Rape Of Nanking

The History Of The Rape Of Nanking – A WWII Atrocity

This is a brief history of the Forgotten Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, or the Rape Of Nanking, arguably one of the most tragic crimes of the Second World War.

The Forgotten Holocaust

The Rape of Nanking is arguably one of the most atrocious massacres in the last two hundred years, but for the most part, it has gone relatively unnoticed by Western scholars and the general public.

The killings occurred in 1937, two years before the Second World War officially began in the eyes of the European and American powers.

The Imperial Japanese Army Forces, across six weeks, stormed the city of Nanking and savagely murdered and raped thousands of civilians and soldiers.

As a result of political maneuvering on the part of the Chinese, Japanese, and Western governments, scholars are still, to this day, unsure how many people the Japanese killed.

Some scholars estimate that between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped and murdered, while others say the numbers are much closer to 350,000, in total, including men and women (3).

At that time, Nanking was the capital of China, and Japanese forces left it in ashes. It took many years, decades even, for the city – as well as its citizens to find their ground again.

Japanese Culture, Nationalism, And The Samurai Society

Before beginning, it’s useful to look at Japanese culture in the years preceding the Second World War, as the history illuminates potential reasons for why the conflict materialized.

According to Iris Chang, in her book, The Rape Of Nanking, Japanese culture and identity were created through a millennia-year-old system in which social ranking was established and maintained through a pecking order and military competition (3).

Throughout Japanese history, the nation’s feudal lords had their own armies which were constantly at war with one another – it was very much a warrior society.

The infamous Japanese Samurai warrior class established itself in the medieval ages.

The Samurai had a code of conduct called Bushido, or “Way Of The Warrior,” which went on to have an influence on the culture throughout the ages, as well as in the modern era (3).

For the Samurai, dying in service to one’s lord was the highest honor a warrior could achieve in their lifetime. A code of honor such as this one wasn’t created by the Japanese, however, they mastered it.

The Romans had similar codes, parroted by the poet, Horace, who claimed young men owed their lives to rulers (3).

However, Bushido went a step further.

Samurai warriors, if they failed to meet the requirements of military service, brought so much shame to themselves that they would commit suicide rather than deal with the shame and humiliation brought on by feelings of cowardice and disobedience.

The practice was called, “harakiri”: a custom where a Japanese warrior had to disembowel himself in front of superiors as punishment for not fulfilling his moral obligation (3).

Over time, the code of the samurai eventually became deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and it was a model of honorable behavior for all young men.

In the modern age, Iris Chang writes, Bushido was “practiced to extremes.”

Perhaps, one of the most famous demonstrations of the ethos involving the West was the kamikaze suicide missions, where Japanese soldiers, committed to die for their country and their emperor, crashed their planes into American ships at Pearl Harbour in 1942 (3).

The way in which Japanese soldiers demonstrated their willingness to die for their country shocked the Western powers. While it’s easy to merely place the blame on the Japanese, other nations had their own pathologies too.

The creation of potentially insidious and damaging ideologies is not unique to the Japanese.

For instance, the West dehumanized the Japanese by describing them as machine-like “robots,” who would do whatever their master demanded of them.

Regardless of how the West chose to view their enemy, the unwillingness to surrender was a crucial aspect of the Japanese military ethos.

According to Chang, allied prisoners surrendered 1 prisoner for every three deaths, in comparison to Japanese soldiers, who surrendered almost never – 1 out of 120 per death (3).

The Japanese were unique in their total contempt for surrender. The very geographical nature of Japan lends itself to a culture of peculiarity, unparalleled by other nations of the time.

Japan, at this time in history, was in self-imposed isolation, both physically and culturally. During the 15th and 16th centuries, ruled by the Tokugawa clan, they closed off their borders to the outside world and from foreign and “corrupting” influences (3).

However, an unintended by-product of this was Japanese technology falling precipitously behind the rest of the world, especially in comparison to European and American powers.

During the span of 250 years, Japanese technology was merely a bow, a sword, and a musket. Nevertheless, their lack of technological sophistication led to an embarrassing future for a proud people.

In the 19th century, Japan found itself embroiled in humiliating circumstances, leaving the nation in a state of panic and xenophobic fear (3).

The US President, Millard Fillmore, in 1852, grew tired of Japan’s unwillingness to do trade with foreign powers.

Fillmore, whose mindset was characterized by the ethos of the time, “the white man’s burden” –  often used as a way of justifying European imperialism and expansionism – stormed Japan and forced them to open up their borders for trade (3).

President Fillmore sent Commander Matthew Perry to the nation, the result of which was a shocking wakeup call to the Japanese people.

Matthew, who studied their history extensively, showed up to the island with a gigantic demonstration of American military prowess and technological sophistication (3).

In the summer of 1853, Perry sent a plethora of steam-powered ships to the Tokyo Bay, offering to the Japanese for the very first time, a look at steam power (3).

Perry along with sixty to seventy fierce-looking men, armed with guns and swords, rode to the capital of the Shogun and demanded to speak with the highest-ranking officials in Japan (3).

Due to Japan’s isolation, they had never seen anything quite like the technological and military aptitude of the United States.

Samuel Eliot Morison, a historian, said the situation was comparable to aliens and astronauts visiting the earth. The Tokugawa aristocracy panicked, hid all of their possessions, and held meetings, but they were utterly defenseless (3).

Regardless, the Japanese people had no choice but to agree to whatever the Americans asked of them.

While the Americans never hurt anybody when they visited, it humiliated Japan and showed that their feelings of ethnic and cultural superiority were out of touch with reality.

Perry forced the Japanese to sign treaties with not only the United States, but also other nations, including Britain, Russia, France, and Germany. Members of the Japanese power structure secretly said it would be best to wage immediate war.

However, others argued it would be better to placate for now, and then gradually build up their strength to a technologically superior nation with ample ability to defend itself from outside intrusion (3).

This is what ended up happening, as the Japanese catapulted themselves into modernity within a short period of time.

Incidentally, the public viewed the Shogun with contempt due to their understanding of the situation as being one of surrender and defeat: a disgusting notion in the eyes of a nation who considers courage and loyalty to be the highest virtue.

Over time, rebels infuriated at what they considered to be defeat and surrender to foreign barbarians, separated into private factions and wanted to restore an emperor to power.

In 1868, the factions scored a victory in the honor of the Meiji and transformed the nation into a modern and strong Japan. Shinto became a state religion, erasing aspects of tribalism, and united all of the islands (3).

With intentions to fight against Western powers, the Imperial government established the ethics of Bushido for all of those in the nation.

In an era known as the Meiji Restoration, Japan began espousing slogans like “Revere The Emperor” and “Expel The Barbarians (3).”

Thus, the Japanese became a modern nation by sending students abroad to study science and technology at Western Universities. And then on created factories for military purposes, and replaced weak feudal armies with nationally conscripted forces.

Moreover, the Japanese studied the style of defensive tactics of the United States and Europe, ultimately looking at the German military system as one to aspire to (3).

However, once students came back to Japan from Western nations, it shattered confidence in Japanese strength and superiority, leaving a deeply insecure nation.

An ultranationalist sentiment, as well as feelings of racial and cultural superiority, were intertwined within the culture, exacerbated by years of intense military training of young boys in schools, where many were subjected to cruel forms of punishment for not obeying orders.

At the end of the late 19th century, Japan had practically caught up technologically and wanted to test out their newfound power on their Asian neighbors (3).

The Lead Up To Nanking

By the 1930’s, the Japanese, who felt that the entire continent of Asia should belong under their control, decided they would expand their empire (3).

In 1931, Japan launched an unofficial and undeclared war against China, after they staged an explosion that was meant to derail an express car owned by themselves(3).

When it failed, they killed Chinese guards and used the incident as a justification for invading and taking over the city of Manchuria, resulting in anti-Japanese sentiment in Shanghai (3).

After a mob of Chinese people killed 5 Japanese Buddhists, the tension between the two nations only escalated, and the Japanese responded by bombing the city of Shanghai, which killed tens of thousands of Shanghai civilians (3).

Western nations condemned the act and ultimately embarrassed the Japanese, who then left the League Of Nations in 1933 – the precursor to the United Nations (3).

During the summer months of 1937, Japan and China finally had gone to war, following several small conflicts and years of increased tension (3).

After a long battle for Shanghai, that was supposed to take hardly any time at all, Japanese soldiers were left embittered by the fact that it took them approximately four months to finally conquer Shanghai when originally, they believed it would’ve taken 3 months to take the entire nation of China (3).

There were approximately 90,000 troops stationed in Nanking at the time of the massacre, and why the Chinese chose to surrender to a much smaller army – in merely four days on the 12th of December, 1937 – had always been a mystery, until Iris Chang wrote her book, The Rape Of Nanking (3).

In the past, scholars believed the Chinese merely gave up, and civilians, reporters, and historians claim that Tang had left his troops at their most vulnerable moment.

There is some truth to both of these claims, however, in Chang’s book, she illuminates a more detailed picture of this tragic event.

Tang Shengzhi, the military general, had a tough decision to make regarding the military conflict in Shanghai. Tang Shengzhi, General Gu Zhutong, and Chiang-Kai Shek where the main generals involved in this story.

The Japanese had approximately 3,000 planes, while the Chinese had just three hundred, so the Chinese weren’t able to effectively defend against Japanese aeronautical attacks (3).

On the 8th of December, Chiang Kai-Shek and his men left Nanking and so did their entire air force. Tang didn’t have any aerial information on Japanese strategies, therefore, the effectiveness of Chinese weapons on the outskirts of the city was diminished against Japanese planes.

When government representatives left for Chungking, they took many of the communications systems with them, so the Chinese army couldn’t speak to each other.

The troops stationed in Nanking came from different regions of China, with some of them speaking Mandarin, while others spoke Cantonese.

An EMT in Nanking, Chang writes, claimed doctors in China’s military spoke Cantonese while the majority of the troops spoke Mandarin, leading to confusion.

The “soldiers” were hardly trained, with a majority of them getting drafted overnight or pulled out of the countryside without forewarning.

Many of these young kids never shot a gun before or even held one for that matter, and they didn’t have a lot of bullets, so higher-ranking officials didn’t waste any of their resources training them.

The soldiers, who had just returned from Shanghai after suffering a defeat, were extremely tired, demoralized, and injured.

Returning men from Shanghai were not in good shape; they were tired, hungry, sick, and wounded. These men weren’t able to finish fortifying the Nanking walls with barricades and trenches.

Essentially, the troops in Nanking had a breakdown of morale and social organization, leading them vulnerable to the well-prepared Japanese. Military commanders who weren’t loyal to each other, as well as the soldiers, lacked a sense of purpose and cohesiveness.

And on the 9th of December, Japanese airplanes dropped leaflets near the city, written by the general, Matsui Iwane. The commander demanded the surrender of Chinese forces, in exchange for a peaceful takeover.

The message said they would be “harsh and relentless to those who resist,” but merciful to those who surrendered. Tang Shengzhi was furious at the leaflet and commanded two different orders.

His first order was to defend against the Japanese, and the second was to thwart military troops from using boats to leave the island by crossing the Yangtze River.

While his orders to fight back against the Japanese were made publicly, Tang supposedly was attempting to make a truce in private. While he promised to fight back at no matter the cost, he was trying really hard to stop a war in the city.

European and American diplomats and peacekeepers were still in Nanking at this time, and they backed him in his choice.

These same people were the ones to later create the International Committee For The Nanking Safety Zone, a stretch of land created by foreigners whose authority was legitimatized through American and European governments. European and American workers created this area to protect Chinese civilians from the Japanese.

They created the Nanking Safety Zone – also called the International Safety Zone – with the idea that anyone within the two-and-a-half square miles of the land was free from Japanese aggression.

Tang and members of the International Committee drew out an armistice with the Japanese, agreeing to a three-day pause from war, in which the Japanese could keep their position and march into Nanking while the Chinese troops and civilians could surrender peacefully.

Tang Shengzhi agreed to the truce, and sent a message to his cohort general, Chiang Kai-Shek, through the American embassy, however, Chiang denied it.

On the 10th of December, the Japanese waited outside the gates of the city for a sign of surrender – the flag of truce. But, due to the orders from Chiang, they never received such a signal, and then the Japanese generals ordered the troops to storm Nanking.

In the following days, the Chinese and Japanese troops fought around Nanking, but the Japanese assaulted the city with bombs and artillery fire.

Tang later sent a message to Chiang-Kai Shek, indicating they were losing, and then Chiang, through General Gu Zhutong, commanded him to retreat his forces and head for Pukow which had a ferry and a railway terminal near the falling Nanking.

The general, essentially, asked Tang Shengzhi to abandon his troops, and at that time, his men were in the middle of battle. He told Gu Zhutong that doing such a thing was impossible because Japanese forces were already across the front lines.

“You have to retreat by tonight,” Zhutong commanded.

Chiang Kai-Shek, through General Gu Zhutong, ordered Tang to cross the river immediately, “leaving a subordinate behind to handle the situation,” if he had to.

Tang told him that he couldn’t retreat because the troops had already crossed enemy lines. Once again, Chiang Kai-Shek confirmed the order, urging retreat.

Tang, who wouldn’t be able to fight back, eventually complied, becoming one of the worst decisions made in the history of the Chinese military.

At approximately 3:00 am, on the 12th of December, Tang held a meeting with some of his vice commanders, where he explained their only option was to retreat.

Tang decided to remove his army through the Yangtze River, but he learned that the enemy troops were blocking the escape route from Nanking. Tang approached the German businessman, Eduard Sperling, for help in deliberating a peace treaty with General Matsui Iwane, but Iwane refused.

The entire city left in a rush, the streets were jammed with vehicles, horses, and civilians.

Military commanders met once again for a meeting at 5:00 pm, but only some of them showed up, with the others realizing the severity of the situation, taking it upon themselves to flee.

Tang told his subordinates that the Japanese had broken through the gates of Nanking from three different places, and he asked them if they had the confidence to hold them back, to which they responded with silence.

Tang then discussed the strategies for exiting.

The rest of the military forces began retreating, destroying much of the ammunition, communications equipment, and weapons. Roads and bridges were burned.

The result of which was chaotic, as Chinese forces ran frantically about, with Chinese officers informing all of their troops to leave the city. Some of the officers didn’t even bother to tell their troops, and instead, chose to save their own lives.

Soldiers who were in the middle of fighting the Japanese, realized that others were leaving, making them feel as if they were being deserted by higher command.

They shot and killed hundreds of their own comrades in an attempt to stop them from leaving. One Chinese tank rolled over and killed their own men, and others broke into civilian shops, ditched their uniforms, and put on civilian clothing.

With one viable exit from the city being the Yangtze River – without encountering the Japanese – troops ran toward it knowing that there was a fleet of boats waiting for those who chose to leave.

There was massive congestion at the Ichang – the Water Gate. Soldiers, trucks, cars, and horse-drawn wagons were trying to get through the thin, seventy-foot tunnel.

Abandoning all of their equipment, soldiers argued over who would get on each remaining boat, and the scene turned violent. Crews on the boats began chopping off the fingers of men who had hung from the sides of their junks and sampans.

A fire broke out that same evening on the Chungshan Road, the flames burned through ammunition, causing massive flames, taking down houses and vehicles, with vehicles and troops panicking in the mass confusion and hysteria.

Hundred of men surged through the flames and many were trampled in the massive mob.

Following the departure of the last boats, soldiers created floatation devices to cross the river and others attempted to swim across, meeting certain death.

The very last thing Tang witnessed was the people and his troops frantically trying to leave Nanking, with his own troops sprawling across make-shift devices as they attempted to cross the Yangtze River.

The Rape Of Nanking

On the 13th of December, troops from Japan’s Imperial Army, commanded by General Matsui Iwane, entered the front gates of Nanking.

On their way to the Chinese city, Japanese forces committed brutalities on Chinese citizens, including murdering competitions and looting.

They hunted down Chinese soldiers, killed thousands of civilians, and left them in massive gravesites built, typically, by the victims themselves.

The troops executed entire families, including the elderly, infants, and women. According to reports, “women had it the worst,” as thousands of them were raped by the troops and later sold into prostitution during World War II in what came to be called “comfort homes.”

Soldiers burned approximately 1/3 of the city’s buildings to the ground. Initially, Japanese forces agreed to honor the rules laid out by the Nanking Safety Zone, however, they ended up trying to pull women out of the zone for rape.

Thankfully, the brave men and women in charge of the zone, like John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, and George Ashmore Fitch, did everything they could to stop Japanese forces from committing any more atrocities.

Japanese troops had orders to “kill all captives.” The very first goal was to kill any young men who could be or were soldiers, and there were 90,000 Chinese soldiers left.

In Japanese culture, the idea of surrendering was totally reprehensible, and one of the vilest, cowardly acts a man or woman could possibly subject themselves too.

The Japanese troops considered Chinese prisoners of war as pathetic, regarding them as sub-human, and not worthy of living. It first began with the forces removing Chinese soldiers to the periphery of Nanking and shooting and using them for bayonetting practice.

Because of the demands from higher command, Japanese soldiers began inflicting the worst possible agony, pain, and anguish as possible as a means of desensitizing themselves to future battle and eliminating the idea of being merciful – a trait not useful in war.

Around this time, film and photographs were available, although most of the footage and pictures are only in black and white. The Japanese, themselves, were the ones to capture a lot of it on film and in photos.

Soldiers would bayonet men, women, and children, decapitating them, while showcasing their heads as trophies. They proudly stood beside ravaged corpses.

Chinese prisoners were shot with machine guns, while others were covered in gasoline and lit on fire, ultimately burning to death in excruciating pain.

After they killed all of the soldiers and young boys, perhaps, the worst part of the massacre was inflicted upon the women of Nanking, who were sadistically raped, mutilated, decapitated, and murdered.

Approximately 20,000 to 80,000 women were gang-raped by soldiers, sometimes 15-20 men would rape one woman. Japanese troops knew rape was punishable by death if high command found it, so they killed them afterward.

The soldiers didn’t discriminate based on age. Women over the age of 70 were treated the same way as girls under eight. Older women begged Japanese soldiers not to rape them because they were too old for sex.

Pregnant women suffered similar treatment; soldiers raped them, cut their stomachs open, and ripped fetuses out of their body.

In some cases, Japanese soldiers would barge into a family home, and then force fathers to rape their own daughters; sons to rape their own mothers; brothers their sisters, with the family, forced to watch.

Soldiers looted shops and lit homes and shops ablaze with people locked inside of them. The Japanese soldiers laughed when people climbed onto the rooftops and tried to jump off to save their own lives.

This all went on for six weeks. Arson, bayoneting, strangulations, thefts, drownings, and rapes. It started in the middle of December 1937 and continued all the way until February of 1938.

Thousands of corpses littered the blood-soaked streets, which, literally are said to have been taken over completely by blood.

Additionally, the Japanese administered opiates to the civilians and following the widespread violence, people lost themselves to the city’s opium dens.

Japanese troops set up what was called “Comfort Homes,” all throughout China, where Chinese women were forced into sexual slavery and existed purely for the sexual gratification of soldiers.

The New York Times, as well as Japanese publications, reported on the widespread killing. Japanese outlets celebrated the conquest of Chinese cities, due to them seeking to expand their empire, a right they thought was owed to them due to their cultural and racial superiority.

Japanese military correspondents reflected the mentality of the slaughter, stating that it was their right to do so. The Japan Advertiser proudly published a killing game of two soldiers that celebrated their murderous decapitation conquest.

Reports from The New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Reader’s Digest were met with disbelief by many in the American populace.

Moreover, at this time in American history, Americans were isolationists who allegedly were concerned only with themselves and cared very little about Asia.

In 1937, European leaders were more concerned with the threat of Nazi and European expansion, including Mussolini, the Soviets, and the Germans.

However, as it was mentioned earlier, a group of Europeans and Americans, composed primarily of doctors, businessmen, and missionaries established what was called the International Safety Zone.

They used Red Cross Flags and declared an area of 2.5 square-miles off limits to the Japanese. In some cases, they risked their lives by intervening in the attempted murder of Chinese men and the rape of girls and women.

Other Westerners documented the savagery of Nanking, with one stating it was “hell on earth.” Around 300,000 Chinese people made it to the International Safety Zone, but those who didn’t get there died.

In The Months Following The Rape Of Nanking – 1938

The Rape Of Nanking went on for months, but the very worst of it was within the first six weeks of Japanese occupation. By the time spring came before the summer of 1938, Chinese citizens knew that occupation would go on, but death wasn’t a certainty.

However, the oppression the Chinese faced continued under Japanese rule, as they began to implement standards and practices meant to ensure their control.

A foreigner wrote of the city, “the dumping of filth and every kind of waste everywhere,” adding, “you cannot imagine the disorganization of the city.”

Human flesh, trash, and debris filled the streets for the longest time because the Japanese didn’t allow Chinese people to do anything without expressed permission.

Japanese army trucks drove over dead bodies in the street, crushing up the remains, reinforcing the idea that the Chinese made the mistake of resisting subjugation.

On the 1st of January, 1938, the Japanese created a faux-government, called, “the Nanking Self-Government Committee,” or “Autonomous Government,” as some Western people in the city called it.

The board had positions filled by Chinese officials, under Japanese orders, who controlled the administration, finance, welfare, police, commerce, and traffic.

In the springtime, Nanking started to work as a regular city again, with running water, electric lighting, and mail. They created city bus services and people could take a train from Nanking to Shanghai.

Despite the fact the city was becoming somewhat normal again from an outside perspective, the Japanese still treated the Chinese people very poorly.

Chinese merchants were charged with heavy taxes as a way of paying off the officials in power, and Chinese valuables like gold and other treasures were exchanged for a useless military currency.

Until the United States dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, and one on Nagasaki, in 1945, the Japanese brutally subjugated the Chinese through a number of different ways.

By giving them heroin cigarettes – intentionally addicting them to the substance – forcing women into prostitution, executing people for crimes they never committed, treating laborers as slaves, and conducting insane and unbelievably cruel medical experiments on innocent people, as well as thwarting shipments of food to the people from the government.

After the US dropped the bombs, and the Western powers brought Germany and other Axis powers to justice, Japanese war crimes weren’t recognized as thoroughly.

However, Matsui and his subordinate, lieutenant Tani Hisao, were convicted by the International Military Tribunal and subsequently brought to death.

And why did the Japanese, for the most part, manage to get away for their atrocities against their Asian counterparts?

According to Chang, the Chinese, American, and Western governments chose not to persecute them to the full extent of the law as they did to Germany because they wanted to ensure that Japan would be an ally in the future.


The Rape of Nanking is now an extreme point of contention in Sino-Japanese relations. It wasn’t until Iris Chang wrote her book, The Rape Of Nanking, that Westerners, as well as Asians, began talking about what happened.

While North Americans and Europeans don’t know a lot about this atrocity, many Chinese people never forgot, the result being hostility and resentment. Some Japanese officials today claim China is exaggerating what they had done for political purposes.

The truth behind the massacre has been distorted and disputed as a part of nationalist and historical revisionist propaganda campaigns, as well as apologists for Japanese nationalists.

While most Japanese people today fully acknowledge that it happened, some believe that – as it was mentioned above – the Chinese government and others have greatly exaggerated just how many people were victimized.

Due to the lack of sufficient data, mostly because the Japanese destroyed evidence, there aren’t any official numbers on how many people died at the hands of the troops, although, reports state in between 200,000 and 300,000.

Others have claimed that it’s less than 50,000.

Interestingly, Iris Chang, arguably the primary figure to bring the massacre to light, passed away seven years after writing her 1997 book in 2004.

Chang drove her car out on a quiet road and turned a gun on herself after struggling with mental health issues. Reportedly, the news of her death hit the survivor community in Nanking very hard. The Nanking survivors acknowledged and appreciated her efforts.

To this day, there is a statue of Chang outside of the Nanking Memorial site.

If there is one thing to learn from this event, it’s that civilization is a very fragile thing. When there is no stability and order, human beings have the potential to inflict the worst kinds of horrors on each other. And it isn’t just one group over the other.

There are rarely good people in war.


(1) History

(2) History Place

(3) Iris Chang – The Rape Of Nanking