55: Death and Suffering in Nanking


After the Japanese Army took Nanking in December, what would follow was pain, death, and suffering.



  • The Place of Chinese Disunity in Japanese Army Strategy During 1931 by Donald A. Jordan
  • Effects of Attrition on National War Effort: The Japanese Army Experience China, 1937-1938 by Alvin d. Coox (1968)
  • Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter
  • German Mediation in the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-38 by James T.C. Liu (1949)
  • Japan and the Axis, 1937-38: Recognition of the Franco Regime and Manchukuo by Florentino Rodao
  • Memory on Trial: Constructing and Contesting the ‘Rape of Nanking’ at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946-1948 by James Burnham Sedgwick
  • The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography Edited by Joshua A. Fogel
  • Isolating Knowledge of the Unpleasant: The Rape of Nanking in Japanese High-School Textbooks by Christopher Barnard
  • Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing by Daqing Yang (1999)
  • A Reconsideration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident by James B. Crowley (1963)
  • Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen
  • Shanghai and Nanjing 1937: Massacre on the Yangtze by Benjamin Lai
  • The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War by S.C.M. Paine
  • The Tokyo Judgment and the Rape of Nanking by Timothy Brook
  • The Tragedy of Wuhan, 1938 by Stephen MacKinnon
  • The 1934 Anglo-Japanese Nonaggression Pact by Chihiro Hosoya
  • Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 by Michael A. Barnhart
  • The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang
  • The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 Edited by Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van De Ven
  • The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture Edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
  • China’s Wars: Rousing the Dragon 1894-1949 by Philip Jowett


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 55 - The Second Sino-Japanese War Part 6 - The Nanking Massacre. This week a big thank you goes out to EFB for the donation and the wonderful email, along with Bernhard, Martin, and jfc for their support on Patreon. You can find out more about how you can support the podcast over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. In an unrelated note I recently appeared on a stream with a few naval historians to discuss the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, it was about two and a half hours long and you can find the link to the Youtube video in the episode description. When the Japanese Army arrived outside of Nanking, they were just days away from committing one of the most infamous acts of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The event would be known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking. What we know of events in Nanking from December 13th 1937 to January 1938 comes to us mostly from foreign observers that were in the city at the time of the events. The Japanese would severely limit their portrayals of events, and would continue to claim that they were simply taking necessary actions to remove military elements from the city. Most of the Chinese officials and press that might have recorded events were either themselves victims of the violence or had left the city before it began. This leaves us today with a lot of unknowns especially when it comes to the exact scale of the violence. The estimates for the number of people killed vary, with numbers ranging from 260,000 to 300,000 to even more. The level of violence, suffering, and death is staggering and because of that, for the first and almost certainly not the last time, I am going to drop a content warning at the beginning of this episode. I will be filtering out all of the really graphic portrayals of events that you can find in various sources about the events, as such details are just not the purpose of this show. However, I will not be able to avoid discussing rape, torture, and brutal violence against helpless men, women, and children of all ages. This episode will be strictly about the events within Nanking and their aftermath, so if you need to take a pass on this one, you will not be missing out on any other information.

The city of Nanking was surrounded by an old city wall that was 20 meters high and 9 meters thick, and outside of that wall there were several defensive positions that had been created to defend the city. In theory these fortifications, in addition to the 13 divisions that were in the city, provided some level of protection and could result in a stout defense. But these elements of possible strength hid a series of weaknesses, with the first being that the Chinese divisions defending the city were either seeing their first combat or had been heavily engaged over the previous months. The second weakness of this defense being the fact that many of the troops that were coming to the city were just those that were retreating from the Japanese advances, some having been on the run all the way from Shanghai. They had been harrassed the entire way by both Japanese troops and Japanese air attacks and this meant that most of the defenses around the city that had been erected were simply not able to be used in any real capacity because they could not be properly manned and prepared in the time between when the first Chinese troops arrived and when the Japanese also arrived in the area. The city had also been hit by numerous Japanese bombing raids, dating all the way back to August. These raids had become much more intense after the fall of Shanghai because Japanese planes then had access to airfields in their newly captured territory, greatly reducing the distance they had to fly to get to Nanking. On December 8th all of the Chinese air units in and around the city were evacuated, in the fear that any that remained would simply be destroyed without serving any purpose. As the Japanese units advanced they left a burning trail of violence and death in their wake. They would move into towns and villages, take food and supplies, rape the women who lived there, kill everyone, and then burn it to the ground on their way out. This process was repeated again and again on the way to Nanking, a sort of precursor of what was to come. In the week before the siege of the city began there would be a change in Japanese command, with General Matsui, who had been the overall commander of the push to Nanking having to give up his command due to growing very ill. He would be replaced by Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, an uncle of the Emperor, who had been in the army for 30 years. At the time that the Japanese troops arrived at the city and began to prepare their assault the generally held belief among Japanese intelligence was that unlike Shanghai Nanking was a city that was ready to fall, and it was very likely that many, most, or even all of the Chinese troops still in the city would surrender if the proper overtures were made. Asaka was completely against such an action, and an order was dispatched from his headquarters, with his personal seal, which basically stated that all captives should be immediately executed. This would be reinforced on December 13th when another order was given to the army with effectively the same message, with the Japanese 66th Battalion record of the order saying “Battalion battle reporter, at 2:00 received order from regiment command: To comply with orders from brigade commanding headquarters, all prisoners of war are to be executed. Method of execution: divide prisoners into groups of a dozen. Shoot to kill separately.” The reason I bring this up is because in the violence that would follow one of the most important pieces to understand is that it was not just random violence by a few units here and there, it was the official policy of the Japanese Army. The official excuse for these executions would be that the captives, especially in the numbers that they were expected, simply could not be fed, and so something had to be done with them instead. There were also some stated concerns that any troops left behind would morph into guerilla fighters as the war moved away from the area. Even with these orders, there were many Chinese units that did surrender, and when they did the Japanese units had a general system to deal with them. When the Chinese units or soldiers surrendered, mostly just hoping for decent treatment, the first demand was that they allow their hands to be bound and they would then be separated into groups of around a hundred men. They would then be led off to the area of execution where in small groups they would be shot, bayoneted, or killed in other ways. This process was done on some many prisoners that body disposal became a serious problem. For example in one area north of Nanking, near Mufu Mountain, it is estimated that around 57,000 soldiers and civilians were executed. Some were buried, but it was hard to find space, some were burned, but there was quickly a very serious shortage of fuel for the fires, eventually thousands were simply dumped into the Yangtze river. This practice of just dumping boding into the river would be replicated in Nanking in the coming weeks and months as the only way to deal with the huge number of dead bodies that would piling up in and around the city.

Along with the soldiers that were fighting in and around the city, and those that were surrendering, there were also large numbers of just normal people that were still in the city. Many of those that were forced to stay in the city were either too old or too poor to leave with any hope of success, and to these residents of the city was added the refugees that were fleeing the Japanese advances. Then in early December the decision was made to bolster the defenses around the city by essentially putting a mile wide strip of the countryside to the torch to clear fields of fire and reduce the cover available to the Japanese attackers. This act by the Chinese themselves would force thousands of Chinese that lived around the city into refugee status, with many forced into the city. They were given just hours to evacuate their homes and villages before they were destroyed, and they could take only what they could rapidly get together and transport. Anybody who could not go into Nanking, would try to continue on to the west. Inside the city, beyond the number of people trying to leave, there were also efforts to move some cultural items as well. For example, the entire Palace museum would be evacuated on December 2nd by boat. After all of those that could leave left, and it would cut the population in half and down to about half a million, those that were left were those that were the least able to fend for themselves. The city very rapidly turned into a humanitarian crisis. Their only hope was that the battle would be over quickly and then the Japanese would treat them well. Hopes of this were buoyed by the fact that Japanese airplanes dropped countless leaflets over the city which implored the Chinese to surrender so that innocent civilians and the city itself could be spared.

On December 10th there was at least one effort to convince the Chinese troops to surrender, with Japanese representatives sent to the Mountain Gate, but when there was no answer to this the artillery bombardment of the city was resumed. When it came to actual military actions to take the city, the first focus would be on the Bright China gate, which would be the focus of both artillery and tank assaults. Because of the complete lack of any air support, there was limited information available to Chinese in regards to Japanese actions outside the city, and when this attack was launched it would catch the defenders off guard and quickly push through the gate. They were then met by a vicious Chinese counterattack, involving some of the few armored units in the city, which were equipped with Panzer Is. These attacks would cause massive casualty numbers among some of the leading Japanese units, as high as 90% in some of the leading elements, but the support provided by Japanese artillery would prove to be decisive and would prevent the Japanese gains from being completely lost. This type of sequence would repeat itself in other areas around the city, the Japanese would concentrate their men and resources on one particular area, they would successfully breach the city walls in that area, and then they would have to beat of Chinese counterattacks to hold onto it, which they generally did. Each time there were less Chinese resources to meet them, and the units that were trying to defend the city were rapidly experiencing crippling shortages of many supplies and were also just tired, after having been under bombardment for multiple days. Then on December 12th several Japanese attacks were launched simultaneously and the entire defense began to fall apart. Inside the city the Chinese troops were under the command of General Tang, who had been working under the assumption that the goal of the defenders was to hold out as long as possible. Then on December 11th, which was before the Japanese even really started pushing deep into the city, he was ordered by General Gu Zhutong to start evacuating the city of all military personnel, and order that was directly from Chiang. Tang, far better positioned to understand the situation in the city tried to push back against this new order, making it clear that given the situation at that time, with the Japanese attacking and having pushed through some of the forward positions, any retreat would not be an orderly one, and would probably turn into a panicky rout. When Tang informed Gu that this would be the result, the order was reiterated, and to punctuate it a telegram was sent directly form Chiang which would be delivered in the afternoon of the 11th. “Commander-in-Chief Tang, if you cannot maintain the situation you should take the opportunity to retreat in order to preserve and reorganize [the army] for future counterattack.” Under very clear and direct orders, Tang began to put in place the orders that were necessary to begin the evacuation. The hope was that order would be maintained long enough for troops to be evacuated either over the river or to mount a breakout attempt to the south. At 3AM on the 12th Tang met with his staff and officers from units around the city, informing them that the city was considered lost and that at 1PM they would distribute printed orders to their units informing them of the retreat away from the city. Some of the units were to slowly move toward the Yijiang Gate and the Xiaguan Pier for evacuation over the river, but critical those routes could only handle a portion of the Japanese force, so only some of the units were supposed to move toward the river. This included what were judged to be the best divisions, including what was left of the 87th and 88th who had been in the Shanghai fighting, everybody else was supposed to try and break through the Japanese encirclement and flee to the southwest. If everything went well it was hoped that a decent portion of the soldiers would be able to make this breakout attempt. Everything did not go well.

Per the order the evacuation would not actually start until 6PM and would continue all night in the hopes that using the darkness would cut down on the risk of Japanese air attacks. What became very clear very quickly was that as soon as information got around to all of the units, especially those that were not supposed to move to the river, order disintegrated. It did not at all help that the news was not distributed to units in a uniform way, some officers would move around the city trying to inform as many units as possible, other officers, especially those in units that were not slated for the easy path of river evacuation, just abandoned their troops. Regardless of specific orders those men who knew that a retreat had been ordered often knew the only way out of the city that was in any way safe was via the river, and the areas around where the boats were loading up turned into a disaster. At the Yinjiang gate people would be trampled to death in an effort to get out of the city. Then on the riverside, the number of boats available was totally inadequate for the number of people who were not at the river hoping to get aboard, there were tens of thousands that would not have anything to take them across. Those that did not make it onto the last boats tried any means available to them to make it across, anything that would float was used and then when there was nothing left many just tried to swim it. Thousands would die in these attempts to make it across. Meanwhile behind them in the city the fires which had already been burning grew in intensity as the panic caused by the retreat caused new fires to begin burning. The soldiers that were left in the city surrendered when they could, often to later be executed. With the military either evacuated, executed, or in captivity there was nobody left to given even token resistance to the massacre that was about to begin.

The bulk of the Japanese units would enter the city on December 13th and begin moving through the city occupying buildings and killing as they went. There was often no reason for the killings, they would just move through a neighborhood doing house searches, claiming that they were searching for Chinese soldiers, but regardless of what they found they might simply kill everyone inside. Other groups would arrest all the men, say that they were being forced into work details and then provide them with no food or water for several days before, with their hands tied together, they were led out of the city to be killed either by gunshot or by the bayonet. These mass killings were just the start, there are documented cases of much worse: people being buried alive, burned alive, forced into the river until they froze to death, and many other horrific acts. All around the city and outside of it the number of corpses continued to mount, and much like the executed prisoners there were simply too many to be either buried or burned, with many thrown into the river. The river itself would run red for some time due to the amount of blood that was spilling into it from the city. There was not a unified experience among the people in Nanking at this time, every Japanese unit, and really every Japanese soldier, was free to do what they wanted. There were also units that were not just wantonly killing everyone in their path, but often enough that that were spared by such units would just be victimized by the next one that came around. Along with the death one of the great legacies of the Nanking massacre would be the mass rapes that would occur throughout the city. Here is what a soldier of the 114th Japanese division, Takokoro Kozo, would later say of these events “Women suffered most, no matter how young or old, they all could not escape the fate of being raped. We sent out coal trucks from Hsiakwan to the city streets and villages to seize a lot of women. And then each of them was allocated to 15 to 20 soldiers for sexual intercourse and abuse.” Officially the Japanese military would level heavy punishments for any soldiers who raped civilians, but instead of causing it to not occur, it just caused them to killed the women after they were raped, to avoid any possible information about what happened being known. Class, age, occupation, it did not matter, no one was safe, from the poorest refugee to those attending seminary school on the path to becoming nuns. Often after the raping was done, by 5, 10, 20, or more men, not just the woman but also here entire family would also be killed. Even this was not the end of the suffering though. Estimates vary wildly, from 20,000 to 80,000 women, but then there were also stories of an unknown number of victims that were not killed at the time but would later take their own life due either to the psychological trauma that they suffered or because they became pregnant during the event. Some of the stories of these events are brutal, heartbreaking, and honestly incredibly hard to read or to talk about. There were some attempts to help the people in the city, but there were serious limits on what most people could do. The most successful efforts were those by the Presbyterian missionary W. Plumer Mills, who was able to use the fact that he was a foreigner to shield some people. He would be joined by dozens of other foreigners in setting up what would come to be known as the Nanking Safety Zone, which would eventually contain over 200,000 people. Within the zone the people were relatively safe, with the foreigners able to use their status as citizens of other nations to try and protect those that they could.

While the Japanese would in many ways try to prevent information about events in nanking from being reported outside the city, some information would get out. For example, there were three American correspondents, one from the New York Times, Chicabo Daily News, and the Associated Press. The stories that they filed would be very influential around the world, but in most cases these reports would be from the very early days before the Japanese were in complete control and before they could properly seal off the city and prevent people from leaving. The three American journalists would all leave the city by December 15th, just 48 hours after the Japanese captured the city which did much to hide the long duration of the violence. It would be months before any foreigners would be able to freely enter, leave, or move around the city. At the same time there were Japanese media reports of events that were heavily skewed. Part of these efforts were just to not report on the events that were occurring, but also to proactively stage verious scenes around the city. There would be pictures of a New Years’ Eve parade which was claimed to be a spontaneous celebration staged by the inhabitants of the city because they were just so happy to now be under Japanese control. The part that was of course not mentioned about the photographs is that the Chinese participants were forced to participate and forced to celebrate. But all of these efforts to hide what was happening were not entirely successful, at least in countries outside Japan, and over the next several months stories would continue to leak out of the city about the continued violence and suffering experienced by its inhabitants. The violence around Nanking at a pretty high level for about 2 months, with a few short breaks either due to trying to hide events from foreigners who were ushered around the city or event from some Japanese leaders as well. For example, when General Matsui Iwame toured the city on the 17th of December there were apparently serious efforts made to hide the full extent of the violence from him. He would later say “I now realize that we have unknowingly wrought a most grievous effect on this city. When I think of the feelings and sentiments of many of my Chinese friends who have fled from Nanking and of the future of the two countries, I cannot but feel depressed. I am very lonely and can never get in a mood to rejoice about this victory.”

The obvious question to ask at this point in the episode is why these events occurred, which is also often both at the surface level very easy to explain but at a detailed level far more involved. at the most basic level these types of events are relatively common during conflicts throughout history. When an invading force moves into an enemy’s territory there is bound to be some friction, and in many cases that friction would lead to violence. Somethis this violence is spontaneous and random, but for the Japanese soldiers movign through central China during this period it war far more planned and pre-meditated. During their occupation of China there wasoften the feeling that new soldiers needed to be blooded, to have killed someone, before they were really ready for combat, and in many cases that meant killing a prisoner or a civilian. Here is an account from Private Tajima, about events soon after he arrived in China “One day Second Lieutenant Ono said to us, “You have never killed anyone yet, so today we shall have some killing practice. You must not consider the Chinese as a human being, but only as something of rather less value than a dog or cat. Be brave! Now, those who wish to volunteer for killing practice, step forward.” No one moved. The lieutenant lost his temper. “You cowards!” he shouted. “Not one of you is fit to call himself a Japanese soldier. So no one will volunteer? Well then, I’ll order you.” And he began to call out names, “Otani—Furukawa—Ueno—Tajima!” (My God—me too!) I raised my bayoneted gun with trembling hands, and—directed by the lieutenant’s almost hysterical cursing—I walked slowly towards the terror-stricken Chinese standing beside the pit—the grave he had helped to dig. In my heart, I begged his pardon, and—with my eyes shut and the lieutenant’s curses in my ears—I plunged the bayonet into the petrified Chinese. When I opened my eyes again, he had slumped down into the pit. “Murderer! Criminal!” I called myself.” This was just part of what could best be described as desensitization exercises that were done by Japanese officers as a way of getting the soldiers under them more used to killing. It was also a way to take the propaganda that was constantly given to the soldiers that claimed that the Chinese were a lesser race and put it into action. An officer Tominaga Shozo, at the time a second Lieutenant would recall that killing defenseless Chinese was part of the training that all officers received once they arrived in China “On the final day, we were taken out to the site of our trial. Twenty-four prisoners were squatting there with their hands tied behind their backs. They were blindfolded. A big hole had been dug—ten meters long, two meters wide, and more than three meters deep. The regimental commander, the battalion commanders, and the company commanders all took the seats arranged for them. Second Lieutenant Tanaka bowed to the regimental commander and reported, “We shall now begin.” He ordered a soldier on fatigue duty to haul one of the prisoners to the edge of the pit; the prisoner was kicked when he resisted. The soldiers finally dragged him over and forced him to his knees. Tanaka turned toward us and looked into each of our faces in turn. “Heads should be cut off like this,” he said, unsheathing his army sword. He scooped water from a bucket with a dipper, then poured it over both sides of the blade. Swishing off the water, he raised his sword in a long arc. Standing behind the prisoner, Tanaka steadied himself, legs spread apart, and cut off the man’s head with a shout, “Yo!”” There are countless stories just like this of Japanese soldiers first being put in these positions and being forced to do things, but then later, to give proof that such events had the desired effects, they would join in with little resistance. Here is another soldier speaking of events that occurred after the fall of Nanking: “I remember being driven in a truck along a path that had been cleared through piles of thousands and thousands of slaughtered bodies. Wild dogs were gnawing at the dead flesh as we stopped and pulled a group of Chinese prisoners out of the back. Then the Japanese officer proposed a test of my courage. He unsheathed his sword, spat on it, and with a sudden mighty swing he brought it down on the neck of a Chinese boy cowering before us. The head was cut clean off and tumbled away on the group as the body slumped forward, blood spurting in two great gushing fountains from the neck. The officer suggested I take the head home as a souvenir. I remember smiling proudly as I took his sword and began killing people.”

We will end today with nubmers. You may be getting tired of me saying this, but once again our numbers are kind of all over the place when it comes to the total number of people killed in and around Nanking during the last half of December and the first few months of 1938. There have been many different efforts to try and quantify the number of the years, here is a quote from The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang which gives a good rundown of some of these efforts “The Chinese military specialist Liu Fang-chu proposed the figure of 430,000. Officials at the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanking Massacre by Japanese Invaders and the procurator of the District Court of Nanking in 1946 claimed at least 300,000 were killed. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East or IMTFE judges concluded that more than 260,000 people were killed in Nanking. Fujiwara Akira, a Japanese historian, gives the figure of approximately 200,000. John Rabe, who never conducted a systematic count and left Nanking in February, before the slaughter ended, estimated that only 50,000–60,000 were killed. The Japanese author Hata Ikuhiko claims that the number was between 38,000 and 42,000. Still others in Japan place the number as low as 3,000.” Other studies have put the number above 225,000 or even up to and exceeding 300,000. Regardless of the actual number of people who were killed, this was unfortunately just the beginning of the suffering experienced by the people of central China under a Japanese occupation which was just beginning. Nanking and other Japanese actions in China would be discussed at length at the IMTFE which was held after the war. Here is a piece of what the official judgement that would be given “The Japanese soldiers swarmed over the city and committed various atrocities. According to one of the eyewitnesses they were let loose like a barbarian horde to desecrate the city. It was said by eyewitnesses that the city appeared to have fallen into the hands of the Japanese as captured prey, that it had no merely been taken in organized warfare, and that the members of the victorious Japanese Army had set upon the prize to commit unlimited violence.” The legacy of the event and how it is portrayed in various media has been an ongoing study. There have been criticisms of how the event is taught and remembered in Japan, for example a study was done on school textbooks in 1995, with the conclusion being “If we look at all the textbooks, we find that there is a consistent disparity between the victims of the atrocity and the perpetrators. The victims are present at an individual, human level, but the perpetrators are present only at an organisational level.” The failure to confront the events and their causes hinders everyone’s ability to properly determine what did happen, and to hopefully prevent such atrocities from occurring again. It is a problem that is, frustratingly, in no way limited to just Japan or just to the actions in Nanking during the last weeks of 1937 and first two months of 1938. Next episode we will discuss the future course of fighting in China as well as its effects on the Japanese military in what will be our final episode of Season 1 of the podcast.