The Japanese invasion of China in 1937

Having already seized and annexed China's Manchurian region (1931) and Jehol province (1933), the Japanese were waiting for a pretext to invade and occupy the whole of China. That pretext came in July 1937, when tensions between Chinese troops and Japanese troops engaged in military exercises on occupied Chinese territory produced an exchange of firing near Peking (now Beijing). The Japanese used this incident as an excuse to wage all out war against China.

Chinese at Nanking (now known as Nanjing) are being buried alive by grinning Japanese troops who are competing with each other to invent new and more horrible ways to kill Chinese whom they regarded as sub-human. This photograph was taken by a Japanese and processed in a Japanese-owned photographic shop. A Chinese photographic technician made copies that were smuggled out of China.

Japanese armies invaded China's northern provinces and quickly captured the ancient Chinese capital Peking (now called Beijing). In the conduct of this war, the Japanese adopted a policy of deliberate savagery in the expectation that it would break the will of the Chinese to resist. Although poorly trained and equipped, the Chinese army and communist irregulars put up strong resistance to Japan's armies which enjoyed overwhelming superiority in numbers, training, and weapons. The Japanese troops responded to Chinese resistance to their invasion by embarking on an orgy of murder, rape, and looting that shocked the civilised world at that time, although it has now been largely forgotten in many Western countries where the rigorous teaching of history is becoming a neglected discipline.

While fighting was continuing in northern China, the Japanese launched a second front at the city of Shanghai on the eastern coast of China. Despite determined resistance by Chinese Nationalist troops, the Japanese captured Shanghai in November, 1937. As if to make an exhibition of their brutality to the Western world, the Japanese marched hundreds of Chinese prisoners of war down to the Bund, or river bank, and slaughtered them by machine-gun in full view of horrified observers aboard foreign ships moored in the river. Having captured Shanghai, the Japanese were then able to move up the Yangtze River and lay siege to the Nationalist capital Nanking (now called Nanjing).

It is not possible to document here the full extent of the horrors experienced by China at the hands of the Japanese between 1937 and 1945. Those who are interested in a detailed treatment of this terrible episode in China's history will find it in the books of Lord Russell of Liverpool, Iris Chang and Laurence Rees that are mentioned at the end of this chapter. I will mention here only the Rape of Nanking (now called the Nanjing Massacre) which is the best documented of Japanese atrocities in China owing to the presence of Western observers who were eyewitnesses to the mass slaughter, rape and looting that the Japanese inflicted on the unfortunate population of the Chinese capital.

The Japanese murder, rape, loot, and burn in Nanking (Nanjing) 1937

The Japanese were infuriated by the strength of Chinese resistance, and when China's Nationalist capital Nanking fell in December 1937, Japanese troops immediately slaughtered thousands of Chinese soldiers who had surrendered to them. The Japanese then rounded up about twenty thousand young Chinese men and transported them in trucks outside the city walls where they were killed in a massive slaughter. Japanese troops were then encouraged by their officers to loot Nanking, and slaughter and rape the Chinese population of the city.

For six weeks, life for the Chinese in Nanking became a nightmare. Bands of drunken Japanese soldiers roamed the city, murdering, raping, looting, and burning at whim. Chinese civilians who were stopped on the street, and found to possess nothing of value, were immediately killed. At least twenty thousand Chinese women were raped in Nanking during the first four weeks of the Japanese occupation, and many were mutilated and killed when the Japanese troops were finished with them.

The Japanese troops were encouraged by their officers to invent ever more horrible ways to slaughter the Chinese population of the city. When the bodies of murdered Chinese choked the streets and the gutters ran red with their blood, the Japanese were forced to refine their methods of slaughter in the interest of preventing the spread of disease. Batches of Chinese civilians were rounded up and herded into slaughter pits. Here the grinning Japanese soldiers would either bury them alive, hack them to death with their swords, use them for bayonet practice, or pour petrol on the victims and burn them alive. The bodies of thousands of victims of the slaughter were dumped into the Yangtze River until the river was red with their blood. After looting Nanking of anything of value, the Japanese started fires that gutted one third of the city.

Independent foreign observers of the Rape of Nanking, including a German businessman and Nazi Party member named John Rabe, were appalled to see Chinese civilians, both men and women, the elderly, and tiny children, put to death by Japanese troops with horrifying brutality. Rabe tried to save as many Chinese as he could by creating a safety zone on his estate. He appealed to Adolf Hitler to intervene, but the Nazi leader rebuffed his appeal. Convincing independent proof of the horrifying scale of the Japanese massacre at Nanking emerged in 1996 with the publication of John Rabe's diary record of the massacre.

Japanese soldiers appeared to be quite willing to be photographed with raised swords beside their intended victims, in the act of bayoneting their victims, and posing with their dead victims in the slaughter pits. The atrocities committed by Japanese troops at Nanking were widely publicised by foreign observers, including newspaper correspondents. When the Japanese high command became aware of the full scope of the horror perpetrated by Japanese troops at Nanking, it went to considerable lengths to destroy evidence of the atrocity.

Iris Chang gives a very detailed account of the extent and appalling nature of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking in her book "The Rape of Nanking" (published 1997). The horrifying photographs in her book survived the attempt by the Japanese high command to cover up the Nanking atrocities because the perpetrators entrusted the "happy snaps" recording their vile behaviour to a Japanese-owned photographic shop in Shanghai for processing. A Chinese employee secretly made extra copies and smuggled them out of China.

CAUTION: Iris Chang's excellent history of the Rape of Nanking contains very disturbing text and photographs. This web-site does not recommend that it be read by young children.

The judges of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials) were prepared to accept that at least 200,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the Japanese in the six weeks after Nanking fell. The judges were also prepared to accept that the death toll would be much higher if estimates of the number of Chinese burned alive by the Japanese in mass slaughter pits and bodies dumped in the river were added. Non-Japanese historians are prepared to accept that the slaughter at Nanking could have reached as high as 370,000 victims.

The appalling brutality displayed by Japanese troops at Nanking was by no means unique. It has been estimated by historians that several million Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were murdered in the course of Japan's undeclared war on China between 1937 and 1945.

Despite photographic and independent eyewitness evidence, the Japanese government still refuses to acknowledge or permit Japanese schoolchildren to be told the full story of the slaughter, rape and looting that took place at Nanking in 1937. In recent years, the Japanese government has made a small concession to the weight of international and local criticism of this censorship by permitting brief and vague references in history textbooks to the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing Massacre), but the atrocities are described as the "Nanjing Incident" and the text suggests that the victims died during the battle for the city, and not in a horrifying massacre that took place during the six weeks that followed the fall of the city to the Japanese.

Even these small concessions to historical truth are now coming under attack in Japan from militarists and neo-nationalists. The neo-nationalists, who include Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, prominent members of Japan's parliament, and senior academics such as Professor Nobukatsu Fujioka of Tokyo University, believe that these concessions have gone too far, and that school textbooks should be censored to delete all references to Japanese war guilt and atrocities, and to instil national pride rather than shame.

Students of history interested in pursuing this aspect of a particularly brutal war may wish to examine the books and web-sites listed at the end of this chapter.