The Nanking Massacre, 1937

Japanese troops enter Nanking on July 4, 1937
Japanese troops enter Nanking on July 4, 1937.

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In late December 1937 and early January 1938, the Imperial Japanese Army perpetrated one of the most horrific war crimes of the World War II era. In what is known as the Nanking Massacre, Japanese soldiers systematically raped thousands of Chinese women and girls of all ages. They also murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians and prisoners of war in what was then the Chinese capital city of Nanking (now called Nanjing). 

These atrocities continue to color Sino-Japanese relations to this day. Indeed, some Japanese public officials have denied that the Nanking Massacre ever happened, or significantly downplay its scope and severity. History textbooks in Japan mention the incident only in a single footnote, if at all. It is crucial, however, for the nations of East Asia to confront and move past the gruesome events of the mid-20th century if they are going to face the challenges of the 21st century together. So what really happened to the people of Nanking in 1937-38?

Japan's Imperial Army invaded civil-war-torn China in July of 1937 from Manchuria to the north. It drove southward, quickly taking the city of Beijing. In 1927, the Chinese Nationalist Party had established the capital in the city of Nanking, about 1,000 km (621 miles) to the south of Beijing.

The Chinese Nationalist Army or Kuomintang (KMT) lost the key city of Shanghai to the advancing Japanese in November of 1937. KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek realized that Nanking, just 305 km (190 miles) up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, could not hold out much longer. Rather than wasting his soldiers in a futile attempt to hold Nanking, Chiang decided to withdraw most of them inland about 500 kilometers (310 miles) west to Wuhan, where the rugged interior mountains offered a more defensible position. KMT General Tang Shengzhi was left to defend the city, with an untrained force of 100,000 poorly-armed fighters. 

The approaching Japanese forces were under the temporary command of Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, a right-wing militarist and the uncle by marriage of Emperor Hirohito. He was standing in for the elderly General Iwane Matsui, who was ill. Early in December, division commanders informed Prince Asaka that the Japanese had encircled almost 300,000 Chinese troops around Nanking and inside the city. They told him that the Chinese were willing to negotiate a surrender; Prince Asaka responded with an order to "kill all captives." Many scholars view this order as an invitation to the Japanese soldiers to go on a rampage in Nanking.

On December 10, the Japanese mounted a five-pronged attack on Nanking. By December 12, the besieged Chinese commander, General Tang, ordered a retreat from the city. Many of the untrained Chinese conscripts broke ranks and ran, and Japanese soldiers hunted them down and captured or slaughtered them. Being captured was no protection because the Japanese government had declared that international laws on treatment of POWs did not apply to the Chinese. An estimated 60,000 Chinese fighters who surrendered were massacred by the Japanese. On December 18, for example, thousands of young Chinese men had their hands tied behind them, then were tied into long lines and marched to the Yangtze River. There, the Japanese opened fire on them en masse.

Chinese civilians also faced horrific deaths as the Japanese occupied the city. Some were blown up with mines, mowed down in their hundreds with machine guns, or sprayed with gasoline and set on fire. F. Tillman Durdin, a reporter for the New York Times who witnessed the massacre, reported: "In taking over Nanking the Japanese indulged in slaughters, looting and rapine exceeding in barbarity any atrocities committed up to that time in the course of the Sino-Japanese hostilities... Helpless Chinese troops, disarmed for the most part and ready to surrender, were systematically rounded up and executed... Civilians of both sexes and all ages were also shot by the Japanese."

Between December 13, when Nanking fell to the Japanese, and the end of February 1938, the violence by the Japanese Imperial Army claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war. The Nanking Massacre stands as one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

General Iwane Matsui, who had recovered from his illness somewhat by the time Nanking fell, issued several orders between December 20, 1937 and February of 1938 demanding that his soldiers and officers "behave properly." However, he was not able to bring them under control. On February 7, 1938, he stood with tears in his eyes and upbraided his subordinate officers for the massacre, which he believed had done irreparable damage to the Imperial Army's reputation. He and Prince Asaka were both recalled to Japan later in 1938; Matsui retired, while Prince Asaka remained a member of the Emperor's War Council.

In 1948, General Matsui was found guilty of war crimes by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and was hanged at the age of 70. Prince Asaka escaped punishment because the American authorities decided to exempt members of the imperial family. Six other officers and former Japanese Foreign Minister Koki Hirota were also hanged for their roles in the Nanking Massacre, and eighteen more were convicted but got lighter sentences.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Nanking Massacre, 1937." ThoughtCo, Jun. 24, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, June 24). The Nanking Massacre, 1937. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Nanking Massacre, 1937." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).