiers gave birth only a few hours later; miraculously, the baby was perfectly healthy (Robert B. Edgerton, Warriors of the Rising Sun). Monks who had declared a life of celibacy were forced to rape women for the amusement of the Japanese. Instances of Chinese men forced to commit sex with corpses were heard of during the occupation.

Many historians today believe that the traumatic situation in Shanghai nurtured some of the psychological conditions for Japanese soldiers to later march on Nanking.


Death toll estimates

There is debate as to the extent of the war atrocities in Nanking, especially regarding estimates of the death toll. The issues involved in calculating the number of dead lay in defining the geographical range and time period of killing as well as the question of what "type" of killing is to be included in the definition of the term "massacre".


Geographical extent and the killing duration

On one side is the view that the geographical area of the incident should be limited to the few square kilometers of the city known as the Safety Zone, where the civilians congregate. Many Japanese historians seized upon the fact that during Japanese invasion there were only 200,000250,000 citizens in Nanjing as reported by John Rabe, to argue that the CCP's estimate of 300,000 deaths is a vast exaggeration. It should be noted that the city normally held about 250,000 people, but by the mid-1930s its population had swollen to more than 1 million. Many of them were refugees, fleeing from the Japanese armies which had invaded China.

Many historians include a much larger area around the city. The Xianquan area is the suburbs of Nanjing city (which is about 66 miles), and including that region the combined population of suburban and urban Nanking runs to some 535,000 and 635,000 just prior to the Japanese occupation.[1] Because the entire Jiangsu province fell under the administration of Nanking, some historians also include six xian (counties) around Nanking starting from Suzhou, at the western edge of Jiangsu province, known as the Nanjing Special Municipality.

The period of the massacre, hence, is naturally defined by the geography of the massacre. The Battle of Nanking ended on December 13, when the divisions of the Japanese Army entered the walled city of Nanking. The Tokyo War Crime Tribunal then defined the period of the massacre to the ensuing 6 weeks. Conservative estimates say the massacre started from December 14, when the troops entered the Safety Zone, and that it lasted for 6 weeks. Those who define the Nanking Massacre as having started from the time the Japanese army entered Jiangsu province push the beginning of the massacre to around mid-November to early December (Suzhou fell on November 19), and stretch the end of the massacre to late March 1938. As a result, the number of people killed swells significantly.


Prisoners of war debate

Another point of debate is the question of whom to count as the victims of Japanese atrocities. Historians agree that the Japanese army indiscriminately killed many civilians in Nanking city, and that these should be counted in the death toll of the massacre. Over the course of the campaign through China, the Japanese army did not take prisoners of war and summarily executed Chinese soldiers during or after combat. Moreover, the army executed plain-clothed guerilla combatants who were hiding among civilians. It is unclear how many innocent civilians were wrongly accused of being guerilla combatants and were dispatched in this manner.

To make matters more difficult, archival evidence such as burial records only state the body count and not which type of group to which each body belonged. Therefore, it provides no means to distinguish whether bodies were the result of "legitimate" or "illegitimate" killing. Many different categories of varying legitimacy exist: soldiers killed during combat, surrendered soldiers summarily executed after the battle, plain-clothed guerilla combatants, plain-clothed soldiers hiding among civilians, civilians wrongly suspected of being guerilla combatants, or those bystanders attacked during the period of indiscriminate killing, rape and looting (which all the scholars deem to be illegitimate).


Various estimates

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East or the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, stated the death toll of the Nanking Massacre as ranging between 200,000 and 300,000. The death toll of 300,000 is the official estimate engraved on the stone wall at the entrance of the "Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military's Nanking Massacre" in Nanjing.

In 1947 at the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, the verdict of Lieutenant General Tani Hisao, the commander of the 6th Division quoted the figure of more than 300,000 death tolls. Apparently this estimate was made from burial records and eyewitness accounts. It concluded that some 190,000 were illegally executed at various execution sites and 150,000 were individually massacred. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated in its judgment that "over 200,000" or "over 100,000" civilians and prisoners of war were murdered during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation. That number was based on burial records submitted by two charitable organizations, the Red Swastika Society and the Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong), the research done by Smythe and some estimates given by survivors.

At the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals, the Nanking Massacre death toll was presented either as "more than 200,000" or "more than 100,000".

Modern historians like Kasahara Tokushi at Tsuru University and Fujiwara Akira, a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University, take into account the entire Nanjing Special Municipality, which consisted of the walled city and its neighboring six counties, came up to an estimate approaching or over 200,000. Other Japanese historians, depending on their definition of the geographical and time duration of the killings, place the death toll on a much wider scale from 40,000 to 300,000. In China today most estimates of the Nanking Massacre range from 200,000 to 400,000, with no notable historian going below 100,000.