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Thoughts on the Nanjing Massacre

Seventy years ago this December 13th, the Japanese Imperial Army began its seizure of Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China. Japanese troops killed remnant Chinese soldiers in violation of the laws of war, murdered Chinese civilians, raped Chinese women, and destroyed or stole Chinese property on a scale that will never be known. The violence and destruction was extensive, despite the efforts of some Japanese to minimize the scale. We know this because there was a relatively large foreign community in Nanjing at the time that bore witness to the carnage. Other Japanese have themselves worked assiduously to reconstruct the historical record.

Similar disasters occurred in other towns of the Lower Yangzi and in East China, but what happened in Nanjing has become emblematic of the narratives of the inhumanity of the Japanese aggression and the sorrow of Chinese victimization. Those narratives continue to this day. Indeed, Timothy Brook writes of Nanjing that “the politics of memory are so powerful at this site that what actually happened in December 1937 almost doesn’t matter to the kind of record either side chooses to create.”1

Beneath the plane of political memory, the history of the war, of which the Nanjing Massacre is one small part, raises other questions that are pertinent to the present day. There is the issue of why the Japanese army behaved with such apparent barbarism in seizing places like Nanjing and thereafter defending its occupation against Nationalist and Communist insurgencies.

This has been a subject of discussion virtually since the time of the Nanjing Massacre, as George Washington University Professor Yang Daqing carefully elucidates. The first explanation was that a breakdown in discipline, caused by supply shortages, led Japanese troops to engage in atrocities. But as reports accumulated of brutality in other parts of China, observers soon set aside the specific circumstances at Nanjing in late 1937 and came to a different and more general conclusion. That is, it was deliberate Japanese policy to strike terror into the hearts of Chinese. A third view was more social and cultural, captured in the term “militarism.” In this perspective, Japanese soldiers were products of a transitional society, neither traditional nor modern, and that the declining norms against violence that restrained them in Japan disappeared once they arrived in China.2

Using the outpouring of evidence in recent decades, Professor Yang has developed a far more nuanced and textured explanation for Nanjing than those early efforts. And for the most part, they focus on the dysfunctional operation of institutions either in the short term or long term. Among the factors he cites:

  • The Japanese Imperial Army had suffered a long-term decline of discipline. In the climate of more liberal trends in the 1920s Taisho period, officers responded by demanding absolute obedience of recruits through inhumane means. That in turn, it is argued, led to the need for those recruits to transfer aggression elsewhere. The poor Chinese were a convenient outlet once aggression in China began.
  • The officer corps was changing in a radical direction. Younger officers tended to have lived in military institutions from an early age. They often had links with ultra-nationalist groups. And they tended to disrespect civilian institutions.
  • The Japanese Army had a general contempt for the Chinese and had a lower standard for treatment of Chinese POWs as opposed to Western ones.
  • Due to the rapid expansion of the army in the summer of 1937, most of the troops sent to the Shanghai-Nanjing front were reservists. Their quality was relatively low and there was a high replacement rate due to heavy losses.
  • In their drive to carry out their orders to seize Nanjing, field commanders overlooked the need to ensure adequate logistical preparation (particularly food), enough rest for troops, sufficient military policeman to maintain order, and to issue clear orders for the treatment of POWs and civilians.
Yang concludes that all of these institutional factors, which reflect an accumulation of poor decisions, contributed to the scale of the Nanjing atrocities. He also finds that battlefield psychology played an exacerbating role. Japanese soldiers had become terrified during the heavier-than-expected losses in the battle for Shanghai. Revenging the death of fallen comrades was one response. Even according to the Imperial Army’s own rules of engagement, there were violations of discipline.

To locate the cause of atrocities in problematic institutions is not to excuse them at all. But if one purpose in studying the past is to prevent future tragedies, it is important to locate the true cause of the tragedy.

Nanjing raises another question, besides the horrors that occurred during the Japanese takeover. And that is, how was the tiger of Japanese aggression unleashed in the first place? Here again, the answer lies in defective decision-making processes.

The story begins in September 1931 and the takeover of China’s three northeastern provinces (together, forming the region known as Manchuria) by the Japanese Kwantung (Guandong) Army. This unit had a modest geographic presence in China, deployed as it was on the Liaodong Peninsula and along the Southern Manchurian Railway. Its officers had both nightmares of peril and dreams of ambitious expansion. Japan faced adversaries in the capitalist West, communist Russia, and a resurgent Nationalist (and nationalistic) China. The Great Depression had shown the dangers of economic interdependence. Increasingly, Japanese, including these officers, came to believe that their country would be better served by self-reliance. The starting point was China’s northeast, a land of agricultural and industrial promise.

The fact that the civilian government in Tokyo was pursuing a foreign policy of cooperation and a defense policy of arms control with the West, plus a moderate approach to China, did not faze these officers. If the government would not adopt a policy to seize Manchuria, they would start the seizure and force the government to follow. The “right of supreme command” gave the military considerable power and made it accountable to no one but the constitutional monarch, who reigned but did not rule. This defective constitutional structure created a climate that made it easier for headstrong Kwantung officers to take independent action. And that is exactly what they did, in the Mukden Incident of September 18th (Mukden is now known as Shenyang). They fabricated a Chinese attack on a railway train and used that as a pretext to begin the takeover. The officers were counting (correctly) on their expansionist action getting receiving support from a national media and nationalistic public opinion, each feeding on each other. The Kwantung Army would continue to create faits accomplis in China, and the civilian government capitulated at every turn, in part because of a real fear of assassination by radical, right-wing groups.

Hence, a field unit of the Japanese Imperial Army initiated a major change in Japanese foreign and security policy, in violation of central direction from Tokyo, both the civilian authorities and the military high command. Mid-ranking officers started Japan’s shift from a basically status-quo power to a revisionist power.

The beginning of the China War in July 1937 is another story of flawed decision-making, but of a much different sort. Not all the details are yet available, but the main theme is that conflict could have been avoided and was almost avoided.

The China War “began” as a result of an incident on July 7th that occurred at Lugou Bridge (Lugouqiao), known as Marco Polo Bridge in English. The bridge is in the southwest of Beijing (then known as Beiping). It seems clear that this relatively minor incident was not designed as the premeditated trigger for expansion of Japanese military control of North China, either by the Japanese high command or by local commanders (as in the Manchurian case six years before). Indeed, the military conflict that ultimately resulted was at odds with Japan’s fundamental security strategy of creating economic self-sufficiency in preparation for a war with the Soviet Union. The direction of Japanese policy during the last four months of 1936 and the first half of 1937 was to avoid conflict with China, not to foster it. Indeed, some improvement in Japan-China relations would serve Japan’s basic security goal. China on the other hand had been moving toward a challenge of Japan ever since a Manchurian warlord had kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in December 1936 and Chiang had agreed to begin to form an anti-Japanese united front with the Communists.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident escalated into a crisis in which each side—or elements in each side—placed emphasis on showing resolve and gaining a predominance of forces in the Beiping area. Chiang Kai-shek, more than Japanese leaders, stimulated this spiral. He had the option of accepting a settlement worked out and agreed to by his local commander, but he chose not to. On the Japanese side, officers in the army’s operations division initially proposed intervention after the Incident, but the cabinet rejected the idea. Policy-makers vacillated on the central question of whether to mobilize forces in Japan for deployment to North China. At every step when there was progress toward a local agreement, the mobilization order was suspended or cancelled. On the other hand, at both at the national level and at the local level, each side made moves that increased the mistrust of the other. The spiral toward conflict was probably irreversible by July 25th.

Perhaps war would have come eventually. Perhaps there was no way to reconcile the interests between a resurgent, nationalistic China and a hegemonistic Japan, particularly a Japan that had created a puppet state in China’s northeast region. Yet the bulk of the evidence demonstrates that Japan did not intend a major military expansion in China in July 1937, and that a minor incident at Lugou Bridge stimulated a much bigger and dangerous game of chicken. Leaders made miscalculations that meant that war began sooner rather than later.

Chiang Kai-shek made another gamble in the summer of 1937, one that turned into a fatal miscalculation. On August 7th, he decided that he would attack Japan’s limited forces in the Shanghai area instead of contending with the Imperial Army’s considerable power in North China. To that end, he deployed his finest units to the Shanghai front. But Japan quickly reinforced its Shanghai force and was able to overcome the initial and substantial Chinese advantage. After weeks of fierce fighting, Japan landed units at Hangzhou in early November, outflanking the Chinese units at Shanghai. Chiang’s armies withdrew to the west. At first they tried to defend Nanjing at all costs but then suddenly abandoned the capital to the Japanese. In view of Chiang’s strategic blunder, does he bear some responsibility for putting the defenseless people of East China—and Nanjing itself—in dire harm’s way? It is hard to avoid that conclusion.

Japan’s China war demonstrates how critical the flawed decisions of leaders and the dysfunction of military institutions can be, and not just in East Asia. Countries that engage in brinksmanship can fall off the brink. High-stakes gambles that go wrong can have devastating military outcomes and create profound civilian suffering. Unaccountable subordinates can make irreversible policy without superiors knowing it. And although war is always hell, it will be a lot more hellish if the institutions that support the war-fighter perform badly. Those are lessons that are as true today as they were in China in the 1930s and 1940s.

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1 Timothy Brook, Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Press, 2005), p. 125.
2 Yang Daqing, “Atrocities in Nanjing, Searching for Explanations,” in Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare on Modern China (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001), pp. 76-96.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 14