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What Was the Rape of Nanjing?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Rape of Nanjing was a period of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces in the Chinese city of Nanjing. Around the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1938, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed, raped, and tortured. The city of Nanjing was looted, and many of the buildings were burned. Though some of the people responsible were later tried, the Rape of Nanjing has remained a topic of controversy between China and Japan since the end of WWII.

Background

In the fall of 1937, Japanese troops had attacked and taken the city of Shanghai, which is slightly south of Nanjing. After the defeat, they began raping and looting their way up to Nanjing, which was then the capital of China. The Chinese commander, General Chiang Kai Shek, knew that it would be impossible to defend Nanjing, so he removed the majority of his troops to the interior of the country. About 100,000 soldiers remained to defend Nanjing, who were ordered to burn down and destroy anything around the city that could help the Japanese troops. As the Japanese soldiers started to approach the city, many of the residents left the city, though some, including some non-Chinese, chose to stay.

Battle and Atrocities

Japanese troops laid siege to Nanjing on 9 December, and after Chiang Kai Shek rejected a proposal for surrender via telegram, began attacking the city on 10 December. The battle was basically over by the 13th, with the Chinese troops routed. After the city fell, Japanese troops began a six week period of looting, raping, burning, and killing an estimated 200,000 Chinese people, many of whom were women and children. Gang rapes were common, as were forced incest, torture, and killing contests.

Some of the non-Chinese who had chosen to stay in Nanjing had established the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, which allowed them to create an area that was left largely alone. Some people tried to save Chinese citizens by hiding them in the safety zone, and a number of these foreign observers wrote about the Rape of Nanjing, sending out news reports and even video footage, in the case of John Magee, an American missionary. Numerous photographs from Nanjing are held in national archives around the world.

Trials

In tribunals held after the WWII, the leading officer, General Iwane Matsui, was convicted of war crimes and hanged. Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, who had taken over for Matsui temporarily during the battle, was also implicated, but had previously been granted immunity in an agreement between the American General MacArthur and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. During the trials, some Japanese officers claimed that their actions during the Rape of Nanjing were defensible, as they felt that they were at risk from Chinese soldiers, but the evidence of mass graves filled with bound women and children indicated otherwise.

Controversy

The events of the Sino-Japanese Wars has been a continual source of friction between Japan and China, particularly since the end of WWII. Though both have officially recognized some culpability for war crimes committed during this time period, Japan did not make a formal apology for the Rape of Nanjing until 1995. One particular sticking point has been the visits of Japanese Prime Ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors many Japanese soldiers, including some war criminals. The shrine also has a plaque that says that the massacre did not occur. Additionally, some nationalists and revisionists in Japan insist that the event did not actually happen, or that its brutality was greatly exaggerated. Despite this, many Japanese people disagree with the government's official stance on the incident, and few deny that the event happened.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon999853 — On Mar 28, 2018

What happened was terrible and I hope fiercely that something like that will never happen again.

By anon282341 — On Jul 28, 2012

When the Samurai moral code was lost and Japanese royal families adapted to western ways, this is when the disgusting totalitarian, superhuman ideas were conceived in Japan. The Samurai were educated men who read the books by Confucius (551–479 BC). Centuries went by with the Samurai as the Japanese culture succeeded and thrived. Just as the royal family wanted more power, the less power the Samurai system could have. When the west docked their ships into Japan's ports, it was a perfect opportunity for the royal family to abolish the Samurai's right to carry weapons. The gun was also introduced to the Japanese Emperor and it presented a perfect opportunity to gain more power. This is what happened before a western type army was formed in Japan and when the wrong moral code was introduced to the army.

My heart aches for the families that were tortured during World War II. I cannot imagine the fear they experienced, nor the sorrow. I hope history never repeats itself. I hope people always teach these true historical accounts. It is very important. The movie "Flowers of War" represents the very important human stories of World War II. I do not think most Americans know of the horrific things Japan did besides what they did to Pearl Harbor (and of course the other huge subject matter of the atomic bomb). The human war crimes need to be remembered and taught to our future generations.

By anon211540 — On Sep 03, 2011

This is shocking - I am disgusted by the Japanese not coming clean about this.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 19, 2011

Germany was held responsible for their crimes, but it may have been easier for them to own up to their mistakes due to the fact that their conquerors were very much like them: America's general was himself the German-American Eisenhower. In cases such as those of Japan and Turkey, admitting crimes would likely be met by further harangue.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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