Japanese Propaganda

Japanese Propaganda

Media Blackout

"The day to complete the conquest of the walled city of Nanking" Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper evening edition on December 14, 1937.

“The day to complete the conquest of the walled city of Nanking” Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper evening edition on December 14, 1937.

“We heard yesterday that the Japanese News Agency, Domei, reported the population returning to their homes, business going on as usual and the population welcoming their Japanese visitors, or words to that effect,” wrote one of the missionaries in the Nanking Safety Zone, Robert Wilson, in his diary on December 21, 1937.

“If that is all the news that is going out of the city it is due for a big shake up when the real news breaks.” [120]

Throughout the Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Army imposed a strict media blackout.

Article 12 of their censorship guideline for newspapers issued in September 1937 stated any news article or photograph “unfavorable” to the Army was subject to a gag.

The 13th Article affirmed that reports and photos concerning arrests or interrogations of Chinese soldiers and civilians that would give “an impression of torture” wouldn’t be approved.

The 14th prohibited any “photographs of atrocities” but endorsed reports about the “cruelty of Chinese” soldiers and civilians. [121]

As a result, although there were more than 100 journalists from Japan for the first week of the Japanese occupation of Nanking, stories of the brutal conduct by their countrymen never reached the Japanese general public at the time.

It was not until Wilson testified before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo on July 26, 1946, that the Nanking Atrocities made newspaper headlines. [122]

Without knowing about international condemnations, people in Japan celebrated the defeat of their enemy country’s capital nationwide with the press setting off the jubilant atmosphere by such headlines as “Banzai on the summit of Purple Mountain!” “Two great functions commemorating the victory to be held by Tokyo Asahi newspaper,” and “Nanking entirely conquered: Historical grand ceremony three days ahead in the walled city.” [123]

Propagation of Positive Images

Japanese troops giving out cigarettes to Chinese prisoners of war.

Japanese troops giving out cigarettes to Chinese prisoners of war.

The Japanese Army not only censored the news reports and photographs but also attempted to propagate peaceful images of the city.

“Some newspaper men came to the entrance of a concentration camp and distributed cakes and apples and handed out a few coins to the refugees. And a moving pictures was taken of this kind of act,” wrote another missionary, James McCallum, in his letter to his family on January 9, 1938.

“At the same time a bunch of soldiers climbed over the back wall of the compound and raped a dozen or so of the women. There were no pictures taken out back.” [124]

Sato Shinju, a photographer for Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper who stayed in Nanking until December 24, 1937, recalls a comparable occasion in the city. “The Army told us they were going to give some food and snacks to Chinese kids, and asked if we were interested in taking pictures of the scene,” says Sato. “They did not force us to go there, though. I assume they just wanted good publicity…. It was like an informal press conference.” [125]

The Asahi newspaper carried a photograph that might be the scene Sato was asked to take pictures of on December 24, 1937. The photo was titled “Peace restored in Nanjing” and the further caption noted, “Soldiers of the Imperial Army are giving candies to the refugees.” [126]

Other propaganda was aimed at the Chinese populace in Nanking. Upon entering the city, the Army distributed handbills that read, “Remain in your homes. Your neighbors from Japan want to restore peace.” [127]

George A. Fitch of the YMCA wrote in his diary:

While wholesale executions proceeded without interruption, Japanese army planes dropped leaflets from the air: “All good Chinese who return to their homes will be fed and clothed. Japan wants to be a good neighbor to those Chinese not fooled by monsters who are Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers.” On the leaflet was a colored picture of a handsome Jap soldier, a Chinese child held Christ-like in his arms. At his feet a Chinese mother was bowing her thanks for bags of rice. [128]

Discrediting the Missionaries

A Japanese military postcard. Soldiers playing with Chinese children.

A Japanese military postcard. Soldiers playing with Chinese children.

To deal with the widespread condemnations abroad, the Japanese government tried to gloss over the atrocities by blaming subversive activities of some Chinese and by discrediting the “exaggerated” accounts given by the missionaries that were starting to circulate in the United States.

For instance, an American author named Frederick Vincent Williams, who was on the payroll of the Japanese propaganda organization, Jikyoku Iinkai, wrote a book called Behind the News in China in 1938 (to know more about Jikyoku Iinkai, see Appendix).

Although he did not directly mention Nanking, Williams implied that the atrocity stories were misguidedly reported in the United States. The pro-Japanese book claimed “the Chiang Kai-shek people” primed the foreign missionaries with “wild tales of alleged Japanese atrocities” and had them write “harrowing letters.” [129]

A Japanese newspaper, Osaka Mainichi, published such pamphlets as Common Sense and the China Emergency or The China Emergency in the English language that featured articles like “Japan’s Sole Aim – Peace of East Asia” or “Chinese Live in Japan Peacefully,” the tenor of which suggested Japan did not desire the “hideous war” and was by no means responsible for its provocation.

A newspaper-style four-page magazine, Japanese American, carried headlines such as “Nippon Saving China from Reds Writes Williams,” “Atrocity Stories Exploded as Real Facts Are Shown,” and “U.S. Enjoys Favorable Balance in Trade with Japan; Not with China.” [130] A leaflet printed late 1937 or early 1938 included a headline that reads “False Atrocity Stories Again Flood America!!!” referring to alleged use of poisonous gas shells, and other inhumane attacks by the Japanese troops in Shanghai and Nanking. [131]

A Japanese propaganda poster.

A Japanese propaganda poster.

The efforts to harm the reputation of the American Missionaries bore some fruits. A missionary in Japan, Arthur D. Berry, for instance, wrote to the Christian Advocate, “The stories of Japanese military forces deliberately destroying hospitals and schools in China, and deliberately slaughtering innocent Chinese people are slanderous lies.” [132]

In America a letter from one subscriber to Reader’s Digest claimed, “It is unbelievable that credence could be given a thing which is so obviously rank propaganda and so reminiscent of the stuff fed the public during the late war.” According to the magazine, it received similar comments from a number of readers. [133]

Reverend J. C. McKim apparently wrote a series of letters to the New York Times saying that it was not the Japanese but Chinese soldiers who were committing the atrocities.

“You were misinformed as far as Nanking was concerned,” wrote back John Magee, an American missionary in the Nanking Safety Zone, in a personal letter to McKim. After describing case after case of mass executions and rapes by the Japanese soldiers, Magee continued:

There was a small amount of looting of some shops by Chinese just before the Japanese entered. It is true that the homes of many people immediately outside the city walls were burnt down by the soldiers for defensive purposes, and this was certainly an outrage…. It is true that Chang Hsueh Liang’s troops, which showed up so miserably in the fighting, looted between here and Shanghai but there [they?] were executed by the hundreds. It is certainly unjust to have publicly accused the Chinese of such horrible things that happened here. [134]

An elementary school in Nanking. Chinese children receiving pro-Japanese education. Photo used by P. R. Dept. of the China Expeditionary Force of Japan.

An elementary school in Nanking. Chinese children receiving pro-Japanese education. Photo used by P. R. Dept. of the China Expeditionary Force of Japan.

Indeed, the members of the International Committee were all aware of the fact that the Japanese government tried to question the credibility of their reports.

On January 9 McCallum wrote, “Now the Japanese are trying to discredit our efforts in the Safety Zone. They threaten and intimidate poor Chinese into repudiating what we have said. Some of the Chinese are even ready to prove that the looting, raping and burning was done by the Chinese and not the Japanese.” [135]

Wilson’s diary on January 31 read, “We are branded as a lot of liars. The Japanese Embassy people tell people that everything we say is imaginative. That might be a lot truer if I were not a surgeon and have to patch up the results of their excesses.” [136]

In a letter to H. J. Timperley, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Miner Searle Bates wrote on March 3, “There has been a steady stream of lying charges against the University in the Sin Shun Pao, the propagandist organ widely distributed in Shanghai and East China generally.”

“I don’t think there’s any way that they [the missionaries] could bias their accounts because they were just telling the facts,” says the archivist of the Yale Divinity School, Martha Smalley.

“They were not particularly fond of the Chinese government. They recognized a lot of corruption. So I don’t think they were proponents of the ‘Chinese view.’ I really don’t think the claim [to discredit the missionaries] has too much basis.” [137]

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. Documents of the Rape of Nanking, 219.
  2. Shinichi Kusamori, “Fukyoka Shashin Ron: Houkoku no Shashin 2 [An Essay on Disapproved Photographs: Journalistic Photos on Japan 2],” in Mainichi Shinbun Hizou Fukyoka Shashin 2 [Stashed Photographs in Mainichi Newspaper: the Disapproved 2], (Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbun, 1999), 177-178.
  3. Takashi Yoshida, “A Battle Over History: The Nanjing Massacre in Japan,” in The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, ed. Joshua A. Fogel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 73.
  4. Ikuhiko Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 15-16.
  5. Ibid., 43.
  6. Interview by author, Fujisawa (Kanagawa Prefecture), Japan, 28 February 2000.
  7. Katsuichi Honda, Nankin he no Michi [The Road to Nanjing] (Tokyo: Asahi Bunko, 1989), 335.
  8. “The Sack of Nanking,” Readers’ Digest (July 1938): 29.
  9. Ibid., 31.
  10. Frederick Vincent Williams, Behind the News in China (New York: Nelson Hughes, 1938), 113-116.
  11. “In the Propaganda Arena (in Surveys; Professional Services),” Public Opinion Quarterly 2.3 (July 1938): 493-494.
  12. Bruno Lasker and Agnes Roman, Propaganda from China and Japan: A Case Study in Propaganda Analysis (American Council, Institute of Pacific Relations, 1938), 80.
  13. “Missionaries Write Home,” letter from Arthur D. Berry, The Christian Advocate (6 January 1938): 7, quoted in Paul A. Varg, Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 263.
  14. “We Were In Nanking,” Readers’ Digest (October 1938): 41.
  15. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre, 1937-1938, 63.
  16. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre, 1937-1938, 43.
  17. Documents of the Rape of Nanking, 246.
  18. Martha L. Smalley, interview by author, New Haven, Connecticut, 25 January 2000.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.