The Rape of Nanking

Isobel Egan, Dickson College, 2010

Isobel Egan wrote this essay in response to the question: 'What happened in ‘The Rape of Nanking’? What explains such brutality?' She submitted it as part of The Second World War unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

During the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) there were many incidents of brutality and massive bloodshed. The series of incidents which stand out amongst these as particularly horrific and which have come to exemplify the worst excesses of Japanese treatment of Chinese are known as ‘The Rape of Nanking’. There has been much debate and controversy over what actually occurred during these events, due to differing cultural and ideological viewpoints and the vested interests of the parties involved. Nonetheless historical evidence, eye-witness reports and documents allow us to have some idea of the extent and type of brutality perpetrated during this period. Even more difficult than pinpointing what actually occurred, is understanding what could explain such brutality. It is possible to gain some understanding of what gave rise to such behaviour by examining background factors such as Japanese cultural beliefs and ideologies, as well as military conditions and practices within the Japanese army. There are also factors specific to the Nanking conflict, such as failures of leadership within both the Japanese and Chinese military, which can be seen as influential in the occurrence of such extreme levels of cruelty.

Throughout 1937 conflict between Japan and China escalated rapidly. By December, Japan had successfully conquered both Shanghai and Beijing, the two largest cities in China. On December 9th, Japanese soldiers reached the city of Nanking, initiating conflict with the defending Chinese military. After just four days 90,000 Chinese soldiers surrendered and on the 13th of December Japanese troops entered Nanking. Over the following six weeks the Japanese military inflicted immeasurable pain and suffering upon Chinese prisoners of war and on the civilians of Nanking.

In respect of the treatment of Chinese prisoners of war by the victorious Japanese, superior officers encouraged Japanese soldiers to inflict maximum pain, suffering and humiliation upon POWs (The History Place, 2000). Methods for the execution of Chinese prisoners of war varied. They included beheading, disembowelment, being buried or burnt alive, serving as a live target for bayonet practice and being shot down by machine-gun fire.

In addition to the horrifically brutal treatment of prisoners of war, Japanese soldiers also treated the civilians of Nanking in brutal ways. For example, groups of Chinese were forced to bury others alive, sometimes leaving them “…partially buried to their chests or necks so that they would endure further agony… being hacked to pieces by swords or run over by horses and tanks” (Chang, p. 87, 1997). Others were brutally mutilated, disembowelled, decapitated and dismembered. Some were burnt alive or forced to submerge themselves in icy water, only to be “…riddled with Japanese bullets” or “…bombarded....with hand grenades” (Chang, p. 88, 1997). Some Japanese soldiers held ‘killing contests’ in which they aimed to be the fastest to behead Chinese civilians. Two sub-lieutenants, Noda and Mukai, both executed for their crimes after the war, were just two of the many that partook in such contests. They “…began a 100-man killing contest… with permission from a superior officer” (Wakabayashi, p. 117). The fact that a “superior officer” gave them permission shows how accepted this practice was within the Japanese military.

Further to the brutal torture and execution of male Nanking citizens, there was also extensive horrific treatment of female citizens. Despite the fact that rape was forbidden by the Japanese army the occupying Japanese forces gang raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women. The rules against rape led not to its prevention but instead to the murder of each victim. One eyewitness, Li Ke-hen, a Chinese citizen, recalls that “[i]n alleys and parks lay the corpses of women who had been dishonored even after death by mutilation and stuffing” (Yin and Young, p. 195). Other atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers included raping pregnant women then cutting open their wombs, tearing out the fetus, forcing incest and necrophilia between family members and instituting the Comfort Women System, forcing “…young Chinese women to become slave-prostitutes, existing solely for the sexual pleasure of Japanese soldiers.”

There has been much dispute over the facts of ‘the Rape of Nanking’. This has mostly been between China and Japan. In fact, since the 1930s information available in Japan has changed significantly. During the war, news of Japanese atrocities was censored in Japan. However, following the war, many confessions and diaries of Japanese soldiers were published, disclosing details of the atrocities to the Japanese public for the first time. By the end of 1971 though, following a rise in right-wing politics, Japanese officials began to deny the events had ever occurred. Massaki Tanaka's influential book Fabrication of Nanking Massacre argues that the events did not take place and also shifts the blame for the Sino-Japanese war onto the Chinese government. Next, in 1982 Japanese education ministers altered the Japanese textbooks, portraying ‘the rape of Nanking’ as: “…a minor incident which occurred because the Japanese soldiers were too frustrated by the strong resistance from the Chinese Army” (New Jersey Hong Kong Network, 1990). However, there are many Japanese citizens who disagree with this view. One example is Saburu Ienaga, a Japanese historian who led numerous protests from the 1970s to the 1990s against tampering with the history textbooks. There has also been much dispute over the death toll. Some state that approximately 38, 000 were killed whilst others estimate the figure to be as high as 400, 000 (New Jersey Hong Kong Network, 1990).

The question of what might explain the extreme brutality of these events remains a complex and difficult one to answer. There are many reasons cited as influential, which can be placed in two broad groups. The first group consists of background military, political and ideological factors. The second group are factors specific to the Nanking conflict.

First among the background factors is gradual transition to military government in Japan and the weakening of civil law controls on military objectives. Over the twenty-year period leading up to the Nanking massacre, a number of developments occurred convincing many Japanese that the political and social life of the nation should be dominated by militarism. Along with this, it was commonly believed that the strength of the military is representative of the strength of the nation. The 1930s saw the deterioration of the two-party democratic system and an increase in right-wing patriotism and overseas military aggression. The assassination of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932, popularly seen as an act of patriotism, triggered the collapse of the two party democratic system of government with various army factions contending for power. Four years later, in 1936, powerful military leaders influenced 1,500 Japanese soldiers to carry out assassinations of the current and former prime ministers, as well as cabinet members and members of the imperial court. Under pressure from the public “Japan's civilian leadership capitulated to the army's demands in the hope of ending [political] violence” (Global Oneness). This focus began a culture of brutality and violence within Japan. Many believe that the influence of militarism marked a declining respect for the value of human life and for the rule of law. Arguably, the relative absence of these values partially explains the behaviour of Japanese soldiers in Nanking. “Chinese researchers on the Massacre often comment on this issue...[and focus] on the brutal nature of Japanese militarism and, by extension, Japanese culture” (Fogel/ Eykholt, 2000, p. 14).

Second among the background factors were the cultural ideals of Japan. These include the Samurai ideology, emperor worship and seeing other races as inferior. It has been said that: “...modern nationalist sentiment, xenophobia, and military power combined with the unforgiving code of bushido created a military machine capable of great acts of atrocity such as the “Rape of Nanking” (Michigan Museum of Natural History, 2010). First, in terms of Samurai ideology, Japanese soldiers in the 1930s still adhered to the principle of ‘death before dishonour’- surrender being one of the highest dishonours to your country. This in turn meant that Japanese soldiers looked down upon Chinese prisoners of war. In their eyes “Men who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner did not have the right to be treated as men” (Efstathiou, 2008). Second, the philosophy of emperor worship led Japanese soldiers to believe that, in comparison to the emperor’s life, their own was worthless. Azuma Shiro, a Japanese soldier stated: "If my life was not important, an enemy's life became inevitably much less important. This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of the captives" (Chang, p. 58, 1997). Lastly, throughout history there has been a strong feeling of racial supremacy in Japan, especially over China. This led to much of the brutality of ‘the Rape of Nanking’. “Women of all ages were raped since they were seen by the Japanese as being an inferior race” (Rape of Nanking, 2008).

Third among the background factors were the standards and culture within the military itself. These include bastardisation and cruelty to those of inferior rank, low levels of education amongst the farmers and workers who became frontline soldiers, dehumanising training and a desire for revenge against the Chinese for their stiff resistance and the consequent Japanese casualties during the recent battle for Shanghai (Inouye, 2008, p. 132). Firstly, the culture of violence towards soldiers of lower ranks in the Japanese military contributed to the brutality of ‘The Rape of Nanking’ because lower ranked soldiers passed this abuse on to Chinese civilians. Secondly, the many frontline soldiers of low socio-economic status, such as criminals and farmers, are said to have acted more brutally as they lacked empathy due to their own harsh upbringing. Thirdly, the dehumanising training had a huge impact on the Japanese soldiers. They were forced to commit mass murder as a way of toughening them up. One officer explained that “this was a good training device to harden soldiers. The officer wrote after using his sword to sever a prisoner’s head “I felt something change inside of me. I don’t know how to describe it, but I gained strength somewhere in my gut” (History Boy’s Clothing, 2004). This style of training clearly contributed greatly to the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, desensitising them to cruelty and murder. Last of the background factors was the great feeling of disdain for the Chinese after the prolonged battle of Shanghai. Japanese high command and frontline soldiers were angered by the bloodshed of this four-month battle, which they had anticipated would be much swifter. “This angered the Japanese... who had watched their comrades die at the hands of the despised Chinese. When Shanghai finally fell ... military planners and leaders turned their eyes to... Nanking, with the goal of retribution”(Zapotoczny, 2008). This clearly shows the way that revenge contributed to the extent of brutal conduct during ‘The Rape of Nanking’.

As highlighted above there are also campaign-specific factors explaining the occurrence of the massacre. These fall into two broad groups, the first being factors within the Japanese frontline forces and the second being the behaviour of the Chinese frontline forces.

Considering the Japanese frontline forces first, there are four main aspects considered to have caused the Japanese brutality. First, there was a breakdown of leadership within the Nanking frontline forces due to personal rivalries (Inouye, 2008). This marked for the soldiers a breakdown in order and discipline which played out in their brutality towards the citizens of Nanking. Second, this resulted in considerable opportunity for soldiers in Nanking to act independently of directions from Tokyo. “The Japanese military began to display its notorious tendency: local military commanders took independent and unauthorized actions and thereby forced the central command in Tokyo to endorse this fait accompli”(Yamamoto, 2000, p. 49). This gave the Japanese military in Nanking unrestricted opportunity to carry out whatever actions they wished, which, in the context of brutalising treatment and training practices contributed to much of the brutality of ‘The Rape of Nanking’. Third, the lack of a formal surrender clearly marking the end of hostilities could have, in the eyes of Japanese soldiers, greatly blurred the lines between war and peace, soldiers and civilians (Inouye, 2008). Fourth, soldiers felt driven to resort to pillaging after their rapid advance on Nanking outstripped supply lines. Officers told “...their men to survive on what they could scavenge... To further encourage their men, officers promised women and plunder”(Zapotoczny, 2008). This shows that there was a serious lack of supplies, that the only way to survive was to pillage. It also looks at the fact that morale was dropping among the soldiers and they were given incentive to continue their brutality on Chinese civilians. Lastly, the Japanese military were given secret orders to kill all prisoners of war, which largely led to many mass executions. “... before Nanjing's fall, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka - uncle of Emperor Hirohito - issued a secret order to "Kill all captives" (Jones, 2002). This order, issued before Japanese soldiers had even entered Nanking, set an example for the Japanese army that no mercy was to be shown to the Chinese civilians, thus leading to much of the brutality they later showed.

In respect of Chinese frontline behaviour there were two possible contributors to Japanese brutality. The first of these was the abandonment of Chinese forces by their commanders and the consequent breakdown of Chinese morale, which, in the eyes of the Japanese, proved the Chinese to be a cowardly and unworthy race, giving the soldiers a feeling of superiority augmenting their background cultural ideology of racial supremacy. This was also reiterated by the samurai ideology of “no surrender” mentioned above. This probably contributed greatly to the brutality shown during ‘The Rape of Nanking’. The second possible contributor was a misunderstanding of a post-defeat Chinese custom in which Chinese military men change into civilian clothing. This created in the Japanese a mistrust of civilians, afraid there was a threat from hidden forces.

Changing cultural, ideological and political perspectives and interests in the period following the events known as ‘The Rape of Nanking’ have made it difficult at times to form a clear idea of what actually occurred in this conflict. With the benefit of over 50 years’ hindsight however, there appears to be some historical consensus on the nature and extent of the extraordinary cruelty and brutality perpetrated by the Japanese military on the Chinese soldiers and civilians they conquered. In attempting to understand how such savage cruelty came about, it is necessary to look at these events in the broader context of Japanese cultural beliefs and ideologies, Japanese political circumstances as well as military conditions and practices within the Japanese army. Factors specific to the Nanking conflict, such as failures of leadership within both the Japanese and Chinese military also played a part in creating the conditions for ‘The Rape of Nanking’. Although difficult to comprehend how such extreme cruelty and brutality could be perpetrated on such a scale, examining these factors goes some way towards explaining the conditions under which such behaviour could arise.

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