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Monday, December 12, 2005

The Rape of Nanking Begins, December 13, 1937

Today in 1937, the city of Nanking in China fell to the Japanese Imperial Army. The next six weeks were marked by incredible brutality against the civilian population of the area. This period of time has come to be known as the Rape of Nanking. It has few equals in the annals of human history.

Japan first invaded Manchuria, China in 1931. At that time, the Chinese Civil War was underway. The Communists and Nationalists showed little interest in putting up a united front against the foreign invaders until 1937, when the two sides agreed to fight the Japanese. The Chinese Army, though possibly the largest in the world at that time, was no match for the well-equipped and trained Imperial Army. The Japanese quickly captured most of the major Chinese cities in the northeastern part of the country.

In August of 1937, the Japanese Army took heavy casualties during the fight for Shanghai. Before this battle, it was thought that China could be conquered in three months. But it was not until mid-November that the city was securely in Japanese hands. On December 1st, the Japanese Central China Area Army and their 10th Army were ordered to capture Nanking.

Much of what we know about the six weeks following the capture of Nanking has come to us from the few Westerners who remained in the city in hopes of protecting the civilian population. Some of them created what they called the Nanking Safety Zone, an area near the American embassy that was to remain demilitarized. The Zone was about the size of Central Park in New York City and, at first, the Japanese agreed to leave the area alone as long no weapons were found there. They soon broke that promise, however, in their zeal to find Chinese soldiers hiding among the civilian population of the city.

The hunt for soldiers dressed in civilian clothes was used as an excuse by the Japanese to commit all kinds of inhumane acts. Women were publicly raped while their families were forced to watch; thousands of young men were shot along the banks of the Yangtze River where their bodies would flow downstream to Shanghai. Dozens of books have been written about other horrendous things that went on in the city and surrounding area. I will not recount them here.

Though modern historians disagree on the exact number, it is safe to say that more than 100,000 civilians were massacred in the six-week period between December, 1937 and February, 1938. After the war was over and the Japanese were defeated, General Matsui Iwane, the man in charge of the Nanking operation, was given a sentence of death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Then and in the years since, some Japanese have claimed that all the deaths in Nanking were of a military nature. Eyewitness accounts state otherwise.

Those of us who live in North America or Europe tend to think of the atrocities of World War Two as being isolated to the actions of fanatical Nazis. But in truth, any society is capable of genocide on a massive scale; we only have to look at the former Yugoslavia for a modern example. It reminds us that the line between civility and barbarism is thin and, sometimes, not well guarded.

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