December 13, 1937 – the Chinese city of Nanking fell to the invading Japanese army, beginning a six week reign of terror known as the Rape of Nanking.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the Empire of Japan single-mindedly focused on modernizing and developing into a militaristic state bent on exercising dominion over Asia. Part of the philosophy included a belief – similar to that developing in Nazi Germany – that the Japanese race was superior to other Asians, and that their dominance and leadership of all Eastern Asian peoples was inevitable.
In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria (on the Chinese-Russian border) and as the decade dragged on the Japanese Imperial army continued to skirmish with the Chinese government for control over Chinese territory. In July of 1937 the Japanese army launched a full-scale invasion of China, seeking to conquer the country and dominate the entire Southeast Asian region. The first main battle was at the city of Shanghai, where the Japanese army met unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Chinese, whom they expected to easily defeat.
Shanghai finally fell in November of 1937, and from there 50,000 Japanese soldiers marched on the city of Nanking. The Chinese soldiers defending Nanking were poorly led and equipped, as the Chinese government had decided that defending the city was not strategically viable. After just four days of fighting, Japanese troops smashed into the city on December 13, 1937, with orders to “kill all captives.”
Their first target was the over 20,000 Chinese soldiers who had surrendered. To the Japanese, who followed a strict code of military behavior dating from the Samurai era (the “Bushido” code), surrender was an act of cowardice. Japanese soldiers were trained to fight to the death rather than surrender. Consequently, they looked upon the Chinese POWs (Prisoners of War) with complete disgust, viewing them as less than human and unworthy of life.
These Chinese POWs were systematically gunned down, soaked with gasoline and burned alive, or tied to stakes and used as live targets for bayonet practice. Japanese officers encouraged their soldiers to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible upon individual POWs as a way of toughening them up for future battles. None were left alive.
After the murder of the POWs, the soldiers turned their attention to the women of Nanking. Old women as well as little girls were sexually abused. None were spared, not even pregnant women, who would be raped and then have their bellies slit open and the fetuses torn out. Sometimes, after storming into a house and encountering a whole family, Japanese soldiers would force Chinese men to rape their own daughters, sons to rape their mothers, and brothers their sisters, while the rest of the family was forced to watch. Between 20,000 to 80,000 women and girls were gang-raped by Japanese soldiers and then stabbed to death with bayonets or shot.
Meanwhile, throughout the city, Japanese soldiers committed random acts of murder around the clock. Soldiers fired their rifles into panicked crowds of civilians, killing indiscriminately. They killed shopkeepers, looted their stores, and then set the buildings on fire after locking civilians inside. Soldiers killed civilians for any reason whatsoever, and bodies of the dead were left to rot in the streets or thrown into the Yangtze River.
Some who were not killed on the spot were taken to the outskirts of the city and forced to dig their own graves. Then, these civilians would be used for sport by Japanese officers. The game? Decapitation contests. Japanese officers, using swords, would cut the heads off of their victims and then toss their bodies in the graves. When they became tired of decapitation, Japanese soldiers would force Chinese civilians to bury each other alive.
The incredible carnage continued for about six weeks, from mid-December 1937 through the beginning of February 1938. Corpses lay unburied throughout the city. The streets of Nanking were said to literally have run red with blood.
To the Japanese government, press, and population, the brutal dominance of subjugated people was considered just and fair. In Japan, no attempt was made to cover up the atrocities. Newspapers and movie theaters proudly published stories and showed photographs and films of smiling soldiers conducting bayonet practice on live prisoners, decapitating them and displaying severed heads as souvenirs, and standing among mutilated corpses. Two popular newspapers, in fact, published a running count of the number of heads severed by two officers in a decapitation contest, as if it were a sporting match. The headline of one article read, “Incredible Record – Mukai 106 – 105 Noda – Both 2nd Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings.”
However, all was not lost. An extraordinary group of about 20 Americans and Europeans remaining in the city – missionaries, doctors and businessmen – took it upon themselves to try and save as many people as they could. Using Red Cross flags, they bravely declared a two and a half square-mile area in the middle of the city off limits to the Japanese. Somehow, the gamble worked, and the area became an “international safe zone.” About 300,000 Chinese civilians took refuge inside their Safety Zone. Almost all of the people who did not make it into the Zone during the Rape of Nanking – between 200,000 to 300,000 people, or half of the city’s original population – ultimately perished.
These Westerners also recorded what they witnessed both in writing, in photographs, and even managed to film some of the atrocities. One described Nanking as “hell on earth.” Another, writing about the Japanese soldiers, “did not imagine that such cruel people existed in the modern world.”
In the United States, reports of the horror that were published in newspapers and magazines were greeted with skepticism from the American public. The stories smuggled out of Nanking seemed almost too fantastic to be believed. Not surprisingly, the same skepticism greeted stories of the Nazi concentration camps just a few years later.
Following the War, many of the officers involved in the Massacre, including the Generals in command of the Japanese army at Nanking and the two officers involved in the beheading contest, were convicted of War Crimes and executed themselves. Today, the battle is still begin fought in Japan over acknowledgment of the Massacre. Despite an official government apology for the Massacre, some Japanese revisionist historians in Japan have downplayed the Massacre, claiming that it was an exaggeration, fabrication, or both (despite all of the evidence). Not surprisingly, this sentiment has caused friction between the governments of Japan and China.