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The memory of the Nanjing massacre had been buried in the years following the Second World War until the 1980s as one of the most controversial conflicts within the Sino-Japanese history. The Japanese war crimes at the time are still a big wound within the Chinese memory, driving two sides to fall into a historic conflict over the atrocities of 1937-1938. This paper seeks to understand one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century, the Nanjing massacre, from different scholars' perspectives while considering its place within history and human rights. The main objective of this paper is to develop a broad understanding of the Nanjing massacre by combining various researches and narratives; moreover, it is to establish a framework in which this long-lasting historical controversy is debated comparatively.

Keywords: The Nanjing massacre, controversy, foreign policy, Sino-Japanese relations, the 20th century.



The Nanjing or Nanking massacre, which was also being referred to as the Rape of Nanjing[1] after notable works were published in the western world, has both controversial and sensitive background. This conflicted history of the events of 1937 causes two sides of the opposition to push their narratives forward, in some cases to an extent in which it is hard to distinguish the reality from actuality. This trend that has been fueled by both sides' exaggerated or dismissed behavior results in soured Sino-Japanese foreign relations beyond its social and psychological effects on the masses. By studying the historical perception of both of the conflicting parties and reviewing the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, this research aims to form a historical framework that can explain the reasons behind the disputes.


Historically speaking, the Nanjing massacre constitutes some of the most violent war crimes within Sino-Japanese history. These war atrocities are emphasized firmly by the Chinese side of the story, although many Japanese scholars either deny the allegations or tell about a different story than what is claimed by the Chinese nation's memory. Conflicting debates about the historical background of the Nanjing massacre becomes a political one; furthermore, these disputes transform themselves into sour foreign relations or even extreme ideological clashes.

Firstly, understanding events within the historical context carries vital importance. In certain circumstances, historical evidence can be formed through limited sources. These sources can be made out of subjective materials such as diaries, stories, or photographs without enough information attached to them. Nevertheless, such cases strike people to take action and document the events that can be used to analyze the occurrences within comprehensive studies.[2]

Taking into account how the events of the Nanjing massacre affected the foreigners living in Nanjing at the time and urged them to leave evidence behind, there are significant historical records as well as evaluations over the war crimes of the WW2 Japanese Imperial Army. These historical reports are valuable when it comes to the formation of the Chinese identity over the WW2 atrocities of Japan. However, before dwelling further into these historical sources, one needs to study the environment of the era.

2.1. The Historical Background of the Nanjing Massacre

Initially, to comprehend the Nanjing massacre, it is necessary to remember the First and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The First Sino-Japanese War, which took place between the years of 1894 and 1895, was signaling Japan as one of the world's new emerging powers (Ruiz, 2018: 9). Greve & Levi (2018: 161) argues that "Interpretations of the origins of the First Sino-Japanese War emphasize Japan’s strategic and economic interests in Korea; its quest for recognition and status among Western powers and beliefs in Japanese cultural supremacy over Korea; and domestic political pressures." They also emphasize that "Other interpretations, consistent with some versions of realism, emphasize a balance between strategic and economic factors."

After the Japanese efforts to assert more dominance within the region, the First Sino-Japanese War marked its beginning "...on July 25, 1894 when the Japanese warships attacked two Chinese vessels off the Korean Port of Asan. The formal declaration of war was issued on August 1, 1894." stated by Birbudak (2017: 203). When the Japanese aggression merged with its advanced military power met with Chinese resistance, China lost its battle within the region.

Japan gained leverage by its victories both on sea and land; therefore, Japan obtained a considerable advantage, which forced China to accept its defeat by agreeing on the so-called Peace Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 (Fröhlich, 2014: 217). Given these developments at the time, it was clear that Japan was becoming more and more self-confident in the region, even by defeating the most ancient challenging power.

Here, one needs to address the political as well as national tendencies of Japan in the pre-Second World War era. In addition to Japan's growing self-confidence over its more powerful stance in the region, there were ideological concepts that were driving the political force in Japan. As similar to its WW2 ally Germany, fascist ideologies were at the front of politics in Japan; however, some studies question the type of fascism in Japan.

For example, Duus & Okimoto (1979: 72) suggest that there is another term used to explain Japanese fascism within comparative studies, which is the "corporatism" paradigm. Moreover, Duus & Okimoto (1979: 74) highlight the Japanese fascism factor since it is used "even in explaining Japan's foreign policy." Fascist sentiments combined with the teachings of the "way of the samurai" or "bushidō" were at the center of the nationalist ideologies, forming an absolute loyalty to the empire and the Japanese military (Benesch, 2014).

Following the military success over China and Russia, with the offensive trends within Japanese politics and foreign policy, another outbreak was inevitable. The Second Sino-Japanese War which started after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident also marked the beginning of the invasion of Nanjing. Marco Polo Bridge Incident appeared on the 7th of July, 1937, close to Beijing, followed by a series of events in the south, creating a domino effect (LU, 2004: 11-18). These incidents in the south, as well as Shanghai, took a big turn and resulted in the fall of Shanghai and eventually with the occupation of Nanjing by the WW2 Japanese Imperial Army (LU, 2004: 11-18). 

Starting from the capturing of the capital Nanjing in 1937 to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki's atomic bombings in 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army's incursion continued in China (Brook, 1999). In his book named "Documents on the Rape of Nanking," Brook (1999) underlines that the conduct of the Japanese Imperial "from December 1937 to February 1938 constitutes one of the most barbarous events not just of the war but of the century."

2.2. The Comparison of the Japanese and Chinese Memories over the Nanjing Massacre

Beyond the two sides of the story, there is the harsh reality of the two sides of the nations. National identity and value over an international conflict between two states have the bitter truth of the clash of two different interests. Whether it is historical or recent, the "facts" are more subjective than they are objective within the international relations sphere. Heinzen (2004: 148) cites Daqing Yang in his Research Essay by suggesting the factor that "Sino-Japanese relations cannot be understood without reference to the ‘memory wars’ in the context of the ‘clash of […] nationalisms’"

It is necessary to point out that the Nanjing massacre or incident[3] was documented during the Second World War, in addition to its documentation after the war, during the war crimes trial in Tokyo (Brook, 1999). Although the reality of documentation and the significance of the researches over the debates remain, most of the kerfuffle over the conflict takes place online (Askew, 2014). The continuation of the conflict over the web doesn't improve the quality of the arguments since the debating parties are usually ignorant themselves, and most of the time, such heated debates bring more negativity between the conflicting sides. Given the reasons above, the comparison of academic and historical materials make up the structural debates over the Nanjing massacre.

Gordon (2014: 3) highlights a prominent factor about the Nanjing Massacre, which is that between 1940 and the 1970 "for nearly three decades" the massacre was left unvisited, "forgotten" in both Chinese and the Japanese history by their "scholars and politicians and their Japanese counterparts alike." This shocking truth about the history of the Nanjing massacre was changed soon after the 70s, altering the relationship between China and Japan. During the war, the events of the Nanjing Massacre were reported extensively by the Western and the Chinese media (Yang, 1999: 844). With Japan's surrender and the establishment of the Tokyo trial, a number of Japanese soldiers were executed and the collections of Western and Chinese documents were used as testimonies for the trials (Yang, 1999: 844).

The first historical study was made in 1967, by Hora Tomio, and in 1971, Katsuichi Honda started publishing his papers where he exposed Japanese war crimes based on his interviews with Chinese survivors (Yang, 1999: 844). Honda was criticized for spreading Chinese propaganda and lacking reliable first-hand sources (Yang, 1999: 844). Tucker (2000: 322) finds Honda's works especially notable since his writings pushed the Japanese side to open up about the discussions over the Nanjing massacre; hence, the new movements within controversies encouraged scholars worldwide to study more on this topic.

Some of the major debates over the atrocities of the Japanese Imperial Army rise against the popular writer Iris Chang's evaluation of the Nanjing massacre. Gordon (2014: 4) references Iris Chang by reporting her narrative in her book[4] "over a six week period the Japanese Imperial Army systematically raped, looted, and killed Chinese POWs, and civilians including women and children."

Regarding Iris Chang's work, the style used within her work created sensational feedback since the book was quite personalized; therefore, her book attracted criticism along with attention (Tucker, 2000: 321). Nevertheless, some of Chang's narratives[5] match with other sources about the cruel atrocities. Some of the crucial examples of systematic rapes were written by Lewis S.C. Smythe, who was an American missionary (Christian) serving as secretary of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone at the time (Gordon, 2014: 5). He also sent these documents later to the diplomat of the Japanese embassy, Mr. Tokuyasu Fukuda.[6]

Other debates go around the number of people being massacred. Minoru (2016) argues that Iris Chang's reports about the number of people being massacred are fabricated. He supports his claim by referencing one of Chang's main references, "a report dated January 14, 1938 and written by Rabe and submitted to the Japanese embassy" which indicates that "Westerner that the Japanese military was providing large amounts of food to the city’s inhabitants. And yet, according to the judgment on the Nanjing Massacre handed down eight years later after the Second World War ended, the Japanese was in the midst of its grand slaughter of 300,000 people on January 14, 1938, the day that the report was written"

Gao & Alexander (2006: 5) explain the cultural trauma after the massacre, and they proclaim that "Western observers were in and around Nanking, as diplomats, missionaries, and journalists. They broadcast alarmed and urgent representations of the event, and reports appeared in large black letters in newspapers and newsreels around the world." They insist on the observed Japanese behavior in Nanjing, which they describe as "horrific." 

It should be noted that there are scholars (mostly Japanese) who oppose those allegations mentioned by claiming that Japanese soldiers didn't cause such atrocities as Iris Chang wrote. Also, those scholars such as Tanaka Masaaki[7] even advocate that Japanese authorities were not causing trouble for commons instead they were targeting the soldiers, especially the ones whom were viewed as filthy since some soldiers tried to blend into the community that was secured in the safe zone.

Most researches along with scholars describe the incidents as rape since the atrocities were systematic in a way that the usage of the word would fit; on the contrary, from the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese textbooks were replacing this terminology used for atrocities with "Japanese soldiers using these women and victims as “comfort” women (Gordon, 2014: 5)."

Besides the changing usage of words, there are also significant differences between different scholarly works. In his article named "Review: The Nanking Massacre: Now You See It, ..." Wakabayashi (2001: 528) strongly criticizes Tanaka Masaaki, Takemoto Tadao, and Ōhara Yasuo for displaying the numbers of the victims, for using irrelevant sources; moreover, exposed them for submitting fake photos about the Nanjing massacre.  These cases show that scholarly works denying the wartime atrocities are also pointed out by the Japanese.

Morgan (2002: 246) concludes into a similar result in his article "Chinese, Japanese, and United States Views of the Nanking Massacre: The Supreme Court Trial of Shiro Azuma." By implying the varying perspectives regarding the Nanjing massacre, he argues that in Japan, there is a "broad spectrum of views," such as those who accept the war crimes of the Japanese Imperial Army and those who wish to label the Nanking Massacre as the biggest lie of the 20th Century."

The Tokyo Trials both fulfilled the Chinese and American interests since Japanese soldiers were found guilty due to their atrocities and crimes in the Nanjing massacre. By contrast to the satisfaction of the two states, Brook (2001: 694) reports that "Radhabinod Pal did not agree on any of these points. The exclusion of Western colonialism and the atomic bomb from the court's consideration signified for him the failure of the IMTFE to provide anything other than an opportunity for the victors to retaliate against their former enemies." Brook questions the adequacy of the Tokyo Judgment and states the fact that the capacity for resolving the war crimes and their outcomes of it are not within any court.

The changing narratives of the textbooks are compared by Tokushi Kasahara[8] within his research "Reconciling Narratives of the Nanjing Massacre in Japanese and Chinese Textbooks." The Nanjing Massacre takes place within the Japanese highschool textbooks, and most students are informed about its occurrence. In this paper, he compares both Japanese and Chinese textbooks from various perspectives and stresses the struggles Japan faces when it comes to the details of the Nanjing massacre in their curriculum; therefore, he suggests that the explanations are inadequate compared to the Chinese textbooks.

Beyond debates about the Nanjing massacre, there are also debates over the reasons for the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hiromichi (2008: 2) claims that "The Marco Polo Bridge Incident was […] orchestrated by China" He states that China required war against Japan, and it was advocated widely in newspapers. According to Hiromichi (2008: 4), "The Chinese Soviet Republic, established in November, 1931, in Ruijin in Jiangxi province, issued a proclamation of war against Japan in the name of the Central Government on Apr. 26, 1932. (On Sept. 18, they also issued an ―official proclamation of war by telegram.)" Conversely, there are numerous assumptions about the Japanese intentions regarding to the Second Sino-Japanese War. The most crucial one is described as expecting an easier victory by conquering the capital of China, Nanjing.

These sorts of arguments stem from identity politics. These sentiments are caused by the political need to draw the other as the bad guy. Whether it is the Japanese scholar trying to blame the war on the Chinese or the Chinese blame the war crimes on Japan, the efforts of protection over one's political identity remain. Historians like Joshua A. Fogel (2007) inquiring the reasons behind the success of historical professions amongst diaspora Chinese people. He answers himself that "Fogel contends that faced with “the hot-house atmosphere of North American identity politics,” overseas Chinese in North American “latch on to major negative instances in their history to forge that identity” so that they can bond with fellow Chinese in “victimhood” (Feng, 2017: 78)."


When it comes to the postwar era after WW2, we have seen widespread debates over war-crimes, and in some cases, countries apologize for what they did. Japan, as one of the major perpetrator of the war, was also expected to apologize for its atrocities during the 1990s. In this international environment, Japan realized the obligation of a proper apology, which is acknowledging the pain of the wartime victims and answering for the reparations and demands. Shibata (2017: 51) reports that "The 1990s saw a series of official apologies issued by the Prime Ministers of Japan."

Notwithstanding the many Japanese efforts to apologize, Japan still gets criticized by its neighbors such as China and South Korea with their continuous demands of a proper apology; further, bringing the issue to the international table. Related apologies were made by other Japanese leaders. For instance, in 1995, Tomiichi Murayama, In 2005, Junichiro Koizumi, and in 2006, Shinzo Abe used apologies within their speeches over the former imperial aggression and violence of Japan (Cathey, 2008: 55).

A similar message was given by former Japanese Prime Minister Abe in his talk for Joint Press during his visit to the U.S. in 2007[9]. He expresses his thought on the so-called "comfort women": "I do have deep-hearted sympathies that my people had to serve as comfort women, were placed in extreme hardships, and had to suffer that sacrifice; and that I, as Prime Minister of Japan, expressed my apologizes, and also expressed my apologizes for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance.”

In this particular case, the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was criticized for apologizing to the former U.S. President Bush. These Japanese discourses over extremely sensitive conflicts do not satisfy the victims of such atrocities; thus continue the unwanted negative sentiments towards one nation to another. Hoshiyama (2007: 18) states that in public opinion polls carried out in China, one of the most repeated answers to the question was "What is that you associate with Japan?" was "The Nanking Massacre," which underlines the significance of the improvement of the Japanese-Chinese relations for the future.

Besides the teachings within the Japanese textbooks on the Nanjing massacre and the reparations paid under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan's apologies are viewed as insincere because of the government's regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which according to  Cathey (2008: 59) "was established in 1869 by Emperor Meiji in order to commemorate those individuals who died in service to their country."

There is another growing danger within these conflicted Asian nations, which are the re-emerging nationalistic opinions. Cathey (2008: 61) reports that "This nationalism also resulted in an outbreak of antiJapanese riots in China in May 2005 in response to Japan’s desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council." The more nationalistic approaches grow in Japan, the bigger the response to it gets, which creates a chain reaction between the neighboring nations.

It is apparent that Japan wants to form a strong nation-state in the 21st century by strengthening Japan's foreign relations with other regional powers; however, there is a serious lack of commitment to the Japanese discourses about its apologies and sentiments over the historical controversies since in practice, there are exercises that go against the Japanese statements.           


Looking at different sources comparatively, it's noteworthy that despite every side of the argument claiming their facts, the nature of the debate prevails in the end. On the one side, China, as the defeated party from the Sino-Japanese Wars, and the Chinese, as the occupied nation, has a distinct painful memory regarding the Nanjing Massacre. On the other hand, considering its political, cultural, and historical background, Japan in the Second World War (or both of the Sino-Japanese Wars) was the aggressor, and in one way or another Japanese Imperial Army had the intention for such atrocities.

In conclusion, the controversy over the Nanjing massacre proved that the national identities, as well as historical memories of different nations, can constitute various political consequences, from anti-Japanese sentiments to the souring of Sino-Japanese relations. When it comes to coping with the post-war traumas of nations, careful foreign policies carry a considerable prominence. Although historical conflicts are difficult to solve within the international relations context, a continuous foreign policy agenda focused on the avoidance of further conflicts is essential. As a result of our comparative research, it is safe to say that for the improvement of foreign relations within the region, all parties need consensus over historical conflicts.




 [1]. Askew, D. (2004). New research on the Nanjing incident. Asia-Pacific Journal. Retrieved January 4, 2021, from https://apjjf.org/-David-Askew/1729/article.html

[2]. Benesch, O. (2014). Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan. Retrieved January 3, 2021, from https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198706625.001.0001/acprof-9780198706625

[3]. Birbudak, T. S. (2017). The Sino-Japan War of 1894-1895 and The Ottoman Empire. Retrieved January 3, 2021, from https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/780859

[4]. Brook, T. (1999). Documents on the Rape of Nanking. Retrieved January 3, 2021, from https://www.press.umich.edu/16661/documents_on_the_rape_of_nanking

[5]. Brook, T. (2001). The Tokyo Judgment and the Rape of Nanking. The Journal of Asian Studies, 60(3), 673-700. doi:10.2307/2700106

[6]. Cathey, E. A. (2008). THE EFFECTS OF JAPAN’S APOLOGY FOR WORLD WAR II ATROCITIES ON REGIONAL RELATIONS. Retrieved January 8, 2021, from http://hdl.handle.net/10945/3798

[7]. Duus, P., & Okimoto, D. (1979). Comment: Fascism and the History of Pre-War Japan: The Failure of a Concept. The Journal of Asian Studies, 39(1), 65-76. doi:10.2307/2053504

[8]. Feng, P. (2017). Remembering Nanking: historical reconstructions and literary memorializations of the Nanking Massacre, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 18:1, 75-91, DOI: 10.1080/14649373.2017.1273993

[9]. Fröhlich, J. (2014). Pictures of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. War in History, 21(2), 214-250. Retrieved January 10, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26098308

[10].Gao, R. & Alexander, J. (2006). “Remembrance of Things Past: Cultural Trauma, the “Nanking Massacre” and Chinese Identity” in Peking-Yale University Conference Publication on Tradition & Modernity: Comparative Perspectives, (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2007) (pp. 266-294).

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 [13]. Heinzen, J. (2004). Graduate Research Essay ‘MEMORY WARS’: THE MANIPULATION OF HISTORY IN THE CONTEXT OF SINO-JAPANESE RELATIONS. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 6, 148-164. Retrieved January 4, 2021, from https://www.nzasia.org.nz/uploads/1/3/2/1/132180707/6_2_9.pdf

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[16]. LU, S. (2004). They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals. Hong Kong University Press. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc2tq

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[18]. Morgan, R. (2002). Chinese, Japanese, and United States Views of the Nanking Massacre: The Supreme Court Trial of Shiro Azuma. American Journal of Chinese Studies, 9(2), 235-246. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44288708

[19]. Ruiz, E. B.(2018). The Rape of Nanking: a historical analysis of the aftershocks of wartime sexual violence in international relations. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from https://repositorio.comillas.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11531/22100/TFG%20Entrega%20Final.%20Esther%20Brito.pdf?sequence=1

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[1] This part is referencing the book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which was published in 1997 by Iris Chang. The book became a bestseller and brought more attention to the debates over the Nanjing Massacre.

[2] During the WW2 era, some foreigners were living in and around Nanjing. For instance, the diaries of John Rabe –the memories of a German businessman living in Nanjing at the time- are used within researches regarding the massacre.

[3] David Askew (2014) emphasizes the controversy over the lexical usage of the word "massacre" with the Nanjing incidents of 1937.

[4]  “Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II(New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1997),

pg. #46.”

[5] In the same book, Iris Chang uses John Rabe’s Diary (1882-1950) to enhance her narrative over the massacre.

[6] This part is also retrieved from Josh Gordon’s research “The Nanking Massacre: Analysis of Japanese and Chinese

Interpretation and Remembrance of Nanking 1940s-The Present” and it is explained further with this quatation of Smythe’s documents: “On the night of December 15, last night, seven Japanese soldiers entered the University of Nanjing library building and took seven Chinese women refugees three of whom were raped on the spot. (Full details of this case will be filed by Dr. M.S. Bates Chairman of the University of Nanking Emergency Committee.)”

[7] Referencing ‘What Really Happened in Nanking” by Tanaka Masaaki (2000) against the “Remembrance of Things Past: Cultural Trauma, the “Nanking Massacre” and Chinese Identity” by Jeffrey C. Alexander and Rui Gao

[8] This source doesn’t have information regarding when it was published. It was retrieved January 5, 2021, from https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/kasahara.pdf

[9] David, C. (2007). President Bush and Prime Minister Abe of Japan Participate in a Joint Press Availability. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/04/20070427-6.html

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