The Death Toll: Early Estimates

The Death Toll: Early Estimates

Unknown Number of Victims from the Beginning

The stone wall at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military's Nanjing Massacre.

The stone wall at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre.

Without doubt the total number of victims in the Nanking Atrocities per se by no means signifies the cruelty and barbarism of the incident.

No matter what the actual death toll was, the fact that Japanese soldiers were engaged in wanton executions and reckless rapes remains the same.

It is also true, however, that the number has been tinged with politically symbolic meaning and has maintained the emotional controversy for decades.

For Japanese conservatives, the figure of 200,000 connotes “victor’s justice” at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. In their eyes it was an overly inflated estimate based on groundless evidence, and any number in the hundreds of thousands is a pure nonsense.

In China the figure of 300,000, the death toll reckoned at the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, is the official estimate engraved on the stone wall at the entrance of the Qin-Hua Rijun Nanjing Datsusha Yunan Tongbao Jinianguan, or the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre.

As historian Yang Daqing at George Washington University points out, it denotes the “justice, legality, and authority of the postwar trials” in Nanking. Thus, for many Chinese any question about the death toll is considered motivated by ill will. [175]

However, as seen below, estimates of the total number of victims have never been definite and consistent, even after the release of the two tribunals’ judgments.

Chinese refugees gathering near the headquarters of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.

Chinese refugees gathering near the headquarters of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.

For instance, more than a month after the city fell, Miner Searle Bates, a professor of history at the University of Nanking and a member of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, wrote on January 25, 1938, “close to forty thousand unarmed persons were killed within and near the walls of Nanking, of whom some 30 percent had never been soldiers.” [176]

Lewis Smythe, a sociologist at the University of Nanking, initially reported on March 21, “… it is estimated that 10,000 persons were killed inside the walls of Nanking and about 30,000 outside the walls…. These people estimated that of this total about 30 percent were civilians.” [177]

Then in the spring of 1938, Smythe conducted a field survey to assess the damages and losses at Nanking and its vicinity under the auspices of the International Relief Committee. His research resulted in civilian victims of 6,600 (2,400 massacred and 4,200 abducted (and mostly missing)) within the city and 26,870 in the vicinity. [178]

Robert Wilson, a surgeon at the American-administered University Hospital in the Safety Zone, wrote in his letter to the family, “a conservative estimate of people slaughtered in cold blood is somewhere about 100,000, including of course thousands of soldiers that had thrown down their arms” on March 7, 1938. [179]

The chairman of the International Committee, John Rabe, gave a series of lectures in Germany after he came back to Berlin on April 15, 1938, in which he said, “We Europeans put the number [of civilian casualties] at about 50,000 to 60,000.” [180]

Farewell tea party for the Chairman of the Nanking Safety Zone, John Rabe.

Farewell tea party for the Chairman of the Nanking Safety Zone, John Rabe.

According to reports from the United Press and Reuters, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek announced as early as December 16, 1937, three days after the city fell, in Hankow, “Chinese army casualties on all fronts exceed 300,000. The loss of civilian life and property is beyond computation.” [181]

This was probably the first time a figure of hundreds of thousands was officially mentioned in the Second Sino-Japanese War, although Chiang’s estimate included all the battlefronts in China since the beginning of hostilities on July 7, 1937.

On January 11, 1938, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Harold Timperley, apparently tried to cable a similar estimate but was censored out by the Japanese authority in Shanghai because in his report it was “not less than 300,000 Chinese civilians” who were slaughtered in cold blood in “Nanking and elsewhere.” His message was relayed from Shanghai to Tokyo to be sent out to the Japanese Embassies in Europe and the United States. [182]

On January 17, 1938, when Japan’s Foreign Minister, Hirota Koki, sent a message to his contact in Washington D.C., the cable was intercepted by American intelligence and translated into English. According to the translation, which is now available at the National Archives, Timperley also reported about robbery, rape, and other brutal conduct by the Japanese troops that were going on in the walled city.

Another journalist, Edgar Snow, wrote in 1941 that his source in the Nanking International Relief Committee told him “the Japanese murdered no less than 42,000 people in Nanking alone, a large percentage of them women and children.” [183]

“In one of the bloodiest massacres of recorded history,” annotated Frank Capra’s U.S. war propaganda documentary, The Battle of China, from the Way We Fight series in 1944, “they [Japanese] murdered 40,000 men, women and children.” [184]

A scene from The Battle of China that depicted atrocities committed by the Japanese troops in Nanking.

A scene from The Battle of China that depicted atrocities committed by the Japanese troops in Nanking.

In 1947 at the Nanking War Crimes Tribunal, the verdict of Lieutenant General Tani Hisao, the commander of the 6th Division, quoted the figure of more than 300,000 victims. [185] Apparently the estimation was made from burial records and eyewitness accounts. It concluded that some 190,000 were illegally executed on a massive scale at various execution sites and 150,000 were individually massacred.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated in its judgment that “over 200,000” civilians and prisoners of war were murdered during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation. [186] That number was based on burial records submitted by two charitable organizations, the Red Swastika Society and the Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong), the research done by Smythe and some estimates given by survivors.

However, the tribunal seems not to have been concerned much about the exact number of victims. In the verdict of General Matsui Iwane, the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army, the IMTFE contradictorily indicated that, “In this period of six or seven weeks… upwards of 100,000 people were killed.” [187]

Even years after the two war crimes tribunals announced their estimates, neither of the death tolls took hold as an established figure.

Take, for instance, the Military History Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense of Republic of China (Taiwan) that compiled and published the 100-volume History of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In its concise version published in 1971, the researchers claimed, “Their [Japanese] slaughter of more than 100,000 people of Nanking was typically representative of their brutality.” [188]

In 1986, historian Lloyd Eastman at University of Illinois introduced a figure somewhat close to the early estimates reached by the Western missionaries in respected The Cambridge History of China. “During seven weeks of savagery,” wrote Eastman, “at least 42,000 Chinese were murdered in cold blood, many of them buried alive or set afire with kerosene.” [189]

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  1. Yang Daqing, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing,” American Historical Review 104.3 (June 1999): 852.
  2. H. J. Timperley, Japanese Terror in China (New York: Modern Age Books, 1938), 51.
  3. American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanjing Massacre, 1937-1938, 59.
  4. Lewis S. C. Smythe, War Damage in the Nanking Area: December 1937 to March 1938 (Shanghai: Shanghai Mercury Press, 1938), quoted in Minoru Kitamura, “‘Nanking Daigyakusatsu’ Kenkyu Josetsu (ge) [An Introduction to the Research on the “Nanjing Massacre (3)],” Toa 391 (January 2000), 52; Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Massacre], 212; Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 162.
  5. Documents on the Rape of Nanking, 254.
  6. Rabe, 212.
  7. “Chiang Urges China to Fight to Bitter End,” Chicago Daily News, 16 December 1937; “‘No Surrender’ Chiang Kai-shek’s Call to the Nation,” the Times (London), 17 December 1937.
  8. Japanese Diplomatic Messages, “Red Machine” (1934-1938), No. 1257 and No. 1263, Box 1, Record Group 457, the National Archives at College Park, MD.
  9. Edgar Snow, Battle for Asia (New York: Random House, 1941), 57.
  10. The Battle of China, dir. Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, 67 min., Signal Corps, 1944, motion picture film, Record Group 111, National Archives at Collage Park, MD.
  11. Shogen: Nanking Daigyakusatsu [Evidence: the Nanjing Massacre], trans. Kagami Mitsuyuki and Himeta Mitsuyoshi (Tokyo:Aoki Shoten, 1984), 134.
  12. The Tokyo Judgment: The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (I.M.T.F.E.) 29 April 1946 – 12 November 1948, Volume I, ed. Röling, B. V. A. and C. F. Rüter, (Amsterdam: University Press Amsterdam, 1977), 390.
  13. Ibid., 454.
  14. History of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), comp. Hsu Long-hsuen and Chang Ming-kai, trans. Wen Ha-hsiung, revised Kao Cing-chen, Hu Pu-yu, Liu Han-mou, Liu Ih-po and Lu Pao-ching (Taipei: Chung Wu Publishing, 1971), 213.
  15. Lloyd Eastman, “Nationalist China During the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945,” in The Cambridge History of China 13, ed. John K. Fairbank and Denis Twithchett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 552.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved