On the morning of December 13, 1937, four divisions of the Japanese army and two navy fleets on the Yangtze River invaded Nanjing. The capital city now became one of the largest cities under the Japanese Central China Area Army (CCAA). The prewar population of over one million had shrunk considerably by November as the Japanese army advanced. On the morning of the 13th approximately 500,000 Chinese still remained. These were largely the poor who had little alternative while those able to leave had either financial resources or a place to go west of Nanjing.

The actual orders to occupy the city were carried out by the commander-in-chief of the CCAA, Iwane Matsui, and were handed down from Tokyo on December 1, 1937. 1 There were two known objectives from the Japanese supreme Command at this juncture: to establish a political regime in Beijing and to capture and occupy Nanjing. Matsui understood the importance of decisively capturing the capital, and before advancing on the actual campaign he issued the following order to his officer corps and to the Japanese forces sometime after December 7:

That Nanjing was the capital of China and the capture thereof was an international affair; that therefore, careful study should be made so as to exhibit the honor and glory of Japan and augment the trust of the Chinese people, and that the battle in the vicinity of Shanghai is aimed at the subjugation of the Chinese Army, there- fore protect and patronize Chinese officials and people, as far as possible; that the Army should always bear in mind not to involve foreign residents and armies in trouble and maintain close liaison with foreign authorities in order to avoid misunderstandings.2

When the Japanese army entered the capital, Matsui himself was not physically present due to illness, but Prince Asaka, his temporary commanding officer, was in charge of the final assault.3By this time the city was in disarray. The retreating Chinese soldiers had left behind their uniforms and their weapons. Homes had been burned and some looting had already occurred. Three days after the city was taken, Matsui arrived triumphantly. A day later a religious service was held for the many soldiers and civilians who had perished. After the gathering Matsui issued the following statement:

I extend much sympathy to millions of innocent people in the Kiangpei [Jiangbei] and Chekiang [Zhejiang] districts, who suffered the evils of war.4Now the flag of the Rising Sun is floating high over Nanking, and the Imperial Way is shining in the southern parts of the Yangzi River. The dawn of the renaissance of the East is on the verge of offering itself. On this occasion I hope for reconsideration of the situation by the 400 million people of China.5

Historian Jonathan Spence describes this important moment in twentieth-century Chinese history:

Over the centuries, Nanjing had endured its share of armed attacks and the sustained propaganda campaigns that accompanied them: the Manchus in 1645, the Taiping rebels in 1853, the Qing regional armies in 1864, the Republican forces in 1912. Now, in 1937, Chiang Kai-shek pledged that Nanjing would never fall, but he entrusted its defense to a Nationalist party politician and former warlord, Tang Shengzhi, who had never shown him any particular loyalty. Tang’s distinguishing feature was the abiding faith he held in his Buddhist spiritual advisor, whom he had usedin the past to indoctrinate his troops in the ways of loyalty, and as a source of advice on career decisions. This Buddhist now advised Tang to accept the task of directing the city’s defense, and Tang did so after the flight from Shanghai was in full swing. As the Japanese bombarded the city with leaflets promising decent treatment of all civilians remaining there, skeptical Chinese troops—fugitives from the Shanghai fighting—killed and robbed the people of Nanjing to obtain civilian clothing and make good their escape. On December 12, Tang himself abandoned the city; since he had vowed publicly to defend Nanjing to the last breath, he made no plans for the orderly evacuation of the garrison troops there, and his departure worsened the military confusion.

There followed in Nanjing a period of terror and destruction that must rank among the worst in the history of modern warfare. For almost seven weeks the Japanese troops, who first entered the city on December 13, unleashed on the defeated Chinese troops and on the helpless Chinese civilian population a storm of violence and cruelty that has few parallels. . . . Robbery, wanton destruction, and arson left much of the city in ruins. There is no obvious explanation for this grim event nor perhaps can one be found. The Japanese soldiers, who had expected easy victory, instead had been fighting hard for months and had taken infinitely more casualties than anticipated. They were bored, angry, frustrated, tired. The Chinese women were undefended, their men folk powerless or absent. The war, still undeclared, had no clear-cut goal or purpose. Perhaps all Chinese regardless of sex or age seemed marked out as victims.6


  • 1 : Timothy Brook, Documents on the Rape of Nanking (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999), 289.
  • 2 : Ibid, 289.
  • 3 : Prince Asaka Yasuhiko was a member of the Japanese imperial family, son-in- law of Emperor Meiji and uncle by marriage to Emperor Hirohito.
  • 4 : Both Kiangpei and Chekiang are areas surrounding the city of Nanjing.
  • 5 : Brook, Rape of Nanking, 262.
  • 6 : Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), 448. It is also important to note the Chinese were not to declare war on Japan until December 9, 1941, after the Imperial Army’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Connection Questions

  1. How did Iwane Matsui describe the goal of occupying Nanjing in his December 7th communique? Compare his stated goal with what happened once Japanese forces occupied the city. What questions do the differences between his stated goal and the atrocities that followed raise for you?

  2. How does Jonathon Spence account for the violence that occurred in Nanjing? Does it support Historian Rana Mitter’s assessment in the introduction to the chapter?

  3. Why would Matsui hold a service for the dead in Nanjing? What might have he hoped to convey to the local population with the action? What message did he hope to convey in words?

  4. Author Ian Buruma also recalls a moment when he was given a booklet by an educator in Japan. The teacher had dedicated a great deal of time to correct his nations’ historical record within the classroom by publishing a pamphlet titled Nanjing Atrocities:

    Although the booklet was in Japanese, the English word “atrocities,” transcribed as aturoshitees, was used in the title, as though there was not a corresponding Japanese word. There are, in fact, many Japanese expressions for cruelty, violence, murder, or massacre. But the word “atrocity” conveys more than the inevitable cruelty of war. An atrocity is a willful act of criminal brutality, an act that violates the law as well as any code of human decency.1

    Buruma explains that atrocities are more than the inevitable cruelties of war. How would you explain the difference between an atrocity and wartime violence? Record some of your thoughts in a journal. Return to your ideas as you encounter other text describing the events in Nanjing.

  5. Fan Hao, a student from Nanjing University, shares her perspective on the use of different terms to call what occurred in Nanjing.

    I think here the issue has something to do with the different ways to refer to the incident in China, Japan and the [United] States. The different implication of the words in the three different languages adds further challenge for finding an appropriate term.

    In China people habitually refer to the Japanese misconduct in China as “暴行”(baoxing), i.e. cruel/atrocious acts, and “南京大屠杀” (Nanjing Da Tusha) , i.e. grand massacre/killing, is the term reserved for the Nanjing Atrocity. Personally, I prefer the term “the Rape of Nanjing”, which encompasses the horror and tragic nature of those atrocities in a metaphorical manner.

    On the Japanese side, according to 程兆奇 (Cheng Zhaoqi), a Chinese scholar from the History Department of Shanghai Social Science Department, different names were used in different times: the scholars who believed the massacre at one time used the term 南京大虐杀 (Nanjing Da Nüesha,) i.e. Nanjing Cruel Massacre; in Tokyo judgments the term was 南京暴虐事件 (Nanjing Baonüe Shijian), i.e. Nanjing Atrocious Incident, but the English translation at the time was “Nanjing Atrocities”. In recent years more and more Japanese scholars have come to adopt the term 南京事件 (The Nanjing Incident.)2

    After reading Fan Hao’s explanation, what role can language play in giving meaning to the past? What important differences exist between the Chinese, Japanese and English terms for what occurred in Nanjing according to Fan Hao?


  • 1 : Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 113.
  • 2 : Fan Hao, email to the author, January 18, 2014. It is worth noting that the term “incident” has received much criticism as an attempt to minimize the severity of the crimes committed.

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