Battle of Shanghai

Battle of Shanghai

Close combat in the city of Shanghai. Photo used by P. R. Dept. of the China Expeditionary Force of Japan.

Close combat in the city of Shanghai. Photo used by P. R. Dept. of the China Expeditionary Force of Japan.

Precipitated by a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops at Lugouqiao (Lu-kou-ch’iao), or the Marco Polo Bridge, on the outskirts of Beijing on July 7, 1937, the bilateral conflict between the two nations developed into a full-scale war.

During the early stage of the “North China Incident,” the Imperial forces of Japan quickly captured major cities in northern China and advanced southward.

By mid-August the mutual hostility, which had been growing since Japan’s conquest of Manchuria in 1932 and the subsequent formation of the puppet Manchukuo regime, inevitably goaded the two countries into another war in central China as well, involving one of the most developed, international cities in Asia, Shanghai.

At this point the Second Sino-Japanese War that eventually bogged down the two neighboring countries in a bloody, eight-year-long war became irreversible.

Having tasted easy victories in northern China, the Japanese Army and Navy apparently underestimated the Chinese troops in Shanghai, but that expectation soon proved to be a wrong one.

That August the Japanese troops found themselves at a major standstill as they encountered stern resistance by the Chinese main forces, while the Japanese government clung to the hope that the Chinese forces could be easily subdued.

Japanese troops marching about 12 miles (20 km) north of Shanghai.

Japanese troops marching about 12 miles (20 km) north of Shanghai.

House-to-house fighting broke out, bombs detonated in the war-shattered city and naval gunfire backed up the infantry units. Both sides continuously reinforced their troops in order to make up their losses. [1]

The war in Shanghai was indeed a decisive battle that caused both sides exorbitant damages, left them with a deep-rooted loathing for each other, and begot vengeance.

Many historians today say the Battle of Shanghai nurtured the psychological conditions for Japanese soldiers to go on a berserk rampage in Nanking later on. [2]

A sergeant from the Amadani Detachment of Japan’s 11th Division, for instance, described what he saw when the unit made a landing at Wusong on September 3. His postwar memoirs partly read:

I crawled up onto the embankment at Wusong and beheld the sight of perdition. It was brutal. A bloodbath in the battlefield of Ashura [a demon who is eternally fighting] couldn’t have been merciless like this. As far as my eyes could see, there was corpse after corpse on top of the embankment, heaps of which covered the entire ground.

The bodies of thousands of soldiers were all piled up in a jumble just like blue-fin tuna in a market. A nauseating stench of death assailed my nostrils. This was what had become of the officers and men of the 3rd Division from Nagoya…. They must have been mowed down the moment they landed. These soldiers must have died without knowing what was happening to them….

Due to the decay of the internal organs, all the bodies were in ferment and swollen up, and the soft parts of the bodies had gushed out by pressure, such as the eyeballs bulging five or six centimeters [about 2 inches] out of their faces. [3]

The fierce battle in Shanghai ended in mid-November when a successful landing of Japan’s 10th Army at Hangzhou Bay in the south, and of the 16th Division at Baimaokou in the north, threatened the Chinese forces’ flank and forced them to withdraw to the west. The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo, which had been concerned about the exhausted troops and their declining military discipline, decided not to expand the war front any further.

Japanese troops marching toward Nanking.

Japanese troops marching toward Nanking.

However, on November 19, the 10th Army led by Lieutenant General Yanagawa Heisuke cabled to the Headquarters, “The group [the 10th Army] commanded [its troops] to put on a spurt in pursuit [of the retreating Chinese] to Nanking.”

The second in command of General Staff, Lieutenant General Tada Shun, was surprised to receive the message. He immediately ordered a stop to the arbitrary act, which turned out to be of no avail.

Three days later, the Central China Area Army (CCAA) that supervised the 10th Army also sent a report that emphasized the necessity to attack Nanking. On December 1, 1937, the Imperial Headquarters, which had just been established as the highest authority on strategic matters in the “China Incident” in late November, finally ordered the CCAA to capture “the capital of the enemy state.”

Meanwhile the Imperial Headquarters reappointed General Matsui Iwane as the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army and newly appointed Lieutenant General Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, Emperor Hirohito’s uncle, to take command of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force that made up the CCAA along with the 10th Army. [4]

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  1. Frank Dorn, The Sino-Japanese War, 1937-41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1974), 69-78.
  2. See, for instance, Akira Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing] (Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten, 1997), 18; Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1986), 42-43; Ikuhiko Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident] (Tokyo: Chuo Koron, 1986), 67.
  3. Quoted in Katsuichi Honda, Nanking he no Michi [The Road to Nanjing] (Tokyo: Asahi Bunko, 1989), 41-44.
  4. Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 73-78; Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing] 23-25; Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident] 66-70; Tokushi Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1997), 62-71.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.

From Shanghai to Nanking

From Shanghai to Nanking

When the Imperial Headquarters gave ex post facto, or retroactive, approval to the CCAA on December 1, 1937, both the 10th Army and the Shanghai Expeditionary Force had already been marching westward, heading for the capital city of Nanking, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) northwest of Shanghai.

As yet, there was no declaration of war, for Japan feared that such a declaration would activate the Neutrality Act of the United States, which would unavoidably result in a suspension of trade on raw materials for munitions and other war supplies. The ambiguity of the war aim and the unexpected expansion of the conflict made the Japanese troops restless both physically and mentally. [5]

Japanese troops heading toward Nanking.

Japanese troops heading toward Nanking.

The CCAA held a number of army reserves who had wives and families back home. When the prolonged battle of Shanghai was finally over, those exhausted soldiers had hoped of going home.

When ordered to advance westward instead of crossing the Sea of Japan, the Imperial Army soldiers began wreaking their inflamed animosities on Chinese soldiers and civilians throughout their march to Nanking, which, according to many historians, was a prelude to the massive atrocities that would later take place in Nanking. [6]

In his memoirs, journalist Matsumoto Shigeharu, the Shanghai bureau chief of Domei News Agency, recalled a circulating rumor among his colleagues. “The reason that the Yanagawa Corps [the 10th Army] is advancing [to Nanking] quite rapidly is due to the tacit consent among the officers and men that they could loot and rape as they wish.” [7]

A novelist, Ishikawa Tatsuzo, vividly described how the 16th Division of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force committed atrocities on the march between Shanghai and Nanking in his fictional novel, Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers], for which he interviewed the troops in the vanquished city in January 1938 (see also The Reign of Terror I: What Japanese Journalists Witnessed). [8]

The Imperial Army swiftly rushed toward the ancient city in parallel formation. By December 8, columns of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and the 10th Army converged from the east and south, taking over the pivotal Chinese defense. [9]

On December 9, while its troops surrounding the walled city, Japanese airplanes dropped leaflets to urge China’s Defense Commander Tang Sheng-chi to capitulate within 24 hours. The leaflet was written under the name of the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army, General Matsui Iwane, in both Japanese and Chinese. [10] Part of it read:

The Japanese Army would be kind and generous to innocent civilians and to Chinese troops with no sign of enmity, but would be relentlessly enraged by those who resist. If we do not receive any response by the deadline, the Japanese Army has no choice but begin attacking Nanking. [11]

Japanese troops entering the suburbs of Nanking.

Japanese troops entering the suburbs of Nanking.

General Tang rejected the ultimatum by commanding his troops to throw in their lots with the city and by forbidding them to retreat. [12]

Meanwhile, remaining Westerners in the walled city, who had created the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, also contacted Tang and suggested a plan for three-day cease-fire, during which the Chinese troops could withdraw without fighting while the Japanese troops would stay in their present position (see also The Safety Zone and American Missionaries).

Tang agreed with this proposal if the International Committee could acquire permission of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who had already fled to Hankow where he temporarily shifted the military headquarters two days earlier. [13]

A German businessman and the chairman of the International Committee, John Rabe, boarded the U.S. gunboat Panay on Dec. 9 and sent two telegrams, one to Chiang Kai-shek by way of the American ambassador in Hankow, and one to the Japanese military authority in Shanghai. The next day he was informed that Chiang Kai-shek, who once ordered Nanking be defended “to the last man,” [14] had refused to accept the proposal. [15]

At around 12 o’clock on December 10, outside of Zhongshan Gate in the eastern wall, a senior officer on the Japanese general staff, Colonel Muto Akira, and others were waiting for a Chinese envoy. If the Nanking Defense Army was to accept Japan’s “exhortation of capitulation,” the envoy should appear at the gate at noon.

“I felt personally responsible because I translated it, so I was hoping to see an envoy with a flag of truce,” translator Okada was quoted as saying by a historian, “but no one showed up even ten minutes past noon.”16 At one o’clock, Matsui commanded his troops to launch an all-out attack on the walled city of Nanking.

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  1. Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 29-38.
  2. Ibid., 41-44; Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing], 18-25.
  3. Shigeharu Matsumoto, Shanghai Jidai (Ge): Journalist no Kaiso [The Shanghai Age (3): A Journalist’s Memoirs] (Tokyo: Chuo Koron, 1975), 242.
  4. Tatsuzo Ishikawa, Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers] (Tokyo: Chuo Koron, 1938), reprint (Tokyo: Chuko Bunko, 1999).
  5. Dorn, 91.
  6. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Massacre], 121.
  7. Chushi wo Iku [Conquering the Central China], ed. Public Relation Department of the China Expeditionary Army (1939), 79.
  8. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Massacre], 121-122.
  9. John Rabe, The Good Man of Nanking: the Diaries of John Rabe, ed. Erwin Wickert, trans. John E. Woods (New York: Alfred A. Knope, 1998), 56-59.
  10. Dorn, 90.
  11. Rabe, 59.
  12. Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 84-86.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.

Interview: The Nanking Atrocities

Interview: The Nanking Atrocities

[Note: This interview was conducted on 21 January 2000]

A view from the tower of St. Paul's Church in Nanking in the spring of 1938.

A view from the tower of St. Paul’s Church in Nanking in the spring of 1938.

Dr. Yang Daqing is a professor of history at George Washington University. Fluent in the three languages that are crucial to examine historical evidence of the Nanking Atrocities, namely Chinese, Japanese and English, he has published papers on this topic in China, Japan and the United States. Yang has recently co-authored a book titled The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.

Q: In your two essays, “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing” and “Challenges of Trans-National History: Historians and the Nanjing Atrocities” (see Works Cited), you extensively covered the scholarship on both Japanese and Chinese sides and mentioned there has been some convergence among Japanese and Chinese historians. Is there still a long way before the two sides reach a transnational consensus on this particular incident?

Yang: First we should be aware that there is no such simple division as Japanese and Chinese side. Among Japanese themselves there are various positions and they’ve been debating each other….

This is a very sensitive and emotional issue for Chinese. Especially the number issue [the death toll estimates] is very sensitive in China. And secondly, Chinese scholars are not fully up-to-date on Japanese research or Japanese sources. In a sense they are handicapped to appreciate the kind of research done in Japan.

On the Japanese side I still see people primarily use the Rape of Nanjing as a political tactic. So not everybody in Japan is treating the Rape of Nanjing as a scholarly subject. In turn that creates a vicious cycle making it very difficult for Chinese scholars to accept or appreciate different views or conclusions in Japan.

Q: Is there any positive prospect?

Yang: I see indications. There has already been some joint work, so to speak, done by some Chinese and Japanese scholars. For example, Professor Kasahara [at Tsuru University] and his colleagues participated in a conference in China even though their specific conclusions are not exactly as Chinese conclusions.

I also think that as more and more sources come out, especially the diaries and new battle records discovered in Japan, then translated into Chinese, these new materials serve as very convincing sources that help establish the parameter of the atrocities in the sense that these are the kind of sources that all sides can agree on.

Wartime diaries unearthed by a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji

Wartime diaries unearthed by a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji

Q: You mentioned the number of victims is still very sensitive. What is the latest scholarship on that particular issue?

Yang: It is not probably a good idea to begin with numbers. I think that’s very difficult. I think we should begin with the general understanding that, given the passage of time, given the disappearance of many critical documents, given the fact that to fully understand how many people died, you really have to ask those who got killed, it’s impossible, basically.

So we have to understand the limit of what historians, 50 or 60 years later, or even ten years later, could do in order to establish the exact scale of massacred victims….

We also have to be aware that the atrocities are not just about people being killed. Rape, looting, destruction of property, I think it is more important to understand the whole picture of the Atrocity….

I think it’s possible and probably a good idea to leave a certain ambiguity within a range. There is sometimes the view that the more precise the figure, the better. I think it’s a very naive misconception.

Q: In Japan, some people question the credibility of historical materials such as Timperley’s book (see Psychological Warfare) and the news stories about Hyakunin Giri [the contest to kill 100 Chinese soldiers with sword] (see Postwar Judgment). What do you think about their claims?

Yang: Those specific issues are certainly open to reexamination. They should not be kept off-limits. They should be examined within the big framework.

If you are interested, I can give my own view.

Yes, many journalists at the time were not reporting as eyewitnesses but, rather, reporting from second-hand, third-hand sources. There could be misinformation, exaggeration, or even a tendency toward wartime propaganda. However, that’s not enough to dismiss all of them outright.

A photograph of the two Second Lieutenants who allegedly initiated the killing contest.

A photograph of the two Second Lieutenants who allegedly initiated the killing contest.

For example, Timperley’s work, as indicated in his preface to his book, the purpose of his book is not to defame the Japanese people. He gave credit to a Japanese journalist, Matsumoto Shigeharu in Shanghai, for sympathizing with what he was doing. So he made a specific point that there were conscientious Japanese. Not all Japanese were the same.

And what he included in the book were mostly reports from the [International] Committee for the [Nanking] Safety Zone. They are, as far as we know, generally credible reports by a third party even though you can look at specific cases. Specifics, yes, they were not on the spot when the rape was perpetrated. But how many rapes were perpetrated in front of a third party? Very few.

Q: According to what I have read, Chinese soldiers also extensively torched houses and buildings in the name of a “scorched earth” policy and they looted some shops before the city fell (see The Fall of Nanking). In my impression, this is something rarely mentioned by Chinese scholars and always mentioned by “deniers” and other very conservative scholars in Japan. What is your standpoint on the Chinese soldiers in Nanking?

Yang: The scorched-earth policy was a politically strategic decision taken by China and it had enormous costs on the Chinese part. But, on the other hand, in some cases, I’m not talking about this case, but in some military situations, a scorched-earth policy may be the only way to stop the enemy. You can talk about when Russians defeated Napoleon…. Of course, throughout the Sino-Japanese War, Chinese were extreme….

There are two aspects to this [Chinese looting]. Discipline of Chinese forces was generally not very good in the Republican period after 1927, especially after Chiang Kai-shek consolidated his power. Some of his best troops, shall we say, behaved better than those locally recruited forces. So there were differences in discipline among the Chinese. Some were pretty bad. Some were pretty good. Whatever the case, it is true that there were Chinese looting. It is undeniable.

Refugee huts outside Nanking. March 1938.

Refugee huts outside Nanking. March 1938.

However, the question is what we make of this fact…. Of course some people can say, look, the Japanese troops’ behavior wasn’t that bad because there was looting on the Chinese side. To some extent this is true. We should not expect any troops to be saints. In a way it is important to bring that aspect out so that we can understand the condition of the battle better.

So in general I am in favor of bringing those aspects out. I don’t think Chinese historians are going to defend the reputation of those Chinese forces. But they would probably say we have to put it into perspective.

Q: The descriptions of the Rape of Nanjing in Japanese history textbooks are also another issue that often comes up in the polemic. Could I ask your opinion on this?

Yang: Of course there was initial misreporting by Japanese press. Those wordings were not changed in 1982. But I think it is generally true that there was a tendency on the part of Ministry of Education to downplay the aggression the Japanese Imperial Army committed, and the atrocity committed. That has, of course, alarmed the Chinese government. Yes, there was misinformation but it was not entirely groundless. There was something, I think, Japanese historians like Ienaga Saburo pointed their fingers at.

On the other hand I have to say that Japanese have, since the textbook incident, changed considerably for the better, in general, in terms of inclusion of accounts of wartime atrocities. I am not saying that they should all repeat what Chinese are saying. I think it’s not necessary as long as they are facing squarely the dark side of the country’s history, which I think every country should do.

I think the textbooks in general have been taking a positive development, and hence you have more backlashes from the conservative forces of Japan.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was held at War Ministry Buildings in Tokyo between April 1946 and November 1948.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was held at War Ministry Buildings in Tokyo between April 1946 and November 1948.

Q: In Japan some question the legitimacy and procedure of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanking War Crime Tribunal, in an attempt to discredit the atrocity stories in the judgments of the two trials (see Postwar Judgment). What is your opinion on the postwar tribunals?

Yang: You can criticize the hypocrisy and the double standard on the part of the Allies. You can criticize that the trial was unjust or very problematic.

But then, all the people who were tried were innocent? I think that’s what a lot of ultra-nationalists in Japan are trying to do. I think its very misleading.

On the other hand, many Chinese are afraid of even touching the subject of reevaluating those trials because of the fear that once they open the reexamination, they think they are giving those deniers an opportunity to whitewash the whole thing.

Ultimately, I hope our view that we can reexamine it without justifying the cause of those who were tried will gain the majority support…. Of course some of them were innocent at least, according to the evidence presented. Some of the materials were not available.

If we look at the trial in Nanjing, how many of those battle records were presented? Almost none. Diaries? Almost none. Even those incriminating evidence was not available. So there were severe limitations in those two trails.

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©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.