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(JAPAN'S WAR against CHINA and the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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JAPAN'S WAR against CHINA and the SOVIET UNION (3 of 4)

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The Rape of Nanjing

Hirohito was unhappy about the fighting in China, while his military was reporting that it foresaw control over the Chinese as just around the corner. The Japanese continued to call the war that had erupted an incident, while Chiang Kai-shek was appealing to the League of Nations for help. On October 6, 1937, the League condemned the Japanese action in China, but little help was offered China. From the United States, China received little more than sympathy, and Britain in 1937 was pursuing its policy of timidity, some believing that coercive measures against Japan would drive it closer to Germany and Italy.

The Japanese landed troops at Hankow in a move to outflank Chinese forces around Shanghai. Chinese forces around Shanghai began to withdraw toward Nanjing, and Chiang Kai-shek's government in Nanjing withdrew to Chongqing (Chungking) in Sichuan province deep in China's interior, leaving behind in the east a political vacuum to be filled by Communists.

In November, as the Japanese were pushing toward Nanjing, their exuberance for attack led to air and artillery assaults against US and British gunboats on the Yangtze River. The USS Panay, with American diplomats aboard fleeing Nanjing, sank, and American military men died.

Memorial in Nanjing

Nanjing memorial, today

In advancing toward Nanjing, the Japanese were setting fires and killing civilians. Their airforce was bombing densely populated cities. By December 7, the Japanese were at Nanjing's outer defenses, and on December 13 Nanjing fell to the Japanese, with Chinese soldiers fleeing from the city or rushing to change into civilian clothes.

The advancing Japanese soldiers blamed the war on the Chinese, and seeing themselves as doing right by their God they were outraged that Chinese soldiers were trying to kill them – although that is what soldiers were supposed to do. The Japanese soldiers in China were depicting the Chinese as monsters – while the Chinese were depicting the Japanese as devils.

Now would occur what has been called the "Rape of Nanjing." Japan was a society that put a high premium on accommodation and good behavior. Japanese men were no more inherently violent than men of any other nationalities, and as elsewhere recruits into the military were taught to respect brutality. Soldiers who entered units in combat might have been appalled when first introduced to killing, but wanting to measure up to the level of the experienced men around them they struggled to overcome their squeamish respect for the humanity of the enemy. And when occupying Nanjing they were given freedom to act as they pleased against a people whom they had come to despise.

At first it was the Chinese soldiers whom the Japanese victimized. The Japanese were concerned about Chinese soldiers in the city who were masquerading as civilians. Anyone whose appearance, including hand calluses or other markings that suggested they were soldiers, were rounded up and executed. In Nanjing, the Japanese engaged in an orgy of looting and raping. The Japanese soldiers had cameras and forced women to expose themselves – creating evidence of their actions that would remain into the twenty-first century. Common soldiers felt a new power over women – the kind of power dreamed of by some adolescents or ineffectual men, including those attracted by the covers of magazines as late as the 1950s that depicted a man with some instrument of violence (pistol, rope, et cetera) in the presence of a helpless woman.

John Rabe

John Rabe. Hero to the Chinese people. In Germany under occupation authorities he was persecuted for having been a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.

The outrages continued for two months. Members of the international community in Nanjing lodged protests with the Japanese embassy in Nanjing and did what they could to help the Chinese. A leader among them was a German, John Rabe, who had been working in Nanjing for an electronics corporation: Siemens. He was a National Socialist. Wearing his swastika armband for effect, Rabe moved onto rape scenes and commanded that the rapes be halted. And the Japanese soldiers obeyed. Rabe did everything he could to stop the rape and carnage in Nanjing, and his statue now stands in the city as a tribute to his efforts.

China describes 300,000 civilians and soldiers as having died in the spree of killing, rape and destruction during the six weeks that had followed Japan's military having entered Nanjing. One American author, Iris Chang, has estimated the number of Chinese killed in this period as 260,000. The historian Jonathan Spence estimates that 42,000 soldiers and citizens were killed and 20,000 women raped.

Whatever the figure, news of the atrocities in Japan during the war was suppressed. Foreign publications were thoroughly censored before being allowed into Japan, and there were no radio broadcasts from abroad trying to bypass Japanese censorship. Neither Hirohito nor the public at large had substantial knowledge about the atrocities at Nanjing. There was little respect in Japan for the benefits of a free and unbiased press. Pride reigned with the theme that criticism was not needed and that Japan's soldiers were liberating a thankful Chinese people.

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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