The Rape of History: Nanking and Japanese Denial

by J. R.

A student essay from Dr. Elliot Neaman's History 210 class (historical methods - fall 2002)

© Elliot Neaman / PHDN
Reproduction interdite par quelque moyen que ce soit / no reproduction allowed

Probably the most infamous event in recent world history is the Holocaust.  When most people think of the Holocaust, they think of the most evil capable of humanity: the murder of 6 million people in Europe in Nazi extermination camps, simply because they were Jewish.  However, for a marginal segment of the population, the term "Holocaust" is associated with lies spread by the Jewish community.  These people are referred to as "Holocaust deniers" because they deny the three things that make the Holocaust so horrific:  that an estimated 6 million Jews were killed, that the Nazis had the intention to kill all Jews, and that the extermination program was technical and organized, including the use of gas chambers and crematoria.  Holocaust deniers claim to be true historians, but their beliefs are most often motivated by an anti-Jewish agenda.  Their attempt at historical revisionism is not valid because it is not done for legitimate reasons:  deniers distort facts, citing those that will support their ideology, while ignoring the opposing facts.  In similar ways, anyone with a political agenda can misrepresent facts for their own purposes. 

While most people associate World War II with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the war was just as strong in the East.  Japan, led by Emperor Hirohito, was very militaristic and imperialistic, much like Germany.  In 1931, Japan invaded the Manchuria Region of China, thus beginning the Sino-Japanese War.  During its occupation of China and other areas of Asia, the Japanese military is reported to have committed many atrocities.  One specific period of Japanese occupation that was particularly brutal was the six-week occupation of Nanking in 1937.  The occupation of Nanking has become known as the "Rape of Nanking" among the Chinese.  The topic today is still a sensitive issue in Japan, and is not recognized as a massacre, or even an extreme act of violence.  In Japan, the Nanking Massacre is a lie; much like how Holocaust deniers believe the Holocaust is a lie.  My purpose is to demonstrate that Japan has misrepresented the facts related to the occupation of Nanking, China, in 1937.   To do this, I will critically analyze the arguments given in the recent Nanking denial publication, The Alleged "Nanking Massacre":  Japan"s Rebuttal to China"s Forged Claims, and the opposing arguments presented in The Rape of Nanking:  The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

How and why is it that the Nanking deniers have been so successful in ensuring that the Nanking Massacre is not widely known?  Why has Germany acknowledged the crimes of the Nazis, and paid wartime reparations, whereas Japan has not done the same?  These are important questions to ask in investigating the denial of the Nanking Massacre.  It is the duty of historians to refute denial movements so that historical lies are not spread.   

In her book, The Rape of Nanking:  The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Iris Chang argues that the "People"s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and even the United States had all contributed to the historical neglect" of the Nanking Massacre "for reasons deeply rooted in the Cold War."[1]  She further states that it was the threat of Communism that played a major role in neglecting the Nanking Massacre for what it was:

After the 1949 Communist revolution in China, neither the People"s Republic of  China nor the Republic of China demanded wartime reparations from Japan (as Israel had from Germany) because the two governments were competing for Japanese trade and political recognition.  And even the United States, faced with the threat of communism in the Soviet Union and mainland China, sought to ensure the friendship and loyalty of its former enemy, Japan.  In this manner, Cold War tensions permitted Japan to escape much of the intense critical examination that its wartime ally was forced to undergo.[2]

Because it had escaped wartime scrutiny from the United States and other countries, Japan has not come to terms with its war crimes, thereby disrespecting its victims.  Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking because she believes it is time for Japan to recognize its massacre in Nanking.  Acknowledging the massacre in Nanking will help to make Japan a better country, in that:

Germany is today a better place because Jews have not allowed that country to forget what it did nearly sixty years ago.  The American South is a better place for its acknowledgement of the evil of slavery and the one hundred years of Jim Crowism that followed emancipation.  Japanese culture will not move forward until it too admits not only to the world but to itself how improper were its actions of just a century ago.[3]

The Deniers" Explanation of Nanking:

The deniers of the Nanking Massacre often begin by presenting Japan as having "no intention of starting the war against China,"[4] the Sino-Japanese War.  They even claim that the Japanese government offered a peace proposal in August of 1937.  However, the war was expanded to Shanghai, as "the Japanese Army continued to suffer from the enemy suppression."[5]  Eventually, most of the Chinese Army withdrew from Shanghai and moved to Nanking.  In order to protect the citizens of the city, the "International Committee of the Nanking Safety Zone," organized by John Rabe, requested that Nanking be declared a safety zone that should not be attacked.  The Japanese Army did not accept the request because the Chinese Army had ignored it by "hiding themselves inside the zone."[6]  The Japanese Army then attacked Nanking on December 1, 1937, and by the thirteenth had announced "complete occupation of the city of Nanking."[7]  The Japanese claimed to find Chinese troops dressed as civilians, but still armed, and so the Japanese Army was ordered to "capture the "male and youth" suspected of being soldiers," and still "treat "all the citizens" with courtesy."[8]  This story of the occupation of Nanking does not mention the murder of Chinese soldiers or ordinary citizens, and presents the Chinese Army as threatening to the Japanese Army.

How many Chinese were "murdered" in the Nanking Massacre?

One reason why the Japanese do not recognize the Nanking Massacre is because the number of victims is "controversial."[9]  In their book, The Alleged "Nanking Massacre":  Japan"s Rebuttal to China"s Forged Claims, two Japanese university professors, Tado Takemoto and Yasuo Ohara, use a chart to compare the extremes in the numbers of supposed victims of the "Nanking Massacre."  Their chart shows a low of 49 victims claimed in documents from the Nanking Safety Zone in 1938, and a high of 340,000 claimed by the Nanking District Court in 1946.[10]    The authors believe that since there is no agreement on the number of victims, the claims that the Nanking occupation resulted in a massacre do not make sense.  In addition, they claim that the high of 300,000 could not have happened because the population of Nanking when the battle began was "no more than 250,000."[11]  They also state that such a high amount of victims would have required the 1,600 soldiers of the Japanese army to kill an average of 38,000 people a day, which they claim would have required "53 facilities like the ones in Auschwitz."[12]  Of the 190,000 bodies that were completely burned after murder, the authors say, "who could believe such incredible testimonies that 190,000 corpses left no traces?"[13] 

What about eyewitnesses to the "massacre"?

Nanking deniers question eyewitness testimony to the Nanking Massacre.  The deniers are particularly unconvinced by the testimony of Lu Su, who claimed that on the night of December 16, the Japanese Army took 57,418 refugees and soldiers into custody, bound them to one another with wire, and ordered them to form four columns and walk in a straight line.  The army then shot the refugees with machine-guns.  Afterwards, the army poured kerosene onto the bodies and set them afire; the burnt corpses were then thrown into the Yangtze River.  Takemoto and Ohara argue that it would be nearly impossible to count the "exact number of 57,418 victims in the dark night."  In addition, they believe it would have taken a considerable amount of time for the Japanese soldiers to bind the people together, giving the Chinese time to show resistance.  Furthermore, they argue that throughout the entire process of the "massacre" Lu Su claims to have witnessed, there should have been at least one more witness, but there is not. 

Western witnesses to the "massacre" are also questionable.  The Alleged "Nanking Massacre" states that an indictment claimed a "hundred westerners, who consisted of diplomats, journalists and missionaries from Europe and the U.S., witnessed and reported the massacre on an international scale."  Takemoto and Ohara point out that none of the westerners who reported the so-called "massacre" claimed that 300,000 were murdered; rather the highest number reported was 60,000.[14]  The 60,000 figure was reported by John Rabe, Chairman of the Safety Zone Committee, and to Takemoto and Ohara is not a valid number because in the same year, Rabe had claimed three other numbers as the total killed in the massacre in Nanking:  he reported to the German Embassy on January 14, 1938, that "thousands" were killed; to the British Embassy on January 28, 1938, that "hundreds" were killed; in the Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone, only 49 total; and finally reported to Hitler on June 8, 1938, that "from 50,000 to 60,000" were killed.[15]  The authors claim that there were really only fifteen westerners who stayed in Nanking from the fall in December until January, when the "massacre" took place.  These fifteen westerners were members of the Safety Zone Committee, and it was "clearly" proven in testimonies that they had never witnessed "illegal murders by the Japanese soldiers at all."[16] 

What about the corpses piled in Nanking streets?

Nanking deniers claim that the "corpses in Nanking did not necessarily prove that there existed illegal murders on a large scale by Japanese soldiers."[17]  Takemoto and Ohara give a few examples of possible reasons why dead bodies were found in Nanking, and how their presence does not point to massacre.  First, they highlight the fact that there had been many corpses in Nanking before the Japanese occupation of the city.  They cite the German correspondent Lily Abegg"s account, Escape from Nanking:  Our Last Days in China"s Capital, dated November 29, 1937, in which she states that in Nanking, "the corpses emitted a horrible stench, polluting the air."[18]  Secondly, Takemoto and Ohara claim that the Chinese Army had a special organization known as the "Supervising Unit."  The soldiers in this unit were to shoot any soldiers who tried to escape from the front line,"[19] which would account for the corpses in the street.  They also claim that beginning December 7, 1937, the Nanking Garrison began to "shot to kill all of those who seemed suspicious, at random," to "maintain public order."  In sum, Takemoto and Ohara, as well as other Nanking deniers, present the presence of corpses in Nanking as the responsibility of the Chinese Army, not the Japanese.

Did the Japanese Army intentionally plan the murder of Chinese civilians?

Takemoto and Ohara claim that murder of Chinese civilians was not an order given to the Japanese Army.  They argue, "if the massacre of 300,000 persons had been planned, systematic planning procedures would have been necessary.  If so, there must have been many official documents regarding mobilization plans through operation plans.  However, no such documents were presented as evidence." [20]  Furthermore, they believe "Japan had no motive for conducting the mass killing of the Chinese citizens;" therefore there was no "polity to exterminate the Chinese."[21]  The authors also state that because 65% of Japan"s import was from the United States and Europe, "the Japanese government had to absolutely avoid unnecessary and unlawful acts" that would threaten trade.[22]  The overall impression given by Nanking deniers is that any murders that did occur were by individual soldiers who were disobedient to the orders of the Japanese military.

Did the Japanese Army rape Chinese women?

At the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, it was reported that the number of rapes during the Japanese occupation of Nanking was 20,000, but Takemoto and Ohara argue that none of the evidence at the trial actually pointed to a total of 20,000 women raped.[23]  They claim that the Japanese Army did not even have access to Chinese women, because women were only found in the Safety Zone, which the Japanese Army was prohibited entry into.[24]  Only one special group, the 1,600 soldiers of the 7th Regiment, were admitted into the Safety Zone.  To Nanking deniers, this means that large-scale rape could not have happened.[25]       

Iris Chang"s Explanation of Nanking:

Iris Chang"s representation of the Sino-Japanese War is quite opposite that of the deniers of Nanking, as she does not present Japan as unwilling to go to war.  Rather, she describes the "path to Nanking"[26] as a culture of bushido, or the "Way of the Warrior," in which the sacrifice of lives for the emperor was honorable.  She claims that Japan has spent "decades training its men for combat" for the inevitable war with China over control of the East.[27]  Chang also writes of the peace treaty between the Japanese and Chinese in the city of Tientsin.  Deniers claim that this treaty was broken by China, but Chang"s interpretation is much different.  She writes that shots were fired at the Japanese Army, which the Japanese "used as an excuse to exercise power in the region," by invading China.[28]  By late November of 1937, the Japanese Army had reached Nanking.  While the deniers claim that the Japanese were forced to attack the neutral Nanking Safety Zone because many Chinese military officials were "hiding" there, Chang argues that the Japanese had "flatly refused to honor" the Nanking Safety Zone.    She describes the Japanese occupation of Nanking as "six weeks of terror."[29]  The six weeks of terror officially began on December 13, 1937, when Nanking fell to the Japanese Army, and lasted until January of the following year.   During this period, the Japanese Army looted, raped, and murdered many citizens of Nanking.

The Nanking Death Toll

Chang begins her explanation of the death toll in Nanking by quoting Miner Searle Bates, a history professor at Nanking University, who when asked by the International Military Tribunal of the Far East to estimate the number of deaths replied:  "the question is so big, I don"t know where to begin…. The total spread of this killing was so extensive that no one can give a complete picture of it."[30]  The judges of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East concluded that at least 260,000 people were killed by the Japanese in Nanking.[31]  Chang gives many other credible estimates of the number murdered in Nanking.  Like the Nanking deniers Takemoto and Ohara, Chang also discounts the 50,000 to 60,000 estimate of John Rabe, but because he "never conducted a systematic count and left Nanking in February, before the slaughter ended."[32]  Chang refutes the Takemoto and Ohara"s claim that the city of Nanking had no more than 250,000 citizens before the Japanese occupation.  She cites the historian Sun Zhaiwei"s 1990 report, "The Nanking Massacre and the Nanking Population," in which he states that according to census reports, the population in Nanking exceeded one million before hostilities broke out between Japan and China.[33]  Using archives, memories, and reports from the Red Cross, Sun determined that at the time of the Japanese occupation, Nanking"s population was about 700,000.[34]  Sun then used Chinese burial records to calculate the number killed in the Nanking Massacre, and reached a number of 227,400.[35]  Therefore, at least 227,400 Chinese were killed in the Nanking Massacre, but most likely more were killed and left unburied.  In 1954, a member of the Japanese Army, Ohata Hisao, confessed that the Japanese Army had "burned dumped, or even buried bodies in a massive disposal effort."[36]  He claimed that for three days beginning December 15, 1937, he had participated in dumping a total of 150,000 bodies in the Nanking River.  This number, added to Sun"s estimate of the deaths in Nanking, brings the death toll estimate to 377,400.  I assume Takemoto and Ohara are referring to Hisao"s confession when they say, "who could believe such incredible testimonies that 190,000 corpses left no traces?"[37]  It makes perfect sense that in a massacre a large number of bodies will leave no trace, because of methods such as dumping bodies in water, or burning bodies.  Did historians find 6,000,000 Jewish corpses in Nazi extermination camps, and that is how we know how many Jews were killed?  No, death tolls are estimates compiled from various population data sources. 

Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre

Contrary to Nanking deniers, Iris Chang praises American journalists Frank Tillman Durdin, Archibald Steele, and C. Yates McDaniel for making an "enormous impact,"[38] even if they had left Nanking before the actual massacre began.  She states that all three had wrote stories about the Japanese Army in Nanking that were published in the United States, and also joined the International Safety Zone Committee to try to save innocent people.  By December 15, 1937, the reporters had left Nanking; as they left, they "saw the Japanese military line up one thousand Chinese men, force them to kneel in small groups, and shoot each of them in the back of the head."[39]

Chang writes of her visit to Nanking in 1995 to interview survivors of the Nanking Massacre.  She states that most lived in poverty, and some had "received physical injuries so severe they had been prevented form making a decent living for decades."[40]  Many believe that the People"s Republic of China has ignored their right to reparations by forgiving the Japanese,[41] which unfortunately implies that they may never receive reparations or an apology from the Japanese.

Corpses in Nanking Streets

Unlike Takemoto and Ohara, Chang does believe that the corpses in Nanking prove that there was a massacre.  Takemoto and Ohara quote Lily Abegg"s statement that there were corpses in Nanking in late November 1937, before the Japanese occupation of Nanking.  However, this makes perfect sense because the Japanese were in Nanking at the time; the occupation wasn"t "official" until the fall of the city on December 13.  These corpses were obviously victims of war crimes. 

Chang gives examples of various ways the Chinese were tortured and left in the streets to die.  One torture method was mutilation.  Chang describes that "throughout the city they (the Japanese) nailed prisoners to wooden boards and ran over them with tanks, crucified them to trees and electrical posts, carved long strips of flesh from them, and used them for bayonet practice."[42]  Another torture method was death by fire.  Chang claims that it was common for the Japanese to subject large crowds to mass incineration.[43]  The Japanese even intentionally froze Chinese to death in Nanking.[44]  Another terribly gruesome torture method was to bury victims to their waist and "watch them get ripped apart by German Shepards."[45]  All of Chang"s claims come from credible books written about the Nanking Massacre, not simply from word of mouth on the streets.

Japanese Army"s intention to kill Chinese civilians

In Germany, Hitler never gave an official order to kill all the Jews, or even to start World War II.  However, this does not mean that Jews weren"t exterminated intentionally.  The same is true in Japan.  Although Takemoto and Ohara may be correct in claiming that there is no document ordering the murder of Chinese in Nanking, it did happen.  Iris Chang writes of "killing contests"[46] among the Japanese Army to kill as many Chinese as possible.  Chang cites the testimony of a Chinese witness to a killing contest, who remembers hearing "kill and count!  Kill and count!"[47]  He describes that there was "no sign of remorse at all."[48]

The Rapes

To begin discussing the commonplace rapes in Nanking, Chang uses the authority of Susan Brownmillor, author of Against Our Will:  Men, Women and Rape, who believes that "the Rape of Nanking was probably the single worst instance of wartime rape inflicted on a civilian population with the sole exception of the treatment of Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers in 1971."[49]  Chang acknowledges that it is "impossible to determine the exact number of women raped in Nanking."[50]  Not only were many women and young girls raped in Nanking, but Chang describes that "the Japanese drew sadistic pleasure in forcing Chinese men to commit incest – fathers to rape their own daughters, brothers their sisters, sons their mothers."[51]  She does not agree with Takemoto and Ohara"s claim that only 1,600 Japanese soldiers had access to the Nanking Safety Zone, making mass rape impossible, because the Japanese had "flatly refused to honor"[52] this zone.  Rape in Nanking was so common and horrific, which is why Chang alluded to it in the title of her book.  

Further Issues:

Through my investigation of the Nanking Massacre, I have discovered that Japanese treatment of their Prisoners of War is a large issue that needs to be addressed.  I see this issue as separate from the Nanking Massacre because in Nanking, many ordinary citizens were tortured or murdered on the spot, lacking a chance to appeal to their government or military leaders for help. 

Japan not having to pay war reparations is also a huge issue.  I think it is unfair that Japan was able to bypass paying reparations to the Chinese, whereas Germany was forced to repay Israel.  Wartime reparations and the process of filling for and collecting these reparations should be further examined for the victims of the Nanking Massacre.

Censorship of history books in Japan is another important issue that must be addressed.  Chang writes that the Japanese government has "camouflaged the nation"s role in initiating the war within the carefully cultivated myth that the Japanese were the victims, not the instigators of World War II."[53]   How is the country going to progress if it does not teach its people what they were responsible for in World War II?  As the famous saying goes, the Japanese people will be doomed to repeat their past if they don"t remember it. 


Overall, I very much believe that the Japanese occupation of Nanking in 1937 did result in a massacre.  Takemoto and Ohara"s The Alleged "Nanking Massacre" presents weak evidence and points to a cover-up to protect Japan"s image.  In The Rape of Nanking, Chang writes that in the "late nineteenth century the Japanese minister of education declared that schools were run not for the benefit of the students, but for the good of the country."[54]  This statement implies that the Japanese government is willing to manipulate historical facts for their own purposes.  Therefore, the government must also be willing to do the same for public relations, which explains why the Nanking Massacre is denied.  It is ironic that the Japanese government believes that censoring schools will benefit the country.  Japan will not benefit from its education system as long as its people are told lies by their government, because this will only create ignorant people.  Chang"s subtitle, "the forgotten Holocaust," is specifically important for this reason.  As long as the Rape of Nanking is forgotten in history, the threat of a similar Holocaust happening remains strong.  In addition, denial of the Nanking Massacre is further killing the memory of those who were brutally killed in the massacre.  It is as if history is being raped as the Nanking deniers refuse to admit that many innocent people were killed and raped in Nanking, China, 1937.


Chang, Iris.  The Rape of Nanking:  The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.  New York:  Basic Books, 1997.

Takemoto, Tado and Ohara Yasuo.  The Alleged "Nanking Massacre":  Japan"s Rebuttal to China"s Forged Claims.  Tokyo:  Meisei-sha, Inc, 2000.


[1] Iris Chang.  The Rape of Nanking. (New York:  Basic Books, 1997).  11

[2] Chang, 11.

[3] Chang, 13-14

[4] Tado Takemoto and Yasuo Ohara.  The Alleged "Nanking Massacre":  Japan"s Rebuttal to China"s Forged Claims.  Tokyo:  Meisei-sha, Inc, 2000).  11

[5] Takemoto and Ohara, 13.

[6] Takemoto and Ohara, 20.

[7] Takemoto and Ohara, 21.

[8] Takemoto and Ohara, 22.

[9] Takemoto and Ohara, 23.

[10] Takemoto and Ohara, 24.

[11] Takemoto and Ohara, 30.

[12] Takemoto and Ohara, 39.

[13] Takemoto and Ohara, 38.

[14] Takemoto and Ohara, 46.

[15] Takemoto and Ohara, 53.

[16] Takemoto and Ohara, 50.

[17] Takemoto and Ohara, 60.

[18] Takemoto and Ohara, 59.

[19] Takemoto and Ohara, 58.

[20] Takemoto and Ohara, 65.

[21] Takemoto and Ohara, 67.

[22] Takemoto and Ohara, 68.

[23] Takemoto and Ohara, 87.

[24] Takemoto and Ohara, 89.

[25] Takemoto and Ohara, 90.

[26] Chang, 19.

[27] Chang, 29.

[28] Chang, 33.

[29] Chang, 35.

[30] Chang, 100.

[31] Chang, 100.

[32] Chang, 100.

[33] Chang, 100.

[34] Chang, 100.

[35] Chang, 101.

[36] Chang, 101.

[37] Takemoto and Ohara, 38.

[38] Chang, 144.

[39] Chang, 145.

[40] Chang, 183.

[41] Chang, 183.

[42] Chang, 87.

[43] Chang, 87.

[44] Chang, 88.

[45] Chang, 88.

[46] Chang, 83.

[47] Chang, 85.

[48] Chang, 85.

[49] Chang, 89.

[50] Chang, 89.

[51] Chang, 95.

[52] Chang, 35.

[53] Chang, 15.

[54] Chang, 31.

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