Japan History Lab

A Japanese Soldier's Experience during the Massacre at Nanking

By Steven Larsen

The massacre at Nanjing occurred during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japanese forces occupied the Chinese Capital of Nanjing starting on December 13, 1927. Commonly referred to as “The Rape of Nanking,” the massacre is famous for its savagery and senseless brutality. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that by referring to the war with China as an “incident” (as opposed to an actual war) the Japanese could rationalize their behavior because they were not fighting legitimate combatants. Furthermore, by providing an example of orders given to soldiers by their superiors I will illustrate how de-humanizing the enemy allowed for a ruthless kind of pragmatism that allowed for large scale murder. To begin I will give a brief summary of the days leading up to, and during, the massacre at Nanjing. Next, I will narrow my focus and relay the experiences of actual Japanese soldiers present at Nanjing and how they viewed the events both at the time and after the war.

The conflict in China began in earnest following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July, 1937. Just over four months later the Japanese had captured Shanghai and Chinese forces had to make a “hasty retreat.” (Lu, 28) General Matsui, the Japanese officer in charge of the Central Chinese Expeditionary Forces, followed the Chinese retreat to the capital Nanjing. On the way to Nanjing, however, the Japanese troops left a trail of atrocities in many of the towns and villages between Shanghai and Nanjing. (Lu, 27) The Japanese arrived at Nanjing on December 9 and, after their demands for surrender were not met, entered the city on December 12 and were fully in control of the city by December 13. (Russell, 45) Most of the Chinese soldiers that retreated to Nanjing ahead of the Japanese removed their uniforms and either attempted to blend in with the citizens of Nanjing or made their way to an international safety zone which had be set up. The Chinese soldiers who attempted to surrender were simply shot or bayoneted on the banks of the Yangtze River. An estimated twelve thousand Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed in the first three days of the occupation. Further, it is estimated that somewhere between one hundred to three hundred thousand more were killed in the following six weeks including over twenty thousand cases of rape. (Russell, 45) The savagery and brutality of many of the Japanese acts are to heinous to put into print. What allowed this to happen? Why were international laws banning the killing of civilians and POW’s so easily disregarded? The answer it seems comes down to a case of semantics in terms of how the Japanese viewed the conflict in China.

The Japanese did not regard the conflict with Japan as a war, instead they referred to it as an “incident.” (Russell, 48) The Japanese viewed their involvement in China as protecting their substantial investment in a country that was mainly ruled by a collection of warlords. It is in this way that the Japanese were able to view Chinese soldiers as bandits and not as legitimate enemy combatants. Combined with intense indoctrination which frowned upon ‘dishonorable’ surrendering, the Japanese felt justified in ignoring international laws which prohibited the murder of civilians and POW’s. Furthermore, with no way to feed the enormous amount of prisoners a “ruthless logic” was employed in the decision to kill the enemy prisoners in lieu of feeding them. (Chang, 41)

The cold and calculated pragmatism of the Japanese viewed murder as an acceptable substitute for providing their prisoners with food. The following order issued to a Japanese battalion on December 13 illustrates just how calculated these acts of murder really were: “Battalion battle report, at 2:00 received order from the regiment commander: to comply with orders from brigade commanding headquarters, all prisoners of war are to be executed. Method of execution: divide the prisoners into groups of a dozen. Shoot to kill separately. 3:30 p.m. A meeting is called to gather company commanders to exchange opinions on how to dispose of POW’s. From the discussion it is decided that the prisoners are to be divided evenly among each company and brought out from their imprisonment in groups of 50 to be executed. The vicinity of the imprisonment must be heavily guarded. Our intentions are absolutely not to be detected by the prisoners” (Chang, 41)

It is hard to comprehend the ability to de-humanize the enemy to such extent that this brand of cold ‘reason’ can be applied to their murder. The same brand of pragmatism was practised when deciding how to dispose of the corpses following the prisoner’s murder. General Nakajima wrote in his diary how he stressed that it was “hard to locate ditches large enough to bury heaps of seven to eight thousand corpses.” (Chang, 46) Commenting on the failed attempt to burn corpses due to a lack of fuel, a Japanese corporal noted that they ran out of gasoline before the corpses could be burned to ash which “result[ed] [in] a mountain of charred corpses.” (Chang, 74) Only when reading, or hearing, from the Japanese soldiers themselves, I believe, does a clear picture begin to emerge of how this brand of savagery could be personally justified.

In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang relates the post war recollections of a Japanese soldier, Azuma Shiro. Shiro describes how during the first week of the occupation he and his group of soldiers were ordered to “round up about 20, 000 soldiers.” (Chang, 42) After walking some ten miles in search of their prisoners the soldiers began to hear a shuffling noise and soon thousands of Chinese prisoners came into view. Coming from a culture which issued “swords instead of parachutes” (Chang, 42) Shiro was amazed that the Chinese soldiers had given up so easily when they outnumbered the Japanese and, in Shiro’s view, could have overwhelmed them if them wanted to. Shiro describes how he was disgusted by what he viewed as cowardice and that “his automatic impulse was to dehumanize the prisoners by comparing them to insects and animals.” (Chang, 44) The Japanese soldier’s dehumanization of the Chinese was not limited to murder. Despite the fact that there was, reportedly, orders prohibiting rape it is estimated that during the occupation over twenty thousand cases of rape occurred. Another Japanese soldier, Takokoro Kozo, describes how: “women suffered most [...] no matter how young or old, they all could not escape the fate of being raped. We sent out coal trucks to the city streets and villages to seize a lot of women. And then each of them was allocated to 15 to 20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse.” (Chang, 101) According to Kozo the orders banning rape meant that the victims were murdered afterwards “because dead bodies don’t talk.” (Chang, 101) To many, including myself, it is unfathomable how one can dehumanize another to such extent that these sorts of heinous acts become possible.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War Japanese forces occupied the Chinese Capital of Nanjing and for six weeks committed many acts of atrocity culminating in what is referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” The Japanese regarded the conflict with China not as a war but as an “incident” which worked to rationalize Japanese behavior on the basis that they were fighting bandits and not legitimate enemy combatants. Superiors issued orders to their soldiers demonstrate how Japanese ‘war culture’ allowed a ruthless brand of pragmatism to be developed in order to decide what was to be the fate of the Chinese prisoners. The experience of Japanese soldiers, as related by the soldiers themselves, demonstrate the extent to which many of the Japanese soldiers in Nanjing regarded the enemy as subhuman and disposable.

Bibliography Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Lu, Suping, Ed., A Dark Page in History: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Recorded in British Diplomatic Dispatches, Admiralty Documents, and U.S. Naval Intelligence Reports. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2012.

Russell , Edward Frederick Langley. The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes. London: Corgi Books, 1976.
Shudo, Higashinakano. The Nanking Massacre: Fact Versus Fiction. Tokyo: Sekai Shuppan, Inc, 2005.