The Rape of Nanking
I just recently completed Iris Chang’s book ‘The Rape of Nanking’ This alarming title does not do justice to the true horrors of this event, and no collected works ever could. Iris first heard stories about Nanking when she was growing up, her parents told terrible stories of horrific events full of torture, rape, and murder. When she started going to school she tried to look up this historically tragic event and was unable to find any information on, which was not surprising due to the west’s active ignorance of the subject. She wrote the stories off as racist tales. Many years later her interest in the subject would be sparked again, and her book ended up bringing many aspects of this tragedy to a much more fulfilling public recognition of the event.
Often referred to as the Sino-Japanese war, the very notion that Japan and China were once at war still surprises most western educated people. After the turn of the century Japan acquired a revitalized focus on nationalism and a form of shintoism that focused on the emperor, insisting he was a descendant of god. Over the next few years Japan became and strongly militaristic society, and combined with it’s nationalism and ethnocentrism, it was a recipe for terror. Seeking to take their rightful place in the world and spread out in the face of limited resources; Japan embarked on the invasion of Manchuria.
Toward the end of 1938 a war raged between Japan and the Chinese Nationalists led by Chaing Kai Sheck. The nationalist’s capital city was Nanking, a city of over a million people. As the Japanese troops marched ever closer to the city a strong defense was prepared and up to half the population fled. The Japanese dropped leaflets insisting that order and peace would be restored rapidly and that Chinese civilians would be treated with compassion. For various reasons, some still confusing, the defense of Nanking was not a strong one and the city fell after only few days. In the time leading up to the fall of Nanking, a group of foreign diplomats and missionaries, led by John Rabe, a Nazi, created a safety zone in the middle of the city, insisting that any Chinese inside it would be safe. Amazingly Rabe pressured the Japanese to loosely respect the conditions and it is estimated that of the 600,000 civilians and soldiers that did not flee the city up to 250,000 of them made it to the safety zones.
To state that the remaining people were not so lucky is the understatement of the century. As the Japanese soldiers marched into the cities they killed virtually every civilian they laid eyes on, and raped and then murdered virtually every woman they saw. These were not isolated incidences of violence perpetrated outside of the chain of command, but were in fact standard operating procedure. The Japanese soldiers lined up surrendered Chinese soldiers by the thousands and murdered them. Japanese newspapers of the time reported accounts of decapitation contests among Japanese officers, with officers toping 200 murders by decapitation. Others were used as live bayonet practice, burned alive, tortured to death, had their throats slit, the list of horrors goes on.
The female civilians of Nanking suffered unimaginable brutality, nearly every single woman in the city who was not in the safety zone (and even some of them) was raped, from girls as young as eight to elderly women. Any resistance would be met by immediate death, often extremely painful deaths which typically included being impaled in the groin with bamboo poles. Even without resistance, most of the time the women were murdered after being raped, usually shot in the back or bayoneted. Many women were taken as sex slaves and permanently attached to beds or chairs were they were repeatedly raped, day and night. Some were literally raped to death, hemorrhaging and bleeding to death from the attacks.
No one was spared the brutality, young, old, sick, man or woman. It is estimated that virtually *every single* person who did not make it into the safety zone was murdered, and the terror dragged on for 7 weeks.
There is a tendency to hear such stories and think that these are mere exaggerations of enemy events during war, but all the evidence suggests otherwise. The Japanese soldiers often documented their mass murders and burials, many letters from Japanese soldiers in the city corroborate the stories, and in some cases a significant amount of photos and footage were available as evidence, some showing the mass graves containing thousands upon thousands of bodies. Stories were reported in Japanese newspapers with photos. Documents from high in the Japanese military also corroborate, the evidence is overwhelming and distressing.
The Nazi John Rabe smuggled a film detailing the atrocities back to Germany to show the furor himself. He was later visited by the secret police and ordered to stop speaking on Japanese atrocities. John Rabe was the leading force credited with saving more than 250,000 lives in Nanking. Imagine that, a Nazi saving 250,000 lives. Families in the safety zone named their children after him, he was the hero of the city. In the process of writing this book Iris Change decided to follow up on John Rabe’s life, she ended up getting in touch with family members. They told her that Rabe for many years had tried to be absolved of Nazi ties and it was his actions in Nanking which finally won the new allied government officials over. During those intervening years his family ended up poor and on the verge of starvation, when word of this reached back to Nanking a tremendous outpouring of food and provisions came flooding into Rabe as most of the people in the city new exactly who he was and what he did. Iris Chang also found a family member who had Rabe’s detailed journals and brought them to publication.
Today the Japanese government still sidesteps accusations that anything out of the ordinary happened there. The few Japanese brave enough to speak up about the atrocities are viciously threatened by right wingers, with one recent case resulting in a public figure getting shot multiple times.
It could be argued that the sad and horrific events of Nanking still claim lives to this day, as I recently found out that shortly after this book was published Iris Chang, a intelligent and passionate woman, a wife and mother, and accomplished author, committed suicide. She seems to have had the seeds of paranoid schizophrenia in her which were activated by researching this event, which it seems she ended up believing was actively covered up by the Japanese government, the Soviet government, and the US in order to facilitate the creation of a stable Japan in the face of the looming threat of the Soviet Union. Her dual suicide notes offer sad evidence of the torment this caused in her and are a testament to the duality of her paranoia.
How could men be brought to do such things? The looming feeling from these hundreds of thousands of tragic stories, and other similar events like those in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia beg the question, is the veil of civility really that thin? Is it that disturbingly easily to convince good normal men to kill, brutally, repeatedly, and violently? The implications of this fill me with apprehension. What would I have been like if I were raised by the militarized nationalistic Japanese army? Indoctrinated with the idea from birth that the Chinese are nothing more than dogs, that they are not people, and beaten if I spoke in protest? We all like to thing we are enlightened and would truly raise ourselves above such irrationality, but how many of our thoughts actually are original? How many of us question all the societal habits promulgated and swallowed up without second thought? It is distressing, however one must remember that the veil of civility is not yet that thin, as it took nearly a generation of indoctrination for the Japanese of WWII to be such ruthless and cold blooded killers and rapists. Indeed, the question is off base, as such a person would clearly NOT BE me. The me of today transplanted to their would never fall for it and would rather be killed than to commit such acts, and the me as a child transplanted there would not be me at all by the time he grew up, but a killer robot programmed by the Japanese government, as all good soldiers were.
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