On this day in 1937, the city of Nanjing (then the capital of China) fell to Japanese forces, beginning a six-week period known as the ‘Nanjing Massacre’ or the ‘Rape of Nanjing’. During this period, hundreds of thousands of civilians and unarmed soldiers were murdered by Japanese soldiers, with rape and looting rampant throughout the city. Historical estimates of the number of those killed in the massacre are roughly 250000 to 300000.
This topic is highly exhaustive; therefore, I could not write a complete blog post that would befit this event. Rather, I will give a general synopsis of what happened and how it currently impacts geopolitics in East Asia.
While the Second World War started in Europe in 1939, war was already well underway in Asia. Starting in 1937 (some would argue as far back as 1931 however), China and Japan were at war, following the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland. By December 1937, the Japanese had surrounded the Chinese capital of Nanjing (which literally means “southern capital”, as opposed to Beijing, the “northern capital”). Although it remains difficult to determine the motives for the Nanjing Massacre, some historians have claimed that the heavy casualties sustained by the Japanese army in the recent Battle for Shanghai angered many Japanese soldiers, who then wished to exact revenge. As well, the Japanese military had become indoctrinated to believe that the fight against China was a “holy war”, one that the racially superior Japanese would win and conquer over the lowly Chinese.
Regardless of motivation, the Nanjing Massacre began in earnest on December 13th, 1937. Unarmed Chinese soldiers were sent to dig their own graves, and shot en masse in them. Large-scale contests were held by the Japanese soldiers in the city to see who could be the first to behead 100 Chinese, both military and civilians. Mass-scale rape was also prevalent during this time, with an estimated 20000 women raped within the 6 weeks. Both the elderly and infants were not immune to victimization by the Japanese soldiers. There were also reports of forced incest during the Nanjing Massacre, where sons would be forced to rape their mothers, and fathers would rape their daughters. Women were often killed after their ordeals.
As the capital of China, Nanjing housed many Western foreigners and diplomats. These Westerners did their best to shelter and offer refuge to Chinese in their homes and in the international district of the city. John Rabe was the most well known of the foreigners in Nanjing at this time. A German businessman for Siemens, Rabe attempted to use his influence as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to save as many Chinese from the hands of the Japanese. It is estimated that Rabe rescued between 200000 to 250000 Chinese.
A recent movie was released in 2011 concerning the Rape of Nanjing. Flowers of War (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1410063/)stars Christian Bale as an American in Nanjing during the Massacre. Pretending to be a Catholic priest, Bale’s character takes in Chinese women seeking refuge from the Japanese at the Catholic convent. Here is the trailer to the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MV5rw3oTJMw.
The Nanjing Massacre has continued to have consequences on Chinese-Japanese relations. To this day, the Japanese government has refused to recognize the events in Nanjing as a “massacre”, believing the number of those killed in the city to be far below those commonly accepted by historians. As well, the Japanese had refused to acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated by Japanese soldiers through the six-week period. The dismissal of the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese government has infuriated Chinese citizens and the Chinese government, and has drawn severe anti-Japanese sentiment amongst the Chinese populace. This refusal to recognize the Nanjing Massacre is an important source of tension that exists to this day between China and Japan.