The Rape of Nanking * Iris Chang

When I read Wild Swans – Chang Jung – The three daughters of China, there was a mention in it that whoever reads about the Japanese occupation of China should not pass over “The Rape of Nanking”. I finally got the stomach to read it and while short, it provided a powerful punch to the gut.

Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has a monopoly on wartime cruelty. 

The official denials continued even as this book was going to press. Kajiyama Seiroku, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, outraged several Asian countries when he stated that the sex slaves and rape victims of the Japanese imperial army during World War II were not slaves at all but willingly engaged in prostitution. In January 1997, he proclaimed that the comfort women of the Japanese army “went for the money” and were no different from the Japanese prostitutes who were working legally in Japan at the time.

Amazingly, these comments came on the eve of weekend summit talks between Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and South Korean President Kim Young-sam, both of whom expressed deep anger over Kajiyama’s remarks.Kajiyama later made a gesture to apologize, though he infuriated critics because the apology seemed insulting and insincere. The cabinet secretary regretted that his comments “caused some unpleasantness at the Japan–South Korean summit, and misunderstanding among the South Korean people,” but he refused to retract his original comments. This was not the first time Kajiyama’s mouth had landed him in trouble. In 1990 he was forced to resign from his position as Japanese justice minister after comparing African Americans to prostitutes who come in and ruin a neighborhood.



                        In December 1937, one of the most brutal massacres in the long annals of wartime barbarity occurred in the capital of China. The Japanese army swept into Nanking and not only looted and burned the defenseless city but systematically raped, tortured, and murdered half of the city’s remaining population, some 300,000 Chinese civilians. Amazingly, the account of this atrocity was denied by the Japanese government.

The Rape of Nanking tells the story from three perspectives: that of the Japanese soldiers who performed it, that of the Chinese civilians who endured it, and finally, that of a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and were able to create a safety zone that saved almost 300,000 Chinese. Among these was John Rabe, the tireless German leader of the rescue effort, whom Iris Chang called the “Oskar Schindler of China.”

We will never know everything that happened in the many cities and small villages that found themselves prostrate beneath the boot of this conquering force. Ironically, we do know the story of Nanking because some foreigners witnessed the horror and sent word to the outside world at the time, and some Chinese survived as eyewitnesses. If one event can be held up as an example of the unmitigated evil lying just below the surface of unbridled military adventurism, that moment is the Rape of Nanking. This book is its story.


I guess what kept me fascinated was the gory descriptions. Humankind is known to rubberneck in case of an accident on the motorway. We don’t shy away from pain and torture just because it’s known to make people squimish.

And there’s always the question of blame. Japan refuses to issue more than a half-assed apology letter. And why? That’s because they don’t think they did anything wrong.

The pressure to conform to authority intensified if the schoolboy decided to become a soldier. Vicious hazing and a relentless pecking order usually squelched any residual spirit of individualism in him. Obedience was touted as a supreme virtue, and a sense of individual self-worth was replaced by a sense of value as a small cog in the larger scheme of things.

Any soldier is just an ant serving the good of the hive. No personality, no individuality, no mercy. There is talk about the hardened killer eyes of the people who have been on the front and how it only took less than two weeks for the newcomers to have the same eyes. To make it worse, the Chinese army refused to fight and surrendered in hopes of an honourable treatment. The opposite happened, since the Japanese could feel nothing but contempt against an army who does not fight to the death.

The reluctance of the Chinese army to fight back stunned Azuma. To a man who came from a military culture in which pilots were given swords instead of parachutes, and in which suicide was infinitely preferable to capture, it was incomprehensible that the Chinese would not fight an enemy to the death.

Once Nanking fell, the atrocities began. The book does not shy away from extremely descriptive takes, so don’t read on if you don’t want to see what they did.

Surviving Japanese veterans claim that the army had officially outlawed the rape of enemy women. But rape remained so deeply embedded in Japanese military culture and superstition that no one took the rule seriously. Many believed that raping virgins would make them more powerful in battle. Soldiers were even known to wear amulets made from the pubic hair of such victims, believing that they possessed magical powers against injury. The military policy forbidding rape only encouraged soldiers to kill their victims afterwards. […] Some Japanese soldiers admitted it was easy for them to kill because they had been taught that next to the emperor, all individual life—even their own—was valueless

What was really bad, was the refusal to fight back. People were still carrying a bit of hope, even when the mass graves started appearing. Unaware soldiers gave up their guns and willingly dug holes which would serve as their own graves. Women were raped in full sight on the street. What really got to me is how they handled a pregnant woman.

…tried to drag her away from the group to rape her. Nobody helped her, and in the end the soldier killed her, ripping open her belly with his bayonet and jerking out not only her intestines but a squirming fetus. That, Tang believes, should have been the moment for them all to rebel, to do something, to fight back and try to kill the soldiers even if they all died in the process. But even though the Chinese prisoners greatly outnumbered their Japanese tormentors and might have been able to overwhelm them, no one moved. Everyone remained eerily docile. Sad to say, of all the people around the pit, Tang remembers only the pregnant woman showing the slightest bit of courage.

When discussing the scales of the rapes, Iris Chang quotes Susan Brownmiller, author of the landmark book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. She believed that the Rape of Nanking was probably the single worst instance of wartime rape inflicted on a civilian population with the sole exception of the treatment of Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers in 1971. (An estimated 200,000–400,000 women were raped in Bangladesh during a nine-month reign of terror following a failed rebellion.) Brownmiller suspected that the Rape of Nanking surpasses in scale even the raping of women in the former Yugoslavia, though it is difficult for her to say for certain because of the unreliability of Bosnian rape statistics.

When a woman of sixty-two protested to soldiers that she was too old for sex, they “rammed a stick up her instead.” Many women in their eighties were raped to death, and at least one woman in that age group was shot and killed because she refused a Japanese soldier’s advances.

About the Author

Iris Chang

Iris wrote three books in her short life. Her first book, The Thread of the Silkworm, was a topic chosen by her editor at Basic Books, Susan Rabiner. Her last book, The Chinese in America, was a topic chosen by her publisher at Viking Penguin. The Rape of Nanking was the only book chosen by Iris. The one book she intended to write from a very young age spent several weeks on the best-seller list and was translated into 15 languages She was   in a position where she had the financial resources and the influence in the publishing industry to write whatever she wanted for the rest of her life. It is difficult to say what she would have been able to accomplish if she had continued writing for another fifty years. Since Iris has passed away, many people have said that she has inspired them to carry on her work. I’ve guided people to visit the Iris Chang collections in the Hoover Archives at Stanford University, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and at the University of Illinois. That’s the only way to fully appreciate the tremendous amount of original research that went into all three of her books. The Hoover Archives contains a list of other books she had planned to write. I encourage anyone who wants to carry on her legacy to complete one of these projects. Iris’s dream was to have her books made into documentaries and feature films. Many claim to have done films based on The Rape of Nanking; however as of this writing, no producer has done a documentary film or a feature film on any one of her three books. Iris was not a religious person, but if she is looking down on us, nothing would make her happier than to see this happen.

In the immediate aftermath of their daughter’s death, rumours circulated that she had been murdered. She had received death threats because of her research on the atrocity. “We don’t believe she was targeted,” her mother says now as her husband, Shau-Jin Chang, watches her, nodding his head solemnly. “We knew she was suicidal. She left a suicide note. “But they challenge the diagnosis of mental illness. “She was extremely tired physically and she just broke down. And, yes, she was depressed a little but it’s not so serious. “Theirs is a story of love for their star child – born in Princeton, N.J., after they immigrated from China – and a search for answers to her shocking demise. A younger brother, who is “just average,” they say, was not nearly as ambitious or devoted as a student. “This question of why did she kill herself hounded me all the way until today,” her mother allows, explaining that a book has brought her some comfort. Near the end of her life, Ms. Chang was hospitalized with paranoia and depression.

Hope she rests in peace.

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