In 1936, the League of Nations’ failure to prevent the Italian annexation of one of its members, Ethiopia, directly led to Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland and Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Between August and November 1937, nearly a million Nationalist Chinese and Imperial Japanese fought block by block and house by house for the city the Shanghai. Even though Shanghai was defended by Chiang Kai-Shek’s best troops, the Japanese were better trained and equipped, and their naval superiority allowed them to land anywhere on the coast they wished.
By the beginning of November, Shanghai was lost, and Chiang moved China’s capital to Nanking. Led by America, the Western nations were in talks to intervene to stop Japanese aggression, but the Japanese thought that the loss of Nanking would force the Chinese to surrender before that could happen. So to preclude Western intervention, Emperor Hirohito sent Prince Asaka to Japan’s Central China Area Army and ordered its commander Gen Iwane Matsui to immediately seize Nanking.
Matsui’s men made the 250 mile march in under a month. The speed of the Japanese advance and the incessant bombing by the Japanese air force prevented Chiang from consolidating a defense, and Matsui arrived outside the walls of Nanking on 9 December. The next day, he ordered his exhausted and worn, but so far victorious, troops for one last push, which he was sure would end the war. With the rising sun, Matsui’s entire army banzaied the Chinese defenses. Three days of brutal close quarters fighting and unremitting heavy artillery shattered the defending Chinese, who streamed back into Nanking. The jubilant Japanese followed close behind. And then the real chaos began.
Like all people who cannot see beyond the lens of race and ethnicity, the Imperial Japanese saw their adversaries as less than human. The Japanese had no ethical boundaries regarding the treatment of the Chinese civilians, and justified their increasingly brutal actions as if the Chinese somehow deserved it. In the six weeks after Asaka and Matsui overran Nanking, their troops engaged in both systematic and spontaneous mass acts of arson, murder, looting, rape, and other war crimes on a grand scale. Over 200,000 Chinese men, women, and children were killed, and afterwards, Westerners in the city were unable to find a Chinese female of any age who wasn’t under their personal protection who wasn’t raped multiple times.
Most Westerners fled the city before the final Japanese attack, but some did not. Those that remained formed the “International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone” ironically led by John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member. The Committee consisted of about 30 American and European missionaries, businessmen, and embassy staff. In anticipation of the fall of the city to the Japanese, they set up the Nanking Safety Zone in the Western end of the city, demarcated by Red Cross flags.
Rabe negotiated the Zone with Matsui through the radio on the American gunboat USS Panay, which the Japanese strafed and sank on 9 December while Rabe was on board. The survivors swam to shore, and the Panay Incident showed how far the Japanese would keep their word regarding the dealings with the West. Nevertheless, Matsui allowed the Safety Zone as long as there weren’t Chinese troops inside. The Japanese soldiers for all intents and purposes disregarded the Nanking Safety Zone, but fear of Western intervention prevented direct assaults on Rabe and the Committee members. It is through their accounts and photographs that we would even know of the Rape of Nanking today.
The Japanese did not believe that they would be held accountable for their actions, as long as they didn’t harm the Westerners. Small bands of Japanese soldiers roamed the city, looting, raping, and murdering along the way. All surrendering Chinese troops were taken outside the city and massacred. The worst incident occurred on 18 December, in the Straw String Massacre. The Japanese tied the arms of thousands of prisoners together, and laughed as the writhing mass frantically tried break free by ripping each other’s arms off as the Japanese slowly murdered them all for entertainment. 12,000 bodies were excavated later from “The Ten-Thousand-Corpse-Ditch” just outside the city. Ten of thousands more were murdered and thrown into the Yangtze River.
When the captured soldiers ran out, the Japanese continued with the civilians in the Safety Zone. Individual Committee members attempted to protect the Chinese, but they couldn’t be everywhere. Most times, the Japanese ignored them or even forced them to watch. The Japanese used the civilians as live targets on rifle ranges and bayonet courses. They forced the civilians to walk over mines to demonstrate their effectiveness, or doused them in petrol to see how long they would live before being consumed by the fire. Chinese were beheaded to prove the sharpness of their officer’s swords, or were buried alive for sport. Chinese corpses were piled high in the alleyways of the city. Mass graves were continually discovered for years afterwards.
The reports from Nanking convinced Chiang Kai-Shek that he was fighting for the very survival of his people, and his armies continued to fight the Japanese for the next seven years. But it would take a world war for justice to come to the people of Nanking. After Japan surrendered following the detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the separate Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal found Matsui and his subordinate commanders guilty of crimes against humanity. They were executed in 1946.
Asaka was not tried because he was a member of the Japanese Imperial family. As part of Japan’s surrender in 1945, MacArthur implied that the Japanese Emperor and his immediate family would not be tried for war crimes, and protected the Imperial family in order to prevent a bloody insurgency in post war Japan. Even in the 20th century (and the 21st for that matter), the aristocracy seems to have its privileges.