Friday, December 14, 2012

China Mourns Victims of the Nanking Massacre

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the capture of Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China by the Japanese forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This mark the beginning of several weeks of sheer brutality by the Japanese soldiers towards the hapless population. No one really knows how many people died. The official Chinese figure of 300,000 given in official media seems too high. It is estimated that more than 250,000 people resided in the city when the Japanese arrived on December 13, 1937. A series of memorial services were held in the city to commemorate the victims of the massacre.

Japanese militarists and certain economic conglomerates were not content even with the takeover of Manchuria and the neighboring provinces in 1931. The ever expanding industries needed raw materials and markets. While Manchuria was a valuable prize, even more valuable resources were supposed to be in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese Nationalists or the Kuomintang (KMT) was consolidating its hold over the rest of the country under its leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. According to some analysts, the Generalissimo was himself spoiling for a fight. For both sides, only an excuse was sufficient.

The excuse came on July 7, 1937, at the Marco Polo Bridge. Japan responded with strong military forces, totally out of proportion for a small skirmish. It was obvious that Japan had been quite prepared to launch the offensive. The Japanese struck from two directions. Their forces in Manchuria and the nearby regions launched an offensive in the North. Meanwhile, Japanese forces attacked Shanghai. At this latter battle in Shanghai, the Chinese thwarted the Japanese hopes of a short campaign by holding out for three months. By November, the Japanese had taken Shanghai with considerable losses.

However, the Chinese casualties at Nanking were staggering. Chiang Kai-Shek had lost some of his best troops in the battle. When the Japanese made their move towards his capital up the Yangtze River, he was reluctant to make a stand there. Deciding that Nanking cannot be defended, he chose to abandon the city. On December 7th, the Generalissimo left the city and by the 12th, the last effective military forces also pulled out. Along with the troops, around three quarters of the population had also left. The remaining citizens awaited the entrance of the Japanese forces.

And enter they did! The Japanese troops indulged in an orgy of murder, rape, looting and arson, directed at the civilian population. There were reports of systematic torture. The killing spree did not abate for at least two weeks. Things got a little bit better by the next year. By that time, hundreds of thousands of powerless people had been killed.

Although the “Nanking massacre” was carried out by the ordinary soldiers and those of lower ranks in the Imperial Army, the higher ups knew what was going on. An Army cannot engage in a self indulged killing spree for weeks without the superior officers knowing. Some soldiers later claimed that they were actually acting on orders from above. The Commanding Officer of the Japanese forces, Iwane Matsui, didn’t arrive in the city until a few days due to his poor health. Nevertheless, he was well aware of what was happening and did not or could not do anything to stop it. He was implicated for his inaction after the war and was hanged in December 1948.

Iwane Matsui Rides into Nanjin, Wikimedia Commons

There is no clear explanation to the motives of the Japanese Army in carrying out a massacre of this nature or this proportion. One possible motive could have been the terrorizing of the Chinese into subjugation. If it was an objective, the Japanese failed miserably. Rather than being terrorized, the Chinese people fought on and the Sino-Japanese War dragged on. The Japanese soldiers were better trained, had better weapons and were led better than the Chinese. They won the majority of the battles in the next years. But the ultimate victory was out of their reach. The Chinese had a large reserve of manpower and a huge area where they could move about and retreat, if necessary. On top of it, the KMT and the Communist forces were cooperating against the common enemy and the Japanese were being constantly harassed by the Communist guerrillas.

The Chinese resorted to a scorched earth policy to deny the enemy of food and other supplies. The Nanking massacre enhanced the will of the people to resist, rather than the opposite. The campaign also failed to deliver the expected goods to the Japanese industries. Japan was forced to look elsewhere for success, only to be brought down ultimately. Her military forces could not hope for a long drawn campaign over a huge area encompassing East Asia and Western Pacific. They overextended themselves and lacked the necessary troops for an effective victory in China, or anywhere else. As Mao Tse-tung once pointed out, “China is like a gallon jug which the Japanese are trying to fill with half a pint of liquid. When her troops move into one section, we move to another. And when they pursue us, we move back again.”

The Nanking massacre, also referred to as “The Rape of Nanking”, was a case of sheer brutality by the Japanese forces. However, this became the norm in many Asian regions which they conquered. Even then, perhaps in no other place did the Japanese behave worse than in Nanking. The disturbing fact was that these atrocities in Nanking and elsewhere were carried out by the regular army and not by some fanatic crowd such as the SS, SA or the Gestapo. For example, in Nazi controlled regions in Europe, it was the SS or other groups-which followed in the wake of the regular army-that carried out the bulk of the German atrocities during the war. The Nanking massacre and other atrocities were carried out by the same army which had behaved commendably just thirty years back during the Russo-Japanese War. In that war, any Japanese soldier who harmed civilians was inviting severe punishment on himself.

The Nanking massacre is a stumbling block for the improvement of Sino-Japanese relations even today. The Chinese consider it to be a “Forgotten Holocaust.” On the other hand while some Japanese nationalists argue that the intensity of the “Nanking massacre” has been grossly exaggerated, more hard-line nationalists, such as the popular former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, claim that the “Nanking massacre” never even occurred. With the general elections just two days away and the nationalists poised to record substantial gains, the abrasive Sino-Japanese relations are unlikely to get better in the near future.