"China is trying to save its country. Japan is trying to save its investments, the League of Nations is trying to save face. Now somebody has got to lose… The Japanese take their wars serious. They go in them to win."
~ Will Rogers 1931
Which is the Chinese child and which is the Japanese child? If you think they suffer differently because of the crimes of their parents, then you are one sick human being.
In 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Nanjing which was the capital of China at the time. Many people call this event the Nanjing Massacre or the Nanjing Incident. Depending on who you believe, from 20,000 to 300,000 people were murdered. This article is to explain the circumstances about what happened at Nanjing so that the reader can decide for themselves the truth. Regardless, the common belief(s) about what happened at Nanjing can be rejected as false by any person using common sense. In informing Westerners — English-speaking people — about what happened in Nanjing at that time, I must make a few caveats:
- First off all, no one will ever know the exact truth about what happened in Nanjing in 1937. The reasons for this are the chaos caused by war, an incompetent Chinese government, and also by the fact that war crimes were committed by the Japanese and the Chinese forces at the time. I will discuss Chinese atrocities and crimes committed against their own people later.
- The other problem with deciding what actually went on at the time is that, in this day and age, political ideology cannot be separated from historical fact. It is an impossibility to detach current Chinese government policy and propaganda from the truth to arrive at a rational decision when it comes to Nanjing. Since China is a communist country that does not enjoy freedom of the presses (even to a limited degree), there is virtually no discussion among Chinese scholars as to what happened at Nanjing at the time. Because of the limitations on free speech in mainland China, much of today’s materials on Nanjing merely parrot the government line. Hence, current Chinese opinion and study of this event follows government policy — with little if no scholarly study — and, as such, must be dismissed to a great extent as propaganda. To further my rationale for this argument, I’d like to show that current Chinese school textbooks do not even mention the murder of millions of Chinese by Communist forces under Mao Tse-Tung. Until the day that China does clearly and fairly examine its own history in an honest light, any discussion of World War II Japanese atrocities upon the Chinese are, to be perfectly frank, ludicrous, and to be considered with a healthy amount of suspicion. To do otherwise would be foolish.
- That being said, the search for the truth in this matter is much more well developed in Japan — not to say it is correct — as both the left and the right are allowed to discuss this matter (rarely with a cool head) in the free press in this country than in China. Definitive Chinese opinion on the matter follows current Chinese government policy. Japanese opinion on this matter is varied, vast, and ever-evolving and changing. It goes without saying that Japanese Leftists have a completely different opinion than that of Japanese Rightists. The mere fact that anyone’s opinion can be categorized as Leftist or Rightist shows that ideological concerns cannot be separated from their beliefs on history and, as such, these also are to be distrusted.
- There is little if no serious discussion on this matter in the English language. Most English discussions of this event are all second or third generation materials and, as such, tend to be tainted. Probably some of the very best English language discussion of this event can be found by searching the name of David Askew, Associate Professor of History at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. Mr. Askew is probably one of the world’s leading experts on this subject. Although I personally find his writings fair, they are yet quite apologetic. I feel that apologies are unnecessary for the serious study of history; especially when it comes to discussing the ultimate crime of war and mass murder. Mr. Askew seems to be apologetic to the Chinese about his beliefs that seem to be pointing to an estimation of only 100,000 Chinese killed in Nanjing. I say only because the Chinese official estimates are 300,000. Here, Dr. Askew, because this incident is now the political football that it has become, is now somewhat of an apologist because Nanjing is part of the modern Chinese identity. I reject this notion outright. What good is a Chinese identity if it is built upon ideology, falsehoods, and lies? What good is any identity if it is corrupted by the same?
Any discussion of Nanjing will inevitably draw a fire-storm of ire from various groups. Merely writing the word, Nanjing, will probably generate hate mail and death threats. This is to be expected as I pointed out earlier, "…there is virtually no discussion among Chinese scholars as to what happened at Nanjing." Today’s discussion from the Chinese side comes from nationalists, pundits, and amateurs. I think it is safe to say that today that any sort of roundtable discussion of Nanjing is impossible in an intelligent atmosphere. The following is what I have personally studied and have found to be true.
Unfortunately, I must get off the point for a moment and touch on a subject that concerns all militaries and all wars. The Japanese believe that the purpose of all government is to provide a sort of safety net for society. I don’t believe this to be true. Nevertheless, this seems to be a prevailing thought among all Japanese. In the days prior to WWII, Japan was a very poor country. The disaffected youth, trouble-makers, hell-raisers, criminals, hooligans, etc., (as is the case today in America and, I suspect, the case with all militaries through the history of mankind), were "put outside of society" and sent into the military. Something had to be done with these people. Japan put them in the Imperial Army (truly elite Japanese youth went into the Navy). Once into the Army, these ruffians were basically out of control and that explains why the Japanese government was unable to control its own army in Asia at the time. This is a well documented and agreed upon fact. This also would explain why the Japanese forces in China and Korea ran amok. It also explains why US forces ran amok in Fallujah (this also stands as another excellent argument for the dissolution of a standing army, but that is another subject for another time).
One of the huge obstacles to be overcome when discussing Nanjing is to determine the meaning of terminology. Specifically:
- What is a massacre? How many deaths constitute a massacre? Are ten deaths a massacre or do we need one million deaths to do so? If you are a firm believer — as I am — in the idea that all war is a crime, and all war is a massacre, then you’d realize: The mere fact that we are talking about Japanese troops physically in China would constitute a war crime and, as such, regardless of numbers, Japan is at fault.
- Where is Nanjing? How big is this city? How many square kilometers? Where are the boundaries drawn? When exactly did this crime occur? From what dates to what dates? This may seem ridiculous but let me give you a good example: Say we are talking about "The Great Chicago Fire". Is it not necessary to know exactly when, where, and how this event occurred? Did it last for a day or 2 weeks? Are we talking about Chicago city or town? Is there such a thing as Chicago county? If so, mustn’t we consider this in thinking about this event? Of course, to make an intelligent assessment. We need to know the details of all these questions and more.
- What other extraneous events happened at Nanjing that must be considered in making a fair judgment of the available information? What physical proof is available to show conclusively what happened at Nanjing?
After the Battle of Shanghai (from August 13th, 1937 to the Chinese Army evacuation of the city on November 12th of 1937) remnants of the Chinese Army decided to make a stand in Nanjing. The initial movements of this battle by the Chinese forces set the stage for a massacre. Whereas, the Chinese troops, outmanned and out-gunned, fled Shanghai, they stated that they would fight to the last man in Nanjing, a city of civilians. The initial steps for an atrocity were set by the mere presence of Japanese troops on foreign soil and by the fact that the Chinese troops adopted a Scorched Earth policy.
General Tang Shengzhi was given the job of defending Nanjing following the retreat of the Chinese Army following the Battle of Shanghai. In a press release to foreign reporters, he announced the city would not surrender and would fight to the death. The defense force blocked roads, ruined boats, and burnt nearby villages, preventing many citizens from evacuating [emphasis mine]. General Tang Shengzhi gathered about 100,000 soldiers, mostly untrained, including a few defeated troops from the Shanghai battlefield, to defend the capital. He also placed the 35th division of his troops at the port to prevent people from fleeing Nanjing [emphasis mine again].
Thus we can see from even before the battle started that the Chinese High Command had set up its own populace to be slaughtered. After the escape of the leadership running the Chinese military in Nanjing, by the time it was obvious that the situation was past hopeless, more evidence of Chinese atrocities against its own populace is presented by a German Nazi Party bureaucrat named John Rabe who wrote in his own memoirs at the time (The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe):
"Foreign military observers remaining in Nanking are amazed by the extent of the Chinese destruction of everything within the zones they still control. Most of this destruction is said to be purposeless, serving no military use for the advantage of the Chinese or to the disadvantage of the Japanese except to force invaders to use tents instead of billeting in buildings…….. “Not since the armies of Genghis Khan turned the sites of once-populous cities of China into grazing lands has there been any such systematic destruction as that going on in the lower Yangtze area at the hands of the Chinese themselves,” a neutral military observer told the writer. “Japanese aerial bombings and artillery fire have been destructive in comparatively narrow ranges, mostly military objectives, but all such damages combined will not equal one-tenth the destruction achieved by the Chinese armies. From the way the Chinese are behaving you would think they did not expect to recover any semblance of control in this part of China in the next century. You would think they were laying waste land belonging to some bitter foe. “It is incredible that they are adopting this ‘scorched earth’ policy against forces which must certainly be only temporary invaders and are not going to attempt to colonize Chinese soil. What is being destroyed represents the savings of thrifty generations of hard-working Chinese. “Those who advocate the policy of frenzied destruction of towns, cities and country side do not pause to think that they are utterly wiping out hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of accumulated wealth and that this property, if not destroyed, could have been taxed by the Chinese Government at no distant future, thereby helping the nation to refinance its rehabilitation. This rich area, which had been one of the most thickly populated in the world, will need vast sums to rebuild what is vanishing in flames.” The only acceptable explanation seems to involve the ancient Oriental idea of “saving face,” the Chinese believing they enchance their prestige if their retreat leaves only a barren wilderness of smoking ruins for the invaders to occupy. This policy ignores the welfare of millions of Chinese who have fled from this fighting zone. How the millions of refugees are to be fed and housed through the winter is a serious problem because their own government cannot do anything for their relief."
The final nail in the coffin for a disaster is set once again with plenty of help by the Chinese Army in the use of their tactics. Huge numbers of Chinese troops from the very beginning of the battle would change their clothes into civilian clothes and hide among civilians. This is, of course, against international law (which is a bit laughable as war is against international law) nevertheless, because these Chinese soldiers hid among the civilian population and the Chinese High Command had blocked any retreat by civilians out of the city of Nanjing, it is impossible to say that the Chinese military does not hold a great amount of responsibility for events in Nanjing in 1937. Proof of these types of actions can be found in diaries and records of soldiers who fought in Nanjing at that time, but the most damning proof of all is that Chairman Mao promoted this idea as a methodology in fighting a guerilla war and used this method quite effectively against the French and the Americans in Vietnam years later.
Another bit of light can be shed on this matter as until the 1960’s, official Chinese government policy held foreigners — as much as the Japanese — to blame for Nanjing atrocities. Back then, foreigners were painted as willing collaborators. Nowadays, the foreigners are looked upon as innocent bystanders. Even the book by John Rabe points to even less of an atrocity than the Chinese government purports as Rabe was a Nazi and wrote the book after the war, possibly with the intention of saving his own skin.
How Many People Were Killed in Nanjing?
No one will ever know how many people really died then. It is obvious that the official Chinese government numbers are wrong due to the reasons listed above (ideological concerns, current Chinese identity, failure to come to grips with the truth about modern Chinese history, etc.). For the reader to get a fair grasp on the numbers killed, I would like to examine a passage in an article by Professor David Askew:
"… debate in Japan underwent a sea change as the full implications of John Rabe’s diary were digested (Hata Ikuhiko among others speaks of the ‘Rabe effect’) and as Iris Chang’s book was absorbed. Although the flood of publications continues, there are signs of an emerging consensus. Rabe has clearly destroyed much of the basis for the more extreme casualty estimates… but also makes it absolutely clear that he was convinced that the Japanese army was responsible for looting, arson, rape and the execution of thousands of men identified as ‘ex-soldiers’. He has thus been most vigorously denounced…. However, it must be said that the greatest impact in the long term will probably be felt among the ranks of the Great Massacre School, members of which have already begun to revise their numbers downwards. For instance, in the recent English translation of his The Nanjing Massacre, the ‘corpse maximiser’ Honda Katsuichi has significantly reduced his estimate of the scale of the Japanese atrocities in and around Nanjing. As Frank Gibney notes in his introduction, Honda now believes that ‘a bit over 100,000′ is the true figure for the scale of the massacre during the Nanjing Incident.
…(others) derive(s) a similar figure based on Rabe’s estimate of 50,000 to 60,000 for both civilians and soldiers, including soldiers killed in action, to which is then added a second figure of 80,000 soldiers (this assumes that 90,000 soldiers died, of whom 10,000 died in action, and 80,000 were executed). In other words, at least some members of the Great Massacre School appear to have accepted Rabe’s estimate, but use it for civilians only, despite the fact that Rabe clearly states that at least 30,000 of this estimate were soldiers killed in combat, and despite the fact that his estimate of the civilian death toll in an official report to the German Embassy was ‘thousands’. Although Honda’s revised estimate is a product of the Rabe Diary, the text itself contains an earlier, pre-Rabe estimate. Honda here asserts that ‘we need to treat as a single phenomenon the approximately three months from November through January of the assault on Nanjing’ — an assertion that matches his later arguments — but then goes on to state that, once the time-frame (and geography) is thus broadened, ‘we are dealing with too much time to say anything specific about the numbers of people killed, but no one can deny that the victims of the massacre numbered in the hundreds of thousands’. The English translation of his work thus contains both the ‘old’ orthodox figure of ‘hundreds of thousands’ in the main text and the ‘new’ orthodox figure of 100,000 plus in the introduction.
As noted above, Iris Chang’s work…. Provid(es) an easy target for a group to score endless goals in their attempts to demonstrate that the debate on Nanjing is biased, and based on willful ignorance if not deliberate fabrications.
I would like to add here that Iris Chang’s book has been shown to be full of deliberate falsifications, not the least being the use of fabricated photographs. As a historical record, it is a failure, as a bit of fiction and "Left-Wing excitement" it just might fit the bill if you are into that sort of thing. Once again, Professor Askew sheds some light on the possible numbers of dead:
My own research demonstrates that it can be shown with a great deal of reliability that roughly 17,500 plus or minus 2,500 Chinese bodies were buried in and around the city, and that there are some grounds for arguing that as many as 32,000 bodies may have been (although this later figure is based to a far greater degree on conjecture).
Don’t forget, we’re not talking about some sort of Nazi here. Professor Askew speaks and reads Chinese and Japanese and teaches at a university in Australia (an Allied nation in WWII). If you were to seriously wish to find an exact number of the people killed in China at Nanjing then I would suggest that you’d either have to be out of your mind or have an ideological purpose in doing so. As I have stated many times before, if you believe that all war is a crime and all war is an atrocity, then you would understand that it matters not the exact numbers of dead. The moment a soldier sets foot, in an aggressive manner, on foreign soil is the moment the atrocity has been set into motion. There can be no going back from there. But important questions must be asked in considering the events surrounding Nanjing in 1937:
- How much responsibility does the Chinese Military hold for having a "Fight to the Death" and a scorched earth policy in the deaths of its own people?
- How much did the Chinese soldiers mingling with the average population contribute to the massacre of other civilians? After the fall of the city, how much did this contribute to the carnage?
- Is it legal to shoot soldiers hiding as civilians?
Finally, the Truth
As stated above, no one will ever know what exactly happened at Nanjing. It is agreed that the Japanese Imperial Army invaded, raped and pillaged. Mass murder occurred. The numbers killed will never be known. Estimates of 20,000 to 300,000 have been made. I would submit to you that both numbers are way off the true amount. As human beings attempting to live peacefully with our neighbors, it is to our benefit to calmly consider all facts when discussing anything to do with human history, especially Nanjing or World War II. Rightists in Japan want to clear Japan of all blame for the events in Nanjing. I personally consider this an absurd idea considering the fact that these events took place in China — of course Japan is to blame. Some people wish to paint the Japanese as savages and devils. This too is idiotic. Chinese apologists wish to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Japanese. Perhaps, but it is a lie to claim that the Chinese military carry no fault about events in Nanjing in 1937. If you wish to discuss this problem rationally, then ideology must first be put into the trash bin. It should be obvious from this short paper that the root cause of yesterday and today’s problems are the government of our nations. They are the ones who began this problem and it is they who perpetuate them.
Unfortunately, it is even a bad idea to make any attempt at any sort of calm, level-headed discussion of Nanjing at this time. The governments of China and Japan will never come to an agreement on what happened, nor do I suppose, would we ever expect them too. Nanjing has become of a part of the identity of the Chinese people today. Unfortunately, until they — and to a lesser extent the Japanese — wish to face the facts and search for the truth, this problem will continue for years to come.
Asking these questions is not to deny that a tragedy occurred at Nanjing. Nor is it to deny or belittle the deaths of so many innocents. That being said, the wise student of history would know that the prevention of these atrocities in the future should take precedence over an accounting of past dead. To forgive, but not forget, past crimes and work to stop them from recurring is the only way we will ever prevent them. An accounting of the actual numbers is a job to be left to archeologists and not to people who have to live together and work today towards a better world tomorrow. Bickering about this past, especially as we enter a new age is to set the stage for a repeat of past stupid mistakes.
All that we will ever know for a fact about Nanjing is that the governments make our wars, and the regular people — regardless of the side they are on — pay the ultimate price. The only thing that really matters is that all war is a crime. And since it is a crime, it is the nature of government to create it, then to cover it up by lying about it; that’s the ultimate truth and probably the only thing we’ll ever really know for a fact about Nanjing.
- Askew, David, (http://www.uws.edu.au/social/asaa/news.html), (http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/).
- Brook, Timothy, Documents of the Rape of Nanking
- Chang, Iris, 1997, The Rape of Nanking
- Katsuichi, Honda, The Nanjing Massacre
- Rabe, John, 1998, The Good Man of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.