Conflict Profile



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 seller, The 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.

How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War

To exert power: As the Chinese military had surrendered before the Japanese had even arrived in Nanking, the city and its citizens were in an extremely vulnerable position. Japanese troops raped, tortured, and killed civilians and soldiers with very little consequence.

Japanese troops saw the women as little more than animals and of little to no value, according to the testimonies of the perpetrators. One former Japanese soldier Azuma Shiro said in a letter to Chang: “Perhaps when we were raping her, we looked at her as a woman, but when we killed her, we just thought of her as something like a pig.”

To humiliate: Women were raped in the street in front of large crowds, in their own homes, and in front of their families. Women of all ages were raped, including elderly women and babies, according to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

A Chinese eyewitness in Chang’s book describes the body of an 11-year-old girl who had been raped continuously for two days: “…The blood-stained, swollen and ruptured area between the girl’s legs created a disgusting scene difficult for anyone to look at directly.”

To terrorize: The occurrences of rape during the siege were immense in their scale and intensity, Chang said. One soldier, Takokoro Kozo, recalled to Chang: “Women suffered most. … No matter how young or old, they could not escape the fate of being raped. We sent out coal trucks from Hsiakwan to the city streets and villages to seize a lot of women. And then each of them was allocated to 15-20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse.”

To “protect” soldiers: Author and journalist George Hicks, in The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, claimed that Japanese soldiers often wore amulets made from the pubic hair or personal possessions of victims in order to protect themselves in battle. The prevailing military superstition was that having sex before any major military incursion would work as a kind of protective charm.

To enforce “duty”: Hicks also wrote that the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army were possible because of the prevailing notion at that time that masculine needs took precedent and that it was a woman’s duty to serve men. As Japanese tradition has it, the woman should walk two steps behind the man; as Confucianist philosophy has it, a woman must obey first her father, then her husband, and finally her son, Hicks said. 

Patterns of Violence

  • Women were often killed after being raped. Their bodies were mutilated with bayonets, sticks, bottles, and other objects that were shoved into their vaginas. One eyewitness, Li Ke-hen, quoted in James Yin and Shi Young’s Rape of Nanking: an Undeniable History in Photographs, reported: "There are so many bodies on the street, victims of group rape and murder. They were all stripped naked, their breasts cut off, leaving a terrible dark brown hole; some of them were bayoneted in the abdomen, with their intestines spilling out alongside them; some had a roll of paper or a piece of wood stuffed in their vaginas.”
  • Japanese troops forced families to commit incest, according to Chang. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters; sons, their mothers. Those who refused were killed instantly.
  • A document from February 3, 1938, among the papers of The Nanking Massacre Project of Yale Divinity School Library, lists a series of abuses perpetuated against Chinese soldiers and civilians by Japanese troops: acid poured over the dead bodies of executed soldiers, as well as those who were still alive; a young farmer virtually decapitated; young children shot; and Chinese civilians injured or killed during the Japanese troops’ search for women to rape.
  • Some of the most despicable forms of torture leveled at the civilian population, according to Chang, included being buried waist-deep in the earth and then attacked by German shepherd dogs; being buried alive; and being doused in gasoline and set on fire.


The International Military Tribunal of the Far East, the war crimes tribunal set up by U.S. authorities after World War II, estimated that more than 20,000 women and girls were raped during the conflict. Yet in The Rape of Nanking, Chang acknowledged that it was impossible to calculate the real number of women and girls raped during the siege of 1937 but estimated the range to be between 20,000 and 80,000. The BBC has reported that between 250,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed in the siege, many of them women and children.

Yet controversy rages on about the statistics, which are often disputed by revisionist academics, historians, and politicians, who often strain diplomatic relations between Japan and China by stating the massacre never happened.

One of the more famous revisionist accounts of the Nanking Massacre, What Really Happened in Nanking: A Refutation of a Common Myth by Masaaki Tanaka, was published in 1984. It claimed: “You won’t find one instance of planned, systematic murder in the entire history of Japan.” Unsurprisingly, the book was met with accusations of historical distortion.

Cultural Gender Attitudes

Hicks, a journalist and author of The Comfort Women, wrote that the prevailing notion at that time was that masculine needs took precedent and that it was a woman’s duty to serve men. Traditional ideals, he said, that cherished women’s chastity and purity were also the reason why many women, especially “comfort women,” remained silent about their ordeals. It was highly likely, Hicks said, that beliefs regarding the sanctity and virtue of women, and their role in society in general, possibly contributed to the culture of silence after the Nanking massacre. 

In a 2005 report called “Justice for survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery system,” Amnesty International said that in many societies, “due to cultural injustices and patriarchal norms, loss of virginity and inability to bear children make women unmarriageable; women who have been raped are not perceived as ‘virtuous’; once lost, this perceived virtue can never be recovered.”


Nazi party member John Rabe wrote in a report to Hitler, according to author Iris Chang:

“They would continue by raping the women and girls and killing anything and anyone that offered any resistance, attempted to run away from them or simply happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. There were girls under the age of 8, and women over the age of 70 who were raped and then, in the most brutal way possible, knocked down and beat up. We found corpses of women on beer glasses and others who had been lanced with bamboo shoots. I saw the victims with my own eyes—I talked to some of them right before their deaths and had their bodies brought to the morgue at the Kulo hospital so that I could be personally convinced that all of these reports had touched on the truth.”

The irony of a Nazi being appalled by Japanese atrocities was not lost on commentators. But it was often this very association that saved the lives of many Chinese civilians, as Germany was officially allied with Japan during World War II.

American missionary Minnie Vautrin, president of Ginling Women’s College of Arts and Sciences, was also instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Chinese civilians—particularly women and girls—during the siege.

On December 16, 1937, she noted in her diary:

“There probably is no crime that has not been committed in this city today. Thirty girls were taken from the language school last night, and today I have heard scores of heart-breaking stories of girls who were taken from their homes last night ... one of the girls was but 12 years old.”

Tillman Durdin, the Times correspondent, found himself in Nanking when it was occupied by the invading Imperial Japanese Army. Upon witnessing several days of atrocities, he left the city for Shanghai in order to send a dispatch home:

“Just before boarding the ship for Shanghai, the writer watched the execution of 200 men. The killings took just ten minutes. … The conduct of the Japanese army as a whole in Nanking was a blot on the reputation of their country. Their victory was marred by barbaric cruelties, by the whole sale execution of prisoners, by the looting of the city, rapes, killing of civilians and by general vandalism.”

Chu-Yeh Chang, a survivor of the Nanking massacre, experienced and witnessed the violence sweeping through Nanking firsthand:

“On New Year’s Eve of 1937 … five Japanese soldiers charged into our house, forced my father and me out, and then raped my mother, my 80-year-old great-grandmother, and my 11-year-old-sister.”


  • The establishment of comfort stations, and the often forced recruitment of “comfort” women, became commonplace after the siege ended. Japanese officials established an underground system of militarized prostitution by luring, buying, or kidnapping women and girls into sexual slavery. The rationale behind the comfort stations was that with sexual services readily available to them, Japanese troops would not rape the civilian population in Japanese territories and thus also be at lesser risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. Up to 200,000 women were forced into working at these comfort stations, one of the world’s biggest historical instances of human trafficking, according to Amnesty International.
  • Chang has stated that we will never know the full psychic toll that the mass rapes had on the women of Nanking. She also claimed that many women were impregnated by their rapists, but this has never been fully studied.
  • Multiple rapes left many women with life-long injuries such as sterility and other physical issues. In an interview with Chang, Li Xouying describes how in 1937, newly married at 18 and heavily pregnant, she managed to fight back against a Japanese attacker but suffered 37 separate bayonet wounds, leaving her with a gaping wound in the side of her face. She miscarried as a result of her injuries.
  • In 2000, a controversial conference, “The Verification of Nanking: The Biggest Lie of the 20th Century,” took place in Osaka despite protests from the Chinese government. The keynote speaker, Professor Shudo Higashinakano, a history professor at the Asia University in Tokyo, claimed that there was no documentary evidence to prove that the Nanking massacre actually took place. The Japanese authorities distanced themselves from the claims of the conference, stating that the views of the organizers did not represent the views of either the government or the Japanese public at large.
  • A film called Don’t Cry, Nanking, created by Chinese and Hong Kong filmmakers, detailed a fictional account of the Japanese slaughter of Chinese civilians in 1995. It was not shown in Japanese cinemas until nearly two years after its release. Many cinemas in Japan feared violent reprisals by right-wing nationalists.
  • In 2012, the mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, told a visiting Chinese delegation that he believed the scale of the massacre at Nanking was exaggerated and that only acts of conventional warfare took place. Nanking’s links to Nagoya have since been severed, further exacerbating the gulf between the two nations.