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The Nanjing Massacre: 1937-1938

   The second Sino-Japanese war was a total war. The Japanese were unrelenting and every town they took they pillaged and raped. Some of the towns were lucky and their people suffered mild damages, but several cities were completely ravaged; Nanjing being the most quintessential and well-known among them.

   After the Japanese invaded and took Shanghai in November of 1937, they headed towards Nanjing, which was located a little to the northwest of Shanghai. Nanjing had been the Chinese capital until late November, when Generalissimo Jiang realized that the Japanese had their sights on Nanjing after invading Shanghai, and therefore moved the capital to Wuhan, a city even more to the west on the Yangtze River. Originally, the Generalissimo was advised not to fight the Japanese in Nanjing, since Nanjing was considered indefensible and its fall would not greatly affect the Chinese. Nevertheless, one general, Tang Shengzhi, declared that Nanjing must be defended in order to protect the face of the Chinese people. The Generalissimo was delighted by the proposal and had Tang lead the defense.

   The Japanese started bombing Nanjing in October. During this time the Chinese government evacuated the capital, bringing with them the military headquarters and valuable Chinese artifacts. Many Chinese who could afford to leave the city also fled, and many of the Western missionaries and businessmen left Nanjing also. The land forces of Japan arrived in Nanjing in December. The Chinese could not hold the 50,000 well-trained Japanese and by 13 December, the Japanese, led by General Matsui, had taken the capital.

   After taking Nanjing, the Japanese were ordered to “kill all captives”. Following these order they proceeded to eliminate the ninety thousand Chinese soldiers who had capitulated. The Chinese were assembled into groups, and were mass killed. Some were used for bayonet practice, others burned, many machine-gunned. Bodies were mutilated, decapitated, and burned. After destroying the Chinese army, the Japanese soldiers turned to the civilians of Nanjing.

   Inside the city the Japanese soldiers ruthlessly murdered, raped, and tortured thousands of Chinese civilians. By some accounts, more than 20,000 females were raped by Japanese soldiers, girls as young as seven to women older than eighty. Few women escaped the hands of the lustful soldiers, and those who tried to resist were killed. Other than simply preying on the women, the Japanese soldiers forced Chinese women to become prostitutes, known as “Comfort Women”, who were placed in Japanese compounds to serve the pleasure of the soldiers during the night and to perform housework duties during the day. The soldiers wantonly murdered, pillaged, and committed arson. In less than a month, the city which had once been the pride of the Chinese turned into a broken city filled with suffering and destruction. Corpses littered the street and in some places cars had to drive over streets piled with bodies up to its doors. The Japanese during the first six weeks of their stay (after the first few weeks, the atrocities declined) in Nanjing killed more than 200,000* Chinese civilian and soldiers. However, a caveat should be posed: the Japanese did not commit such atrocities in every city that they took. Nanjing was an extreme case in which the Japanese soldiers lost all sense of morality.

   After six weeks of wanton murder, pillage, and rape things finally settled down in January and the Japanese placed a puppet administrative office in Nanjing called “the Nanjing Self-Government Committee”. People came back to Nanjing and the population returned to its original pre-invasion numbers. With things “stabilized” people eventually returned to their homes. The Chinese government would eventually reclaim Nanjing after the Japanese surrendered the war after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.


* Different sources quote different numbers, but many use 200,000.