George Fitch's letter, written as the events unfolded in front of his eyes, urgently depicts conditions that he knew few people could testify to and feared few would even hear of.
China in the 1920s was a new republic confronting great challenges—economic, political, and social. One of the most devastating was the early 1920s North China famine. Because this region of China was densely populated, the effects of this crisis affected millions. Triggered by a severe drought, the famine killed crops and devastated the livelihood of farmers in the northern plains of China. But dying crops was only one consequence. Thousands fled the area; others sold children into slavery, and upward of half a million people died. The areas decimated were largely governed by warlords, which further aggravated the situation since they used the crisis for their own political and economic gain.
With Emperor Meiji’s ascension to the throne in 1867, Japan theoretically restored power to the emperor, but because he was only 15 years old he had little governing power. Instead, the power rested with the new government consisting of a small, close-knit cabinet of advisers. This new cabinet immediately began implementing a series of reforms to both strengthen and unify Japan. One of their largest concerns was that Japan would not be able to regain its sovereignty if it did not modernize. With the recent display of the superior armament of the United States military with Commodore Perry in 1853, such concerns were not unfounded.
Notice for Chinese refugees issued by the Nanjing Safety Zone Committee.
Rape has always been a weapon of war. But until recently it was neglected as a crime worthy of prosecution on its own. During the Nanjing Atrocities young and old women were repeatedly violated by Japanese Imperial troops. While definitive numbers are difficult to pin down because of the nature of the crime, tens of thousands of rapes were documented, witnessed, and reported.
The Hundred Days’ Reform also coincided with an upsurge of anti-Western sentiment in the north of China directed, in part, at the growth of missionary settlements. Every major Christian denomination established a range of educational and church-affiliated institutions across the country after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.
Beginning in August 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army initiated an aerial assault of the Chinese capital city of Nanjing (Nanking). In response to this assault, thousands of Chinese able to flee left the city while the elderly, sick, and poor remained behind. Many that left continued to actively fight the Japanese. Others actively resisted. In Nanjing, like in other cities throughout China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Western merchants, missionaries, physicians, and educators had settled seeking economic opportunities or fulfilling religious or professional aspirations. Hundreds of these Westerners considered Nanjing initially their home.
Holding leaders accountable was a leading argument used during the prosecution of what occurred in Nanjing. Class A defendants, Matsui Iwane and Hirota Koki, are questioned as to their knowledge of atrocities committed by those under their command.
At the same time efforts of reform were under way in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, China remained under the same dynasty that had ruled for more than 200 years. Qing rule, led by the ethnic minority Manchu people, were struggling to maintain China’s wealth and prestige in East Asia.
The post–World War I economy wreaked havoc on many nations, Japan included. Due to the postwar production slowdown, increased trade barriers and tariffs imposed by the West, and economic strains caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan fell into an economic depression two years before the global Great Depression began in 1930. Thirty-seven banks were forced to close after Japanese citizens tried to cash in government-issued earthquake bonds that had been sold to raise funds for reconstruction. The economic crisis brought down the civilian government and brought to power the zaibatsu, family-controlled businesses that held monopolies within the Japanese Empire and kept close ties, and influence, with the civilian government. When the Great Depression began, Japan was economically and politically vulnerable and increasingly unstable. Like other nations during such fragile times, Japan saw a rise in political groups promising to fix the problems of the nation.
With the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 a great deal of uncertainty about Japan’s future followed. Many believed that Meiji Japan had flourished under the steadfast rule of the emperor who reigned for more than 40 years. Now his first son, Yoshihito, ascended to the throne and took the name Taisho, ushering in the next era. Those deeply loyal to Emperor Meiji and resistant to modernization efforts were particularly vulnerable. Some would hold fast to the centuries of Japanese tradition, rejecting any shifts in gender roles or education and military reforms, while other reformers embraced change.