Rape of Nanking: 1937

Japan began to acquire territory in China in 1931 with the seizure of Manchuria, the large territory north of the Korean peninsula. Full scale war between China and Japan began in July 1937 including attacks on nearly defenseless Chinese cities by modern Japanese aircraft. Japan's disciplined army proved too much for the Chinese as their northern cities fell in succession -- Peking, Tientsin, and Shanghai -- with the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. After Shanghai, the Chinese retreated inland.

The population of Nanking increased to over 1 million as refugees poured into the city from Manchuria and adjacent areas. On 25 September 1937, devastating bombing of Nanking killed over six hundred civilians. Well marked hospitals were targeted, as well as refugee camps and utilities. An International Committee from the United States and Britain tried to set up safety zones inside the city, where refugees could stay, but the Japanese ignored the restrictions.

Bodies of Chinese victims under the gaze of a Japanese soldier, Nanking, December 1937
Bodies of Chinese victims under the gaze of a Japanese soldier, Nanking, December 1937.

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The Massacre, Rape and Plunder of Nanking

Japanese forces advanced towards Nanking from Shanghai, attacking from three directions on 25 November. The Chinese General Tang Sheng Zhi commanded an army of over a hundred thousand men, but they were poorly led by officers who deserted as the fighting intensified. When the city fell on 13 December 1937, a third of the Chinese Army was still within the walls, shedding their uniforms and trying to hide among the civilians.

For a period of six weeks after the fall of Nanking, the Chinese were not simply murdered. They were tortured, brutalized, and raped. The Japanese used every variety of murder. Chinese victims were:

  • Chased into the Yangtze River with machine guns, drowning them
  • Drenched with gasoline, then shot so they burned like candles
  • Mutilated by cutting off testicles or gouging out eyeballs, then burned while alive
  • Tied to posts in groups, then executed with grenades or machine guns.
  • Covered with acid until dead from the corrosive effects
  • Attacked with awls or other tools or clubs
  • Eviscerated and confronted with their internal organs
  • Beheaded in swordplay displays by Japanese officers
  • Used for grotesque experiments by Japanese doctors and scientists

Women and babies were singled out for special tortures:

  • Women were beaten on the vagina with fists and other objects until dead
  • Babies were skewered and tossed into boiling water
  • Fetuses were cut from living pregnant women and put into jars of preservative
  • Large numbers of women were gang raped and tortured, then killed
  • Rape victims left alive had their stomachs cut open or their breasts chopped off
  • Women were kept as sex slaves at the service of any Japanese man

Japanese soldiers laughingly made games out of these atrocities. Japanese officers organized contests to see what soldier could kill the most Chinese in a given time with numbers as high as 500 required to win. Tokyo newspapers, such as Nichi-nichi, printed stories about the contests with pride and praise for winners.

The Japanese government also sponsored bombings on villages to test germ warfare agents for later use on the United States.

Aftermath of the Nanking Massacre

During the six weeks of the Japanese massacre, over 300,000 people were killed and over 20,000 additional women were brutally raped. The city was in ruins and the living civilians lost everything. The streets had so many corpses it was hard to move around, even on foot. They floated in the river for a year afterwards, emitting a stench that clung to the whole area. The International Committee buried bodies in mass graves and documented the sites.

This ghastly treatment was calculated to terrorize the Chinese and lead to a rapid collapse of any defense. But China rebuffed Japanese peace offers and the Army, under 51-year-old Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, withdrew into the rugged interior, finally re-establishing a capital at Chungking, on the upper Yangtze Gorge some 700 miles from the coast. There, with aid from the Allies, they mounted the defense of China that kept the Japanese from advancing further.

The Japanese retained their grip on northern and eastern China until the end of World War II.

Recommended Book about the Rape of Nanking

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