The Nanking Massacre

Japan began to embark on its own imperialistic endeavors in Asia. First, Japan took over the southern part of the Korean Peninsula during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and gained control of Manchuria. Defeating a European nation empowered Japan to renegotiate its trade treaties with the United States and Europe as equals. Japan took over southern Manchuria, legitimized its control of Korea, and absorbed the southern half of Sakhalin Island. By 1910, Japan had colonized the entire Korean Peninsula.

During World War I, Japan joined the Allied Powers and sent ships to fight Germany. In 1914, while the European powers were embroiled in conflicts at home, Japan became an industrial power. In 1931, the Mukden Incident ceded Manchuria to Japan. In 1937, Japan invaded China during the second Sino-Japanese War. By 1940 it had consolidated its control of Vietnam. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to draw the United States into World War II. By 1942, Japan controlled the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Several of these events remain controversial. Many Japanese historians believe Japan was responding to U.S. and European hostility during this period. Meanwhile, Chinese, European, and American historians accused the Japanese Imperial Army of massacring 50,000 to 300,000 civilizations and raping 20,000 women during the Nanking Massacre, also called the Rape of Nanking. Many Japanese historians deny this massacre occurred or believe the number of casualties has been exaggerated.

Read this article to examine arguments for and against the validity of the Nanking Massacre.


Did the Nanking Massacre really happen in 1937? Chinese people, with a plethora of concrete evidence, believe that such tragedy did happen, and many crimes have been trialled, sentenced, and many criminals have been punished, as shown in some researches, such as Documents of Nanking Massacre which was published in 2014 and accepted by Memory of the World in 2015, and Research Japanese War Crimes Records - Introductory Essays (2006). Aside from other atrocities during the second Sino-Japan war, such as raping, plundering, and human experimentation at Unit 731, at least 30,000 Chinese civilians were brutally murdered in the Nanking Massacre. However, some extreme right-wing Japanese nationalists are convinced that the Nanking Massacre was fictitious which was a hideous conspiracy trying to make Japan an international enemy. Such as Naoki Hyakuta, a governor of Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, said in a speech on February 3rd 2014 that "In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek tried to publicize Japan's responsibility for the Nanking Massacre, but the nations of the world ignored him. Why? Because it never happened".1 Some other Japanese may admit that some incident really happened in Nanking; however, it was not a massacre but an unavoidable casualty, such as Tanaka Masaki's book What Really Happened in Nanking - The Refutation of a Common Myth. I do not intend to verify the authenticity or the scale of the Nanking Massacre in this paper. My purpose is to illustrate two conflicting discourses, the justification of and opposition to the mass killing as represented in the film Black Sun - The Nanking Massacre, sometimes called Black Sun IV (1995),2 directed by Mou Tunfei.

There have been other films made about the Nanking Massacre, such as Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War (2011) and Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death! (2009), but Black Sun - The Nanking Massacre is the most controversial because of its cult character and graphic violent scenes. However, the reason I chose this film is not only because Black Sun IV bluntly shows Japanese soldiers' brutality, but also because it discusses, maybe not intentionally, the reasons for such inhumanity.

In this paper, first, I will explain why the Nanking Massacre occurred from a legal point of view. In history, Hirohito, the Japanese emperor at the time, deliberately avoided mentioning Japan's commitment to International humanitarian law Treaties in the imperial rescript in 1941 in order to justify the Great East Asia War. In the film, the imperial rescript, which is used as a cinematic design that did not exist in 1937 in reality, indirectly offers the Japanese army a legal ground, or an excuse, to ignore the legally binding international agreements which the Japanese government has signed and which regulates states' conduct in war.

The purpose of the imperial rescript in the film is to exempt Japanese soldiers, as well as the government and the emperor himself, from the legal consequences of such an atrocity. However, the cruelty and severity of this mass killing cannot be easily sanctioned, even if the Japanese soldiers are seen as fallible human beings. As my second point, using the theories of Philip Zimbardo and Dan Ariely, I will explain how it is possible for Japanese soldiers to break, through a mass murder, the moral and psychological barrier and cause a mass murder.

Not only does the film explain why Japanese soldiers could cross the last line of human decency to cause such a catastrophe, it also challenges the justification and rationalization of mass killing by using three fictional narratives: (1) a meeting of high ranking officers that takes place after the Nanking massacre and an informal conversation between some of them after this meeting, (2) a monologue by the Commander General Matsui Iwane, and (3) a discussion about swords between the samurai Takayama and Nakajima Kesago. I will analyse these three narratives to show the absurdity of the, legal, moral, and psychological reasons for mass killing and other inhumane acts in war in the film. In the next section, I will first demonstrate the laws, which also are the laws as a historical and legal fact shown in the film, that regulate the acts of Japanese soldiers in war. Even though Japanese soldiers carried out many atrocities during the second Sino-Japanese War, such as devastating the property of non-combatants and conducting biological experiments, I will only focus on the laws regarding mass killing and inhumane treatment of civilians and Chinese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre.