Four Years Before the Internments

I wrote about Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai-shek recently. There is a grim incident that ties into the Japanese internments and Chiang Kai-shek that shaped the attitudes of millions for decades. It is STILL a sore spot in international relations.

It began when the Japanese decided to conquer large parts of China again in 1937, as they’d done many times. They assumed that this would be easy; experience had taught them that the Chinese put up little effective resistance. But there was a new opponent they had not counted on: Sun Yat Sen’s brilliant protegé, now a military commander of considerable ability.

The armies collided, with huge numbers on the side of the Japanese. Instead of the few weeks they anticipated to take their usual large swath of the country, they fought a miserable, slogging war just to get to Shanghai. But the Japanese really wanted the new capital of the young Chinese republic, Nanking — so the Japanese pushed on. Ultimately, they prevailed, and Chiang Kai-shek was forced to retreat, leaving behind a force of some 100,000 defenders.

But the Japanese were by this time enraged. When they marched into Nanking in December 1937 over the resistance of the last defenders (more than 90,000 men and boys), they first slaughtered every single one of these Chinese soldiers. They used them for bayonet practice, knife practice, torture practice; the goal was to remove any trace of feelings of mercy for these less-than-human adversaries. They burned them alive, or cut them into pieces — all the while taking movies and pictures, which leaked out to a frankly disbelieving West.

Just to give you a sense of the scale of this: More soldiers died in those few days than all the US soldiers that died in every war the US was involved in since World War II, combined. This doesn’t even count the previous battles — these were soldiers who had already surrendered. But this was only the beginning.

Chiang Kai-shek could not credit the stories of how bad this was — or the next act of the invaders, which was to go after the Nanking women with the same ferocity, this time adding mass rape into the mix. Some large number of women — somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 ranging from age 8 to 70 — were methodically hunted, raped, then stabbed to death over the course of a few weeks. Pregnant women were cut open to remove the unborn, then raped. For variation and sport, they forced the Chinese to rape each other — their daughters, mothers, sisters — while the rest of the family watched.

Women deemed suitable were simply kept as sex-slaves. The rest, when dealing with all the dead, were forced to dig graves for themselves and others, then bury each other alive. Most did not even make it to graves; dead bodies were piled everywhere and the streets literally ran with the blood of thousands killed every day.

A Japanese newspaper kept a running tally of how many Nanking unfortunates had been personally beheaded by two Japanese officers, as part of a national vicarious participation in the competition between them. The public expressed concern — that the officers’ arms would get tired.

Some brave Chinese attempted to rebel, with modest effect. So the Japanese then did something a little different: They distributed huge amounts of opium to the populace, quelling any possible rebellion.

A few Americans and Europeans — a total of 20 of them — were trapped in Nanking, and horrified at the actions of the occupying force. They did something of incredible bravery: they staked out a rectangular zone in the center of the city and declared it an international zone, forbidding the Japanese entrance.

This only worked, in 1938, because the Japanese were torn between respect/fear of the West, a burgeoning alliance with Nazi Germany, and a desire not to draw the Americans into a private war they were having with China. They let this little marked-off space exist — and 300,000 Chinese jammed into it. Soon, these were almost the only people in Nanking left alive.

It is hard to imagine the psychology that allowed this stunt to work, considering what else that same force was willing to do to the citizens.

But now Chiang Kai-shek had regrouped, and returned, and fought to free the surviving prisoners. Though his force was small, and he was simultaneously dealing with communists in other battles, he kept up the pressure on the Japanese in Nanking.

He ultimately won, and the Japanese were forced to surrender. This was a great blow to Japanese pride … but then a peculiar request came: Could they actually wait a few days to formally surrender? Chiang Kai-shek did not actually have enough men to deal with the soon-to-be liberated prisoners, and had reinforcements on the way. If he exposed his small force, it was likely that the Japanese would simply slaughter them in the town.

Those days cost more lives inside, but it could not be helped.

In the meantime, a social phenomenon was developing across the world. The photos taken, and the early film reels made by the Japanese conquerors, continued to make their way into Western media — but not into the newsreels of the day. They were too horrible. Over the next couple of years, they became better known in the West. Anti-Japanese sentiment was already strong prior to World War II, as evidenced by Canadian and US laws explicitly aimed at denying Japanese Americans property and business rights. The “Rape of Nanking” as this was quickly called inflamed these sentiments further.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, only four years after the Japanese marched into Nanking with bloody swords, the Canadian and American public was prepared to think the worst. Yes, it was a sort of xenophobia, but nothing in the American experience could prepare them for the idea of Nanking’s fate — and it was actually worse than they knew, or could imagine.

The death toll was never determined for certain, but was somewhere in the broad vicinity of a quarter-million people. There are people in Japan, still, that deny that this ever happened: It was just a military battle, and there are always the occasional civilian casualties.

They have a hard time explaining the articles at the time from Japan’s embedded reporters, the pictures, the film clips … and the articles celebrating the grisly beheading contest, which has its own Wikipedia entry. The two soldiers involved were later executed for war crimes, but this seems odd considering how many were involved.

There’s more information visible here.

And three-quarters of a century later, if you type “rape” into Google, the first choice it offers to complete the line is “… of Nanking.”

But for decades, one country’s people did not know about these events: That country was Japan. This story got buried in history, and it did not surface again until 1971, a third of a century later. Among the people who didn’t believe it: the families of the two executed soldiers in the contest. Finally, in 2003, they sued various media for defamation. Since the officers themselves had bragged about their own roles later (including the detail that less than 5 percent of those killed had been in battle), the suit was thrown out.

One of the Europeans trapped in the capital city was a Nazi businessman named John Rabe, who was as horrified as the others — and he was instrumental in setting up that safety zone. His diary eventually became a movie that came out only two years ago: John Rabe.

To this day, there are still arguments about whether the Rape of Nanking ever took place. I’ve looked at material from both sides over the years, and to those trying to suggest that this was all fabricated and that nothing really bad happened, I must ironically say: “No contest.”

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • @Pascvaks:

    I’ve tried to amplify a bit here in response:

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Pingback: Why was Japan so ruthless in Nanking? «

  • I don’t have a “why,” exactly. There was a long history (hundreds of years) of Japan’s proud and fierce warriors taking as much of China as they wanted — and Korea, too.

    Let me expand on this a bit. I think I can get to the atomic bombs from here.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Pascvaks

    There are many seemingly inexplicable atrosities by the participants of war. For Americans, the Japanese hatred and treatment of the Chinese and the German hatred and treatment of the Jews, Gypsies, and East Europeans, during WWII, stand out as the most inexplicable. They were certainly the most horendous. If you find something that you feel answers the “Why?” of Japan, please post. (Maybe you already have; if so would like to read it.) Thanks!