This unit consists of five lessons designed to lead high school students through an examination of the war crimes perpetrated by Japanese troops in the Chinese city of Nanjing during World War II. The unit balances the historical context of the atrocities committed in Nanjing with elements of the Facing History and Ourselves scope and sequence. Students bear witness to the event through the voices of Nanjing survivors, reflect on the consequences of human action and inaction during times of crisis, and consider how to achieve justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of atrocities.

Many students in Western classrooms are more familiar with the history of Western Europe during World War II than that of Asia. Nevertheless, learning about Japan’s war with China during this period is essential for developing a full understanding of that truly global conflict. Historian Rana Mitter believes that studying what occurred in Nanjing from December 1937 to March 1938 is important for several reasons. First, it is a historical event that has too long been misunderstood or ignored, and second, it tells us a great deal about the contemporary politics of China and Japan. Also, as Mitter goes on to explain:

[Nanjing] is worth studying because it shows us what happens in a situation where an imperialist society which has decided to turn against democracy and has militarized in a very inward-looking and brutal way is allowed to exercise what it feels are its rights of conquest in a neighboring country. The atrocities that were committed against the Chinese people in Nanjing and the deaths of so many people were not the product of a cold, calculated plan; rather, they were the victims of a violent outburst of a feeling of imperialist entitlement by a country that had created a narrative about its own role in Asia which its Chinese neighbors resolutely did not share . . .1

Following Mitter’s thinking, the five lessons in this unit stress an appreciation of the dangers of unchecked nationalism and militarism. By examining what happens when a nation fosters a climate of superiority, intolerance, and dehumanization, students will gain a deeper understanding of the Nanjing atrocities and the events of World War II in East Asia.

Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content

In this unit, students will confront the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in the city of Nanjing. While they will engage with the subject matter intellectually, studying some of the contributing historical, social, and political factors, it is also important to acknowledge students’ emotional responses to this history. This unit includes historical descriptions and firsthand accounts that some students may find emotionally disturbing. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of previewing the readings and videos in this curriculum to make sure they are appropriate for the intellectual and emotional needs of your students.

Even for historians who have devoted their lives to studying it, Nanjing, like other mass atrocities, can elude understanding and simple explanation. It is difficult to predict how students will respond to the challenging readings, documents, and films in this unit. One student may respond with emotion to a particular reading, while others may not find it powerful in the same way. In addition, different people demonstrate emotion in different ways. We urge teachers to create space for students to have a range of reactions and emotions. This might include time for silent reflection or writing in journals, as well as structured discussions to help students process content together. Some students will not want to share their reactions to emotionally disturbing content in class, and teachers should respect that in class discussions. For their learning and emotional growth, it is crucial to allow for a variety of responses, or none at all, from students to emotionally challenging content.

Fostering a Reflective Classroom Community

We believe that a classroom in which a Facing History and Ourselves unit is taught ought to be a microcosm of democracy—a place where explicit rules and implicit norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where different perspectives can be heard and valued; where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole; and where each member has a stake and a voice in collective decisions. You may have already established rules and guidelines with your students to help bring about these characteristics in your classroom. If not, it is essential at the beginning of this unit to facilitate a supportive, reflective classroom community.

Two ways in which you can create a strong foundation for a reflective classroom are through the use of classroom contracts and student journals. Even if you already incorporate both of these elements in your classroom, we recommend taking a moment to review both strategies.

Unit Essential Questions

The following essential questions provide a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes:

  • How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”?
  • How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

These essential questions challenge students to make important connections between history and the contemporary world. We do not expect students to determine a single, “correct” answer. Essential questions are rich and open-ended; they are designed to be revisited over time, and as students explore the content in greater depth, they may find themselves emerging with new ideas, understandings, and questions.

Guiding Questions

Each lesson includes one or more guiding questions. Unlike the unit’s essential question, which is broad and open-ended, guiding questions help to direct student inquiry at the lesson level and are aligned with its specific learning objectives. Answering guiding questions requires deep thinking and textual interpretation. Unlike essential questions, guiding questions might have a clear answer, which students should be able to support with specific evidence from the lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

Developing Student Vocabulary

The readings and videos in this unit introduce some vocabulary and concepts that may pose a challenge for your students, especially for struggling readers, so you may want to consider using the Word Wall strategy to keep a running list of critical vocabulary posted in your classroom that you and your students can refer to over the course of the unit. Students might have a corresponding list in a section of their journals or notebooks, and you could also challenge them to incorporate Word Wall terms into their writing and discussions to help them internalize and understand these challenging terms and concepts.


  • 1 : Rana Mitter (professor, Oxford University), interview with the author, March 11, 2014.


Genocide & Mass Violence

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Begin here for helpful information about teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Western Imperialism and Nation Building in Japan and China

Students are introduced to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia and its influence on the identities and ambitions of Japan and China.

Lesson 2 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War

Students examine sources that shed light on the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in Asia.

Lesson 3 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Bearing Witness to the Nanjing Atrocities

Students confront the enormity of the crimes committed during the Nanjing atrocities by listening to survivor testimony.

Lesson 4 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Nanjing Atrocities: The Range of Responses

Students analyze the spectrum of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations during the Nanjing atrocities.

Lesson 5 of 5
Genocide & Mass Violence

Justice and Judgment after the Nanjing Atrocities

Students explore the complexities of achieving justice in the aftermath of mass violence and atrocities as they learn about the Tokyo Trials.

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