WMC Reports

WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Nanking (2014)


Azuma Shiro, one of the first Japanese war veterans to discuss his participation in the Nanking Massacre, said in the 1998 documentary called In the Name of the Emperor: “It would be all right if we only raped them—I shouldn’t say all right. But we always stabbed and killed them. Because dead bodies don’t talk.”

Shiro was referring to the Nanking Massacre, the six-week siege in 1937 of the Chinese city of Nanking, the imperial capital of the country, by the Imperial Japanese Army. The siege, also known as the Rape of Nanking, was part of the larger Second Sino-Japanese War and was marked by a multitude of atrocities committed by the Japanese, including killing contests, mass rape and sexualized violence, torture, and the looting and destruction of property.

The sheer scale of the atrocities committed during the Nanking massacre has long been disputed between China and Japan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has claimed that while Japan acknowledges it damaged the lives and liberties of the citizens of Nanking, it is reluctant to estimate the number of victims. It does not explicitly name the use of mass rape as a crime against humanity perpetuated by its troops during the siege, and names only the killing of noncombatants and looting as examples of Japanese transgressions.

Thousands of Chinese soldiers were executed, leaving no one to protect the citizens of Nanking. And while the rampant sexualized violence that took place during those six weeks was not officially mandated by the upper echelons of the Japanese military, it was tolerated and sometimes encouraged by officers in order to bolster morale—as long as the soldiers disposed of the evidence of their crimes.

A wall in the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in China features images of survivors. (Kevin Dooley)

One of the legacies of the Nanking massacre was the fortification of comfort stations by the Japanese high command. Instead of holding their officers to account for the mass rape and murder of the civilians in Nanking, Japanese officials further consolidated an underground system of militarized prostitution by luring, buying, or kidnapping women and girls into sexual slavery. Most women were taken from Japan’s colony of Korea, but also China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The first comfort station was established in 1932 and the system only ended after Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the war crimes tribunal set up in 1946 by U.S. authorities after Japan’s unconditional surrender after World War II, has said that approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the city. The death toll is hotly debated, with the Japanese claiming anywhere from several hundred to the Chinese claims of 300,000. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated the casualties to be up to 200,000.

The Second Sino-Japanese War lasted from 1937 to 1945 and was preceded by a series of incidents between the two warring parties. The Mukden Incident of September 1931—in which Japanese railroad tracks in Manchuria were allegedly bombed by Japanese nationalists in order to hasten war with China—marked the formation of Manchukuo, a puppet state that fell under Japanese administrative control. Chinese authorities appealed to the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) for assistance, but did not receive a response for more than a year. When the League of Nations did eventually challenge Japan over the invasion, the Japanese simply left the League and continued with its war effort in China.

In 1932, in what is known as the January 28th Incident, a Shanghai mob attacked five Japanese Buddhist monks, leaving one dead. In response, the Japanese bombed the city and killed tens of thousands, despite Shanghai authorities agreeing to apologize, arrest the perpetrators, dissolve all anti-Japanese organizations, pay compensation, and end anti-Japanese agitation or face military action. Then, in 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident gave the Japanese forces the justification they needed to launch a full-scale invasion of China. A Japanese regiment was conducting a night maneuver exercise in the Chinese city of Tientsin, shots were fired, and a Japanese soldier was allegedly killed.

That November, Chinese forces abandoned the imperial capital of Nanking—before the Japanese even arrived. Reports say that en route to the imperial capital, two Japanese officers, Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda, held a killing contest to determine who could kill 100 men the fastest, using only a sword. This was widely reported in Japanese newspapers and was covered as if it were some kind of sporting event, with papers such as the Japan Advertiser (now The Japan Times) keeping track of the tally. 

One book is uncompromising in its description of the horrors that took place after the Japanese arrived in Nanking. Chinese-American journalist Iris Chang’s international best sellerThe Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, relies on the testimonies of survivors, eyewitness accounts of Western observers, and Japanese soldiers.

A large contingent of Western observers also chose to stay in the city during the siege. Members of the International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone, an inter-faith group led by Nazi party member John Rabe, kept detailed diaries of their experiences as witnesses to the massacre. The group was instrumental in the creation of the Nanking Safety Zone, a demilitarized area set up for the protection of Chinese civilians.

Tillman Durdin, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, was one of the first reporters to cover the Nanking siege. He and other reporters left Nanking and sent their dispatches home, recalling the horrors that they had seen. Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary and the president of Nanking-based Ginling Women’s College of Arts and Sciences, also stayed behind in the city to protect civilians.

Yet information on the massacre remains quite scarce.

Rape was historically silenced during World War II despite it being committed on all sides, according to a 1998 United Nations report on sexualized violence and armed conflict. An estimated 2 million German women were raped by the invading Red Army, and French women were raped by American GIs, according to What Soldiers Do, a 2013 book published by Mary Louise Roberts. The Second Sino-Japanese War ended in 1945 only after Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Some Japanese government officials have denied the scale of the massacre, simply saying that such claims of Japanese-perpetrated atrocities in Nanking amounted to little more than anti-Japanese sentiment. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in 2013 that the post-World War II trials Japan underwent were nothing more than “victor’s justice,” according to reports.

But unlike the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the destruction of Pearl Harbor in the United States, or the Holocaust in Europe, the events at Nanking are all but forgotten and virtually airbrushed out of history, seemingly eclipsed by the innumerable horrors of World War II, Chang argued in her book. Many revisionist Japanese officials, scholars, and public figures have denied outright that the massacre ever happened. On February 6, 2014, the governor of Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, flatly said the massacre never took place, according to the BBC.

Neglected by historical literature, denied by leading Japanese figures, and existing seemingly only in the collective memory of those directly affected, the Nanking massacre sank into obscurity.

Read the full report here.

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