Killing Prisoners of War

Killing Prisoners of War

Policy to Take No Prisoners

Bodies left unburied along the Yangtze River. Photo taken by a Japanese soldier, Murase Moriyasu, of the 17th Motorized Company of the Meguro Supply and Transport Regiment.

Bodies left unburied along the Yangtze River. Photo taken by a Japanese soldier, Murase Moriyasu, of the 17th Motorized Company of the Meguro Supply and Transport Regiment.

“After that, we successively had a number of prisoners surrendering to us. It became a group of several thousands. The extremely enraged soldiers adversely reacted to the officers’ attempts to restrain them and butchered the captives one after another,” wrote Major General Sasaki Touichi, commander of the Sasaki Detachment of the 16th Division of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, of the day his troops entered the city.

“Looking back at the last ten days of hardships and bloodshed that killed and wounded many of our buddies, though I am not a mere common soldier, I am in favor of saying, ‘Kill them all!’ We ran out of even a grain of rice and, though maybe there are some in the city, I am certain that our Army wouldn’t have any extra to feed the prisoners.” [66]

The next day, on December 14, Sasaki officially commanded his troops not to take any prisoners unless ordered to do so. [67]

In the past two decades in Japan, voluminous evidence of the Nanking Atrocities was unearthed and collected by many historians, some journalists and war veterans. But, surprisingly, one of the most dramatic episodes of the discoveries did not concern any researcher or journalist.

In the late 1980s a chemical factory worker, Ono Kenji, who prefers to be called a “laborer,” began investigating what had become of the Chinese prisoners of war captured by the Yamada Detachment of the 13th Division. Most officers and men of the unit came from Fukushima Prefecture where Ono’s hometown is located.

For the next seven years Ono interviewed about 200 war veterans and collected 24 wartime diaries and other historical materials.

His work not only revealed how possibly the largest mass executions of POWs in the Nanking Atrocities took place near Mufu Mountain, but also showed how ordinary men were dragged into war and were transformed into numb-minded killers. [68]

Bodies on the Yangtze bank. Photo taken by Murase.

Bodies on the Yangtze bank. Photo taken by Murase.

Another dramatic and perhaps the most significant contribution to the explication of the Nanking Atrocities came to pass when a war veterans’ organization, Kaikosha, asked its 18,000-odd members for any information relating to the Battle of Nanjing for its newsletter, Kaiko, in the mid-1980s.

The campaign was initially intended to refute the myth of the Nanjing Massacre, but ironically the organization received mounting evidence that incriminated the Japanese troops.

“There is no excuse for this mass illegal disposition [of the prisoners of war],” said war veteran Katogawa Kotaro, one of the chief editors of the publication, in the last issue of the 11-part series. “As a person relating to the Imperial Army, I can do nothing but apologize to the Chinese people. It was cruel. I am sincerely sorry.” [69]

Indeed, the accumulated evidence, namely wartime diaries, memoirs, field reports and official records of the military operations, all suggested that the upper echelons of the Imperial Army adopted a policy to “dispose of” – euphemism for “kill” – every captive. The commander of the 16th Division, Lieutenant General Nakajima Kesago, for instance, wrote in his diary on Dec. 13:

To begin with, it is our policy not to take prisoners, so we decided to get them out of the way. But when it became a group of one thousand, five thousand, and finally ten thousand, we couldn’t even disarm them all. We were safe simply because they had absolutely no will to fight back and followed us slovenly…. I have never imagined that we would have to deal with this large-scale disposition. The staff officers were extremely busy.

I later learned the Sasaki Detachment alone disposed of about fifteen thousand; the one company commander assigned to guard Taiping Gate disposed of about thirteen hundred; seven or eight thousand gathered near Xianhao Gate and many others are still coming to surrender one after another. In order to dispose of these seven or eight thousand people, we needed quite a large trench but were unable to find one. My plan is to divide them into groups of one or two hundred, lure them to proper places and dispose of them there. [70]

The adjutant to the commanding officer (Matsui Iwane) of the China Central Area Army (CCAA), Major Sumi Yoshiharu, told Kaiko that Lieutenant Colonel Cho Isamu, an information staff officer of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and a general staff of CCAA, ordered the killing of a great number of POWs held in Xiaguan. [71]

In his autobiography, Marquis Tokugawa Yoshichika wrote of an anecdote he heard from his friend to whom Cho himself apparently told the following story directly:

A crowd of fleeing civilians including women and children, as well as a number of Chinese soldiers, was surging along the banks of Yangtze. Letting go the Chinese soldiers would affect the course of the war. So Lieutenant Colonel Cho ordered the troops who were holding machine guns at the front to shoot them.

Since there were many civilians in the crowd along with some soldiers, the Japanese troops were hesitant and couldn’t do it. Cho lost his temper. “You want to know how to kill people! Like this!” He slashed one of his troops down from the shoulder with his sword. Stunned at Cho, the other troops snapped and opened fire. That’s how the massacre started. [72]

A Chinese soldier captured by Japanese troops.

A Chinese soldier captured by Japanese troops.

In Nanjing, the remnants of the defeated army, whether they voluntarily surrendered or whether they got captured as they straggled, were mercilessly killed in the name of “mopping-up” operations.

As observed by the foreign journalists and many Japanese journalists, the Japanese troops also conducted intensive searches for plain-clothes soldiers in the refugee camps.

They looked into one house after another, assembled every able-bodied man and inspected each one for any sign of having been a soldier such as a helmet mark on the forehead, an imprint of a machine-gun strap on the shoulders or calluses on the hands.

Through this arbitrary procedure, many civilians who were not even remotely connected to the Chinese Army were also selected and marched off to execution sites in many parts of the city and outside the walls.

A naval officer, Okumiya Masatake, looked around Nanking on December 25 and 27 in search of dead bodies of missing navy pilots and saw “countless bodies of Chinese” discarded along the shore of the Xuanwu Lake near the Xuanwu Gate. On both days he also witnessed Army troops executing a number of Chinese people at the Xiaguan execution site.

Wondering how they managed to bring so many POWs to the area without much difficulty, he asked a nearby soldier about the trick.

Unburied bodies along the Yangtze. Photo taken by Murase.

Unburied bodies along the Yangtze. Photo taken by Murase.

According to Okumiya’s book, he replied, “We say, ‘If you are hungry, raise your hands!’ to the Chinese whom we forced to clean up the battle site inside the city walls. Then get those who raised their hands on a truck as if we would take them to a place to eat.” [73]

Executing POWs without any kind of military trial was already a violation of the Hague Regulations of 1902. But, at any rate, most Japanese troops did not have any intention to protect any human rights of the captives.

Some soldiers, if not many, also wreaked their resentments on the prisoners. That was typically embodied in the brutal tortures before executions.

Sergeant Masuda Rokusuke of the 20th Infantry Regiment of the 16th Division wrote in his memoirs:

On the 14th, I went to the refugee camps organized by the International Committee to sweep the place…. Each platoon ransacked its assigned area house to house and checked every single man. Sergeant Maeda of the 2nd Platoon found a few hundreds of stragglers shedding their uniforms and donning civilian clothes inside a big building.

I entered the building right away and saw a crowd of stragglers, a heap of Chinese swords and other weapons…. We dragged them out, striped them naked, inspected their possessions, and bundled them with an electric wire we picked up in the street….

“You made us suffer!”… “You made us sacrifice our buddies!”… “You made Japanese people cry!” “You, little brat!” We kicked, whipped, and beat the heads, backs and other parts of the captives to give vent to our frustration. There were at least 300 of them….

In the evening, we led nearly 600 stragglers to the Xuanwu Gate and mowed them down at one go. [74]

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  1. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 272.
  2. Ibid., 439.
  3. Kenji Ono, et al., comp. Nanking Daigyakusatsu o Kirokushita Kogun Heishitach [Imperial Army Soldiers Who Recorded the Nanjing Massacre] (Tokyo, Otsuki Shoten, 1996). See also Ono, “Gyakusatsu ka Kaihou ka: Yamada Shitai Horyo Yaku Niman no Yukue” [Massacre or Discharge? Fate of the About 20,000 Prisoners of War Captured by the Yamada Detachment],” in Nanking Jiken Chosa Kenkyukai [The Nanjing Incident Research Group], Nanking Daigyakusatsu Hiteiron 13 no Uso [Thirteen lies in the Nanjing Massacre Deniers’ Claims] (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1999), 140-156.
  4. Hata Ikuhiko, Showashi no Nazo wo Ou (Jo) [Chasing Down the Mysteries of Showa History (1)] (Tokyo: Bungei Shunji, 1993), 133-134.
  5. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 220.
  6. Ibid., 652-653.
  7. Quoted in Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 109.
  8. Masatake Okumiya, Watashi no Mita Nanking Jiken [The Nanjing Incident That I Saw] (Tokyo: PHP Kenkyujo, 1997), 33-39.
  9. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I], 416.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.

Rape and Pillage

Rape and Pillage

Policy to Take No Prisoners

"Pregnant with her first child, this 19-year-old woman was bayoneted when she sought to resist raping at the hands of a Japanese soldier. When admitted to a refugee hospital, she was found to have no less than 23 wounds," noted an American Missionary, John Magee, in his film, China Invaded.

“Pregnant with her first child, this 19-year-old woman was bayoneted when she sought to resist raping at the hands of a Japanese soldier. When admitted to a refugee hospital, she was found to have no less than 23 wounds,” noted an American Missionary, John Magee, in his film, China Invaded.

“Women were the main victims, indeed…. We would pick some sunny place, like around a storehouse for example, then make a screen by hanging up branches with leaves,” answered Private Tadokoro Kozo of the 114th Division when interviewed by the Pacific War Research Group in 1971. “We would get a ticket called Sekken [Red Ticket], which had the company commander’s stamp on, to wait for our turn with our loincloth off.”

“One day I was assigned a leader to kidnap women. When we showed up, all the women frantically ran off. It was hard to chase and catch them because we couldn’t kill them yet.”

“There wasn’t any soldier who didn’t rape. After things were done, usually we killed them. We’d let the women go, they’d run off, and we’d shoot them from the back. We didn’t want to leave any trouble behind. If the gendarmes found out, we would be tried by court-martial. So, although we didn’t really want to kill them, we did it – though, in fact, there was hardly any gendarme in Nanjing. I served in Nanjing for about two months.” [89]

Unlike the relentless mopping-up operations and the executions of the POWs that were in some cases recorded as a part of official military operations, the cases of rape naturally did not leave any documented evidence.

As observed by the foreigners in the Safety Zone, however, without doubt many Japanese soldiers abducted Chinese women, sexually assaulted them and in many cases, in order to leave no evidence, they killed the victims after the acts.

A poster to advertise Ianjo, or official brothels, on the North Chung Shan Road. "Chinese Beauties" "Designated by the Base Camp Authorities" "House of restful consolation" "At the No. 4 Hall for Japan-China friendship" "600 meters ahead from here along the bank of the stream"

A poster to advertise Ianjo, or official brothels, on the North Chung Shan Road. “Chinese Beauties” “Designated by the Base Camp Authorities” “House of restful consolation” “At the No. 4 Hall for Japan-China friendship” “600 meters ahead from here along the bank of the stream”

Although many former soldiers of the Imperial Army came forward to admit butchering Chinese captives and civilians in Nanking, many fewer veterans were willing to talk about their perpetration of rapes.

In China many survivors of rapes began telling of their painful past in the last two decades, but probably a lot of rape victims have already passed away in the last 60 years, if not killed right after being molested.

Theses conditions altogether make it rather hard today to grasp the scale of the violations of women committed by Japanese troops.

However, the establishment of Ianjo, or official brothels (literally, “house of restful consolation,”) in as early as late December 1937 by the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and the 10th Army, clearly indicates how desperate the Japanese government was to keep its troops away from raping and spreading venereal diseases among themselves.

Today more than ten such institutions were known to have operated under the Japanese government in Nanking although the idea seemed to have had little effect in stopping the rape criminals for the first several weeks. [90]


On the day the Japanese troops entered Nanjing, the wholesale looting that was initiated by the retreating Chinese troops significantly escalated to the level of what Tillman Durdin of the New York Times called “plundering of the entire city.”

Once gaining a control of a district, the Japanese soldiers broke into shops, houses and other buildings and took away anything they wanted. The commander of the 16th Division, Lieutenant General Nakajima Kesago, wrote in his diary on Dec. 19:

When we enter, the houses have generally been rummaged in by the Chinese troops, and many things are gone. Nevertheless, the army soldiers rush to break in and loot, whether it is their assigned district or not. This tendency is especially true about the houses in suburban areas. After all, those impudent gain the most….

Although the plate stated “Division Headquarters,” when I went into the building, every room had been ransacked including the government chairman’s office. They [Japanese soldiers] took away everything, even the old displays….

Supervising the privates wouldn’t be of much help since, to my surprise, even high-ranking officers are candidly being thieves. [91]

A scene from the U.S. propaganda documentary, Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944).

A scene from the U.S. propaganda documentary, Frank Capra’s The Battle of China (1944).

Nakajima himself was not at all the exception. Apparently he did not have any guilt about looting Chinese property. On January 23, 1938, when asked about the furniture in the Nationalist Government Building by Matsui Iwane, the commander-in-chief of the Central China Area Army, Nakajima replied, “What is the matter of taking furniture when we are taking over a country and taking away people’s lives? No one is going to be pleased even though we leave it there.” [92]

Nakajima was later found stealing Chiang Kai-shek’s treasures such as rugs and paintings and sending them to Kyoto in 23 boxes when he was serving as the commander of the 4th Army in Manchuria. [93]

As typified by Nakajima’s attitude toward plundering, even commissioned officers joined the lower ranking soldiers to ransack every building in Nanking. No one tried to abide by the international law on wartime requisition, according to which one had to pay in military currency or leave a kind of promissory note when commandeering any article that could be later exchanged into real currency.

Most soldiers just looted things and robbed people without a word. As observed by foreign journalists and missionaries, many times the Japanese troops shot the Chinese who tried to stop the plundering or resisted while being robbed. Some soldiers left the notes supplied by the Army, but as an accounting officer of the 9th Division recalled, those notes were written with no faith, having such false names as “Commander of the Retreating Unit, Chiang Kai-shek,” or simply stating, “Idiot!” [94]

As a consequence, when the Chinese refugees who survived the most intensive reign of terror for weeks finally went back home, there was absolutely nothing left for them to start over their normal lives again.

It is recorded that as early as the beginning of January 1938, the Japanese Army encouraged Chinese people to start business, trade money and produce food as a way to restore order in the city, but they had no stock to begin with, no money to spend, and no livestock or grain to grow. [95]

Interview: Wang Weixing [96]

"We should put our emotional feelings aside when discussing the Nanjing Massacre between the two nations," says Wang Weixing. Interview by author on March 30, 2000.

“We should put our emotional feelings aside when discussing the Nanjing Massacre between the two nations,” says Wang Weixing.

Wang Weixing is a historian at the Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences. He is also a member of the Research Center of Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese Aggressors located in Nanjing Normal University. He has recently published an essay on the psychological backgrounds of the Japanese troops in Nanking.

“There are four aspects we should always look at to understand why Japanese soldiers went on the rampage in Nanjing.”

“First, they were vindictive towards Chinese because of the large number of casualties in Shanghai and other places in China. They carried out reprisals against even ordinary citizens. For instance, one diary of a former soldier tells us that he avenged his brother’s death in Northern China by killing many Chinese.”

“Second, they had to give absolute obedience. To Japanese soldiers it was a holy war. They were fighting for the Emperor. So they did whatever they were told to do. Considering that the massacres took place in many parts of the city during the same period of time by different groups or units of the Japanese troops, there must have been an order from the higher echelon of the Japanese Army.”

“Third, as a national policy, Japan was trying to be on a par with Europe and openly contemptuous of Asian countries. Their chauvinism as the Yamato race took a great role in their attitudes toward Chinese. They probably thought they could do whatever they want because they are superior to Chinese.”

“Lastly, it was an unexpectedly long war for Japanese soldiers. Japan took it for granted that the war in Shanghai would end soon. But in fact the war was long and drawn out. That made many soldiers mentally unstable. They were fierce, homesick, anxious and worn out. The only comfort and joy they could find was to murder prisoners of war and to rape women. It may sound strange but in a sense those criminal acts became their amusement….”

“But it should be noted that although killing prisoners of war was an order, the way to kill them depended solely on individual soldiers. I am against the idea to emphasize the insanity of the Japanese troops by pointing out grotesque ways of murder such as eating up internal organs, etc. There is no evidence to prove such things happened, at least not in Nanjing.”

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  1. Taiheiyou Senso Kenkyukai, “Nanking Gyakusatsu de Tairitsu suru Shougenshatachi [Conflicting eye-witness accounts of the Nanjing Massacre],” in Mokugekisha ga Kataru Showashi 5: Nichi Chu Senso [Showa History Told by Witnesses 5: Sino-Japanese War], 75-76.
  2. Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Jugun Ianfu [Comfort Women], (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995), 22-25; Fumiko Kawata, “Nanking Senryo Chokugo ni Hajimatta Ianjo Setchi [The Establishment of Consolation Houses Started Right After the Capture of Nanjing],” Kinyobi 8.9 (10 March 2000): 39-41.
  3. Nanking Senshi Shiryoshu I [Historical Records of the Battle of Nanjing I] (Tokyo: Kaiko, 1989), 226.
  4. Ibid., 247-248.
  5. Yutaka Yoshida, Tenno no Guntai to Nanking Jiken [The Emperor’s Military and the Nanjing Incident], 153.
  6. Fujiwara, Nanking no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Nanjing], 110.
  7. See for example, James McCallum’s letter to his family on January 6 in American Missionary Eyewitnesses to the Nanking Massacre, 1937-1938, 42.
  8. Wang Weixing, interview by author, Nanjing, China, 30 March 2000.

©2000 Masato Kajimoto. All Rights Reserved.