Book Notes: The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II

The Rape of Nanking


  • The world has forgotten the horrors of Nanking, mostly due to
    • US / Westerners allying with Japan in the face of Soviet and Chinese socialism during the Cold War
    • People’s Republic of China competing for Japan trade
    • Japan preventing researchers from accessing archives within the island, as to not admit defeat
    • Public consciousness focused on horrors of Nazi Germany

The Path to Nanking

Bushido is the Way of the Warrior, which evolved and emerged in the medieval era, during which feudal families often warred. By the twelfth century, the region family Shogun offered the empowered military protection of his samurai in exchange for divine sanction of the entire ruling class. The code of the Samurai permeated Japanese culture. This culture has not ebbed over time - in WWII, allied forces surrendered at the rate of 1 prisoner for every 3 dead, while the Japanese did the same at a rate of 1 per 120.

Japan was also isolated; during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the ruling Tokugawa clan sealed off the island nation, preventing the spreading of new technology for the industrial revolution permeating the nation.

In the mid-19th century, Americans forced Japan to begin trading with them by flexing their military might, opening the door for other countries to do the same and exposing Japan to technology and goods from elsewhere. The humiliation of this proud people spurred fierce resentment.

The Tokugawa’s pacifying attitude toward the foreigners, a prudent approach against stronger military powers, left them to be overthrown by the Meiji and state religion of Shinto. The Meiji united feudal lords, strengthened the military, and sent out students to learn at western universities. In the late 18th and early 19th century, Japan flexed its military might against Korea, China, and Russia. It took colonies from Germany in WWI and profited as a supplier during that time. The end of the war and crash of the 1920s, along with boycotting in the wake of Japanese military aggression sunk the country into a depression.

Japan’s explosion of growth and limited land size, along with economic hardship, encouraged longing eyes at countries with smaller populations but bigger land masses. China was Japan’s manifest destiny.

The second Sino-Japanese war was triggered in 1937, with the Marco Polo bridge incident where shots rang out and a Japanese soldier went missing during maneuvers on Chinese soil (Japan was rightfully there due to a previous treaty). It erupted to troops landing and invading Shanghai.

The Japanese military ethos had been hammered into the military class and population as a whole, with extreme military academy strictness compared to Western academies. The superiority of the Japanese people had seeped into the common consciousness. This war with China was expected to be a quick one; when the Chinese, illiterate in military science, held their own and parried back the Japanese invaders, it levered up the tension and frustration on the aggressors side. Once Shanghai had been captured, they marched to Nanking.

Six Weeks of Terror

Three generals, Nakajima, Matsui, and Yanagawa, led three sets of forces from Shanghai to Nanking. Matsui, a devout Buddhist from a scholarly family, was promoted and replaced by the emperors uncle Asaka Yusuhiko. At the time it was a trivial change, but would impact hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Matsui had pushed the invading force to calmly occupy the capital city as it would have the eyes of the world upon the event.

When newly appointed Asaka heard the Nanking was ready to surrender, a secret order from his camp went out to kill all captives (it is unclear if he sent it directly).

The “cowardice” of the surrendering Chinese both infuriated and disgusted Japanese soldiers who had been brought up in a society where suicide was a preferable option over capture. The captured Chinese prisoners vastly outnumber their captors, and writing later, many Japanese soldiers felt that even disarmed, the prisoners could rise up and successfully resist their capture. However, the Japanese concealed their intent to massacre the prisoners and pacified them with promises of proper treatment and survival if they just listened to orders. The behavior of the PoWs ran so counter to Japanese military culture that it dehumanized the Chinese to their Japanese captors.

Civilians and soldiers alike had their hands bound, divided into groups, and machine gunned to death. Their bodies were buried in mass graves, burned, or thrown into the Yangtze River. Corpses were stabbed with bayonets to ensure death. Lines of beheadings, with soon-to-be-beheaded prisoners having to push the bodies into the River, took place along the shore bank. Thousands of women were raped by Japanese soldiers, and then shot afterward.

Matsui was not on the ground during the atrocities and was unaware. He rode into the city as part of the conquering ceremony ignorant of the horror the troops had forced on the chinese colliers and citizens. He later became aware, and took grave action: scathingly reprimanded his subordinates, leaked to the NYT and told an American correspondent “the Japanese army is probably the most undisciplined army in the world today”.

As uproar spread about the treatment of civilians and women by the Japanese rang up around the world, the government secretly looked to set up brothels for the soldiers, thinking it would reduce the level of rape and aggression, as well as spread of disease. Women from Japanese colonies or conquered territories were forced into these brothels, many dying due to murder or disease, living in squalid conditions, and subject to extreme shame if they survived.

Why did this happen? No culture or religion has a monopoly on wartime violence and atrocities, the veneer of civilization in all culture is thin. Some believe it stems from the teachings of superiority, of the worthlessness of all lives except those of the empires and descendants, and of the dehumanization of Chinese or other opponents.

The Fall of Nanking

How did the city fall in just four days, with plenty of soldiers and ammunition?

  1. The Japanese Air Force was much superior to the Chinese Air Force, and the entire air corps abandoned the city (unclear if they moved with the government that evacuated the city as well). No reconnaissance, and much less effective artillery
  2. Officials who evacuated took most of the sophisticated communication equipment
  3. Troops came from different areas, spoke different languages, and had trouble communicating
  4. Many soldiers had been conscripted, inexperienced, or exhausted from Shanghai

On the fourth day, Chiang ordered Tang, in charge of the situation in Nanking, to retreat. After some resistance, Tang complied, even though the Japanese had penetrated his lines and an orderly retreat would be difficult. Communication was poor, with some officers not relating the information and saving themselves. Citizens massed the streets trying to leave. The Japanese were making their way down the River, cutting off the only escape route. Chinese soldiers not given the order thought there was a mass desertion event, and shot their own fleeing troops.

Six Weeks of Horror

This chapter includes instances of murder, torture, rape, and other terrible things that I wish to not write down.

The total death count is controversial and highly debated. However, it is significant, with some reports suggesting it is higher than the death counts from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, with 200,000 - 300,000 as a minimum being a consistent number.

The Nanking Safety Zone

The handful of Western businessmen, doctors, teachers, and others that ended up in Nanking during the assault by the Japanese for one reason or another pulled together to form a sort of international safety zone, with a defensive aura born out of the physical presentation of Western flags, the potential threat of retaliation from their countries, and the violation of rules of engagement (although these were so clearly violated elsewhere against Chinese citizens and soldiers alike).

They claimed a small area within the city with the express purpose of protecting citizens; however, many Chinese soldiers abandoned their post as the Japanese presence swelled and mixed into the citizen crowds within the zone, prompting Japanese soldiers to raid the area and find former soldiers.

In particular, the individual stories of Dr. Robert Wilson, the only surgeon during the siege, Minnie Vautrin, who safeguarded thousands of women and children in a camp she formed, and John Rabe, a Nazi who initiated the Safety Zone and personally used the red armband as a shield to interfere with murders, torture, and rapes he ran across in the city, shone through the carnage and atrocities of Nanking.

Part 2

What the World Knew

A few journalists were in the city during the initial day of invasion and captured to spread to the world the horrors inflicted by the Japanese on the Chinese. However, after they evacuated the Japanese would not allow other corespondents in or out of the city.

Initially, the Japanese celebrated the victory, but after uproar began, tried to stifle negative communication about what was going on in Nanking, fabricating stories of harmony and resumption of normal life.

The leaders of the safety zone scribed letters and took photos and film, and had them smuggled out of Nanking under great risk of being caught and killed. They lived expecting death to come if their actions were discovered. Readers Digest and other publications included the material from Nanking, causing outrage from some and skepticism from others.

The Occupation of Nanking

The murderous horror was clustered in the first 6-8 weeks, but terror still reigned for months during the occupation. Within the first few weeks, the military had incinerated one-third of the entire city and three-fourths of the stores.

By the spring, Nanking had begun to look like a city again. However, Japanese rule was still harsh an intense: laborers killed and your tired for slight infractions, systems to ensure not quartering of unregistered people under the fear of death, removal of goal from the local economy and replaced with worthless military currency, and many other restrictions. Opium was introduced back into the community by the Japanese both to subdue the population under escapist drugs but to legitimize strict occultation due to the associated rise in petty crime.

Judgement Day

Hirohito and other royals were exempt from prosecution as part of the surrender, and were allowed to stay on the throne.

The evidence that exists for Japanese Royal knowledge and involvement is much thinner than for the Nazi’s, as the Japanese burned and destroyed their own secret documents, and the Americans inexplicably returned a trove of documents before they could be microfilmed less than a decade after the end of the war.

The Fate of the Survivors

Those who participated in the Chinese torture still received full military pension from the Japanese and were allowed to live out their lives. The victims were not so lucky, and given no reparations.

The Iron Wall of the soviets, the rise of Mao, and the Korean War made clear communism was in the rise in East Asia, and made the Japanese pivotal allies for the US. Rather than replace the government responsible for war, the US decided to keep the current government to encourage stability.

The survivors of Nanking were not heard from, as the Mai government prevented communication with the West and foreigners removed from the city.

The diaries of John Rabe and other Nazis were kept secret for some time, due to the post-war political environment in which association with Nazi’s was political suicide, especially to describe ones heroic deeds.

Rabe left China and was forced to return back to Germany in 1938. For years he lectured on the horrors in Nanking, raising awareness for the atrocities he had seen. He painstakingly compiled a historical record complete with newspaper clippings, diaries, photos, and other pieces of evidence. He sent a note and film to Hitler, hoping for an understanding reception. However, he was visited and interrogated by Gestapo. After Berlin fell his family toiled in poverty as he fought for de-nazification rights, insisting he was only part of the party from a political sense and was not aware of atrocities. His family was incredibly poor, eating weeds they scavenged for food. The citizens of Nanking learned of his fate and gathered $2,000 US dollars and baskets of food to send him. He died in 1950.

His work went without notice for decades due to his Nazi association. However, the author tracked down his granddaughter and encouraged her to publicize his work.

The Forgotten Holocaust

How Germany and Japan were treated post-war had a great impact on what would be remembered and what would be forgotten. There is a popular revisionist history that Japan fought its war to rid itself of western imperialism, and ended up with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That views feels that Japan deserves no responsibility for mass murder of civilians anywhere during the war. Ultra-nationalists will threaten with lawsuits or death to silence those who wish to bring the truth to light.

There have been many struggles in the academic world to unveil the truth behind Nanking, and at the time of this books publishing the Massacre of Nanking is still not well-known.


Nanking was but one instance in the slew atrocities perpetuated in China.

There are many lessons to be taken

  • the veneer of civilization is paper thin, especially in hard times with desperate people
  • the role of power in genocide is strong - power kills, an absolute power kills absolutely
  • How easy it is for genocide to be normalized and embraced