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Nanking Massacre


Map of China from the CIA World Factbook.

Prior to the attack on Nanking tensions between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan had been building.  The First Sino-Japanese War fought from1894 -1895 was between the Qing Dynasty and the Empire of Japan over the Korean Peninsula. Japan believed that whoever held military presence in Korea would have power over Japan. As a result of this conflict Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula from China. From 1904 to 1905, Russo-Japanese War was fought between the Empire of Japan and Russian Empire over the Russian influence within Manchuria and the Korean peninsula. The conflict concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, in which the Empire of Japan officially gained control over the Korean peninsula and South Manchuria, including Port Arthur. 

The end of The Great War signaled the end of an era of prosperity that Japan had been under for over a decade since the Meji Restoration. Wide spread global economic depression resulted in Japanese ultranationalists insisted that in order to prevent mass starvation the Empire needed to conquer more territories. In 1937 Japan provoked the war with the Chinese that started the Second Sino-Japanese War. From August 15, 1937 onwards, the Japanese Army bombed the capital of the Republic of China, Nanking or Nanjing. Because of this millions of Chinese became refugees, fleeing by railroad, boat, or land. On the way to Nanking the Japanese army committed crimes against humanity against farm communities and entire cities, from clubbing and bayoneting Chinese citizens to raping and abducting Chinese women for sexual slavery.

The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone was created and supported by a few Americans and Europeans who decided to stay in Nanking to help. They partitioned off a part of the city with the understanding that anyone within the zone of two and a half square miles, whether they were Chinese or non-Chinese, would be off limits to the Japanese invasion forces. In order to help the Chinese soldiers within the Zone, John Rabe, the head of the Nazi Party in Germany, negotiated a truce with the Japanese Army to treat them fairly as POWs, but instead the Japanese executed thousands of Chinese. They did not distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

On December 13th, the Japanese Army attacked before dawn with about 50,000 troops. The 90,000 Chinese troops and half a million civilians, half of the original population, vastly outnumbered them. So the Japanese used deception and promised the Chinese troops fair treatment if they surrendered. Instead, the Japanese divided the Chinese into groups of two hundred and killed them in various areas around Nanking. They shot, beheaded, or used Chinese soldiers for bayonet target practice. This mode of killing Chinese troops and civilians continued in stealth throughout the siege Nanking.

For months the massacre carried on, but the worst atrocities happened during the first six to eight weeks. There were live burials, mutilations, death by fire, death by ice, death by dogs, and death by rape. Women, pregnant and/or in labor, and girls, even if they were young children, and men could not escape the threat of rape. Killing the women after raping them became the norm for Japanese troops, and if they were not killed, they were used as ‘comfort women’ in the brothels set up by the Japanese military in the hope that the brothels would decrease incidents of rape of local women, to contain sexually transmitted diseases, and to reward soldiers that returned from battle. It was half a century later that some of the comfort women broke their silence in order to ask the Japanese government for financial compensation.

The exact amount of the death toll is still unknown today. The Japanese began to make an effort to regulate the activity within the safety zone a week after the city fell. Everyone had to get a passport; the men were required to register their presence. In late January, after the registration had ended, the Japanese tried to eliminate the zone but were unsuccessful. The zone ended up housing 200,000 to 700,000 refugees.

The Japanese military tried to cover up what happened in Nanking, put the letters, journals, still and moving images that were written and taken by the leaders of the Safety Zone and the Japanese soldiers ensured that the evidence of what happened at Nanking would be there. By the spring of 1938 the massacre was over and the Japanese occupied Nanking for the rest of World War II until the day of the Japanese surrender.

The United Nations Commission for Investigation of War Crimes was established in 1943, and then the Chinese Nationalist government collected materials from eyewitnesses in the United States. Following those events, in October 1944, The Chinese War Damage Investigation Commission began to look at the evidence they gathered to assess the materials and human losses. A full investigation into Nanking did not start until after World War II when the Japanese surrendered. Within the International Military Tribunal for the Far East War, trials were carried out against the Japanese in both China and Japan. Lieutenant General Tani Hisao was indicted as a war criminal in December 1946 and sentenced to death on March 10, 1947. The Chinese War Crimes Tribunal only convicted three other Japanese officers, Captain Tanaka Gunkichi, Lieutenant Mukai Toshiaki, and Lieutenant Noda Tsuyoshi, were also put to death. At the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, Commander Matsui Iwane was charged a Class A war criminal and was indicted on twenty-nine counts, although only charged with one. The former Foreign Minister Hirota and six individuals were also found guilty of Class A war criminal activities and were sentenced to death by hanging.


Recommended Resources


Iris Chang Author, The Rape of Nanking  


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