The Rape of Nanjing

The Fall of Shanghai

    In November of 1937, the "Paris of the Orient," Shanghai, finally fell to the Japanese. The Japanese had expected the August invasion to be over in a few weeks. Instead, they had not prepared for a million of Chiang Kai-Shek's best Nationalist troops whom he had kept in reserve for this occasion. However, the disarrayed Chinese army proved no match for the Japanese Imperial Army, and after the loss of more than 300,000 men, and 10 generals, the remaining 700,000 demoralized men retreated.

    In scarcely a month, the Japanese army, furious for the unexpected show of Chinese strength was determined to seek revenge. In the month from the fall of Shanghai to the December 7th arrival at Nanjing the Japanese army destroyed everything, and everyone in their path. Nine weeks after the Japanese captured the city of Sungchiang, a British journalist reported that in a city of "a densely packed population of approximately 100,000, I saw only five Chinese, who were old men, hiding in a French mission compound in tears."

The Fall of Nanjing

    Nanjing means, "Southern Capital," and was the first capital of the Ming Dynasty with its city walls and palace (Destroyed in the White Lotus Rebellion), by 1937 the city was home to well over 1 million people as well as the capital of China. However, once word reached the capital that Shanghai was lost, the government fled to Chongqing and anyone with enough money and sense fled with everything they had. It was clear to everyone that Nanjing was a sitting duck.

    There is an old adage that says, "When Purple Mountain burns, Nanjing is lost." Nanjing is located in an extremely easy spot to attack, with mountains on one side, and the Yangtze River on the other. Nonetheless, Nanjing had to be defended and command was given to one General Tang Sheng-Zhi.

    The day before the full assult on Nanjing, General Tang gave a stirring press conference vowing to defend the city till the last man that was well recieved, but hardly applied to what was to come. By December 7 the city gates were closed and the sound of artillery fire in the distance was unmistakeable. Only the poor civilians who were unable to escape and the few Westerners who stayed behind to help remained.

    On December 13, the Japanese captured several key city gates, although the battle continued sporatically, the city was effectively in Japanese hands. The previous night was one of complete disarray and disaster. The Japanese Expeditionary Force, under the command of Matsui Iwane had rejected Tang's last minute truce and the Chinese army retreated in an embarrassing rout. The reason for the disastrous retreat lies in the fact that, although orders were given to withdraw, many commanders simply ditched their troops to save themselves. This led to the mass confusion and even went so far as to the Chinese running over their own troops to stop them from "deserting." However, once it was realized that Nanjing was lost, the retreat became desperate as people attempted to cross the Yangtze in anything that floated and near the end, some in suicidal attempts to swim across. As the city and its surroundings boomed with artillery and the burning ruins of an ancient and now completely defenseless city.

Westerners: The International Committee for the Nanjing Safety Zone

    In the race to escape Nanjing, a handful of Westerners stayed behind to help the people of the city. Of notable importance are John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, Dr. R. O. Wilson, Rev. John Magee, Dr. M. S. Bates, Dr. Lewis C. S. Smyth, and Rev. E. H. Forester. These people helped protect more than 300,000 people against the horrific acts of the Japanese Army despite incredible difficulties. One of their most important accomplishments just prior to the city's fall was the creation of a safety zone where the civilians of Nanjing could seek shelter from the Japanese.

    The International Committee was a group of 20 or so Westerners, primarily Americans although most had left Nanjing prior to the siege and was initially headed by the mayor of Nanjing. The committee originally designed the safety zone as "refugee zone" for those seeking shelter while the city was under attack and was supposed to be disbanded and once order was restored. The zone was recognized by both the Japanese (Provided they were not harboring any Chinese soldiers.), and the Chinese. However, once Nanjing was lost, many soldiers hid in the safety zone and became a huge problem for the committee as the Japanese used this as an excuse to execute innocent civilians and kidnap women.

    The safety zone was an awkwardly partitioned section of Nanjing that had an area of about 1 square mile and contained the Japanese and American embassies as well as Nanjing College. The "refugee zone" as it was dubbed by the locals was originally unexpectedly became a safe haven for more than 300,000 people when the Japanese marched in.

    Many of the Westerns were unprepared for the brutality that the Japanese military would inflict upon the population. The Drum Tower Hospital overfilled with patients suffering from rapes, bayonet stabes, attempted decapitations, and many other atrocities. The only major hospital that was fully staffed was the Drum Tower Hospital. It also happened to have one of the few if not the only surgeon in the city, the American, Dr. Robert O. Wilson.

    Perhaps one of the most tragic victims of the Massacre was 51-year-old Minnie Vautrin the dean of studies at Gingling Woman's Arts and Science College. Beloved by all the refugees, especially the women, Vautrin made ready the college as shelter for thousands of women as she kept guard, distributed food, and took care of the wounded. Nicknamed the Goddess of Mercy by many, the massacre took a massive mental toll on her as she constantly blamed herself for not trying harder to save more lives. In in May of 1940 after she suffered a breakdown and although she planned to return after her rehablitation, she committed suicide a year later.

    However, to many, the most intriguing Westerner was the chairman of the International Committee, the German, John Rabe (Called the "Oskar Schindler of China" by Iris Chang), the chief Nazi party organizer for Germans in China (However, it is generally concluded and defended by Rabe's family that he was a hardcore Nazi in the original idea that it was a party for the working class, not the tyranny and oppression of Adolf Hitler.). Rabe was of the old hands in China, working for the Siemens China Company and in China since 1908. In his small yard, Rabe housed 600 civilians under protection of the flag of Nazi Germany. He would often force off soliders raping women who would often flee for fear of attacking a German national. Beloved by his collegues, Rabe left in February of 1938 promising to tell Hitler about the atrocities the Japanese were committing. Instead, he was interrogated by the Gestapo, had his film documenting the atrocities confiscated, and told to shut up (This had been twisted, and for the remainder of the war, those in Nanjing believed that he was sent to a concentration camp). He died in poverty in 1950. He left his 8 volume, 1,200 page diary that chronicalled much of his life in China as well as the war years in Germany. Excerpts have been published.

    The film that was confiscated from Rabe was a copy filmed by Rev. John Magee the leader of the International Red Cross Committee in Nanjing who used rescued hundreds of POWs under the safety of the symbol. Ironically, the Japanese had granted him permission to take photographs and film.

    Not surprisingly, the Japanese treated Americans extremely poor. In one case, they shoved Dr. M. S. Bates down a flight of stairs after he wanted to know the whereabout of someone who had been taken from the Safety Zone for forced labor.

The Massacre of POWs

    General Iwane Matsui's charge did not last long following the fall of Nanjing. After a ceremonal enterance into the city, the ailing Matsui was replaced by Prince Yasuhiko Asaka as commander of the Japanese Expeditionary Force. Under his personal seal one of the most grisly orders of the war was issued:


    It has often been debated if Asaka himself issued this or his personal secretary. It doesn't matter as Asaka could have disciplined the secretary and recalled the order. So with this order began the mass execution of all POWs.

    Although the death toll is a hotly debated topic (Something I'm striving to avoid here), it can be said that at least 57,500 POWs were killed. More precisly, this was the Straw String Gorge Massacre on December 18 along the banks of the Yangtze River. The soldiers took most of the morning tying all of the POWs hands together and in the dusk divided them into 4 columns, surrounded them in a semicircle and opened fire. Too late to escape, the POWs could only scream and thrash in desperation. It took an hour for the sounds of death to stop, and even longer for the Japanese to bayonet each individual. Most were dumped into the Yangtze.

    The Straw String Gorge Massacre was probably the largest number of POWs killed. There were many similar executions around Nanjing as the Japanese rounded up civilians "suspected" of being soldiers. The whole police force that was ordered to protect the safety zone was also executed. Today, a stone marker along the banks of the Yangtze is all that is there to remember the dead.

The Slaughter of Civilians

    Hundreds of thousands of civilians died through the most horrible means by the hands of their captors. Numerous times, the Japanese would enter the Safety Zone and round up tons of civililans as "supsected Chinese soliders." In a few cases they would be right, but their general examination was to detect calluses on the hands, supposedly from handling a rifle, but could be easily caused by heavy labor. The unfortunate civilians would either be killed or forced to work for the Japanese.

    Initially, the Japanese rounded up hoards of civilians and machine gunned them. This got the Westerners unwelcomed attention and so they reverted to an even "better" way of killing. Bayoneting the poor people. People were used as bayonet or sword practice. Buried half in the dirt, or propped up by sticks. The killing went so far as to become a sport. An infamous contest occured between sublieutenants, Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi as to who would be the first to kill (i.e. Decapitate) 100 Chinese first. They lost count and agreed to extend the contest when they both exceeded 100. The Japanese media was avidly covering this particular contest and it would come back to be the sublieutenants undoing. In the Nanjing War Crimes Trials it became a piece of crucial evidence against the 2, who were eventually executed.

    No one was safe from the Japanese troops. For weeks people lived in fear that they or their family might be the next statistic. Whole families were raped and murdered for no apparent reason. Often times a random person would be grabbed and thrown to be mauled by the Japanese guard dogs. Or whole groups of people would be herded up to a 2-5 story building and left to die as the Japanese troops destroyed any means of escape and then set the place on fire.

    For the sake of weirdness, the Japanese also cut off the penises of some of their victims and had them shipped to Japan. As at the time, some believed it would increase fertility.

The Rape of Nanjing

    The Rape of Nanjing did not earn its name through the massacre itself. Somewhere around 20,000 to 80,000 women were raped. The Japanese held no bias against certain women. Young, old, pregnant and pre-teen women were all sexually assulted. Many were gangraped and many Japanese were found to have pornographic images of vicitims with them. Afterwards, the Japanese would often then torture the woman to death. Among other disgusting things, impaling their genitals, or in cases with pregnant woman, bayoneting open their uterus and then killing the still-alive fetus.

    In addition to raping and murder, the Japanese often rounded up large numbers of women for sexual slavery (See: Comfort Women). These women would be bound to chairs and then be raped by hordes of Japanese.

    All of this raping would eventually lead to rampant STDs, and it did. Many Japanese solders eventually found themselves hospitalized with baffled army doctors who had little clues to their illnesses (I believe it was usually syphilis the soliders had contracted).

Looting and Arson

    It is believed that at least 2/3 of Nanjing were reduced to rubble by the Japanese. No building or residence was safe, not even foreign ones. Often times, the Japanese would rip off the flags from cars of foreigners and drive off with them. It was not suprising to see Japanese soldiers with a 100 gold rings around their belts. People caught too close to the eager looters were either killed, or forced to carry the stolen goods. Sometimes people were stopped on the street and searched, if they carried nothing they would often be killed as a substitution.

    To top off the looting, the Japanese would often torch the just looted buildings to destroy any evidence. Although many times buildings were burned for fun. It was not unusual to see huge fires all over the city at any given time.

The Death Toll

    I am not interested in discussing this. sid has made a wonderful writeup above (The Numbers Game) about this endless debate and I'm not adding to it.


Young, Shi. The Rape of Nanjing: An Undeniable History in Photographs.
Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.
Rabe, John. The Good Man of Nanjing: The Diaries of John Rabe.

Version: 1.0

The accounts of the Rape of Nanking are hopelessly exaggerated. The death toll figures that Iris Chang, author of the wildly popular "Rape of Nanking," gives in her book are based on Chinese burial records. These can hardly be considered objective. John Rabe's diaries are a much better source. John Rabe was a Nazi businessman who helped protect the Chinese by setting up a safety zone outside of Nanking. Ms. Chang --who used Rabe's accounts as a primary source for her book-- has no problem, it seems, quoting Rabe when he speaks of the rapes and murders committed by the Japanese, but she chooses to IGNORE and OVERLOOK his estimates of the death toll. According to Rabe, Nanking was a city with a population of 1.2 million people. 800,000 people fled Nanking before it was captured by the Japanese. Of the remaining 400,000, over 250,000 people ended up in Rabe's safety zone. This leaves only 150,000 people unaccounted for. How then, could the Japanese have killed 369,366 people in a city where only 150,000 people remained? How can Ms. Chang incorporate so much of Rabe's diary into her book, yet claim that the Japanese killed FIVE TIMES the 50,000 to 60,000 that he estimated?

While it is undeniable that something terrible happened at Nanking, it is an injustice to blame the Japanese for more murders than they could have possibly committed.
The Numbers Game

The first thing to bear in mind is that any number given is only an estimate. No one will ever be able to determine the exact death toll of the Rape of Nanking, only a range. And the range is quite varied. Even Miner Searle Bates—someone often cited by those arguing a low estimate, who claimed 40,000 dead—when asked for an estimate by the International Military Tribunal of the Far East "the question is so big, I don't know where to begin.... The total spread of the killing was so extensive that no one can give a complete picture of it."

The approximately 300,000 figure given by Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: the forgotten holocaust of World War II (1997) is hardly the highest estimate that's been given—though her high profile and the popular response to the book do tend to make her an easy and convenient target. Admittedly, the figure is most likely too high. On the other hand, the low figures offered by " revisionists" tend to be quite low. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the higher estimates come primarily from the Chinese and the lowest from Japanese sources—who have had a long history of denying or "ignoring" what is sometimes termed as the "Nanking incident" (Japan has been taken to task on other occasions for what seems to be purposely neglecting or omitting wartime atrocities in its text books).

So, a look at the revisionists. Or (in many cases) more properly "deniers," since a denier needn't be one who completely denies the event or events took place—there are some in Japan who do—but also one who tries to mitigate circumstances (I've seen the typical techniques of blaming the victims and saying 'well, the Chinese have committed atrocities in the past') or to seriously downplay the numbers (some have claimed numbers under 1000). The parallels with Holocaust denier's techniques is uncanny.

Two of the more common estimates offered are the diaries of John Rabe, German businessman and head of the local Nazi party (though most agree hardly a ' hardcore Nazi'—he's been referred to as the "Oskar Schindler" of Nanking), and a statistical sampling study done by sociologist Dr. L. S. C. Smythe between March and June 1938.

Rabe was the leader of the International Safety Zone Committee, a neutral area where he and other westerners tried to make a sanctuary for Chinese civilians (soldiers, as well). It is estimated that as many as 200,000 may have been sheltered there. At one point the Japanese required registrations and about 160,000 complied (children under 10 and some of the elderly were not counted). In June 1938, Rabe wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler, apprising him of the situation and atrocities that were committed (which he detailed in his diaries). He estimated about 50,000-60,000 were killed. Of course, as with everything else, Rabe's figures are only estimates. As he was under great stress managing the thousands of people who needed care in the zone, it would be difficult for him to get a totally accurate reading on those outside of it (which would include deaths outside the city, itself)—in his diaries, he notes that "we 22 Westerners cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day." He also left shortly before the killings ended in February.

As for the zone, it was instrumental in saving the lives of thousands. On the other hand, it wasn't as safe as one would hope. Japanese routinely crossed into it to take away people they claimed were Chinese soldiers (it is true that the army sometimes dressed in civilian clothing) who were usually executed. They also dragged or "lured" away others who generally were not seen again (some of the females as " comfort women"—another subject of denial by many in Japan—who tended to not last very long either from the physical punishment of repeated rapes or, in some cases, suicide). It was the job of the Zone Committee to try to stop as much as they could, while trying to care for the sick and wounded and figuring out how to feed everyone.

While Rabe's diaries (and letter) are offered up as evidence for a low count, other's writings seem to be ignored. On the Rapes:

We estimate that at least 1000 cases at night and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval there is a bayonet stab or bullet. We could write up hundreds of cases a day...."
John McCallum, 19 December 1937, about two weeks into the 6-8 week "incident"
On the killings:
Those who are suspected of soldiers have been led outside the city and shot down by the hundreds....

While thousands of disarmed soldiers who had sought sanctuary with you together with many hundreds of innocent civilians are taken out before your eyes to be shot or used for bayonet practice....
George Fitch, 24 December 1937, again only a few weeks into the killings

Another thing that should be noted, especially when discussing the population figures is that the population was hardly constant (not in reference to the deaths). There was a continual inflow and outflow of people. The people able to secure passage out in the early days (mostly officials and those with money) and whatever non-Chinese that remained left the city over time. Then there was the incoming refugees from the surrounding area (many of whose homes had been destroyed and/or burned). In a constant flux such as that, nailing down a solid population estimate is difficult, at best.

Furthermore, that means is that the "population" of the Safety Zone varied as well and any estimations based on it as if there was a single group that remained there throughout the ordeal (from the beginning and unchanged), is faulty. People moved in and people "moved" out.

Smythe, with the help of Chinese students, did a sampling of 1 in 50 houses in the city, trying to determine the extent of deaths. His reported findings:

  • Civilians killed in battle: 850
  • Civilians killed by Japanese army: 2400
  • Civilians wounded by Japanese army: 3400
  • Civilians kidnapped by Japanese army: 4200 (he admits that most of those kidnapped were killed)
This gives another low figure for deaths. Saying that all the kidnapees and wounded died would only give a total of less than 11,000. When his numbers for surrounding counties are added it is still less than 30,000.

That is an incorrect conclusion, though. Number one, the estimation omits the Chinese soldiers that were killed (not in battle but under as what should have been prisoner of war conditions). These unarmed soldiers are part of the figures elsewhere. Number two, since it relied on " witnesses," there is no way to account for the dead in houses where no one survived. Nor from houses where the inhabitants fled. By the time he began the survey (March), people had already begun to return as the period of the Rape was over. He would have found more houses of survivors, anyway. Relying solely on questioning those who were alive in households and no other methods, he was guaranteed to get skewed numbers.

Other estimates also vary, even among the Japanese—everything from almost complete denial to well over 100,000 (referred to by some as the "radical" or "massacre" faction). While an accurate count is impossible, more sober and moderate estimations can be presented, and should be allowed to be without cries of being anti-Japanese or accusations of it being a way to enforce the (false) stereotype of the cruel, inhuman, imperialistic, warmongering "Jap." It would seem that a figure of 100,000 would not be unduly exaggerated (I note that states that, while there is debate "most estimates [range] from 100,000 to more than 300,000"; I also note it gives a shorter duration than most historians do). It may even be a bit low. I suspect that it is, but prefer a conservative estimate based on the information available. But that's that point, an estimation based on what information we have available (and carefully evaluated sources) is all we have.

(Sources:, Chang's book,;,, the last two "revisionist" sites; other sites on both sides were consulted as well)

The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, was an important book of history published in 1997, around the 60th anniversary of the massacre it describes. The book caused a great deal of controversy, some of it academic, some of it in the common press. The objections have been discussed above, and on the whole, I think that many of them are not too material to the book. Of course Iris Chang is biased. It is impossible to be objective about genocide. Of course estimates of people killed in wars and genocides are going to be inaccurate. I think that anyone who is not a holocaust denier will have to agree that the evidence is that the Japanese practiced systematic murder and degradation of the Chinese populace. Allowing this fact, the numbers game doesn't really matter to the book.

The European holocaust, along with the rest of World War II, has been researched and written about on many levels. The historical record of nazi barbarities has been told many times, and many social scientists, psychologists and philosophers have produced many volumes trying to make sense of it all. Iris Chang's book is neither an exhaustive academic record, nor a philosophical work. What she has done is produced a very short, very understandable primer to the basic events of the massacre: the rise of Japanese militarism, the invasion of China and Nanjing itself, the killings and rapings, the efforts of those in safety zone to save people, the occupation of the city, and the long post-war controversy surrounding Japan's inability to come to terms with its past. In 225 pages, Miss Chang covers all of the important points someone may need to know about the Rape of Nanking. In this, she succeeds in her goal:

This book started out as an attempt to rescue those victims from more degradation by Japanese revisionists and to provide my own epitaph for the hundred upon thousands of unmarked graves in Nanking

What was missing for this book for me, but which may be impossible to answer, is what it all means, how the Japanese were melted into such sadistic killers. Iris Chang, for all her writing skills, is not a Hannah Arendt. She writes that the book became "a personal exploration into the darker side of human nature"; a task that perhaps led to her suicide in 2004. What I don't find in the book is any insight into the darkness of human nature, any new theories or explanations of what can lead young people into such barbarity. But perhaps that is a question we will not have an answer for any time soon.

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