Killing Prisoners of War

Killing Prisoners of War

Policy to Take No Prisoners

Bodies left unburied along the Yangtze River. Photo taken by a Japanese soldier, Murase Moriyasu, of the 17th Motorized Company of the Meguro Supply and Transport Regiment.

Bodies left unburied along the Yangtze River. Photo taken by a Japanese soldier, Murase Moriyasu, of the 17th Motorized Company of the Meguro Supply and Transport Regiment.

“After that, we successively had a number of prisoners surrendering to us. It became a group of several thousands. The extremely enraged soldiers adversely reacted to the officers’ attempts to restrain them and butchered the captives one after another,” wrote Major General Sasaki Touichi, commander of the Sasaki Detachment of the 16th Division of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, of the day his troops entered the city.

“Looking back at the last ten days of hardships and bloodshed that killed and wounded many of our buddies, though I am not a mere common soldier, I am in favor of saying, ‘Kill them all!’ We ran out of even a grain of rice and, though maybe there are some in the city, I am certain that our Army wouldn’t have any extra to feed the prisoners.” [66]

The next day, on December 14, Sasaki officially commanded his troops not to take any prisoners unless ordered to do so. [67]

In the past two decades in Japan, voluminous evidence of the Nanking Atrocities was unearthed and collected by many historians, some journalists and war veterans. But, surprisingly, one of the most dramatic episodes of the discoveries did not concern any researcher or journalist.

In the late 1980s a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji, who prefers to be called a “laborer,” began investigating what had become of the Chinese prisoners of war captured by the Yamada Detachment of the 13th Division. Most officers and men of the unit came from Fukushima Prefecture where Ono’s hometown is located.

For the next seven years Ono interviewed about 200 war veterans and collected 24 wartime diaries and other historical materials.

His work not only revealed how possibly the largest mass executions of POWs in the Nanking Atrocities took place near Mufu Mountain, but also showed how ordinary men were dragged into war and were transformed into numb-minded killers. [68]

Bodies on the Yangtze bank. Photo taken by Murase.

Bodies on the Yangtze bank. Photo taken by Murase.

Another dramatic and perhaps the most significant contribution to the explication of the Nanking Atrocities came to pass when a war veterans’ organization, Kaikosha, asked its 18,000-odd members for any information relating to the Battle of Nanjing for its newsletter, Kaiko, in the mid-1980s.

The campaign was initially intended to refute the myth of the Nanjing Massacre, but ironically the organization received mounting evidence that incriminated the Japanese troops.

“There is no excuse for this mass illegal disposition [of the prisoners of war],” said war veteran Katogawa Kotaro, one of the chief editors of the publication, in the last issue of the 11-part series. “As a person relating to the Imperial Army, I can do nothing but apologize to the Chinese people. It was cruel. I am sincerely sorry.” [69]

Indeed, the accumulated evidence, namely wartime diaries, memoirs, field reports and official records of the military operations, all suggested that the upper echelons of the Imperial Army adopted a policy to “dispose of” – euphemism for “kill” – every captive. The commander of the 16th Division, Lieutenant General Nakajima Kesago, for instance, wrote in his diary on Dec. 13:

To begin with, it is our policy not to take prisoners, so we decided to get them out of the way. But when it became a group of one thousand, five thousand, and finally ten thousand, we couldn’t even disarm them all. We were safe simply because they had absolutely no will to fight back and followed us slovenly…. I have never imagined that we would have to deal with this large-scale disposition. The staff officers were extremely busy.

I later learned the Sasaki Detachment alone disposed of about fifteen thousand; the one company commander assigned to guard Taiping Gate disposed of about thirteen hundred; seven or eight thousand gathered near Xianhao Gate and many others are still coming to surrender one after another. In order to dispose of these seven or eight thousand people, we needed quite a large trench but were unable to find one. My plan is to divide them into groups of one or two hundred, lure them to proper places and dispose of them there. [70]

The adjutant to the commanding officer (Matsui Iwane) of the China Central Area Army (CCAA), Major Sumi Yoshiharu, told Kaiko that Lieutenant Colonel Cho Isamu, an information staff officer of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and a general staff of CCAA, ordered the killing of a great number of POWs held in Xiaguan. [71]

In his autobiography, Marquis Tokugawa Yoshichika wrote of an anecdote he heard from his friend to whom Cho himself apparently told the following story directly:

A crowd of fleeing civilians including women and children, as well as a number of Chinese soldiers, was surging along the banks of Yangtze. Letting go the Chinese soldiers would affect the course of the war. So Lieutenant Colonel Cho ordered the troops who were holding machine guns at the front to shoot them.

Since there were many civilians in the crowd along with some soldiers, the Japanese troops were hesitant and couldn’t do it. Cho lost his temper. “You want to know how to kill people! Like this!” He slashed one of his troops down from the shoulder with his sword. Stunned at Cho, the other troops snapped and opened fire. That’s how the massacre started. [72]

A Chinese soldier captured by Japanese troops.

A Chinese soldier captured by Japanese troops.

In Nanjing, the remnants of the defeated army, whether they voluntarily surrendered or whether they got captured as they straggled, were mercilessly killed in the name of “mopping-up” operations.

As observed by the foreign journalists and many Japanese journalists, the Japanese troops also conducted intensive searches for plain-clothes soldiers in the refugee camps.

They looked into one house after another, assembled every able-bodied man and inspected each one for any sign of having been a soldier such as a helmet mark on the forehead, an imprint of a machine-gun strap on the shoulders or calluses on the hands.

Through this arbitrary procedure, many civilians who were not even remotely connected to the Chinese Army were also selected and marched off to execution sites in many parts of the city and outside the walls.

A naval officer, Okumiya Masatake, looked around Nanking on December 25 and 27 in search of dead bodies of missing navy pilots and saw “countless bodies of Chinese” discarded along the shore of the Xuanwu Lake near the Xuanwu Gate. On both days he also witnessed Army troops executing a number of Chinese people at the Xiaguan execution site.

Wondering how they managed to bring so many POWs to the area without much difficulty, he asked a nearby soldier about the trick.

Unburied bodies along the Yangtze. Photo taken by Murase.

Unburied bodies along the Yangtze. Photo taken by Murase.

According to Okumiya’s book, he replied, “We say, ‘If you are hungry, raise your hands!’ to the Chinese whom we forced to clean up the battle site inside the city walls. Then get those who raised their hands on a truck as if we would take them to a place to eat.” [73]

Executing POWs without any kind of military trial was already a violation of the Hague Regulations of 1902. But, at any rate, most Japanese troops did not have any intention to protect any human rights of the captives.

Some soldiers, if not many, also wreaked their resentments on the prisoners. That was typically embodied in the brutal tortures before executions.

Sergeant Masuda Rokusuke of the 20th Infantry Regiment of the 16th Division wrote in his memoirs:

On the 14th, I went to the refugee camps organized by the International Committee to sweep the place…. Each platoon ransacked its assigned area house to house and checked every single man. Sergeant Maeda of the 2nd Platoon found a few hundreds of stragglers shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes inside a big building.

I entered the building right away and saw a crowd of stragglers, a heap of Chinese swords and other weapons…. We dragged them out, striped them naked, inspected their possessions, and bundled them with an electric wire we picked up in the street….

“You made us suffer!”… “You made us sacrifice our buddies!”… “You made Japanese people cry!” “You, little brat!” We kicked, whipped, and beat the heads, backs and other parts of the captives to give vent to our frustration. There were at least 300 of them….

In the evening, we led nearly 600 stragglers to the Xuanwu Gate and mowed them down at one go. [74]

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  1. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 272.
  2. Ibid., 439.
  3. Kenji Ono, et al., comp. Nanking Daigyakusatsu o Kirokushita Kogun Heishitach [Imperial Army Soldiers Who Recorded the Nanjing Massacre] (Tokyo, Otsuki Shoten, 1996). See also Ono, “Gyakusatsu ka Kaihou ka: Yamada Shitai Horyo Yaku Niman no Yukue” [Massacre or Discharge? Fate of the About 20,000 Prisoners of War Captured by the Yamada Detachment],” in Nanking Jiken Chosa Kenkyukai [The Nanjing Incident Research Group], Nanking Daigyakusatsu Hiteiron 13 no Uso [Thirteen lies in the Nanjing Massacre Deniers’ Claims] (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1999), 140-156.
  4. Hata Ikuhiko, Showashi no Nazo wo Ou (Jo) [Chasing Down the Mysteries of Showa History (1)] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunji, 1993), 133-134.
  5. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 220.
  6. Ibid., 652-653.
  7. Quoted in Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 109.
  8. Masatake Okumiya, Watashi no Mita Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident That I Saw] (Tokyo: PHP Kenkyujo, 1997), 33-39.
  9. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 416.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.