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.

International Law

The second Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan started in 1937 and the Nanking Massacre, when Japanese troops allegedly killed over 30,000 Chinese civilians, took place between December 1937 and January 1938. Since this was a war when the armies of both parties should have followed the international humanitarian treaties, such as the 1907 Hague Convention which established the legal framework for the ‘humane treatment' of prisoners of war (POWs). The Nanking Massacre should never have happened because the regulations protect civilians and soldiers who have already surrendered.3 However, the Japanese army did not follow this Code. The Japanese government had not ratified the Geneva Convention of 1929, which stated, in the reply to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Southeast Asia in 1941, that it was:

not in fact bound by the said Convention. Nevertheless, as far as is possible, it intends to apply the Convention, mutatis mutandis, to all prisoners falling into its hands, while at the same time respecting the customs of each nation and people in relation to the food and clothing of prisoners.

This reply shows that the Japanese government's attitude was that its army did not need to sign the convention because any prisoners of war were likely to be treated humanely anyway. However, the prisoners of war were not guaranteed to be treated according to the signed convention, since the 1929 Geneva Convention was not ratified by the Japanese government. That said, as an involved party in the second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese government had signed up to other international treaties regarding humane treatment in war. Both the 1899 and the 1907 Hague Conventions included clauses covering the treatment of prisoners of war. For example:

Hague II Art. 4. Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not in that of the individuals or corps who captured them. They must be humanely treated. All their personal belongings, except arms, horses, and military papers remain their property.

Hague IV Art. 4. Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile Government, but not of the individuals or corps who capture them. They must be humanely treated.

Other parts of the Hague Convention had similar humane injunctions, such as:

Hague IV Art. 23. In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden

a. To employ poison or poisoned weapons;
b. To kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army;
c. To kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion….

Since the treatment of prisoners of war has clearly stated that prisoners are not in the hand of those who capture them but still belong to their home country, prisoners cannot be wounded or killed at will and should be humanely treated by the individuals or corps who captured them. Japanese soldiers were supposed to follow the treaty during the second Sino-Japan war, because the Japanese government has signed and ratified the treaty.

Even if existing legal agreements could theoretically be overridden or annulled by a new unratified or unsigned agreement - the 1929 Geneva Convention, Japanese soldiers would have behaved properly if Emperor Hirohito, who to the Japanese was a god,4 and whose words presumptively have the same effect in the film, had restrained their conduct.

However, in the film, Emperor Hirohito does not mention humane treatment to Chinese people in his imperial rescript, or, as is fairer, his rescript is not intended to declare war on the Republic of China.5 As mentioned before, the imperial rescript in reality did not even exist in 1937, although Black Sun IV mentions it during a conference scene involving Japanese military leaders. Led by General Matsui Iwane, this conference is held after the fall of Nanking to discuss Japanese soldiers' misconduct, which the high ranking officers present all agree had taken. Iwane argues that "Although killing is unavoidable in warfare, we still must observe international law". Other officers refute this claim, saying:

Tani Hisao: From the Emperor's directive,6 no mention was made of International law this time.

Matsui Iwane: It's unnecessary to point that out.

Tani Hisao: In the Emperor's Directives for the Japanese–Russian and Ching Dynasty wars…. They all mentioned observing International law. But in this conflict, its absence is not accidental.

Nakajima Kesago: Calling it a conflict rather than a war already makes it different. There are complex reasons behind this.

Calling it a "conflict", or an "incident", (shibian or gange7) implies that it is not a war (zhanzheng) and that it need not be regulated by the international laws regarding war. Even if this conflict is by definition a war, Japanese soldiers do not need to obey international law because the Emperor's words, which are superior to anything, do not mention the need to do so, like the declarations for the Japanese-Russian and Japanese-Qing Dynasty wars did. However, in the second Sino-Japanese war, Japanese soldiers were still subordinate, so do the soldiers in the film, to the Japanese Army Criminal Codes. In the next section, I will explain these codes and why, because of the interpretation of the Emperor's rescript shown in the movie, they failed to regulate Japanese soldiers' behaviour.