Monday, October 27, 2014

Katherine Merritt: The Other Holocaust

[ENG 102 essay]

When talking about World War 2, it is almost inevitable that the Holocaust is brought up in conversation. The atrocities that were committed by Hitler and the Nazi party upon not only the Jews, but basically anyone who was not considered to be of the Aryan race were so horrible that it's impossible to recall that part of our history without at least broaching the terrible subject. Not only were those people forced to leave their homes, their jobs, and their belongings, but they were subjected to terrible living conditions in concentration camps – and that's only if they passed the selection process and were aloud to live at all. Others were shot down, beaten to death, or burned alive. It is estimated that an astounding eleven million people were killed in the Holocaust (Rosenburg).

While the horrific events of the Holocaust in Europe are fairly well documented and well taught in the United States, the inhumane massacres, rapes, and genocides that were occurring in Asia at the hands of the Japanese at roughly the same time are often swept under the rug. According to the World War 2 Museum in New Orleans, the death toll of Chinese people in the war was around twenty million people; of those twenty million that died, only approximately three to four million were military deaths (By The Numbers...) That's not hard math – the vast majority of Chinese deaths in World War 2 were not soldiers but innocent men, women, and children. In 1937, Japanese troops swept into Nanjing, and brutally massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians (Jones). This atrocity of war has come to be historically known as the Rape of Nanking and is considered by many to be one of the most brutal and horrifying acts of genocide in the twentieth century (Jones). This was only one of many inhumane war time crimes that the Japanese committed.

To reach a certain amount of understanding of the war crimes committed by the Japanese soldiers, one must first understand their intense military upbringing. It was declared by the Japanese minister of education in the late 1800's that schools were not in place to benefit the students so much as they were in place to benefit the country of Japan (Chang, 31). At a very young age, boys in Japanese schools were not only preached to about their “[D]ivine destiny of conquering Asia,” but they were also taught how to use wooden models of guns, or real guns if they were older (Chang, 30). Growing up, those boys did not play with race cars or building blocks, but with toy tanks, rifles, bugles, and combat helmets (Rape of Nanking Part 1). As soon as they began their education, children were taught the Imperial Rescript, which emphasized compliance to all authoritative figures, and an undying zeal for the Emperor (Chang, 31). Those that taught in the schools were more like military generals than teachers, and the schools themselves more closely resembled military barracks than houses of education (Chang, 30).

Amongst the older generations of Japanese, the methods of teaching were not frowned upon because much of what was being taught had been deeply engrained in Japanese culture for centuries. The Japanese samurai warrior class placed much emphasis on a code of conduct called “bushido,” which stated that there was no greater honor than dying for the emperor of Japan, whom they believed was a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess (Rape of Nanking Part 1). Even the mothers in Japan were honored by having as many sons as possible go to war and die in the name of the emperor, which, in the case of World War 2, was Hirohito (Rape of Nanking Part 1). It was also considered shameful for a Japanese man to surrender in battle, suicide being the more honorable course of action (Chang, 20). Over the course of World War 2, for every 120 Japanese men that died, one surrendered; in comparison, the Allied forces had one man surrender for every three that died (Chang, 20). Those statistics alone clearly show how willing the Japanese men were to die for their country and their emperor and how despicable the idea of surrender was in their culture. It is probable that this mind-set was at least part of the reason that the Japanese were so disgusted by the Chinese that surrendered to them, and why they treated them so horribly.

By 1937, Japan had, in a manner of speaking, already been at war with China for several years. They seized Manchuria, a northeastern province of China, in September of 1931 and set up their own “puppet nation” of Manchukuo there (Bjorge, 3). The Chinese developed increasing amounts of anti-Japanese sentiments after the unprovoked seizure of Manchuria, but were unable to fight back as their own country was in a state of civil war between the Chinese communists and the Chinese nationalists (Bjorge). In Shanghai in 1932, an angry mob consisting of 5 Chinese men killed one Japanese Buddhist priest after attacking five of them. Japan responded by dropping copious amounts of bombs on the city, killing several thousand innocent civilians (Chang, 29). The League of Nations did not approve of either Japan's seizure of Manchuria, or her treatment of the Chinese people, so in 1933, Japan conceded and left the League (Bjorge, 3). In leaving the League, they freed themselves from many of the restraints that had been imposed on them.

In August of 1937, Japanese troops invaded Shanghai, where they ran into a much stronger opposition than they had planned on (Chen). Initially the leaders of the Japanese military had estimated that it would take them around 3 months to take over the entire country of China, so the fact that it took them that long to merely take over Shanghai was unsettling to them (Rape of Nanking Part 1). Though the Japanese soldiers were much more effective and better trained, there were simply more of the Chinese (Chang, 33). The Japanese viewed the Chinese as “[P}rimitive people, illiterate in military science and poorly trained,” so the Japanese troops were both mortified and disheartened by the amount of time it took to defeat them (Chang, 34). Not only was the death toll high on both sides of the front, but there were also thousands upon thousands more civilians killed by the aerial Japanese bombings of Shanghai (Chen).

By the time the Japanese troops left Shanghai in late November and began their trek to Nanking, they were “[L]usting for revenge,” and spared little in their violent path (Chang, 34). They obliterated farming communities and those that lived there, as well as large towns.(Chang, 37). The Japanese purposefully directed much of their brutality toward the Chinese civilians in order to force them into submission through sheer terror (Rape of Nanking Part 1). Suchow, a town that had a population of about 350,000 before the Japanese invasion, was reduced to a population of less than 500, according to the China Weekly Review (Chang, 38). Likewise, the city of Sungchiang, which would have been home to around 100,000 civilians, was reduced to “[O]nly five Chinese, who were old men, hiding in a French mission compound in tears” (Chang, 38). Many villages on the path to Nanking were surrounded by Japanese troops and then set on fire; anyone that tried to leave was shot on sight (Rape of Nanking Part 1). Thousands of women survived only to be taken from their homes, branded, and used for sexual slavery until they were no longer useful, at which point they were killed and discarded on the side of the road (Rape of Nanking Part 1). It is estimated that on their way from Shanghai to Nanking, Japanese troops murdered approximately 300,000 civilians (Rape of Nanking Part 1).

Though the Chinese military was equipped to defend the capitol of Nanking for several months, they admitted defeat to the Japanese after only days of fighting (Chang, 70). Not only had Chiang, and almost all government officials fled from the city, but they had also taken much of the equipment that allowed General Tang, who was left in charge, to communicate with the separate Chinese troops beneath him (Chang, 71). In addition, the Japanese air-force grossly outnumbered the Chinese air force, and the Chinese troops were from many different regions, and were scarcely able to communicate with one another, even in person (Chang, 71). Eventually, even Tang fled the city with all of his officers, leaving his remaining troops surrounded by Japanese troops on three sides, and the Yangtze river on the other (Rape of Nanking Part 1). When the order finally came for the Chinese troops to retreat, they had nowhere to go, and chaos quickly ensued. Though the Japanese dropped leaflets and posted signs that promised that they would be “[K]ind and generous to non-combatants and to Chinese troops who entertain[ed] no enmity to Japan,” the opposite was in fact the case (Chang, 72). According to Japanese soldier Azuma Shiro, “[The Japanese soldiers] were given three orders. Burn all. Steal all. Kill all” (Rape of Nanking Part 1). Many of the Chinese soldiers tossed their arms in their last desperate attempts to flee the city, so they turned themselves in under the false pretense of generosity from Japan (Chang, 42). In turn, those soldiers were brutally murdered.

The brutality of the Japanese in their execution of their prisoners is almost inconceivable. To some, they promised food and work, only to bind their wrists and “herd” them to an isolated place on the outskirts of Nanking for execution (Chang, 82). Other prisoners were forced into an assembly line of live burials where they were made to bury alive the men before them, only to then lay on top of that grave to be buried alive by those behind them (Chang, 87). Still others were bound together in large groups, covered in gasoline, and shoved into a pit to be burned alive (Chang, 87). Many soldiers were tied up and used for bayonet practice, or buried up to their waste and then ravaged to death by German shepherds (Chang, 87-88). To be shot in the head would have been considered lucky. The Japanese did not stop their killing with soldiers that turned themselves in. They systematically went through homes and refugee camps and executed any men with calluses on their hands, as they (often wrongly) assumed that those calluses had formed due to handling guns on a daily basis (Chang, 116-117). Every young man of fighting age was gunned down in the streets, under the Japanese assumption that he was once a soldier in the Chinese army (Chang, 47). Shopkeepers were shot as soon as they opened their doors to Japanese troops, so that their stores could be looted and then burned to the ground (Chang, 47). The Japanese had no constraints, and refrained from killing no one – not even women and children. As terribly as the men of Nanking were treated, it is the women who endured the worst of the atrocities at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. During the six week span that is now commonly referred to as the Rape of Nanking, it is estimated that as many as 80,000 women were brutally raped (Rape of Nanking Part 2). The Japanese men did not discriminate in terms of age or appearance – no woman was safe in Nanking. Girls as young as 7 and women as old as 80 were gang-raped, sometimes to death. (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Those women who attempted to resist their attackers were generally later found mutilated, with body parts such as ears, nose, and breasts sliced off, or eyes gouged out (Chang, 96). Still other women were left dead on the streets after being raped, with bayonets or bamboo poles shoved in their vaginas (Rape of Nanking Part 2).Some of the more beautiful women were tied down and raped by hundreds of men, until they became too diseased to be of any more use (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Even pregnant women were raped, after which they were cut open, and removed of their fetuses which some Japanese soldiers would then carry around on bayonets as trophies (Rape of Nanking Part 2). According to Azumo Shiro, a former Japanese soldier, almost all of the women that were raped were killed afterward “[B]ecause dead bodies don't talk” (Chang, 49).

The Japanese not only enjoyed raping the Chinese women, but they took a sick pleasure in forcing incest in the Chinese families. They demanded that fathers rape their daughters, and sons rape their mothers, and brothers rape their sisters, while they watched and laughed (Chang, 96). Those that did not comply with the sick wishes of the Japanese soldiers were killed immediately (Chang, 96). Just as the men and women of Nanking weren't safe, neither were the young children. Babies were ripped out of their mothers arms and stabbed with bayonets, after which they were sometimes thrown into boiling pots of water while they were still alive ( Rape of Nanking Part 2). Others were thrown head first on the ground, or against the sides of buildings, all while their mothers watched helplessly (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Japanese soldiers delighted in forcing young boys to chase pigs, and if the boys weren't quick enough, they were bayoneted and killed (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Killing was like a game to the Japanese, and when one game got boring, they came up with a new one.

It is impossible to say exactly how many innocent people were killed in Nanking. The numbers vary greatly, especially depending on whether one is asking the Chinese or the Japanese. Generally, the Japanese people claim that the death toll was somewhere between 3,000 and 42,000 (Chang, 100). Those numbers, however, are unrealistic – in 1994, evidence was uncovered that revealed that between January and March of 1938, one Japanese burial squad “[D]isposed” of at least 30,000 bodies (Chang, 100). Chinese scholars, on the other hand, have researched population reports before and after the Rape of Nanking, Red Cross Reports, and Chinese burial records and come to the conclusion that between 200,000 and and 430,000 people were killed (Chang, 100-101). According to historian Sun Zhaiwei, the total number of dead Chinese in Nanking was approximately 377,400. To put that number in perspective, it is “[A] figure that surpasses the death toll for the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined” (Chang, 101).

The wide-spread atrocities of war that were committed in Nanking were fairly well documented in the international press, and the world was horrified by what they saw, especially the large scale of brutal rape (Argibay, 2). It was difficult for much of the rest of the world to understand how one human being could treat another human being in such degrading, terrible ways. Because of the Japanese's Shinto beliefs, the lives of Hirohito and the royal family of Japan were the only ones that mattered. According to Japanese soldier Azuma, “If my life was not important, an enemy's life became inevitably much less important...This philosophy led us to look down on the enemy and eventually to the mass murder and ill treatment of the captives” (qtd. in Chang, 58). Japanese authorities justified the brutality of the Japanese soldiers, and especially their raping of civilians, as “[A]n outlet for their natural animal urges” (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Emperor Hirohito viewed the mass killings of millions of civilians all over Asia as a necessary evil in his quest to become emperor of the world (Rape of Nanking Part 2).

Even though Hirohito didn't really disapprove of the actions of his troops, he asked his advisers to come up with a plan that would reestablish Japan's honor in the eyes of the rest of the world (Argibay, 2). The adviser’s solution to counteract the damnation of the international press was the creation of comfort stations (Argibay, 2). Comfort stations were underground military brothels where women were taken to be sex slaves for the Japanese soldiers (Chang, 52). The comfort stations were designed to not only keep Japanese atrocities out of the international press, but also to keep the Japanese soldiers healthier (Argibay 3). Through-out the local mass rapings in areas like Shanghai and Nanking, sexually transmitted diseases ran rampant through the troops; this not only cost money for medical treatment, but it cost the military able-bodied soldiers (Argibay, 3).

There were between 80,000 to 200,000 women from all across Asia that were either bought or kidnapped for the purpose of comfort stations (Chang, 52). The comfort women were referred to by the Japanese soldiers as “public toilets” and their sole purpose was to serve as sexual slaves to the troops (Chang, 53). Every Japanese soldier was promised a woman under the contingent that he killed lots of Chinese people (Rape of Nanking Part 2). Many of the women that were abducted from their homes and families were forced to witness the murder of family members who attempted to save them (Argibay, 4). Some of them were brought from distant countries, and knew neither the local language nor their surroundings, thus making it virtually impossible to flee (Argibay, 3). There were women who committed suicide when they found out their fate to serve in the comfort stations; others later died from either sexually transmitted diseases, or murder (Chang, 53). One can deduce from this information that in many cases, it was better to be killed by the Japanese than to be subjected to their treatment as a prisoner.

The Japanese did not always kill all captives as they did in Nanking, but they treated their prisoners of war so abysmally that they might as well have. After the war, it was found that 27% of the men held in Japanese camps died, compared to a mere 4% in European camps (Harris). Many of the prisoners of war in Japanese camps were subjected to extreme medical experiments, like being infected with plagues and other diseases and then dissected alive without any anesthetic (Kristof). According to Kristof, “[A]t least 3,000 people – by some accounts several times as many – were killed in the medical experiments; none survived.” Though treating prisoners in this manner was illegal as per the laws of war that were ratified by Japan at the 1906 Hague Convention, the authoritative figures of Japan never held the doctors that performed those medical experiments responsible for the atrocities that they committed (Harris).

Just as the Japanese doctors weren't punished for their appalling experimentations during World War 2, many of the other members of the Japanese Army and the Japanese government were not forced to take responsibility for their actions, either. A couple years after the war was over, the Japanese had their own war time trials in Nanking and Tokyo, similar to the Nuremberg trials. Emperor Hirohito, whom it is believed knew about the Japanese wartime atrocities, was not only given immunity but was also allowed to remain Emperor of Japan, in exchange for the surrender of Japan. Giving Hirohito immunity and thus absolving him of all responsibility for the war, majorly altered the Japanese peoples' “[H]istorical awareness,” of World War 2 (Chang, 176). In fact, until 1994, Japanese schoolchildren were not even aware that their own troops had killed tens of millions of Allied soldiers and civilians over the course of World War 2 (Chang, 205). In the early 90's, most Japanese schoolchildren did not know that Japan and the United States had been at war – much less did they know that Japan had lost (Chang, 205).

The Japanese are not the only ones who have been left in the dark about the Nanking Massacre. I chose to write about these atrocities that took place because I was appalled at the fact that I had never heard of them, and wondered why. As I stated before, we have all heard of the European Holocaust – what made this different? The more people I spoke to about the Nanking Massacre, the more apparent it became that it was, in fact, a forgotten holocaust. Whenever I brought it up in conversation, there was not one person who knew what I was talking about.

According to Iris Chang, author of the book The Rape of Nanking, this terrible tragedy was “[R]elatively untreated in world history...because the victims themselves had remained silent” (Chang, 11). The victims refrained from airing their grievances for many reasons, from shame to politics (Chang, 11). In the late 40's the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China were at odds, and were vying for “Japanese trade and political recognition” (Chang, 11). So too, the United States wanted to remain in good-standing with Japan because of the impending communism threat from their post-World War 2 enemies Russia, and much of China (Chang, 11). Sadly, the women who survived the brutal raping of the Japanese soldiers and the comfort stations remained silent for decades, due to the shame of impurity in both their religion and culture (Chang, 89). Unlike Israel, who demanded reparations from Germany after World War 2, no one demanded wartime reparations for the Chinese from Japan – so they were not paid.

The reason that we study history, is to learn from our mistakes; however, we can't really learn the full lesson if we don't know the whole history. We in the United States have had a tendency to look at World War 2 through a narrow European window. Perhaps we found the atrocities committed by the Nazis especially appalling because we viewed Europeans as being more like us, but in our elevation of the European part of the war, the Pacific part of World War 2 seems to have lost some of it's relevance virtually everywhere except for Asia. World War 2 was much bigger than Europe, and the Japanese atrocities across Asia were, if not equal to, on par with Hitler's destruction in Europe. In remembering those that were killed in China, we are able to give relevance to lives that were so crassly taken, by using their deaths to strengthen not only our worldly knowledge, but our moral compasses. As Elie Weisel, a Nobel laureate once cautioned, “[T]o forget a holocaust is to kill twice” (qtd. in Chang, 16). Let us learn from not only our mistakes, but the mistakes of others.


Arbigay, Carmen M. "Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War II." Berkely Journal of International Law 21.6 (2003).

Bjorge, Gary J. "China, invasion of (1931, 1937-1945)." The Encyclopedia of War (2011).

"By The Numbers: World Wide Deaths." The National World War 2 Museum New Orleans.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking – The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. NY, Ishi Press. 2012.

Chen, C. Peter. "Second Battle of Shanghai." World War 2 Database

Harris, Sheldon H. "Medical Experiments on POWs." Crimes of War

Jones, Adam. "Case Study: The Nanjing Massacre, 1937-1938." Gendercide (2013).

Kristof, Nicholas D. "Unmasking Horror – A special report.; Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity." The New York Times (March 17, 1995)

Rape of Nanking – the Nanjing Massacre Japanese Atrocities in Asia. (China: Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., 2007)

Rosenburg, Jennifer. "Holocaust Facts." About Education

Schell, Orville. "Bearing Witness." The New York Times (Dec 14, 1997)

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