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Nanking Atrocities - Introduction

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  1. From Marco Polo Bridge to Nanking
  2. Focal Points of the Nanking Atrocities Today

Click here to see female refugees moving one camp to another in search of safety.
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This footage is filmed by an American missionary, John Magee. The film, titled China Invaded, is in the custody of the National Archives.

Battle of Shanghai

Close combat in the city of Shanghai. Photo used by P. R. Dept. of the China Expeditionary Force of Japan.

Precipitated by a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops at Lugouqiao (Lu-kou-ch'iao), or the Marco Polo Bridge, on the outskirts of Beijing on July 7, 1937, the bilateral conflict between the two nations developed into a full-scale war.

During the early stage of the "North China Incident," the Imperial forces of Japan quickly captured major cities in northern China and advanced southward.

By mid-August the mutual hostility, which had been growing since Japan's conquest of Manchuria in 1932 and the subsequent formation of the puppet Manchukuo regime, inevitably goaded the two countries into another war in central China as well, involving one of the most developed, international cities in Asia, Shanghai.

At this point the Second Sino-Japanese War that eventually bogged down the two neighboring countries in a bloody, eight-year-long war became irreversible.

Having tasted easy victories in northern China, the Japanese Army and Navy apparently underestimated the Chinese troops in Shanghai, but that expectation soon proved to be a wrong one.

That August the Japanese troops found themselves at a major standstill as they encountered stern resistance by the Chinese main forces, while the Japanese government clung to the hope that the Chinese forces could be easily subdued.

Japanese troops marching about 12 miles (20 km) north of Shanghai.

House-to-house fighting broke out, bombs detonated in the war-shattered city and naval gunfire backed up the infantry units. Both sides continuously reinforced their troops in order to make up their losses.

The war in Shanghai was indeed a decisive battle that caused both sides exorbitant damages, left them with a deep-rooted loathing for each other, and begot vengeance.

Many historians today say the Battle of Shanghai nurtured the psychological conditions for Japanese soldiers to go on a berserk rampage in Nanking later on.

A sergeant from the Amadani Detachment of Japan's 11th Division, for instance, described what he saw when the unit made a landing at Wusong on September 3. His postwar memoirs partly read:

I crawled up onto the embankment at Wusong and beheld the sight of perdition. It was brutal. A bloodbath in the battlefield of Ashura [a demon who is eternally fighting] couldn't have been merciless like this. As far as my eyes could see, there was corpse after corpse on top of the embankment, heaps of which covered the entire ground.

The bodies of thousands of soldiers were all piled up in a jumble just like blue-fin tuna in a market. A nauseating stench of death assailed my nostrils. This was what had become of the officers and men of the 3rd Division from Nagoya.... They must have been mowed down the moment they landed. These soldiers must have died without knowing what was happening to them....

Due to the decay of the internal organs, all the bodies were in ferment and swollen up, and the soft parts of the bodies had gushed out by pressure, such as the eyeballs bulging five or six centimeters [about 2 inches] out of their faces.

The fierce battle in Shanghai ended in mid-November when a successful landing of Japan's 10th Army at Hangzhou Bay in the south, and of the 16th Division at Baimaokou in the north, threatened the Chinese forces' flank and forced them to withdraw to the west. The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo, which had been concerned about the exhausted troops and their declining military discipline, decided not to expand the war front any further.

Japanese troops marching toward Nanking.

However, on November 19, the 10th Army led by Lieutenant General Yanagawa Heisuke cabled to the Headquarters, "The group [the 10th Army] commanded [its troops] to put on a spurt in pursuit [of the retreating Chinese] to Nanking."

The second in command of General Staff, Lieutenant General Tada Shun, was surprised to receive the message. He immediately ordered a stop to the arbitrary act, which turned out to be of no avail.

Three days later, the Central China Area Army (CCAA) that supervised the 10th Army also sent a report that emphasized the necessity to attack Nanking. On December 1, 1937, the Imperial Headquarters, which had just been established as the highest authority on strategic matters in the "China Incident" in late November, finally ordered the CCAA to capture "the capital of the enemy state."

Meanwhile the Imperial Headquarters reappointed General Matsui Iwane as the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army and newly appointed Lieutenant General Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, Emperor Hirohito's uncle, to take command of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force that made up the CCAA along with the 10th Army.

From Shanghai to Nanking

When the Imperial Headquarters gave ex post facto, or retroactive, approval to the CCAA on December 1, 1937, both the 10th Army and the Shanghai Expeditionary Force had already been marching westward, heading for the capital city of Nanking, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) northwest of Shanghai.

As yet, there was no declaration of war, for Japan feared that such a declaration would activate the Neutrality Act of the United States, which would unavoidably result in a suspension of trade on raw materials for munitions and other war supplies. The ambiguity of the war aim and the unexpected expansion of the conflict made the Japanese troops restless both physically and mentally.

Japanese troops heading toward Nanking.

The CCAA held a number of army reserves who had wives and families back home. When the prolonged battle of Shanghai was finally over, those exhausted soldiers had hoped of going home.

When ordered to advance westward instead of crossing the Sea of Japan, the Imperial Army soldiers began wreaking their inflamed animosities on Chinese soldiers and civilians throughout their march to Nanking, which, according to many historians, was a prelude to the massive atrocities that would later take place in Nanking.

In his memoirs, journalist Matsumoto Shigeharu, the Shanghai bureau chief of Domei News Agency, recalled a circulating rumor among his colleagues. "The reason that the Yanagawa Corps [the 10th Army] is advancing [to Nanking] quite rapidly is due to the tacit consent among the officers and men that they could loot and rape as they wish."

A novelist, Ishikawa Tatsuzo, vividly described how the 16th Division of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force committed atrocities on the march between Shanghai and Nanking in his fictional novel, Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers], for which he interviewed the troops in the vanquished city in January 1938 (see also The Reign of Terror I: What Japanese Journalists Witnessed).

The Imperial Army swiftly rushed toward the ancient city in parallel formation. By December 8, columns of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and the 10th Army converged from the east and south, taking over the pivotal Chinese defense.

On December 9, while its troops surrounding the walled city, Japanese airplanes dropped leaflets to urge China's Defense Commander Tang Sheng-chi to capitulate within 24 hours. The leaflet was written under the name of the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army, General Matsui Iwane, in both Japanese and Chinese. Part of it read:

The Japanese Army would be kind and generous to innocent civilians and to Chinese troops with no sign of enmity, but would be relentlessly enraged by those who resist. If we do not receive any response by the deadline, the Japanese Army has no choice but begin attacking Nanking.

Japanese troops entering the suburbs of Nanking.

General Tang rejected the ultimatum by commanding his troops to throw in their lots with the city and by forbidding them to retreat.

Meanwhile, remaining Westerners in the walled city, who had created the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, also contacted Tang and suggested a plan for three-day cease-fire, during which the Chinese troops could withdraw without fighting while the Japanese troops would stay in their present position (see also The Reign of Terror II: The Safety Zone and American Missionaries).

Tang agreed with this proposal if the International Committee could acquire permission of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who had already fled to Hankow where he temporarily shifted the military headquarters two days earlier.

A German businessman and the chairman of the International Committee, John Rabe, boarded the U.S. gunboat Panay on Dec. 9 and sent two telegrams, one to Chiang Kai-shek by way of the American ambassador in Hankow, and one to the Japanese military authority in Shanghai. The next day he was informed that Chiang Kai-shek, who once ordered Nanking be defended "to the last man," had refused to accept the proposal.

At around 12 o'clock on December 10, outside of Zhongshan Gate in the eastern wall, a senior officer on the Japanese general staff, Colonel Muto Akira, and others were waiting for a Chinese envoy. If the Nanking Defense Army was to accept Japan's "exhortation of capitulation," the envoy should appear at the gate at noon.

"I felt personally responsible because I translated it, so I was hoping to see an envoy with a flag of truce," translator Okada was quoted as saying by a historian, "but no one showed up even ten minutes past noon." At one o'clock, Matsui commanded his troops to launch an all-out attack on the walled city of Nanking.

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