War and Conflict

Sino-Japanese War

What was the Nanking Massacre?

One of the most brutal chapters in modern history, the Nanking Massacre, also called the Rape of Nanking, was a mass execution of hundreds of thousands of unarmed Chinese civilians by invading Japanese soldiers in December 1937 and January 1938. No one knows for certain how many people were murdered in the mass killings, but most estimates place the number at 300,000, with another 80,000 people raped and tortured, including women and children.

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese royal army swept into the eastern Chinese city of Nanking (today called Nanjing), which was then the capital of China. In the weeks that followed, the Japanese soldiers went on an orgy of violence. The atrocities were documented on film by the Japanese themselves as well as by helpless foreigners in the city at the time of the seizure. Surviving photos show unimaginable cruelties. It is believed that Japan’s military had been trained to carry out the killings and atrocities in order to make an example of Nanking to other Chinese people, thereby facilitating Japan’s intended occupation.

The horrific event was the source of recent controversy stirred by the 1997 publication of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang (1968-), a historian and journalist whose grandparents narrowly escaped the massacre. Unlike Germany, which accepted responsibility for the holocaust of Jews during World War II (1939–45) and whose Nazi leaders were tried in number at Nuremberg, Japan never acknowledged its crimes committed at Nanking. After World War II only a few of Japan’s military leaders were tried and found guilty of war crimes related to the taking of Nanking. This chapter in Japan’s national history has been largely denied by its officials, some of whom accused Chang of issuing propaganda. Chang stood by her research, which included interviews with survivors as well as with Japanese soldiers who participated in the violence. The massacre remains a deeply divisive event between the two nations and their people.


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