- Daqing YangDaqing YangElliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University
Also known as the “Rape of Nanjing,” Nanjing Massacre refers to the mass killings of disarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as other atrocities such as rape and looting, committed by the Japanese troops after they occupied Nanjing in the winter of 1937–1938. It is widely regarded as one of the worst Japanese war crimes in World War II.
Shortly after the Imperial Japanese Army entered the Chinese capital of Nanjing (previously written as Nanking) on December 13, 1937, Western newspapers reported horrific conditions in the fallen city including mass execution of Chinese captives. Wartime records, mostly compiled by a few Westerners who stayed in the city and organized a refugee zone, showed widespread Japanese atrocities of rape, random killing, and looting that continued for weeks.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Nanjing Massacre became a leading case of Japanese war crime at the military tribunals conducted by the victorious Allies between 1946 and 1948. Citing witness accounts and burial records, these tribunals put the total number of Chinese killed in the Nanjing area variously from 100,000 to over 300,000. In addition, they estimated that there had been around 20,000 cases of rape and that one third of the city had been destroyed by the Japanese troops within six weeks of occupation.
Largely overlooked before the early 1970s, the Nanjing Massacre has since become a hotly contested issue in Japan and between Japan and China. In 1985, China opened a large memorial museum in Nanjing, where the number of 300,000 victims is on prominent display. The Chinese government has designated December 13 a day of national commemoration. Documents related to the Nanjing Massacre submitted by China have become part of the UNESCO Memory of the World registry.
In recent decades, many important first-hand evidence has emerged and makes it both possible and necessary to reassess this historical event. Wartime Japanese military and personal records confirm that at least several tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed in mass executions that were condoned, if not ordered, by the high command of the Japanese army in China. Moreover, killing disarmed Chinese captives and atrocities against Chinese civilians had already begun well before Japanese troops reached Nanjing; many such atrocities continued long afterward, thus suggesting there was more than a temporary breakdown of Japanese army discipline in Nanjing. Western and Chinese accounts add vivid details of sexual violence, indiscriminate killings, and looting by Japanese soldiers. They also reveal grave errors on the part of the Chinese defense that likely made the situation worse. Despite these points of convergence among historians, however, there is still disagreement over the exact number of victims and causes of the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing.