Historical background

Invasion of China

By August of 1937, in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese army encountered strong resistance and suffered high casualties in the Battle of Shanghai. The battle was bloody, as both sides were worn down by attrition in hand-to-hand combat.

On 5 August 1937, Hirohito personally ratified the proposition of his army to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners. This directive also advised staff officers to stop using the term "prisoner of war". There were also Chinese atrocities against Japanese prisoners of war.

By mid-November, the Japanese had captured Shanghai with the help of naval and aerial bombardment. The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo decided not to expand the war, due to the high casualties incurred and the low morale of the troops.

Approach towards Nanjing

As the Japanese Army drew closer to Nanjing, Chinese civilians fled the city in droves, and the Chinese military put into effect a scorched earth campaign, aimed at destroying anything that might be of value to the invading Japanese army. Targets within and without the city walls—such as military barracks, private homes, the Chinese Ministry of Communication, forests and even entire villages—were burnt to cinders, at an estimated value of 20 to 30 million (1937) US dollars.

On 2 December, Emperor Showa nominated one of his uncles, prince Asaka, as commander of the invasion. It is difficult to establish if, as a member of the imperial family, Asaka had a superior status to general Iwane Matsui, who was officialy commander in chief, but it is clear that, as the top ranking officer, he had authority over divisions commanders, lieutenant-generals Kesago Nakajima and Heisuke Yanagawa.

Nanking Safety Zone

Many Westerners were living in the city at the time, conducting trade or on missionary trips with various religious groups. As the Japanese Army began to launch bombing raids over Nanjing, most Westerners and all reporters fled to their respective countries except for 22 persons, including Siemens businessman John Rabe (presumably because of his status as a Nazi and the German-Japanese bilateral Anti-Comintern Pact), who stayed behind and formed a committee, called the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone. Rabe was elected as its leader. This committee established the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone managed to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area.

The Japanese did respect the Zone to an extent; no shells entered that part of the city leading up to the Japanese occupation except a few stray shots. During the chaos following the attack of the city, some were killed in the Safety Zone, but the atrocities in the rest of the city were far greater by all accounts.

Siege of the city

On December 7, the Japanese army issued a command to all troops, advising that because occupying a foreign capital was an unprecedented event for the Japanese military, those soldiers who " commit any illegal acts", "dishonor the Japanese Army", "loot", or "cause a fire to break out, even because of their carelessness" would be severely punished. The Japanese military continued to march forward, breaching the last lines of Chinese resistance, and arriving outside the walled city of Nanjing on December 9. At noon, the military dropped leaflets into the city, urging the surrender of Nanjing within 24 hours:

The Japanese Army, one million strong, has already conquered Changshu. We have surrounded the city of Nanking... The Japanese Army shall show no mercy toward those who offer resistance, treating them with extreme severity, but shall harm neither innocent civilians nor Chinese military personnel who manifest no hostility. It is our earnest desire to preserve the East Asian culture. If your troops continue to fight, war in Nanking is inevitable. The culture that has endured for a millennium will be reduced to ashes, and the government that has lasted for a decade will vanish into thin air. This commander-in-chief issue bills to your troops on behalf of the Japanese Army. Open the gates to Nanking in a peaceful manner, and obey the following instructions.

The Japanese awaited an answer. When no Chinese envoy had arrived by 1:00 p.m. the following day, General Matsui Iwane issued the command to take Nanjing by force. On December 12, after two days of Japanese attack, under heavy artillery fire and aerial bombardment, General Tang Sheng-chi ordered his men to retreat. What followed was nothing short of chaos. Some Chinese soldiers stripped civilians of their clothing in a desperate attempt to blend in, and many others were shot in the back by their own comrades as they tried to flee. Those who actually made it outside the city walls fled north to the Yangtze, only to find that there were no vessels remaining to take them. Some then jumped into the wintry waters and drowned.

On December 13, the Japanese entered the walled city of Nanjing, facing hardly any military resistance.

Atrocities begin 


Eyewitness accounts from the period state that over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanjing, Japanese troops engaged in rape, murder, theft, and arson. The most reliable accounts came from foreigners who opted to stay behind in order to protect Chinese civilians from certain harm, including the diaries of John Rabe and Minnie Vautrin. Others include first-person testimonies of the Nanjing Massacre survivors. Still more were gathered from eyewitness reports of journalists, both Western and Japanese, as well as the field diaries of certain military personnel. An American missionary, John Magee, stayed behind to provide a 16mm film documentary and first-hand photographs of the Nanjing Massacre. In addition, although few Japanese veterans have admitted to having participated in atrocities in Nanjing, some—most notably Shiro Azuma—have admitted to criminal behavior.

Immediately after the city's fall, a group of foreign expatriates headed by John Rabe formed the 15-man International Committee on November 22 and drew up the Nanking Safety Zone in order to safeguard the lives of civilians in the city, where the population ran from 200,000 to 250,000. It is likely that the civilian death toll would have been higher had this safe haven not been created. Rabe and American missionary Lewis S. C. Smythe, the secretary of the International Committee, who was also a professor of sociology at the University of Nanking, recorded atrocities of the Japanese troops and filed reports of complaints to the Japanese embassy.

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