What Japanese Journalists Witnessed

What Japanese Journalists Witnessed

Executions After Executions

Persons executed by Japanese soldiers in Ku Ling Temple. Photo taken by an American missionary, Ernest Forster.

Persons executed by Japanese soldiers in Ku Ling Temple. Photo taken by an American missionary, Ernest Forster.

Due to the Imperial Army’s media censorship, though there were over 100 Japanese journalists in Nanking when the city was captured, those journalists did not dare to write anything “unfavorable” about their countrymen. [41]

Knowing that any atrocity story wouldn’t make news in Japan, the journalists instead described how “valorous” the Imperial troops were in combat inside and outside the walled city.

Accordingly the newspaper articles during and after the siege of Nanking were full of tales of the Japanese soldier’s heroic exploits. [42]

After the war, however, some of the journalists confided what they had witnessed. A special correspondent for Tokyo Asahi, Imai Masatake, for instance, reported only about the “majestic and soul-stirring” ceremony of the triumphal entry of General Matsui Iwane, the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army, and his troops into the city on December 17, 1937. But two days before the victory parade, he revealed in 1956, he witnessed a mass execution of 400 to 500 Chinese men near Tokyo Asahi’s Nanking office.

That evening Imai and his colleague also saw a “long, long” procession of hundreds or even thousands of Chinese people being led to the banks of the Yangtze near Xiaguan (Hsiakwan) riverfront. Convinced that all of them were going to be killed, they tried to follow the procession but were stopped by a sentry. Imai recalled a conversation he had with his partner while hearing the sound of bullets ricocheting nearby. A part of the article he wrote for a magazine years later read:

“While we saw what they were doing near the bureau, there was a car passing through,” said Nakamura.

“Yeah, I saw some foreigners on it.”

“I guess they were from China’s Red Swastika Society. This news will leak out to Geneva for sure.”

“I wish I could write about it.”

“Someday we will, but not for the time being. But we sure saw it.”

“Let’s go take a look again, with our own eyes.”

With that, two of us got up. The sound of gunfire had ceased by then. [43]

Chinese prisoners of war being led by Japanese troops.

Chinese prisoners of war being led by Japanese troops.

Although the reporter apparently mistook the Red Swastika Society for an organization somehow related to the Red Cross, they guessed right about the news circulating around the world.

Another Tokyo Asahi reporter, Adachi Kazuo, also saw a mass murder near the paper’s branch office with his colleague, Moriyama Yoshio. “The ‘plain-clothes soldiers’ were shot to death one after another, right in front of their wives and children, who were weeping and screaming,” wrote Adachi in 1975 in a memorial on Moriyama’s death.

“Our hearts were trembling with anger and grief while people in Japan were probably rejoicing over the collapse of Nanking.” Adachi also quoted Moriyama as saying at the scene, “With this, Japan has lost the right to win the war.” [44]

A correspondent for Tokyo Nichi Nichi, Suzuki Jiro, encountered a few execution scenes and later wrote:

“When I went back to the Zhongshan Gate, I saw, for the first time, an unearthly, brutal massacre. On top of the wall, about 25 meters [85 feet] high, the prisoners of war were rounded up in a line. They were being stabbed by bayonets and shoved away off the wall. A number of Japanese soldiers polished their bayonets, shouted to themselves once [to raise their morale], and thrust their bayonets in the chest or back of the POWs.

I saw about ten stragglers bound by wire to a big tree…. One of them [Japanese soldiers] stood up in front of them [Chinese captives], shouted, “You killed our buddies!” and raised the pickax, then swung it down to the head of a powerless prisoner of war.” [45]

Matsumoto Shigeharu, the Shanghai bureau chief of Domei News Agency, interviewed his ex-colleagues, Arai Masayoshi, Maeda Yuji and Fukazawa Kanzo, who spent a few days as correspondents in Nanking after the capture of the city. According to his book, all of the interviewees told Matsumoto that they saw a number of charred bodies around Xiaguan area, probably between 2,000 and 3,000 dead bodies, on the 16th and 17th.

"I believe only what I saw," says a former Tokyo Nichi Nichi photographer, Sato Shinju

“I believe only what I saw,” says a former Tokyo Nichi Nichi photographer, Sato Shinju.

Maeda personally saw new recruits executing Chinese POWs with bayonets. After having seen 12 or 13 of them being “stabbed to death,” he retched and left the place. Maeda also heard that the Japanese troops were carrying out extensive mopping-up operations on the 14th and 15th. But he also remembered that the streets were becoming normal around the 20th.

Matsumoto noted that his interviewees all pointed out the difficulty at the time of distinguishing “massacre” and “extension of combat.” His interviewees dismissed the so-called “Great Massacre” of hundreds of thousands of people. Instead, the three journalists gave him an estimate of the civilian death toll at ten or twenty thousand. [46]

A Domei newsreel cameraman, Asai Tatsuzo, stated a similar notion when interviewed for a magazine article, “I thought executing plain-clothes soldiers and stragglers was what the war was all about.” [47]

Sato Shinju, a photographer for Tokyo Nichi Nichi newspaper, saw a mass execution of about 200 Chinese soldiers but also dismisses the “massacre of 200,000 or 300,000 civilians.” “I believe only what I saw,” says Sato in an interview for this documentary. “Surely I witnessed a mass murder once, but I also saw some makeshift food stands and street vendors in the Safety Zone. There might have been some atrocities, but I can’t believe such a high death toll.” [48]

Living Soldiers: What A Japanese Novelist Observed

A Japanese soldier on sentry duty. March 1938.

A Japanese soldier on sentry duty. March 1938.

Probably the most contemporary account of Imperial troops’ atrocities given by a Japanese national at the time was a fictional novel titled Ikiteiru Heitai or Living Soldiers, written in February 1938.

The author, Ishikawa Tatsuzo, later said that he was frustrated by the “conventionally identical news articles” from the China theater and had been wanting to see the war with his own eyes when afforded an opportunity to become a special correspondent for a magazine, Chuo Koron, in December 1937. Ishikawa left Tokyo on the Christmas day and arrived in Nanking on January 5, 1938, three weeks after the city was taken over by the Japanese troops.

During his eight days of field research in Nanking, Ishikawa got acquainted with the soldiers from the 33rd Infantry Regiment of the 16th Division. Soon Ishikawa came up with a story featuring a fictional platoon whose march toward Nanking was clearly based on the unit.

Unlike many heroic characters appearing in general wartime stories and news articles in Japan, in Ishikawa’s Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers] the main characters such as Privates Hirao and Kondo, Sergeant Kasahara, and Second Lieutenant Kurata, were absorbed in the reality of war. They engaged in whimsical killings, looting, rape, and arson throughout their march. [49] The following passage is one of those fickle acts his characters often commit in the story:

Hirao grabbed her by the collar and pulled her up, but she didn’t let go of the dead body of her mother until one of the soldiers twisted her arm and pulled the body away. The soldiers hauled the girl outside, her legs dragging on the ground.

Hirao screamed like a madman, raised his bayonet and stabbed the girl in the chest three times. The other soldiers also took their daggers and began stabbing her head, abdomen, and other parts indiscriminately.

She was dead within ten seconds. When she collapsed like a futon [pile of bedclothes] onto the dark ground, the warm smell of fresh blood wafted up to the flushed faces of the excited soldiers.

In the trench Second Lieutenant Kurata was aware of what was going on but did not say a word. When the excited soldiers came back to the trench spitting, Sergeant Kasahara was sitting cross-legged on the bottom of the trench smoking. He muttered with a detectable smile on his lips, “What a waste, indeed!” [50]

Japanese soldiers who quartered in the Pacific Ocean restaurant in Nanking. March 17, 1938.

Japanese soldiers who quartered in the Pacific Ocean restaurant in Nanking. March 17, 1938.

The story was published in Chuo Koron March issue on February 17, 1938. And the very next day, the Ministry of Interior prohibited the sale of the magazine on the grounds that Ishikawa’s story “deliberately slandered the Imperial Army troops in the holy war” and was thus “improper in view of the state of affairs.” In August Ishikawa and his editor were indicted.

“People regard the soldiers at the front as someone like god and think there will be a heaven after they occupy the land,” testified Ishikawa in court. “People think Chinese civilians are cooperating with us to create the land of Perfect Bliss, but war is nothing like that at all. I believed it was of absolute necessity to let people know what war truly means, realize the situation is an emergency and prepare for what we are dealing with.”

In April 1939 Ishikawa was sentenced to four months in confinement suspended for three years. After being obscure for years, Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers] finally saw the light of day again a few months after Japan lost the Pacific War in 1945. [51]

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. Shinichi Kusamori, “Fukyoka Shashin Ron: Houkoku no Shashin 2 [An Essay on Disapproved Photographs: Journalistic Photos on Japan 2],” in Mainichi Shinbun Hizou Fukyoka Shashin 2 [Stashed Photographs in Mainichi Newspaper: the Disapproved 2], (Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbun, 1999), 177-178.
  2. Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 15-18.
  3. Masatake Imai, “Nanking Shinai no Tairyo Satsujin [Mass Murders in the City of Nanjing],” in Mokugekisha ga Kataru Showashi 5: Nichi Chu Senso [Showa History Told by Witnesses 5: Sino-Japanese War], 48-58.
  4. Quoted in Honda, 239.
  5. Quoted in Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 117.
  6. Matsumoto, 251-252.
  7. Masaaki Tanaka, Nanking Jiken no Sokatsu: Gyakusatsu Hitei 15 no Ronkyo [The Nanjing Incident Overview: Fifteen Reasons To Deny the Massacre] (Tokyo: Kenkosha, 1987), 232.
  8. Shinju Sato, interview by author, Fujisawa (Kanagawa Prefecture), Japan, 28 February 2000.
  9. Kazutoshi Hando, “Ikiteiru Heitai no Jidai [The Age of ‘Living Soldiers’],” in Tatsuzo Ishikawa, Ikiteiru Heitai [Living Soldiers] (Reprint, Tokyo: Chuko Bunko, 1999), 204; Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 19-21.
  10. Ishikawa, 85-86.
  11. Hando, 201-208.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.

What Foreign Journalists Witnessed

What Foreign Journalists Witnessed

Five Western Journalists in the Doomed City

War damage in the southern section of Nanking. Photo taken by an American missionary, Ernest Forster, in March 17, 1938.

War damage in the southern section of Nanking. Photo taken by an American missionary, Ernest Forster, in March 17, 1938.

“Wholesale looting, the violation of women, the murder of civilians, the eviction of Chinese from their homes, mass executions of war prisoners and the impressing of able-bodied men turned Nanking into a city of terror,” wrote Frank Tillman Durdin of the New York Times on December 17, 1937, two days after he escaped from the “reign of terror” aboard the U. S. S. Oahu. [18]

Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News called the siege and capture of Nanking “Four Days of Hell” in his dispatch on Dec. 15. [19]

C. Yates McDaniel of the Associated Press jotted down the following sentence in his diary on Dec. 16, which was wired to the United States the following day, “My last remembrance of Nanking: Dead Chinese, dead Chinese, dead Chinese.” [20]

Although there were a number of foreign correspondents in the capital of China before the siege, most of them fled Nanking along with ambassadors and other foreign senior officials by Dec. 11.

To this day, the only foreign journalists known to have stayed in the doomed city during the siege and the first few days of Japanese occupation are the three correspondents mentioned above, L. C. Smith of Reuters, and a Paramount newsreel cameraman, Arthur Menken. Consequently they all witnessed the beginning of the carnage.

“Orgy of Burning”: China’s Scorched-Earth Policy

A village outside Nanking in 1936. Forster noted that the village was destroyed by the Chinese military for strategic reasons in December 1937.

A village outside Nanking in 1936. Forster noted that the village was destroyed by the Chinese military for strategic reasons in December 1937.

“The advance of the Japanese beyond Kuyung was the signal for an orgy of burning by Chinese troops,” described Durdin on China’s military strategy known as the “scorched earth” policy.

The principle behind it was not to leave anything that could be useful to the conquerors. As they beat a retreat from Jurong (Kuyun), about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Nanking, Chinese troops apparently set torches to not only buildings but also “trees, bamboo groves and underbrush.”

Within the distance of 16 miles (26 kilometers) between Tangshan and Nanking, the New York Times reporter saw whole villages burned to ruins, including barracks, mansions in Mausoleum Park, and numerous other buildings. Durdin estimated the loss caused by “Chinese military incendiarism” at $20,000,000 to $30,000,000. [21]

Inside the city wall the Chinese troops continued to set fire to shops and houses. Even the most ornate building in Nanking, the Ministry of Communication, which, according to a correspondent for the Times (London), cost £250,000, was set ablaze.

Though not in Nanking at the time, the Times reporter later interviewed foreign eyewitnesses, who told him that the building was filled with munitions and the explosions caused a “tremendous racket.” [22] McDaniel also recorded the finest edifice in Nanking blowing up and blazing away in his diary on Dec. 12. [23]

City under Projectiles

The U.S. propaganda documentary, the Battle of China, shows how Japanese troops attacked the walled city of Nanking.

The U.S. propaganda documentary, the Battle of China, shows how Japanese troops attacked the walled city of Nanking.

Since the beginning of the siege on Dec. 10, Nanking had been caught in the rain of bombs and shrapnel. “From a point of vantage today I watched shell after shell burst into Nanking’s central and southern districts. They came at the average of four a minute,” wrote Steele on Dec. 11. [24]

The same day, as the battle of Nanking was entering a critical phase, the defense commander, General Tang Sheng-chi, declared via the military headquarters in Hankow that Chinese morale was still high and the situation favored their side. According to the Chicago Daily News on Dec. 11 (no byline), he also insisted that he would defend Nanking “to the bitter end.” [25]

But in reality, heavy artillery was brought up and the constant explosions of projectiles shook the ancient city day and night. McDaniel reported to have seen the Purple Mountain being “sprayed by shrapnel” on Dec. 12, [26] one day before the city fell into the hands of the Japanese troops.

Retreat in Panic

Retreating Chinese troops shed their uniforms, firearms and other supplies. A scene from a Japanese propaganda documentary, Nanking.

Retreating Chinese troops shed their uniforms, firearms and other supplies. A scene from a Japanese propaganda documentary, Nanking.

As it became definite that the Japanese Army would conquer the city in a matter of time, panic swept through the city.

When Nanking’s defense commander, General Tang Sheng-chi, finally ordered his men to retreat at about 5 o’clock in the evening on Dec. 12, it only threw the military into uproar and created confusion since many troops had already been running away toward Xiaguan (Hsiakwan) riverfront, the northern port suburb, and the only way to escape from the city without encountering the enemy. [27]

By late evening the unorganized retreat became a rout. Frank Tillman Durdin of the New York Times and Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News saw many of the Chinese troops loot shops for food and other supplies, cast away their arms and shed their uniforms in the street.

Some of them donned civilian clothes, sometimes by robbing civilians of their garments, and others ran away in their underwear. “Streets became covered with guns, grenades, swords, knapsacks, coats, shoes, and helmets,” wrote Durdin. [28]

However, at Yijiang (Ichang) Men (Gate), the northwest gate of the city leading to the riverfront that foreign correspondents called Hsiakwan Gate in their reports, the 36th Division of the Chinese Army, which had formerly been ordered to stop any retreat, confronted those who tried to go through the tiny openings of the gate.

The streets toward the Yijiang Gate became congested with thousands of retreating Chinese soldiers and civilians. Soon panic followed as the crowd fought to squeeze through the only path to the wharf.

Yijiang Men (Gate) after the fall of the city as filmed in the documentary, Nanking.

Yijiang Men (Gate) after the fall of the city as filmed in the documentary, Nanking.

To make matters worse, the Chinese Army fired machine guns at the retreating soldiers. Many were killed in this fashion and others fell and plummeted to death while attempting to scale the walls near the gate with makeshift ropes made of clothing.

Those who made it to the Yangtze riverbank were ordained to face another tragedy. There was little or no transport to get them across the river.

Tens of thousands of people fought over scarce vessels, quite a few dove into the cold water of winter and drowned, and many others frantically reentered the city, taking a risk of encountering the Japanese troops who were about to complete the encirclement at the Yijiang Men (Gate). [29]

Once back inside the city walls many soldiers turned themselves into the Safety Zone, the refuge camps organized by the remaining Westerners, so that they would be treated as noncombatants by the Japanese troops.

It turned out, however, to be a futile effort.

Instead of answering an ardent plea for mercy put forward by John Rabe, the chairman of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, [30] the invaders began systematic mopping-up operations the moment they entered the city.

Relentless Search for Stragglers

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army completed the encirclement. They opened the Zhongshan (Chungshan) Gate, the eastern pivot of China’s defense, and made a triumphal entry into the city.

“After the complete collapse of Chinese morale and the blind panic which followed, Nanking experienced a distant sense of release when the Japanese entered, feeling that the behavior of the Japanese could not possibly be worse than that of their own defeated army,” wrote Steele. “They were quickly disillusioned.” [31]

Japanese troops intensively searched for stragglers and plain-clothes soldiers. A scene from the film Nanking.

Japanese troops intensively searched for stragglers and plain-clothes soldiers. A scene from the film Nanking.

The Japanese soldiers did not show any sign of mercy. What the New York Times reporter called “a tremendous sense of relief” soon transformed into an immense fear of death, rape and robbery. As soon as they entered the city, the Japanese troops began an intensive search for stragglers and ex-soldiers.

“The helpless Chinese troops, disarmed for the most part and ready to surrender, were systematically rounded up and executed,” noted Durdin. [32]

They entered into the refugee camps, assembled any able-bodied men for capricious inspections, and marched off the suspects to execution sites. As most historians indicate today, many of the “suspects” probably had no connection with the Chinese Army.

The streets were littered with bodies including some old men who could never have been harmful. Japanese soldiers frequently shot anyone running in sight on the spot and searched house after house in the course of hunting plainclothes soldiers.

Steele saw scores of those “plainclothes suspects” being shot one by one while “their condemned fellows sat stolidly by, awaiting their turn.” [33]

“This afternoon [I] saw some of the soldiers I helped disarm dragged from houses, shot, and kicked into ditches,” read the diary report of C. Yates McDaniel of the Associated Press on Dec. 15. [34]

Looting in the Entire City and Rape All Over

The Japanese soldiers plundered the entire city and looted anything they pleased in Nanking. “Nearly every building was entered by Japanese soldiers, often under the eyes of their officers, and the men took whatever they wanted,” reported Durdin. [35]

“I saw Chinese troops looting shop windows, but later I saw the Japanese troops outdo them in a campaign of pillage which the Japanese carried out not only in the shops but in homes, hospitals and refugee camps,” wrote Steel. [36]

McDaniel saw one soldier collecting some $3,000 by threatening poor civilians in the Safety Zone with a bayonet. [37]

They robbed Chinese houses and shops, ripped off refugees and occasionally broke into the foreign properties. The Times (London) reported that the Japanese soldiers paid a visit to the American-operated University Hospital and “robbed the nurses of their wrist watches, fountain pens, flashlights, ransacked the buildings and property, and took the motor-cars, ripping the American flags off them.” [38]

A woman being carried into the hospital for gunshot wounds inflicted by a Japanese soldier who threatened to rape her. Photo taken by Forster.

A woman being carried into the hospital for gunshot wounds inflicted by a Japanese soldier who threatened to rape her. Photo taken by Forster.

According to the diaries and letters of remaining Westerners, their houses were also sporadically invaded.

Many Chinese women were molested freely and violently. However, because the five foreign journalists fled Nanking within three or four days after the collapse of the city, they could not possibly grasp the extent of rape cases. Compared to the relentless executions and looting by the Japanese troops reported in their articles, rape cases were mentioned rather briefly.

It was the Western members of the Nanking Safety Zone who first revealed the countless rape cases committed by the Imperial Army soldiers to the world.

Many years later, long after the war ended in 1945, a number of Japanese journalists (see Reign of Terror) and former soldiers (see Confessions) also came forward to speak up about what they had seen or what they had done in Nanking.

As urged by Japanese authorities, Durdin, Steele, Smith and Menken were evacuated to Shanghai on Dec. 15th aboard the gunboat Oahu, on which they had telegraphed their first reports on the Nanking Atrocities. [39] McDaniel stayed a day longer and headed for Shanghai on the Japanese destroyer, Tsuga. [40]

Go back to: Table of Contents


  1. Tillman Durdin, “All Captives Slain,” the New York Times, 18 December 1937.
  2. A. T. Steele, “Nanking Massacre Story: Japanese Troops Kill Thousands,” Chicago Daily News, Red Streak Edition, 15 December 1937.
  3. C. Yates McDaniel, “Nanking Horror Described in Diary of War Reporter,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 December 1937.
  4. Durdin, “Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled,” the New York Times, 9 January 1938.
  5. “Terror in Nanking,” the Times (London), 18 Dec. 1937.
  6. McDaniel.
  7. Steele, “Big Guns Rake Nanking, Defense Is Abandoned,” Chicago Daily News, 13 December 1937.
  8. “Retreat Course Changed,” Chicago Daily News, 11 December 1937.
  9. McDaniel.
  10. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 128-133.
  11. Durdin, “All Captives Slain” and “Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled”. See also Steele, “War’s Death Drama Pictured by Reporter,” Chicago Daily News, 17 December 1937.
  12. Kasahara, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident], 128-133.
  13. A series of the official documents written by the members of the International Committee to the Japanese authority were collected in Documents of the Nanking Safety Zone, ed. Hsü Shushi (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1939). The whole book is reprinted in Documents of the Rape of Nanking, ed. Timothy Brook (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999).
  14. Steele, “Nanking Massacre Story.”
  15. Durdin, “Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled.”
  16. Steele, “War’s Death Drama Pictured by Reporter.”
  17. McDaniel.
  18. Durdin, “All Captives Slain.”
  19. Steele, “War’s Death Drama Pictured by Reporter.”
  20. McDaniel.
  21. “Terror in Nanking,” the Times (London).
  22. Hata, Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Massacre], 2-3.
  23. McDaniel.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.