The Death Toll: Estimates in the 1990s

The Death Toll: Estimates in the 1990s

Disagreement over the Death Toll

Refugees lining up for the registration. The population of the city of Nanking has been pointed to for decades in the emotional polemic.

Refugees lining up for the registration. The population of the city of Nanking has been pointed to for decades in the emotional polemic.

Although the precise death toll has never been historically established as a definite fact, it is evident that a large number of Chinese people were massacred in merciless fashion in Nanking.

In the ongoing controversy, however, one side of the dispute often calls a “denier” anyone who writes off a certain figure as “inflated.”

Conversely if one dismisses a certain estimate as “minimized,” the other side of the polemic tends to place the label “masochistic” for Japanese and “hysteric” or a “political agent” for Chinese.

The notion here is that if the figure of 300,000 (or any higher end of the estimates for that matter) does not stand, it is no longer the Nanking Atrocities (or the Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanking).

Some try to refute the figure of 300,000 (or 200,000) in an attempt to prove that the atrocities did not take place. Others try to enshrine the figure of 300,000 (200,000) in an effort to emphasize the scale of the atrocities.

Caught up in the “mathematical game,” the two extreme sides tend to use the number of people massacred as a benchmark to measure every criminal act such as abduction, rape, looting, and arson. In their arguments, therefore, the more the dead bodies, the more incendiarism, violations of women, and pillage were committed by the Japanese troops. The higher the death toll is, the worse the atrocities are, and vice versa.

Indeed, the focal point of the recent controversy has always been the final death toll. This tendency, unfortunately, has blinded the general public to the current scholarship and how estimates were arrived at.

Ignoring any logical explanation behind the figure, some take up only the final death toll suggested by a researcher and condemn it as either diminishing or exaggerating the scale of the Nanking Atrocities.

Below are the two typical examples of historical evidence that have been pointed to for decades in the emotional polemic despite the efforts of many historians to explain the rationale for their calculations.

Population of Nanjing

Chinese refugees filmed by an American missionary, John Magee.

Chinese refugees filmed by an American missionary, John Magee.

The exact population of Nanking when the city fell onto the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army is simply impossible to figure out since no one could possibly record the inflow and outflow of people during wartime.

However, from the day the Japanese troops occupied the city onward, many members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone repeatedly stated in their official documents, diaries and letters that around 250,000 refugees were living in the camps within the Safety Zone and many fewer people, “probably not more than ten thousands,” as reported by one of the members, Miner Searle Bates, were living outside the refugee camps. [190]

Considering that they were the ones who arranged food and other supplies for the relief of the refugees, probably their calculation of the population was not far off the mark.

Although this number did not include the Chinese troops, which in foreign journalists’ estimates amounted to about 50,000, [191] the massacre of 300,000 or even 200,000 people simply looks implausible since those missionaries, who incessantly protested against the orgy of murders, looting, rapes and arson by the Japanese troops, did not record any drastic population drops as a result of the atrocities.

Indeed, Lewis Smythe, a sociologist at the University of Nanking, conducted a survey in the spring of 1938 that showed much smaller number of civilian victims, as did other members of the International Committee.

Burial Records

The second question often raised by many is the credibility of burial records of the Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong), a 140-year-old charitable organization in Nanjing. Although their reports that recorded the burial of 112,267 bodies was adduced to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, they were actually prepared for the tribunal after the war ended because the original manuscripts were allegedly all lost during the eight years of Japanese occupation.

Of course that does not mean that the Chung Shan Tang doctored their reports. The available Chinese documents of that time showed that the organization started burying the dead bodies scattered over certain parts of the city at the beginning of 1938 at the latest. Forty full-time staff and numerous part-timers buried their countrymen and women inside the city walls until March and worked outside of the walls in April.

It should be noted, however, that none of the other documents written by members of the International Committee or the Japanese authorities in Nanjing mentioned that the Tsun Shan Tang was engaged in burial work, while they recorded that another charitable organization, the Red Swastika Society, buried about 40,000 bodies.

Their burial reports also showed a rather disproportionate number of the bodies buried each month. In the first one hundred days from December to March they recorded 7,549 bodies, about 75 per day. In the last three weeks in April when they went outside the city walls, however, they claimed to have buried an additional 104,718, about 5,000 bodies per day. [192]

The Estimates by Historians and Their Rationale

A village outside Nanking in February 1936. Some historians argue that the victims in the neighboring six counties should also be included in the total death toll of the Nanking Atrocities.

A village outside Nanking in February 1936. Some historians argue that the victims in the neighboring six counties should also be included in the total death toll of the Nanking Atrocities.

It is safe to say that today the majority of historians estimate the death toll of the Nanking Atrocities in the range between 200,000 and 300,000 as claimed by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East or the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal.

However, what is fundamentally different is their reasoning for the figures and their “definition” of the Nanking Atrocities, namely the duration of the incident, the boundaries of Nanjing area, and in some cases the breakdown of the death toll by soldiers killed in action, prisoners of war and innocent civilians.

For instance, historian Kasahara Tokushi at Tsuru University and Fujiwara Akira, a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University, take into account that Japanese soldiers continually committed atrocities throughout the march between Shanghai and Nanjing.

They consider that the entire Nanjing Special Municipality, which consisted of the walled city and its neighboring six counties, should be included when discussing the Nanking Atrocities. [193]

Kasahara researched the damages and losses in those local areas where the Japanese troops swarmed through during the Battle of Nanking and concluded that a greater number of people were slaughtered in rural areas than inside the walled city. Given the fact that the population of the entire Special Municipality was over one million in early December, Kasahara estimated close to 200,000 people were massacred in total. [194]

In an agreement with Kasahara, Fujiwara defined the duration of the Nanking Atrocities “from the commencement of Japanese attack on the Nanjing Municipality in early December 1937 until [late] March 1938 when the Japanese Army officially declared that public security was restored,” and concluded “nearly 200,000 or even more soldiers and civilians” [195] were massacred.

Refugee huts at Tse Hsia Shan, outside Nanking. March 1938.

Refugee huts at Tse Hsia Shan, outside Nanking. March 1938.

Many historians such as Yoshida Yutaka at Hitotsubashi University and Joshua Fogel at the University of California, Santa Barbara, embrace Kasahara’s research and his conceptualization of the Nanking Atrocities. [196]

The director of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre, Zhu Chengshan, also agrees with the definition proposed by Kasahara and Fujiwara but has a different opinion as to the number of the victimized Chinese POWs. In his estimate, “not less than 300,000” were massacred in the Nanjing Special Municipality. [197]

Sun Zhaiwei, a scholar at the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences, adopts the death toll of more than 300,000 within and near the city limits, although he leaves some space for discussion, indicating the number could be “somewhat upward or downward.” [198]

In his research Sun calculated that the size of Nanking Defense Army was about 150,000 as opposed to the 50,000 troops previously believed. According to his study, a far greater number of people were living outside the refugee camps than was observed by the missionaries, which makes the death toll of 300,000 within and near the city plausible. [199]

“The neighboring six counties shouldn’t be included in the discussion of the Nanking Atrocities,” maintains Hata Ikuhiko, a professor at Nihon University. Hata thinks the “definition” must be in accordance with the one announced in the IMTFE judgment, which states, “This orgy of crime started with the capture of the City on the 13th December 1937 and did not cease until early in February 1938.” [200]

Though admitting that there were wholesale atrocities outside the walled city and elsewhere in China, Hata believes historians should comply with the early definition for the sake of academic discussion.

"Historians should stick to the definition given by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial," says Hata Ikuhiko.

“Historians should stick to the definition given by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial,” says Hata Ikuhiko.

“Only God knows the exact figure,” says Hata. [201]

“I don’t think the members of the Committee for the Safety Zone statistically calculated the population. And there could have been many people living outside the Safety Zone. After all it was only one-eighth the land of the entire city. So the population could have been higher than 250,000 and could have been lower as well. The thing is, we don’t even know what number to base on….”

“I think historians should stick to the definition given by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Right now we are arguing on different planes. But if we do agree on the definition, hopefully we could at least have a consensus if it was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.”

Hata dismisses the burial record of Chung Shan Tang (Tsung Shan Tong) as “unreliable” [202] and tentatively estimates the death toll of the massacred at 38,000 through 42,000 [203] and the total number of deaths including Chinese soldiers killed in action at not more than 100,000. [204]

Higashinakano Shudo, a professor of intellectual history at Asia University, asserts that the burial record of the Chung Shan Tang was concocted for the tribunal. He also questions the credibility of the record given by the other charitable organization, the Red Swastika Society, asserting that of the recorded 40,000 bodies, only 13,000 to 15,000 were authentic. [205]

“My research shows that the Red Swastika Society could have possibly buried 15,000-odd bodies. Of course I am aware that there were bodies thrown into the Yangtze River,” says Higashinakano. “But even if we believe the figure of 40,000, it does not make much difference. The real question is whether those bodies were civilians or not, whether those people were illegally killed or not.” [206]

Higashinakano argues that the plain-clothes soldiers, Chinese soldiers who shed their uniforms and fled into the refugee camps, were all guerillas and violated the Hague Regulations of 1902. In his view those guerilla suspects were not entitled to be taken as prisoners of war, thus executing them should not be called massacre. Accordingly, he insists there was no systematic illegal mass murder in Nanking. [207]

Probably Higashinakano’s view represents the extreme side of the latest controversy. However, in Japan even some conservative scholars reject his interpretation of the International Law.

For instance, historian Nakamura Akira at Dokkyo University, a self-professed “genuine patriot” and a “right-winger,” notes that it is a massacre to kill prisoners of war including plain-clothes soldiers without any military trial. [208]

Nakagaki Hideo, a researcher at Boei Daigaku, or the Defense Academy, also admits that there were mass illegal executions of Chinese POWs. [209] Although both Nakamura and Nakagaki uphold far lower death tolls than claimed at the IMTFE, they do not deny the fact that the Nanking Atrocities took place.

"The number could be discussed, but the Massacre must be acknowledged by everyone in the debate before that," says Zhang Lianhong.

“The number could be discussed, but the Massacre must be acknowledged by everyone in the debate before that,” says Zhang Lianhong.

A historian at Nanjing Normal University and also the secretary-general of the Research Center of Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese Aggressors, Zhang Lianhong, asserts that “recognition” must come first before “definition.”

He thinks historians of both countries including Japanese conservative scholars must reach a full consensus as to such essential factors as the flawed process of distinguishing plain-clothes soldiers from civilians and the illegitimacy of indiscriminately executing prisoners of war before discussing the actual number of victims.

“I don’t think the death toll is a key element of the Nanjing Massacre,” says Zhang.

“Some scholars say Chinese historians persist in the figure of 300,000 but I think it could be discussed between Japanese researchers and Chinese researchers. We [historians at the Research Center] are willing to talk to even Japan’s ‘conservative’ historians as long as they respect the historical fact that the Nanjing Massacre took place. Then we can discuss the details. I think joint research is the most important step towards a transnational consensus.” [210]

As Zhang articulated, almost all historians note that the exact death toll is not the highest priority in comprehending what actually happened in Nanking. They point out that there were other crimes such as rape, pillage, and arson that are now impossible to quantify.

In the interviews for this online documentary, many researchers said that the issue of the death toll must be discussed in a scholarly fashion. They maintain it should be a topic for academic debates, not for ideologically driven arguments.

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. See for instance, “Nanking International Relief Committee Reports of Activities November 22, 1937 – April 15, 1938,” in American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre, 1937-1938, 11; Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone, 84.
  2. See for example, Durdin, “The Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled,” the New York Times, 9 January 1938.
  3. Hisashi Inoue, “Itai Maisou Kiroku ha Gizou Shiryo de ha Nai [The Burial Records are not fabricated evidence],” in Nanking Daigyakusatsu Hiteiron 13 no Uso [Thirteen lies in the Nanjing Massacre Deniers’ Claims], 120-137.
  4. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 214; Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing], 70.
  5. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 228. “jusuman ijo, soremo nijuman chikai ka aruiwa sore ijo.” The Japanese expression “jusuman” means “one hundred and tens of thousands,” which could possibly imply between 120,000 and 180,000. The sentence literally means, “one hundred and tens of thousands, probably the higher end of it, that is, nearly 200,000 or even more.”
  6. Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing], 70-73.
  7. Yutaka Yoshida, “Nanking Jiken no Zenyo ga Semaru Rekishi Ninshiki [The Whole Picture of the Nanjing Incident Obliges Us to Recognize the History],” Zenei 695 (January 1998): 60; Joshua A. Fogel, review of the Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang, Journal of Asian Studies 57.3 (August 1998): 81818-819; Fogel, “Correspondence: How Bad Was the Nanking Massacre?” letters to the editor, the Los Agngeles Times, 15 August 1999.
  8. Zhu Chengshan, interview by author, Nanjing, China, 24 March 2000.
  9. Sun Zhaiwei, et al., Nanjing Datsusha [The Nanjing Massacre] (Beijing, 1997), 9-10, quoted in Yang Daqing, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanking,” American Historical Review 104.3 (June 1999): 853.
  10. Sun Zhaiwei, “Nanking Daigyakusatsu no Kibo wo Ronjiru [Lecture on the Scale of the Nanjing Massacre]” (speech at the Tokyo International Symposium: 60th Anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, Tokyo, Japan, 13-14 December 1997), in Nanking Jiken wo Do Miruka: Nichi, Chu, Bei Kenkyusha ni Yoru Kensho [How to perceive the Nanjing Massacre: Verifications by Japanese, Chinese and American Researchers], ed. Akira Fujiwara (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1998), 78-81 and 107.
  11. The Tokyo Judgment: The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (I.M.T.F.E.) 29 April 1946 – 12 November 1948, Volume I, 454.
  12. Ikuhiko Hata, interview by author, Tokyo, Japan, 19 February 2000.
  13. Hata, “The Nanking Atrocities: Facts and Fable,” Japan Echo 25.4 (August 1998): available from; Internet.
  14. Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 184-215.
  15. Hata, “Nanking Daigyakusatsu: ‘Rabe Koka’ o Sokutei Suru [The Nanjing Massacre: Examining the ‘Rabe Effect’],” Shokun 30.2 (February 1998): 86.
  16. Shudo Higashinakano, “Nanking Gyakusatsu” no Tettei Kensho [A Through Probe of “The Nanjing Massacre”] (Tokyo: Tendensha, 1998), 295-320.
  17. Shudo (Osamichi) Higashinakano, Tokyo, Japan, 3 March 2000.
  18. Ibid., 191-197.
  19. Akira Nakamura, “Nanking Jiken “Nichi Chu Taiwa Ryokou” Watashi ga Nyukoku Kyohi sareta Wake [The Nanjing Incident: Reasons That My Visa Application for A Trip of ‘Dialogue between Japan and China,’ Was Rejected],” Seiron 333 (May 2000): 69-72.
  20. Hideo Nakagaki, “Nankin Jiken no Kenshou 2 [Verification of the Nanjing Incident 2],” Gouyu (February 2000): 25-30.
  21. Zhang Lianhong, interview by author, Nanjing, China, 24 March 2000.

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