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]

Go back to: Table of Contents


  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

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.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved

The Controversies in Japan

The Controversies in Japan

Another Phase for the Controversy

Emperor Hirohito. A photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Emperor Hirohito. A photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

In August 1993, four years after the demise of Emperor Hirohito, a significant transformation took place in Japan’s official stance on the nation’s role during World War II.

That month, Hosokawa Morihiro became the first prime minister who did not represent the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 38 years.

Immediately after he took office, Hosokawa formally announced, “It [the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War] was a war of aggression, and it was wrong.” [211]

On August 23, in his maiden policy speech to the Diet, Hosokawa apologized for Japan’s past aggression and colonial rule for the third time.

“I would thus like to take this opportunity to express anew our profound remorse and apologies for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering and sorrow for so many people,” said Hosokawa. [212]

In 1995, the Diet passed a resolution on Japan’s responsibility for World War II that acknowledged the nation’s guilt for “acts of aggression” and “colonial rule.”

However, the compromise statement was criticized in some Asian countries due to its lack of the word “apology” and of any reference to specific brutal acts committed by Japanese troops during the war. [213]

The same year on August 15, the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi went much further than the resolution by stating:

During a certain period in the not-too-distant past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly those of Asia. In the hope that no such mistake will be made in the future, I regard, in a spirit of humanity, these irrefutable facts of history, and express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology. [214]

“Such a conciliatory domestic environment,” writes historian Yoshida Takashi, the co-author of The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, “provoked intense challenges” from Japanese conservatives and nationalists.

Senior LDP politicians such as environmental agency chief Sakurai Shin and education minister Shimamura Yoshinobu continued to make statements that played down Japan’s wartime aggression between 1994 and 1995. [215]

A cross at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military's Nanjing Massacre. The former Prime Minister, Murayama Tomiichi, officially visited the memorial hall on May 24, 1998.

A cross at the entrance of the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre. The former Prime Minister, Murayama Tomiichi, officially visited the memorial hall on May 24, 1998.

When interviewed by a national newspaper, Mainichi, in May 1994, newly appointed justice minister Nagano Shigeto told the paper that the Pacific War was a war of liberation and the Nanjing Massacre was a mere “fabrication.” [216]

His perception of Japan’s involvement in WWII and his remarks on this specific historical incident infuriated the Japanese people as well as people in China and South Korea. Two national newspapers, Asahi and Yomiuri, criticized Prime Minister Hata Tsutomu for not taking immediate action.

Consequently, Nagano was forced to resign only ten days after taking office. Hata subsequently sent a letter of apology to his Chinese counterpart, Li Peng, and telephoned South Korean President Kim Young Sam. [217]

At this point in the mid-1990s, the Nanking Atrocities once again came forward in the political arena, creating a foundation for another phase of ongoing polemic.

The vanguard was a professor of education at Tokyo University, Fujioka Nobukatsu.

Frustrated by the “pervasive Tokyo War Crimes Trial view of history” and “masochistic” descriptions of Japan’s imperial past in school textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Fujioka and his collaborators co-founded Jiyushugi Shikan Kenkyukai, or the Association for the Advancement of A Liberalist View of History, in January 1995, and Atarashi Kyokasho wo Tsukuru Kai, or the Society for Creating New History Textbooks, in December 1996, aiming to revise what he dubbed Japan’s “masochistic education” in history.

Fujioka and the two groups enjoyed large support from a variety of individuals including 62 lawmakers from the LDP, academics and novelists. [218]

Among other things, Fujioka questioned the death tolls of the Nanking Atrocities in the textbooks. He indicated the figures of hundreds of thousands were “groundless” and criticized especially those textbooks that quoted the number of “200,000” or “over 100,000” without attribution. [219]

Claiming to have been persuaded by “thorough and innovative” research on the topic by Higashinakano Shudo, a professor of intellectual history at Asia University, Fujioka later concluded that there was no massacre in 1937 Nanking. [220]

Throughout 1999, Fujioka and Higashinakano continued to contribute articles and essays to magazines and newspapers that sternly condemned other historians and reckoned the Nanjing Massacre as a latter-day fabrication.

Meanwhile, the two organizations founded by Fujioka also cooperated in disseminating Fujioka and Higashinakano’s view on the Nanking Atrocities. For instance, on July 31, 1999, the Association hosted a symposium in Tokyo that called the Nanjing Massacre “the biggest lie of the 20th century.” [221]

The Osaka International Peace Center, also known as Peace Osaka.

The Osaka International Peace Center, also known as Peace Osaka.

On January 23, 2000, a citizens’ group called “The Group to Rectify One-sided Wartime Exhibitions” organized a conference also dubbing the Rape of Nanking “the biggest lie of the 20th century” in the semi-public Osaka International Peace Center (commonly known as Peace Osaka in Japan).

Unlike the previous symposium or any other comparable forums, this particular conference, which invited Higashinakano as one of the key panelists, engaged keen attention from the media worldwide, especially in China.

About a week before the event took place, Chinese newspapers such as Renmin Ribao and China Youth Daily began reporting on the provocative title and the meeting’s intention to play down the Atrocities. [222]

Beijing officially urged Tokyo to take action to stop the forum. While assuring China of the Japanese government’s stance that the Nanjing Massacre was an undeniable fact, the Foreign Ministry said that it had no right to intervene in an event organized by citizens. [223]

In Nanking, one day after the conference was held, about 500 people gathered to protest at the Memorial Hall for Compatriot Victims of the Japanese Military’s Nanjing Massacre.

“The conference broke Chinese people’s hearts,” says Zhu Chengshan, the director of the Memorial Hall.

“It was the worst in the recent controversy. They conspicuously denied the historical fact and even labeled it ‘the biggest lie’ in the 20th century. Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?” [224]

"Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?" asks Zhu Chengshan.

“Does freedom of speech mean that you can say anything to hurt people?” asks Zhu Chengshan.

In China the mass media harshly criticized the event in their newspaper articles, editorials, and TV programs. Many local newspapers reprinted the editorial piece in Renmin Ribao titled “Who’s fabricating the ‘lie’?” written by Zhu.

In the headline for its editorial piece China Youth Daily even used the term, “riben guiji,” a derogatory expression meaning Japanese devils. [225] Shanghai TV made a lengthy news document titled “Wrath of Nanjing.” [226]

In Japan there was a difference of opinion about the event. Some argued that as long as it is not illegal, anyone should be allowed to speak one’s opinion freely. They said because Peace Osaka was a semi-public institution, the door must be open for everyone. Thus no one had the right to stop the event.

Others argued that since the Peace Osaka was established “not to forget the tremendous damage inflicted by Japan on people in China and other Asia-Pacific countries as well as people in Korea and Taiwan under colonial rule,” the administrators of the facility should have stopped any event that contradicted the principle. They said it was too harmful to be protected under freedom of speech and pointed out that if it had been in Germany, the conference would have been a punishable crime. [227]

About two and a half months later in Peace Osaka, those Japanese who were against the theme of the previous conference organized another meeting called “What the Nanjing Massacre calls for from Japan.”

This forum, which was held on April 8, 2000, also attracted media attention in Osaka and in Nanking. The forum was reported by the Chinese media as a rebuttal to the decision made by the Peace Osaka. The panel urged public officials to face Japan’s past deeds squarely. Among the panelists were Zhu and Yoshida Yutaka of Hitotsubashi University.

Interview: Yoshida Yutaka [228]

"The [Japanese] society has gone through a major change," says Yoshida Yutaka.

“The [Japanese] society has gone through a major change,” says Yoshida Yutaka.

Yoshida Yutaka is a historian at Hitotsubashi University. He has published various books and articles on the Imperial Army’s involvement in wartime atrocities. He has done extensive research on the Army records and other historical evidence of the Nanking Atrocities in Japan.

Q: In the United States the Nanking Atrocities are often typified in the context that Japan has never admitted the evildoings of their countrymen during World War II. It seems many people, including some newspapers and scholars, believe Japanese in general don’t acknowledge the Rape of Nanking. Some even say the Japanese government has been trying to cover things up and gloss over the history. What do you think of that claim?

Yoshida: It is not entirely groundless to claim that Japan has been avoiding owing up to the past. But it is not like 1960s or 1970s anymore. The society has gone through a major change.

For instance, today every textbook mentions the Nanjing Massacre. On several occasions the Japanese government has officially acknowledged that large-scale atrocities took place.

Yes, there are a variety of voices in Japan now. But I personally think the debate whether it actually happened or not ended when Kaikosha [a war veterans’ organization holding some 18,000 members (see Confessions)] admitted the fact and apologized for it in mid-1980s. Since then our task has shifted to the analysis of the historical context of the Nanjing Massacre.

Q: But it is also true that in Japan there are still people who deny that the Nanking Atrocities ever happened, isn’t it?

Yoshida: Yes, but their argument is primarily based on an arbitrary interpretation of international law, which even conservative scholars wouldn’t agree with. They say executing plain-clothes soldiers and stragglers are not massacres.

Japanese troops on the way to "wipe out Chungking guerillas." A photo used for a military postcard.

Japanese troops on the way to “wipe out Chungking guerillas.” A photo used for a military postcard.

But as I indicated in my research, it is indisputably unlawful to kill them without any legal procedure. It seems even right-leaning scholars are criticizing the interpretation of the law by the ‘denying camp.’ So I think they will have to take it back soon.

Frankly, I do not want to be bogged down in today’s controversy. It simply lacks the most important aspect of the historical analysis, which is, why it happened. What drove the Japanese troops to go on the rampage in the way they did in Nanjing, that’s what the research should be about.

Q: In Japan, some people question the credibility of certain historical materials relating to the Nanking Atrocities. Do you think it is an attempt to downplay the atrocities or an academic inquiry?

Yoshida: We should be aware of the limitation of historical material. Any evidence does not reflect all the facts in one piece. So we should put them together in perspective.

Better yet, we can only come up with an image. We cannot reconstruct the past exactly as it happened no matter what evidence we have.

What disturbs me most is that those ‘deniers’ are using the materials we have gathered over a long period of time, or the ones Kaikosha collected, and just twist things around. In the academia of history, they are not productive; rather, they are living in the world of interpretation.

I must say I learn a lot even from some conservative historians when they try to prove their point with their own research and with new evidence they unearthed. Although my view of a certain historical incident such as the Nanjing Massacre may differ from their view, I can still discuss details in a scholarly fashion.

But those ‘deniers’ have their conclusions first. Then they lay down the available evidence to back up their belief, which inevitably forces them to interpret the material in a way no one else would do.

Q: In your recent writing on this topic [“Did no one really know about the Nanjing Incident?”], you indicated the Emperor might have known what was going on in Nanking. Are there any new findings to suggest that?

Emperor Hirohito. Another photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Emperor Hirohito. Another photo used for a military postcard in Japan.

Yoshida: I didn’t mention this in that paper but I have known for quite some time that Hallet Abend [New York Times correspondent in Shanghai] wrote in his book [Pacific Charter (see Works Cited)] that the Emperor knew about the Nanjing Massacre.

According to the book, a high civilian Japanese official told Abend that he informed the Emperor of the atrocities in Nanjing. But it seems there is too much dramatization in his book.

It tells us that this official spent two hours on his knees at the Emperor’s feet, whispering into the Emperor’s ear what had happened following the capture of Nanjing. His feet became numb and he had to have assistants massage his legs. It is hard to take at its face value, isn’t it? The story is too dramatic to be true.

I would say it is probably a safe bet to assume this high official was Hidaka Shinrokuro, an able diplomat in Shanghai who was well known among foreigners there. A biography of Hirota Koki [then foreign minister] tells that he and Hidaka discussed the conditions in Nanjing. Hidaka in fact testified about what he knew about the atrocities in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. Since he returned to Japan once in the beginning of 1938, it is quite likely that he reported the information he had at the time to the government.

But there is no evidence that he reached the Emperor. Abend’s book isn’t enough to verify the fact. So I simply quoted the chamberlain to the Emperor [who wrote that many in the administration knew about what happened and recalled the Emperor often saying “The Army is different from what it used to be during the Russo-Japanese War”]. The Emperor might have known, but it is not proven.

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. T. R. Reid, “Japan’s Leader Seeks To Meet With Clinton,” the Washington Post, 11 August 1993.
  2. James Sterngold, “Japan’s Leader Vows Action on Political System,” the New York Times, 24 August 1993.
  3. T. R. Reid, “On Japan’s WWII Resolution, Right Wing Blinks and Prime Minister Wins,” the Washington Post, 8 June 1995.
  4. A letter from Hiroshi Hashimoto, ambassador of Japan in Singapore, to the Straits Times, 4 February 2000.
  5. Takashi Yoshida, 97.
  6. T. R. Reid, “Japan’s Hata Reprimands Justice Chief: Ex-General Disputed ‘Rape of Nanjing’,” the Washington Post, 5 May 1994.
  7. The Daily Yomiuri, 11 May 1994.
  8. Takashi Yoshida, 98. Soni Efron, “Defender of Japan’s War Past,” the Los Angeles Times, 9 May 1997.
  9. Nobukatsu Fujioka, Jiyu Shugi Shikan to ha Nani ka: Kyokasho ga Oshienai Rekishi no Mikata [A Liberal View of History: Historical Views Textbooks Do Not Teach] (Tokyo: PHP Bunko, 1997), 32-49.
  10. Nobukatsu Fujioka, “Nakamura Akira shi no ‘Nanking Jiken Ichiman Nin Gyakusatsu Setsu’ wo Hihan Suru [Critique of ‘The Death Toll of Ten Thousand’ in the Nanjing Incident’ by Mr. Akira Nakamura],” Seiron 319 (March 1999): 287-288.
  11. Akira Nakamura, “Nanking de Kangaeta ‘Nanking Jiken’ [Reflecting on ‘The Nanjing Incident’ in Nanjing],” Seiron 329 (January 2000): 89.
  12. See for example, Renmin Ribao, 18 January 2000; China Youth Daily, 18 January 2000.
  13. See Asahi Shinbun, 24 January 2000 and 25 January 2000.
  14. Zhu Chengshang, interview by author, Nanjing, China, 24 March 2000.
  15. See China Youth Daily, January 24 2000; Asahi Shinbun, 25 January 2000.
  16. The program was shown at the conference held in Peace Osaka on April 8, 2000.
  17. A booklet given by the Peace Center and observations of several newspapers by author.
  18. Yutaka Yoshida, interview by author, Tokyo, 24 February 2000.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved