Nightmare in Nanjing


The Nanjing Massacre is said to be one of the worst incidents of mass extermination that occurred during World War II on December 13, 1937.  It is also known as “The Rape of Nanking,” where in a duration of six weeks, over 260,000 Chinese civilian lives were lost to Japanese soldiers. Men and women were tortured, raped, sexually mutilated, and murdered in various ways. Although the massacre is known to have been one of the cruelest and gruesome acts against humanity comparable to the Jewish Holocaust, it remains largely unknown to many Western nations and is neglected in several literary works of history in the United States (Chang, p.6 ). The rape of Nanking is often known as a Holocaust that has been long forgotten. Although Japan has expressed remorse for their actions in World War II, Japan had never given an official apology for the Rape of Nanking. Because of this, China has remained in a state of unrest as Japan remains entrapped in the final stage of genocide.

2.History, Background, and What Lead to the Massacre

In the Meiji era of Japan, Japanese society was beginning to advance toward modernization. They saw the emperor as their national symbol and as a god so as to create more unity within the nation of Japan. Japan had undergone rapid change within their technology, their military, and their economy, and after learning and studying the defense systems of the United States, studying science and technology at Western Universities, this newfound knowledge led to their rapid advancement, further encouraging them to test their newfound power on other societies in their desire to become a larger, more powerful nation.

However, after World War I Japan had a large downfall in their economy due low demand for their military resources. Several factories were shut down and many were out of work. The great depression in the United States in 1929 also put a stop to a crucial part of their international trade, throwing them even deeper into economic despair. With the population rising, businesses shutting down, inflation and unemployment increasing, several had suffered from starvation and families had to sell their daughters to prostitution.

It was widely argued that in order to overcome this economic turmoil Japan needed to conquer new territories and expand their nation to further prevent economic depression and starvation (Chang, p.26 ). Not only that, they sought to improve their military expansion, and thought it was unfair that other nations had larger territories with smaller populations than they did. With a deep history of harbored tensions and competition for resources, China was Japan’s main target for imperial occupation. Japan began to take swift action before China became too powerful and began to intervene aggressively within their affairs. In instances where China did not comply or cooperate, Japan organized assassination of political leaders which lead to the boycott of Japanese goods (Chang,p.25-26).

On September 18, 1931 Japan blew away a railway in Southern Manchuria that was owned by Japan. This was done in attempt to start their undeclared war against China, but their attempts to derail the cars had failed and instead, they had resorted to killing the Chinese guards at the station. When Japan used this incident as a reason to take over Manchuria China was in an uproar, intensifying anti-Japanese sentiments. Tension from both sides resulted in bloodshed and after Japan’s slaughter at Shanghai, they received negative criticism internationally. Japan then isolated itself from foreign relations and withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 (Chang, p.29 ).

After this, Japan went under extensive and extreme training for the war against China, physically and psychologically. Young students were brainwashed into their contempt for anything Chinese. Training was extremely strict and brutal; recruits for the army were often beaten to make their recruits stronger or for no reason at all (Chang, p.32). The accommodations were overcrowded, unheated and there was almost no food. These harsh conditions caused the death of young recruits and others have committed suicide. Those that had survived were transformed into machines of war for the Japanese military.

The Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 occurred when Japanese soldiers were fired at while completing night rounds. One soldier was absent when taken roll-call. When the Chinese had refused to open the gates for the Japanese to retrieve the missing soldier, the Japanese did not hesitate to destroy the fort.

Japan was confident that they could easily defeat China in the Battle of Shanghai, however the battle in the city proved to be a large struggle and had lasted for months (Chang, 33-34). Japan had viewed China as an inferior nation to their advances of science and technology. This raised their insecurities and feelings of humiliation, and after they had defeated Shanghai in November of 1937, they advanced towards the city of Nanjing.

3.The Massacre

The leader of the unit invading Nanjing, Matsui Iwane, had ordered that the invasion be carried out in an organized structure and without “unlawful conduct” (Chang,p.40 ), but fell ill of tuberculosis and the responsibility was then handed over to Emperor Hirohito’s uncle, Prince Asaka Yasuhiko. Taking care of the surrendered Chinese prisoners was said to have been too difficult due to the high number of people, so under the order of Prince Asaka’s headquarters, the Japanese 66th battalion was given the command to eliminate everyone.

The following images are a display of few of several incidents that unfolded in Nanjing.


Japanese soldiers using victims of Nanking for bayonet practice.


Bodies of prisoners of war that were mass murdered and thrown along the shore of the Yangtze River. There were so many bodies that the boats were barely able to navigate. ( NankingPhotos.htm)


Participation in the killing contests of the prisoners. Japanese soldiers smile in the background.

During the massacre, victims of all ages were brutally tortured, raped, burned alive, and murdered in several other ways that were unimaginable. The victims of Nanking were often made to dig their own graves and dispose the bodies of their people before their death was brought to them as well. Women and children were treated indiscriminately during the massacre; even infants and pregnant women were murdered. Regardless of age, women were humiliated, raped, and sexually mutilated. Japanese soldiers sometimes forced men of Chinese families to rape their daughters, mothers, brothers, and sisters while the rest of the family was forced to watch (The History Place, 2000). When the raping became monotonous for the soldiers, recreational rape and torture games were created (Chang, 94). Elderly women and girls as young as ten years old were not excluded. Many women were also either murdered or kept as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.


Victims of the mass rape.

A possible reason why the Nanking massacre occurred was due to Japanese imperialism and the drive towards expansion. It is often said that in times of imperial expansion, war, revolution, and colonialism, the occurrence of genocide is likely to follow in the struggle for power and authority over a subordinate population (Jones, p. 67). Because Japan had gained vast knowledge of science, technology, and modernization under influence of Western nations they had viewed themselves as superior beings, viewing China and other Asian nations that did not have these sources as inferior (Jones, p. 73). If a population subject to subordination shows resistance, which is what occurred during the occupation of China, then imperialists are more likely to show more aggressive force and brutality, reflective in the photos of the killings of Nanjing that were said to be taken by Japanese soldiers.

In the photo of Japanese soldiers using victims for Bayonet practice, it can be proposed that not only were they expressing their anger and aggression towards the prisoners of war, but also they were showing off their technology of weaponry and asserting their dominance and control upon Nanjing. Rather than being used for trophies or an expression of pride, these photos also express who is in control, who holds the power, and the unimaginable capabilities of the Japanese soldiers.

Everything that had happened to the victims of Nanjing still remains an extremely uncomfortable subject to the citizens of Nanjing as well as to the nation of China. Irish Chang stated that “The Rape of Nanking did not penetrate the world consciousness in the same manner as the Holocaust or Hiroshima because the victims themselves had remained silent.” (p.11) However, it is the silence of the victims that rings loudly through the memory of images.

4.The Aftermath

On May 3, 1946 began the Tokyo Trials of the Nanjing massacre. The perpetrators were tried by International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Trials ended on November 12, 1948. Of the 80 individuals suspected, 28 were convicted. 7 were sentenced to death, 16 were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the remaining two were sentenced to lesser terms. Several of those imprisoned were paroled (Yao, 1992).  One of the perpetrators who was given the death sentence, Matsui Iwane had defended that he was not aware of the crimes that had taken place because of his absence. However, due to the evidence of his knowledge of the massacres in Nanjing and failing to intervene and stopping his unit from committing the massacres, it was counted as a crime just as unacceptable as participating in the Nanjing massacre (Brook, p. 682).  However, the perpetrators that gave the order for the massacre such as Emperor Hirohito and Prince Asaka had received immunity (Jones, 2000).

Current controversies are Japanese visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto Shrine dedicated to the deceased Japanese soldiers of World War II, who were also known to be war criminals during the invasion of China and the Rape of Nanking. This has sparked outrage within the international community in Asia because of the lack of acknowledgment of the victims in China. Japan and China still have many unclosed doors, from which their relationship remains unstable today.


Denial or lack of acknowledgement that genocide took place is the final stage of genocide before it officially comes to an end (Jones, p. 517).  Since the aftermaths of Nanjing, Japan has side-stepped the Nanjing massacre and has avoided a formal apology; rarely does anyone speak of the massacre. Satoru Mizushima produced a documentary film of a revisionist account of the Rape of Nanking, stating that the evidence provided for the Nanjing massacre was fake and Chinese communist propaganda that threatened the face of Japan and its relations with the rest of the world.  Toshio Tamogi, formal air force chief of staff had considered the Rape of Nanjing as a false accusation (Jones, p. 514). This denial of what happened in Nanjing reflects what Jones calls a cognitive dissonance, trapped between the way one prefers to view themselves and their nation and the harsh, unpleasant reality that is more difficult to acknowledge.

Comparable to the denial of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government had gone to great efforts to sustain and mask over the genocide by excluding Armenians out of their history books and destroying architecture and monuments that could hint the genocide of Armenia or even the existence of the Armenians themselves. In defense Turkish citizens have stated that what happened in Armenia was not extermination nor genocide, but a necessary action to handling war rebels (Jones, p. 169). Japan had also excluded the Nanjing massacre from its history for a long time until recent years, where it is only briefly mentioned in school textbooks. Japanese education minister Fujio Masayuki had acknowledged that the Nanking massacre did happen but dismissed it as “just a part of war” (Jones, 2002). Some even expressed that the Rape of Nanking was an exaggeration or a fabrication created by China.

Members of the young generation of Japan are barely aware of the happenings of Nanjing. Japan’s ministry of education has tactically left out vital information of the massacre in school textbooks so that not even students can coherently describe and respond to the Nanjing massacre; they are are still left without knowing what had actually happened during the Rape of Nanking (Barnard, p.519). The textbooks give acknowledgement of the event, but they fail to fully describe what had happened to the victims of the massacre and the names of the perpetrators were not included.

6. Conclusion

Until Japan fully recognizes the actions committed in the past, both nations can truly never move on and the Nanjing massacre cannot truly come to an end. Xu Xhigeng expresses in regards to the lack of acknowledgement to the massacre and its victims: “There are those who want to blot out the blood stains of the past with the dark ink of the present.” (p.232). The Nanjing massacre has been masked over by the media, whether it be briefly mentioned, ignored, or denied completely. Japan has remained in its final state of genocide for 65 years. The memory of Nanking remains forever engrained in these images, a haunting reminder to China as well as to Japan. It is with hope carried by several that Japan can come to terms with the happenings of Nanjing and bring closure to both nations as well as to the international community.

Works Cited

Bernard, Christopher. “Isolating Knowledge of the Unpleasant: The Rape of Nanking in Japanese High-School Textbooks.” British Journal of Sociology and Education. 22.4 (2001): 519-530.

Brook, Timothy. “The Tokyo Judgement and the Rape of Nanking.” Journal of Asian Studies. 60.3 (2001): 673-700.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. 1st ed. New York:

BasicBooks, 1997. Print.

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011.

Jones, Adam. “Case Study: The Nanjing Massacre, 1937-38.” Gendercide Watch. Gendercide Watch. <;.

“The Rape of Nanking 1937-1938.” The History Place: Genocide in the 20th Century. The History Place. <;.

Yao, M.H. “The Tokyo War Crimes Trials.” Nanjing Massacre: 300,000 Chinese People Killed, 20,000 Women Raped. <;

Zhigeng, Xu. Lest We Forget: Nanjing Massacre, 1937. 1st ed. Beijing: Panda Books, 1995. Print.