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Family stories of the Rape of Nanking

My wife asked her students to collect stories from their grandparents from the Rape of Nanking. Many of the student’s families had fled the city, and other simply didn’t hand anything in. The following are four accounts of what happened in Jiangsu province during the war with Japan as remembered by witnesses of the tragedies.

I’m publishing this partially in response to Yoshikazu Kato’s comments made during his visit to Nanjing, in which he stated that he wasn’t certain of the facts of the event, and that further research should be done.

All I know about that period of history is from my grandma. At that time my grandma was very young, about 7 or 8 years old. One night when the whole family was sound asleep, without any warning, the Japanese soldiers rushed into the small village. These cruel soldiers set fires, shot innocent crowds and assaulted women.

My Grandma was hidden together with her elder sister under a straw mattress. She was very afraid, but she was told “No cry, no tears, no sound.” Through a small opening, my grandma witnessed these bloody Japanese stab her friends, kill her neighbors and steal their money. After the Japanese did all of these things, they moved the bodies together and set a fire to destroy the evidence.

In my hometown, Shigang, there used to be 12 temples, but the Japanese burned them and took everything valuable. So now we can only see 2 of them.

My neighbor was a soldier, and he told me why he joined the army. In the year 1939, the enemies came again and they fired off several rounds of artillery at our town. One of them landed near the house where his aunt lived. She was 53 years old and had lived alone. When she died, her belly was ruptured and her organs were outside. It was very tragic. In addition, he witnessed a Japanese soldier kill a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach after raping her. He was furious but he couldn’t do anything then. After that he decided to drive out the aggressors.

When I was a child I noticed a deep scar on my grandmother’s arm. I wondered how she got it, and so she told me this story.

When she was my age (~20), she worked with her two girlfriends in the field. After work they returned home. On their way back, a Japanese appeared with a gun. He shouted at them. Seeing this, my grandmother and her friends ran as fast as they could. Suddenly, my grandmother heard the report of a gun. She saw one of her friends fall down, and not get back up. Then she heard a second shot. Her other friend had been hit. The girl escaped the Japanese clutches, but later died at home. My grandmother was also shot, however she made it home and recovered slowly.

Although my grandma is alive, she lost her good friends forever. My grandmother is scarred not only physically but mentally.

My grandfather was an 8-year-old boy at that time, and saw his neighbor’s house collapse with his own eyes. As everybody knew, the city was not safe anymore, so his family and him escaped from the city to the rural area to seek shelter.

During the days in the country, grandfather witnessed a moving scene. The Japanese captured a man in a gray coat (it seemed like the clothes of a Chinese soldier) and believed him to be a Chinese soldier. Many people knew that he was a soldier, so they dare not help him. The moment before he was beheaded, a young country woman stepped out of the crowd and cried, “He is not a soldier but my husband. How could you kill him? Our son is still at home waiting for his father!” She hugged him tightly with tears. Then, the Japanese set him free.

The Japanese were still in the city and they always did theft and arson. In case of being raped, many girls went to the Nanking Safety Zone. So did grandpa’s sisters and female cousins. even in there, they still felt terrified, so these poor girls used coal to darken their faces and cut their hair. These “girls” are greatly thankful to these kind-hearted, civic-minded and conscientious foreigners to this day.

Lessons from the Rape of Nanking

Today marked the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, and as I wrote last year, it is a day that for me is inescapable (you should read that post because I won’t be rehashing much of it). I am surrounded by the history of that dark time, but am also buoyed by the memories of those who risked their lives for the common people of China. Today I’d like to share a few lesser known facts from those six weeks.

One of the most important things to understand about the Nanjing International Safety Zone, is that the foreigners involved with it never lost their faith in the rule of law. Time and again they brought cases directly to the Japanese embassy and Japanese military command, and demanded that the soldiers involved be punished for their actions.

This led to mixed results. Often consular police would find a tiny detail in a witness’ story that was incorrect, like the placement of a lamp in a room, and discount their entire testimony. At other times they would publicly scold soldiers, which seemed to serve as a very mild warning to other soldiers. While this deeply disappointed the foreigners in the Safety Zone, they continued to bring daily reports to the consulate.

Ultimately these reports, along with testimony given by the Safety Zone members, led to the convictions of those directly responsible for many of the atrocities at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

Even six weeks after the Japanese occupation had begun, it was not safe to leave the zone (six weeks is the length commonly cited for the duration of the Rape of Nanking). Families were ordered to return to their homes by Febuary 4th, but this order came as news of robberies, rapes, and murders continued to be reported. In many cases, the only thing that was powerful enough to stop Japanese soldiers was the presence of foreign faces.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 31st, Dr. Robert Wilson reported that just the day before, Mr. Rabe had actually lifted a soldier off a woman in the street not far from the hospital, and that on the 29th a truck had been seen abducting women. The women of Nanjing at that point were well aware of the dangers of Japanese troops. Letters available here and here (pdf)

Dr. Wilson’s other letters provide dozens of accounts of the atrocities that were committed on a daily basis during the months that followed the initial invasion. He refers to his own location as the “so-called Safety Zone” due to the number of incidents that occurred within its boundaries. The soldiers made no distinction between young and old, and murdered indiscriminately. Dr. Wilson alone attended to hundreds of cases in just the first few days, and it clearly took a toll on him and the other volunteers. Sadly, one year after the invasion, Minnie Vautrin ended her life regretting that she had not been able to do more to protect the women who had sought refuge behind her walls.

In Nanjing today, the massacre is rarely discussed, unless there is a need to turn public opinion against Japan (Today’s Global Times articles suggest that we shouldn’t hold the past against the Japanese of today). Even the doctors who work in Wilson’s hospital know little of his efforts to save the lives of hundreds of innocent victims. My co-workers today went so far as to complain about the noise of the air-raid siren meant to remind us of the tragedy. One said, “It was too noisy, I couldn’t work at all for thirty-minutes.” To which the other replied, “It’s OK, we just have to do this once a year.”

Remembering the Rape of Nanking

Today at 10am an alarm sounded to remind us of the invasion by the Japanese 73 years ago. In the weeks following the invasion 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered.

I was in my office when I heard the alarm, it caused an awful, uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. My bus ride to work takes me past many of the homes and universities that served as refugee camps. I’ve been in the home where the missionaries would gather to pray for peace during that time. I have seen the mass graves that serve as the undeniable evidence of the atrocities committed.

The International Safety Zone was created by the foreigners who chose to stay behind in Nanjing to protect the people. The area was only about 2 square miles, but housed 90% of the city’s population at the time. By that time all of the rich and middle class had fled further inland, this included most of the Chinese staff of the only hospital. This left only the very poorest people behind in Nanjing. Of the 25 foreigners in Nanjing at that time, 6 of them were missionaries from my denomination.

One of the missionaries from my church, who served in a hospital, wrote of that day, Dec. 13th, 1937,

“the stream of wounded were still coming to our door. Trim and part of the time Bob stood at the back gate and dressed them. They all got on their way but six. By the next morning four of those were gone. One lay dead at the gate, the other at the corner of Tientsin Road. The other dead of their wounds or an additional bullet, no one will ever know.

The night was horrible. The wounded civilians poured in by the dozens. More than we could possibly take in. We took in what we could and the rest were dressed and giving comforts to sleep in the dispensary. There were probably forty of them left there. We opened up fourth floor.”

A few days later, on the 17th she wrote,

“Reports began to reach us of the violation of women. Lewis said they had 166 authentic reports to make. How many more that one never heard of will never be known.

Reports of men being carried off and shot. Men being pressed into service. Every one was utterly frightened and afraid to go on the street. Mei-o, Emily and I go back and forth together. Would not think of letting either one of the girls on the street without me or Trim.

It is not convenient to use the back gate because of the dead there. It hurts too badly.”

After the 6 weeks, one of the missionaries who had seen every kind of horror imaginable committed by the Japanese troops wrote this in a letter home, he has more strength than I could ever pray for,

“Do I hate the Japanese, no. I dislike very much their policy, and I dislike very much the way they are mistreating the common people of China. But, if I am ever given the opportunity to do the same for the Japanese, as we have done here for the Chinese men, women and children, I would do the same right over again.”

Without the International Safety Zone, thousands more would have been killed. Today in this season of Advent, I pray for peace more than I ever have before.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about the rape of Nanking, this is an excellent film