Facing the Enemy

NANJING MASSACRE (December 1937- January 1938)—A six- week assault carried out in and around the capital of Nanjing after it fell to the Japanese army in 1937. Upwards of 300,000 non- combatants were killed, including tens of thousands of women and children.

The army committed numerous atrocities, including looting, rape, and arson, with the seeming consent of their officers. Also referred to as the "Rape of Nanjing."

Life under Japanese rule is often treated as a choice between determined and continuous resistance or cowardly capitulation; the reality was far more often somewhere between the two. As with any extended foreign occupation, the local Chinese population was forced to engage with their Japanese occupiers to survive. As famed Chinese director Jiang Wen made apparent in his film Devils on the Doorstep—a poignant and humorous depiction of this period—the Chinese living under Japanese collaborationist rule were caught between a desire for normality and the reality that their country was occupied. In the film, the villagers are forced by Communist insurgents to aid in concealing a captured Japanese officer and his translator and eventually to participate in the men's execution. As the villagers squabble among themselves and seek to avoid detection by both the Japanese army and the Chinese resistance, the claim of constant resistance is exposed as romanticized half-truths (9.3). For most of occupied China, the occupation was a complex mixture of fear, confusion, and hard choices.

Letter to the Japanese Embassy From the Nanjing Safety Zone (December 18, 1937)

After capturing Nanjing on December 13, 1937, Japanese troops went on a six- week rampage commonly referred to as the "Rape of Nanjing." It is estimated that some 300,000 Chinese civilians and POWs were massacred. These atrocities were reported in both the Western and Chinese press at the time. In the war trials after Japan surrendered in 1945, these events became a flash point in Sino-Japanese relations that have continued to cause friction to the present day. The following account is one of many letters written by John H. D. Rabe, a German businessman, director of the Siemens office, and leader of the Nanjing branch of the Nazi party. He served as the head of a war relief committee known as the International Committee of the Nanjing Safety Zone that communicated with the Japanese to protect civilians from robbery, rape, and other atrocities by Japanese troops.


  • 1. What type of aid did the International Committee of the Nanjing Safety Zone attempt to implement? What obstacles did they encounter?
  • 2. Does Rabe's letter suggest that some Japanese officials were seeking to impose order?

Dear Sirs:

We are very sorry to trouble you again but the sufferings and needs of the

200.000 civilians for whom we are trying to care make it urgent that we try to secure action from your military authorities to stop the present disorder among Japanese soldiers wandering through the Safety Zone.

There is no time or space here to go into the cases that are pouring in faster than we can type them out. But last night Dr. Bates of our Committee went to the University of Nanjing dormitories to sleep in order to protect the 1,000 women that fled there yesterday because of attacks in their homes. He found no Gendarmerie on guard there nor at the new University library building. When at 8 p.m. Mr. Fitch and Dr. Smythe took Rev. W.P. Mills to Jinling College to sleep in the house near the gate (as one or more of us have been doing every night since the 14th in order to protect the

3.000 women and children, yesterday augmented to 4,000 by the panic), we were seized roughly by a searching squad and detained for over an hour. The officer had the two women in charge of Jinling College, Miss Minnie Vautrin and Mrs. Chen, with a friend, Mrs. Twinem, lined up at the gate and kept them there in the cold and the men pushed them around roughly. The officer insisted there were soldiers in the compound and he wanted to find them and shoot them. Finally, he let us go home but would not let Rev. Mills stay so we do not know what happened after we left.

This combined with the marching off of the men at the Ministry of Justice on December 16. . . , among which were several hundred civilian men to our positive knowledge and 50 of our uniformed police, had made us realize that, unless something is done to clear up this situation, the lives of all the civilian men in our Zone are at the mercy of the temperament of searching captains.

With the panic that has been created among the women who are now flocking by the thousands to our American institutions for protection, the men are being left more and more alone. (For instance, there were 600 people in the old Language School at Xiao Taoyuan up till December 16. But because so many women were raped there on the night of December 15, 400 women and children moved to Jinling College, leaving 200 men.) These public institutional buildings were originally listed to accommodate 35,000 people; now, because of panic among the women, this has increased to 50,000, although two buildings have been emptied of men: the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court.

If this panic continues, not only will our housing problem become more serious but the food problem and the question of finding workers will seriously increase. This morning one of your representatives, Mr. K. Kikuchi, was at our office asking for workers for the electric light plant. We had to reply that we could not even get our own workers out to do anything. We are only able to keep rice and coal supplied to these large concentrations of people by Western members of our Committee and Staff driving trucks for rice and coal. Our Food Commissioner has not dared leave his house for two days. The second man on our Housing Commission had to see two women in his family at 23 Hankou Road raped last night at supper time by Japanese soldiers. Our Associate Food Commissioner, Mr. Sone (a Theological Professor), has had to convey trucks with rice and leave the 2,500 people in families at his Nanjing Theological Seminary to look out for themselves. Yesterday, in broad daylight, several women at the Seminary were raped right in the middle of a large room filled with men, women, and children! We 22 Westerners cannot feed 200,000 Chinese civilians and protect them night and day. That is the duty of the Japanese authorities. If you can give them protection, we can help feed them!

There is another matter that is in the minds of the Japanese officers searching the Zone: they think the place is full of "plain-clothes soldiers." We have notified you several times of the presence of soldiers who, disarmed, entered the Zone on the afternoon of December 13. But now we can safely assure you that there are no groups of disarmed Chinese soldiers in the Zone. Your searching squads have cleaned out all of them and many civilians along with them. ...

Trusting that you will pardon our venturing to make these suggestions, and assuring you of our willingness to cooperate in every way for the welfare of the civilians in the city, I am

Most respectfully your,




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