“Revisionist” History and the Rape of Nanking 1937

Japanese Soldiers at Work in Nanking

The historical controversy regarding the “rape” of Nanking in 1937 by the Japanese Army is hotly debated.[1] The massacres occurred in the initial occupation of the city and the two months following in mid December 1937.  The initial reaction to the actions of the Japanese was reported by western journalists and even a German Nazi Party member by the name of John Rabe who assisted in protecting Chinese during the massacre and reported it on his return to Germany.The action shocked many in the west and helped cement the image of the Japanese being a brutal race in the west.

Massacre Victims at Nanking

The controversy’s visibility has been raised since the 1997 publication of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. However, with few exceptions the incident had received little attention by Western historians until Chang’s book was published. The reason for this was  that  China was a sideshow for for the United States and Britain throughout much of the war. When Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists were overthrown by the Communists in 1948 the incident disappeared from view in the United States.   The  United States government  reacted to the overthrow of Chaing by helping to rebuild Japan and rehabilitate the Japanese while opposing the Chinese Communists.  In fact it was only “after the Cold War was the Rape of Nanking Openly discussed.”[2]

Bodies of Children Killed by the Japanese at Nanking

Chang’s book was instrumental as it brought new attention to the actions of the Japanese Army in the slaughter of Prisoners of War and civilians following the occupation of the city.  Even as Chang’s work was published “revisionist” works began to appear in the 1980s which have either denied the atrocities, sought to minimize numbers killed by Japanese Forces or rationalized the them began to appear in Japan.  The revisionists were led by Masaaki Tanaka who had served as an aide to General Matsui Iwane the commander of Japanese forces at Nanking.  Tanaka denied the atrocities outright calling them “fabrications” casting doubt upon numbers in the trial as “propaganda.” He eventually joined in a lawsuit against the Japanese Ministry of Education to remove the words “aggression” and “Nanjing massacre” from textbooks, a lawsuit which was dismissed but was influential to other revisionists and Japanese nationalist politicians and publishers.[3]

Japanese Officer Preparing to Execute Man in Hospital

Most early accounts of the occupation and war crimes have used a number of 200,000 to 300,000 victims based upon the numbers provided during the War Crimes Trials of 1946.[4] Unlike the numbers of victims of the Nazi Holocaust the numbers are less accurate.  Authors who maintain the massacres such as Chang and others such as Japanese military historian Mashario Yamamoto who admits Japanese wrongdoing and excess but challenges the numbers use the same statistical sources to make their arguments.  Chang not only affirms the original numbers but extrapolates that even more may have been killed as a result of the disposal of bodies in the Yangtze River rather than in mass graves away from the city as well as the failure of survivors to report family member deaths to the Chinese authorities.[5] She also notes contemporary Chinese scholars who suggest even higher numbers.

Prince Asaka, Granduncle of Emperor Hirohito Commanded Troops at Nanking

Herbert Bix discusses Japanese knowledge of the atrocities in detail up and down the chain of command including Prince Asaka, granduncle of Emperor Hirohito who commanded troops in Nanking, the military and Foreign Office, and likely even Hirohito himself.[6]

German National and Nazi Party Member John Rabe Protected Chinese at Nanking and Reported His Experience to the German Government.  He is known as “The Good Man of Nanking”

The publication of German citizen and witness to the massacres John Rabe’s diaries in 2000, The Good Man of Nanking, provided an additional first hand account by a westerner who had the unique perspective of being from Japan’s ally Nazi Germany.  His accounts buttress the arguments of those like Chang who seek to inform the world about the size and scope of Japanese atrocities in Nanking.

A Field of Skulls at Nanking

Yamamoto who is a military historian by trade and is viewed as a “centrist” in the debate, places the massacres in the context of Japanese military operations beginning with the fall of Shanghai up to the capture of Nanking. Yamamoto criticizes those who deny the massacres but settles on a far lower number of deaths, questioning the numbers used at the War Crimes Trials. He blames some on the Chinese Army[7] and explains many others away in the context of operations to eliminate resistance by Chinese soldiers and police who had remained in the city in civilian clothes. He  claims that  “the Japanese military leadership decided to launch the campaign to hunt down Chinese soldiers in the suburban areas because a substantial number of Chinese soldiers were still hiding in such areas and posing a constant threat to the Japanese.”[8] David Barrett in his review of the Yamamoto’s work notes that Yamamoto believes that “there were numerous atrocities, but no massacre….”[9] Yoshihisa Tak Mastusaka notes that while a centrist Yamamoto’s work’s “emphasis on precedents in the history of warfare reflects an underlying apologist tone that informs much of the book.”[10] Revisionist work also criticizes the trials surrounding Nanking and other Japanese atrocities.  An example of such a work is Tim Maga’s Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials which is critiqued by historian Richard Minear as “having a weak grasp of legal issues” and “factual errors too numerous to list.”[11] Such is a recurrent theme in revisionist scholarship, the attempt to mitigate or minimize the scale of the atrocities, to cast doubt upon sources and motivations of their proponents or sources, to use questionable sources themselves or to attribute them to out of control soldiers, the fog of war and minimize command knowledge as does Yamamoto. Politics is often a key motivating factor behind revisionist work.

Iris Chang Would Later Commit Suicide

Chang would never be the same after researching and writing the Rape of Nanking. Traumatized by what she had learned and burdened by the weight of what she had taken on she killed herself on November 9th 2004.

Iconic Photo of Japanese Acts in China: A Wounded Child at Shanghai Station

“Revisionist” history will almost certainly remain with us, so long as people study the past.  However one has to be careful in labeling a divergent view of a historical subject as necessarily revisionist.  There are occasions when new evidence arises and a “new” or “revisionist” work may actually disprove previous conclusions regarding historic events or persons.  This might occur when what we know about a subject comes from a single or limited number of sources who themselves were limited in what they had available for research and new evidence comes to light. At the same time where numerous sources from diverse points of view attest to the genuineness of an event, the revisionist’s theses should be themselves scrutinized based on evidence presented as well as their political, ideological or racial motivations.  While one does not want to silence voices of opposition to prevailing beliefs one has to be careful in examining their claims, especially when they arise in the context of political or ideological conflicts.


[1] Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY 2000. pp.333-334. Bix does a good job explaining the number of victims of the incident drawing on Chinese and Japanese sources.

[2] Kreuter, Gretchen. The Forgotten Holocaust in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March-April 1998 p.66

[3] Fogel, Joshua A. The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, University of California Press, Berkley CA 2000, pp.87-89

[4] Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-45. Random House, New York, NY 1970 pp. 50-51. Toland in his brief discussion of the massacres notes both the civilian casualty figures and figures for male citizens of military age who were slaughtered.  Toland also notes the large numbers of women raped by Japanese soldiers.

[5] Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II Penguin Books, New York, NY 1997 pp.102-103. Chang has been criticized by some historians in a number of ways including that she was not a historian, that she compares the atrocities to the Nazi Holocaust and her emotional attachment to the subject which may have been a contributing factor in her 2004 suicide.

[6] Bix. p.336

[7] Yamamoto, Masahiro. The Rape of Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity. Praeger Publishers an imprint of the Greenwood Group, Westport, CT 2000. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/docDetail.action?docID=10018001&p00=nanking  p.83

[8] Ibid. p.92.

[9] Barrett, David P.  Review of The Rape of Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity by Masashiro Yamamoto Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’Histoire XXXVIII, April/Avril 2003 p.170

[10] Mastusaka, Yoshihisa Tak.  Review of The Rape of Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity by Masashiro Yamamoto American Historical Review, April 2002 p.525

[11] Minear, Richard. Review of Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials by Tim Mata  American Historical Review. April 2002 p.526

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31 Comments

Filed under History, Military, world war two in the pacific

31 responses to ““Revisionist” History and the Rape of Nanking 1937

  1. So what do you think happened? What numbers best explain the history?

    No matter what the number, it seems clear that atrocities were done. Nevertheless, the world seems to have change. Or has it? There are other populations just as willing to carry out mass killings. Even some in our society are so inclined. Thankfully, the vast majority have evolved beyond such behavior.

    • MagenD

      Like Al-Queda in Syria?!

      • padresteve

        Not quite, while thousands of innocent people are dying in Syria and tens of thousands were killed at Nanjing, one was state organized in a war of aggression. The other is the work of domestic and foreign terrorists participating in a three sided civil war. Likewise the Nanjing massacre was of limited duration while what is going on in Syria has been going on for years. Sadly the latter shows no sign of ending.

  2. adamcathcart

    Thanks for the comprehensive essay. Just a couple of quick notes — Your second photo, “Massacre victims at Nanking” is, to my knowledge, actually the aftermath of a Japanese air raid on the wartime capital city of Chongqing, I believe in 1938. (Chongqing is a city of steps…) A way to check this, since I’ve arrived at your blog bereft of footnotes, is to go through Life magazine for 1938 to check it out.

    And the photo of the baby, which did appear in Life magazine, has been hotly disputed as staged by Japanese revisionists, and was actually shot in the trainyard at Shanghai. But that is indeed a Chinese baby scorched and saddened by the violence of the Japanese invasion of the lower Yangtze valley in 1937-38.

    Thanks Padre!

    • padresteve

      Adam

      The site that I recall getting it from recorded it as at Nanking, I will do some further checking myself.

      Blessings

      Padre Steve+

  3. kumawan

    I always feel that such terms as “Atrocities” and “Massacre” should be carefully defined as one uses them to discuss this sort of sensitive topic.

    We do not call, at least, what the Soviet Red Army did against German women in Berlin “Rape of Berlin.” Does anyone say that it did not happen as some Japanese revisionists say that the alleged incident did not happen in Nanking? Do we call the Russian violation of the neutrality pact with Japan and brutality committed against Japanese soldiers and civilians in Manchuria and Siberia with such terms? Why not? Cause they were “evil” losers? Or didn’t it happen?

    I found the same question as adamcathcart. In the case of the sacond one on the baby is originally part of a documentary film, in which we can find how the scene was facricated.

    The uniform of the Japanese officer at the hospital does not look like real.

    You would realize that emphasizing Nazi Germany as Japan’s ally when you talk about J. Rabe could be misleading if your are familiar with the German-Japanese (and aso Chinese) relations of that time. For example, you know how many German officers (or military advisers) were involved in the battle in Shanghai in the summer and fall of 1937, don’t you?

    • padresteve

      Dear Kumawan

      I appreciate your reply to this post and in the interest of giving opposing views a chance I have approved your comment.

      I understand the sensitivity of the subject, but it is far to well documented to shake off as you do by deflecting the matter to the Soviet atrocities and massacres which were rampant in not only Berlin but almost all of Eastern Europe. Those too are covered in many Western histories going back to the 1950s. It is true that the Soviets were not held accountable as the Japanese and Germans were but they too were guilty of such behavior. Likewise as an American I cannot ignore, nor have I the fire bombing of Japanese cities which were aimed at killing civilians and destroying Japanese morale or the manner in which the American propaganda demonized the Japanese people using methods comparable to the Nazis and the Jews and Communists. If I go further back in US history I can cite our treatment of the Blacks as well as the wars of extermination waged against the indiginous American Indian tribes. As far as the German advisory mission it was aimed at two things. The Germans had a long history of economic dealings with China and China was the leading supplier of Tungsten (Wolfram) to the German war industry and was primarily designed to help the Ant-Communist Chang defeat the Chinese Communists. Had the Japanese not invaded China no German advisers would have been put in that position. Despite this due to Japanese pressure the Germans withdrew the mission in 1938. To label the photos as fabricated is a long shot and misleading and an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that Japanese forces committed atrocities on a grand scale in China and these were not in response to the Chinese attacking the Japanese homeland as were the crimes of the Soviets on the Germans. War crimes and atrocities no matter who commits them are evil and those who seek to justify them perpetuate that evil. The Chinese Communists alos committed atrocities after the war, even on thier own people. Do I need to go on?

      While I say these things I also have to give the Japanese Navy for behaving honorably in the Pacific. The leaders and sailors of the Imperial Navy fought with honor and only a diplomatic error led to the attack on Pearl Harbor occurring before the Japanese declaration of war.

      Again, thank you for your comment,

      Peace, Padre Steve+

  4. gjones

    I’ve read Changs’ book. As well I’ve read, compared, and tried to understand as well as I am able other types of genocidal historical incidents. One thing stands out in all of them. Revisionist historians Always down play the numbers and the atrocities. No matter the American West or the Armenians and Turkey. It is human nature to not want to contemplate such events, so the event is minimized, justified, derided, excused or somehow effaced. As to the events in Nanking compare it to the Japanese armies use of test subject at Unit 731.

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    • padresteve

      Carina
      Those are very sweet sentiments coming from someone that I don’t know. I wish I knew why you want me to burn in hell but I do trust in the grace and love of God for all of us. Please find a better outlet for your anger. One more shot like this and you are banned from commenting again.
      Peace
      Padre Steve+

  6. Adam Cathcart

    Thanks for keeping it positive on the comment boards, Padre Steve. Hope you are well these days!

    • padresteve

      Adam
      I do try, on occasion someone slips in to try to disturb the balance in the force. Hope that you are doing well too.
      Blessings
      Steve+

  7. Steve

    The photograph of the officer in the hospital is a still from the 2009 film “Nanjing! Nanjing!” also known as “The City of Life and Death”. I recommend the film, as it’s not only an exceptionally well shot and acted work, but it’s probably the most balanced and reserved film China has ever put out about that incident. It primarily focuses on a Japanese soldier who is caught up in the atrocities and struggles to both do his duties as a soldier, and to keep his karma clean, so to speak.

  8. li zhen

    chinese soldier is to be blame to this matter, they run away from battle field and dress as a civilian and kill japanese army silently.
    as act of counter to stop japanese soldier killed by coward chinese soldier, japanese soldier took a aggressive measure to save their man.
    this matter was bring up to create national patriotic among chinese, but when mao kill million of their own, chinese keep it silence.

    • padresteve

      Thanks for stopping by but grow up. Yes Mao was a murdering criminal in his own right, but this is not about Mao. It is about the Japanese Army which waged a war of aggression against China and in Nanking the Japanese Army with the knowledge and approval of the government and members of the royal family committed many well documented war crimes. Let’s face it, had the Japanese not been slaughtering the Chinese their Army wouldn’t have turned to such tactics.

      • hey padresteve, thank you for posting all these, also thank you for patiently replied that animal called Li Zhen, a hater to so-called ‘Communism China’, he/she is maybe a so-called democratic zealot (民运), maybe a so-called Fanlun Gong victim, maybe a japanese impostor who pretended to be Chinese. however he/she tried to relieve his/her mental disorder by diverting such serious topic to Communism, so people will start blaming China, and finally disrupt the real purpose of this topic. These kinds of people are paid to apply this tactics in Chinese forum as well.
        little does he/she knows that, back to the day, it’s Kuomintang government who defended our capital, and communism government is no where near that place. also his/her theory about Chinese soldier is proposed by japanese, think about it, even some soldiers cover themselves with civilian clothes, but it doesn’t mean japanese have to kill all the people in the city, especially the capital of a country. this fake theory only outlets the insanity of japanese.
        as a people who lived in Nanjing for 16 years, i should say Li Zhen is a real idiot if he/she is Chinese, or is a liar if he/she is japanese.
        to Li Zhen, communism is not equal to China or other way around, it’s only a name how people call that political party, just like all the other countries. idon’t think there is any differences between american political party and chinese political party, they all work for powerful people. so if there is any thing wrong happened in the past caused by communism, people will remember all. our Chinese have nothing wrong.

      • padresteve

        Hengyue

        Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I wish you well.

        Peace

        Padre Steve+

  9. Peter Hill

    Good article Padre Steve,
    Too many people, both in the West and in the East, tend to downplay or even disbelief entirely the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China. I once commented on the issue on Youtube whilst discussing a clip from a documentary only to be scolded by another user who was American and told that the Japanese army in China generally behaved honourably and the majority of Chinese deaths were inflicted by other Chinese and that China in 1937 was such a chaotic and backward nation that Japan did her a favour by invading her. Such revisionist opinions can distort and conceal historical realities but unfortunately they are quite fashionable nowadays, especially amongst westerners who twist history to suit present-day sensibilities (ie its okay to dislike China but not okay to dislike Japan so lets bend history so the latter comes out looking better). Thats why another revisionist theory has gained much ground in recent years, namely the one that claims that the USA was primarily responsible for starting the Pacific War and that Japan was merely defending itself. One recent Japanese war movie ‘To Those We Love’ about Kamikaze pilots in 1945 has, in addition to being disturbingly romaticized, one character utter the line ‘All we wanted was to make the Pacific free for all Asian peoples!’
    Such distortion of history, done to suit social and political agendas of the present-day, is a dangerous habit. Thats why we need historians like Iris Chang more than ever because she wasn’t afraid to face the historical truth and didn’t care about present-day taboos and sensibilities. RIP Ms Chang.

  10. ARS

    Wow, you write some amazing stuff. I wish I had discovered your blog sooner, lots of good articles.

    One thing I did want to mention is that while it is easy to demonize the Japanese for the atrocities that they most certainly did, no one remembers the American atrocities. While evidence to this day pretty much supports that anyone vanquished by the Americans in the Second World War was treated well afterwards, no one mentions the skeletons in the Americans’ and allies closets. This includes the bombings (though arguably they were necessary, more in Europe, read Adolf Galland’s First and the Last).

    However, one forgotten, embarassing and dark corner of American history which is curiously not taught in schools is the Filippino uprising after the Spanish American war. The tactics employed by the Americans were no different than what you mentioned above, and the American occupation and atrocities resulted in the death of about 1/8th the country’s population through either direct slaughter, or using hunger as a weapon. This was brought up to me by another history buff who has done a lot of reading, but I have yet to find a good book on this conflict, at least in English.

    Cheers!
    ARS

    • padresteve

      Attilio

      Thank you for your comments. I have covered the Japanese-American war and its atrocities in another article, War Without Mercy: Race, Religion, Ideology and Total War and the Philippine Campaign in some of my articles on counterinsurgency. The brutality of both wars is pretty unsettling.

      Blessings

      Steve+

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  12. Anon

    Its enough for me to hate japanese politics, morals and arrogance knowing that they experimented, dissected… ect humans of all ages and genders without anestetics! I detest their nation’s policies!!!

  13. Marcob

    hello

    Thank you for this information about the topic.
    I would like to say that I like the idea of using the internet as a source of information long lost in history and using this kind of forum to comment and discuss these kind of topics.
    But I don’t like the way some people start comparing atrocities throughout the world. Whatever background or reason, all of these atrocities are clusters of personal human tragedies. It doesn’t matter how many people were victims. What does matter is that we don’t accept these events as moral in our societ(y)(ies). The fact that I have to put these brackets on society is a result of the strange difference in captation of these kind of events in different societies (being different from a moral and political point of view). In fact how many reasons of why and how these things could happen is a good excercice to see if you a s an individual but part of your own society would seek for reasons, appologies, denile or ignorance to these kind of events in asking yourself if these events would be acceptable for you or not and cope with responsability for the pas, the present and the future of you’re society. And in reasoning one should not forget to ask the question: what if it was your own personal tragedy?

  14. Ken331

    Hello
    (Sorry for my poor English)
    Thank you for this article. Very informative.
    I watched a couple of videos about Nanking massacre and happened to find this blog. I still cannot judge this issue since my knowledge is little so far. I found some interesting facts that discouraged me to completely believe it really happened.
    1. The second photo of a baby is indeed Shanghai bombing, not Nanking. I don’t know whether intentionally or not, Iris Chang used the photo as an evidence of Nanking misleading her readers. Furthermore, the baby was filmed in the anti-Japan propaganda movie “Battle of China” too, that indicates the photo shooting was artfully staged.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIkrgOmsbVY (00:24:25)
    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%95%E3%82%A1%E3%82%A4%E3%83%AB:The_baby_setuped_by_Wang_s_staff.jpg
    2. According to my study, Nanking population was estimated 250,000 maximum when Japan entered the Nanking castle, while China insists 300,000 were killed in Nanking today.
    [Reported number of population].
    1937.12 150,000 (Lily Abegg)
    1937.12.10 200,000 (John Rabe)
    1937.12.13 JPN troops took control of Nanking
    1937.12.13 250,000 (Lewis Smyth)
    1937.12.17 200,000 (Harold J.Timperley)
    1938.1.10 150,000 (Life magazine)
    1938.1.13 200,000 (Paul Scharfenberg)
    1938.1.17 250,000 (Harold J.Timperley)
    1938.1.19 250,000 (John Rabe)
    1937.12-1938.2 CHN claims 300,000 were killed during this period
    1938.3.1 235,056 (Nanking special duty committee)
    1938.3 250,000 (Lewis Smyth)
    1938.8 308,546 (Ichiki Yoshimichi)
    1938.10 329,488 (Nanking city municipal committee)
    As you can see, it didn’t decrease, rather increased.
    3. If you study Japanese history, you’ll find that there was no such customs like hanging beheaded heads on trees, bayoneting children, killing unarmed people especially women and children, burying people alive, and sticking a bar into women’s genital. Never existed. However, China, on the other hand, had them at that time and still has.

    How could Japanese soldiers in (only) Nanking SUDDENLY come up those atrocious ideas when they have never had those customs and they had had only good reputations among westerners for their discipline until Nanking and elsewhere in the same period?

    I would be grateful if you could help me to resolve my questions.
    Thank you.

    • padresteve

      Same revisionist crap I have seen time and time again. Numbers are wrong and it happened. Just because you guys and the Chinese don’t get along doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I wish it wasn’t true that my ancestors were not complicit in the genocide against native Americans or slavery, but it happened. And the war record of the Japanese Imperial Army before and during WWII is full of similar treatment to others, not just Chinese. And by the way we Americans waged a brutal war against your country, many things not to be proud of, but they happened. That is the problem with looking in the mirror of history. At times what we see is very uncomfortable. Sorry to disagree with you so bluntly but trust me, I am right on this and I did read more that Iris Chang’s book to write this article.

      Thank you for commenting and if you want to see that I am honest read my article called War Without Mercy or any of my articles on King Phillip’s War or the Nazi era. This is not a hit job on the Japanese people, who I admire and lived among.

      Peace

      Padre Steve+

  15. You have very worthwhile points! p.s. nice web site.

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  17. Atrocities committed by the Japanese prior to, and during, World War II were extreme. After reading Gordon’s book In the Valley of the Kwai and Hornfisher’s book Ship of Ghosts, among others, Chang’s book is very believable. I don’t believe modern contemporary Japanese understand just how cruel the military government was during the 1930s and 1940s. Like Nazi Germany, there was an attitude of racial superiority that existed at that time. Koreans, Chinese, and other Asians were treated horrendously by the Japanese military.

    • padresteve

      So true David, I think that many contemporary Japanese having enjoyed almost 70 years of peace and prosperity, along with not getting the exposure to the crimes of their forefathers that the Germans got after the war just don’t understand.
      Peace, Steve+

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