‘The Forgotten Holocaust’: 27 Tragic Photos From The Rape Of Nanking

Published March 22, 2018
Updated September 1, 2022

These tragic photos and stories capture the horrors of the Nanking Massacre — a.k.a. the Rape of Nanking — committed by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians in 1937 and 1938.

Rape Of Nanking Execution
Rape Of Nanking Victim
People Tied To Poles
Killing Contest Between Soldiers
‘The Forgotten Holocaust’: 27 Tragic Photos From The Rape Of Nanking
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Many Westerners know full well about the horrors that have happened on their side of the world throughout history. But, all too often, when an atrocity happens on the other side of the world, people don't hear much about it or think much of it.

Alongside all the catastrophes that plagued Europe during World War II, the atrocities committed in Southeast Asia were every bit as disturbing — even if most people in the West hardly ever learn about them in school.

And few of the atrocities committed in Asia during World War II were as terrible as the Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking.

While Europe was struggling to hold off the Nazi war machine, China was victim to the Japanese invasion that first launched in late 1937. In the end, China lost as many as 20 million lives (the second most of any country involved in the war) while the Japanese Empire sought to conquer much of East Asia and the Pacific.

And as many as 17 million Chinese casualties weren't soldiers. They were civilians, unarmed and defenseless, and many of them were put through unimaginable hell before they were killed.

Some of the worst of it occurred over the six weeks after the Japanese stormed into the Chinese capital of Nanking (now known as Nanjing) in December 1937.

The Brutal March That Preceded The Rape Of Nanking

The rape and murder that would soon envelop Nanking started before the Japanese Army ever reached the city walls. The Japanese Army was moving through China at the outset of their invasion, massacring and looting with strict orders to "kill all captives."

The Japanese didn't stop there, though. Among the invading army, nothing was forbidden and they believed that gave them strength. One Japanese journalist, traveling with the 10th Army, wrote in his notes that he believed the army was moving forward with such strength because of the "tacit consent among the officers and men that they could loot and rape as they wish."

The Nanking Massacre Begins

When the Japanese Army reached Nanking, their brutality continued unabated. They burned down the city's walls, people's homes, the surrounding forests, and even whole villages situated in their path.

They looted nearly every building they could find, stealing from the poor and the rich alike. They then slaughtered scores of people they happened upon. Some victims of the Nanking Massacre were thrown into mass, unmarked graves; others were just left to rot in the sun.

To the invading army, the Rape of Nanking was sometimes even a game. Japanese magazines bragged about a contest between two soldiers, Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda, who had challenged one another in a race to see who could slaughter 100 people with their swords first.

Worse yet, the people these two men cut open weren't enemy combatants killed on the battlefield while fighting for their lives. By the men's own admission, the victims were unarmed, defenseless people. Noda admitted, after the war ended: "We'd line them up and cut them down, from one end of the line to the other."

What's more, this admission wasn't an apology. Just seconds before, Noda had scoffed at his victims for letting him kill them, saying, "The Chinese soldiers were so stupid." He also added, "Afterward, I was often asked whether it was a big deal, and I said it was no big deal."

Inside The Horrors Of The Rape Of Nanking

In the mere six weeks during which the Japanese perpetrated the Nanking Massacre starting on December 13, 1937, an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women were brutally raped and sexually assaulted by the invading soldiers. They sometimes went door-to-door, dragging out women and even small children and violently gang-raping them. Then, once they'd finished with their victims, they often murdered them.

Such killing wasn't just as an act of senseless barbarity, either – these men were following orders. "So that we will not have any problems on our hands," one commander told his men, referring to any women they've raped, "either pay them money or kill them in some obscure place after you have finished."

The invaders, though, didn't even stop at simply murder. They made these women suffer in the worst ways possible. Pregnant mothers were cut open and rape victims were sodomized with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony.

"Never I have heard or read such brutality," one missionary in Nanking, James M. McCallum, wrote in his diary. "Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night and many by day."

"On December 16, seven girls (ages ranged from 16 to 21) were taken away from the Military College," read a report from the International Committee (a group of foreigners who established the Nanking Safety Zone to provide haven for Nanking Massacre victims). "Five returned. Each girl was raped six or seven times daily."

"One old woman 62 years old went home near Hansimen and Japanese soldiers came at night and wanted to rape her," read another report from the committee. "She said she was too old. So the soldiers rammed a stick up her. But she survived to come back."

Meanwhile, one writer for The New York Times who was on the scene wrote, "I drove down to the waterfront in my car. And to get to the gate I had to just climb over masses of bodies accumulated there... The car just had to drive over these dead bodies." Once he reached the waterfront, he witnessed the massacre of 200 men within just ten minutes.

The extent to which Japanese officials were aware of such atrocities during the Nanking Massacre has long been a matter of intense debate. For one, Japanese General Iwane Matsui, commander of the forces in China, claimed that he was unaware of mass crimes but nevertheless felt morally responsible.

Ultimately, he was convicted and executed for his part in the massacre after the war, since which time the Rape of Nanking has proved to be a most contentious issue.

The Legacy Of The Massacre To This Day

By the time the worst of the Rape of Nanking had ended, an estimated 300,000 people were dead – mostly within a matter of weeks. When Japanese soldiers and officials were tried and executed for war crimes just after World War II, the court found that at least 200,000 had perished during the Rape of Nanking.

However, death toll estimates vary widely with some ranging as low as 40,000. Moreover, intense controversy surrounds these estimates, reflecting just how divisive the "forgotten Holocaust," in the words of author Iris Chang, remains to this day.

The Japanese government, for example, didn't officially apologize for its World War II-era atrocities until 1995 – and even that relatively recent apologetic stance hasn't been unanimous and universal.

In 1984, for example, the Japanese Army Veterans Association conducted interviews with Japanese veterans present during the Nanking Massacre in an effort to refute reports of Japanese atrocities.

However, the organizers of the researchers were surprised to find that the veterans were forthcoming about the widespread atrocities and the official magazine of the Veterans Association was forced to run an apology for the Rape of Nanking instead:

"Whatever the severity of war or special circumstances of war psychology, we just lose words faced with this mass illegal killing. As those who are related to the prewar military, we simply apologize deeply to the people of China. It was truly a regrettable act of barbarity."

Within just the last ten years, dozens of Japanese officials and politicians have refused to accept responsibility or denied that it happened altogether. In 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe issued a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of World War II's conclusion and drew widespread criticism for not actually apologizing in the process (which has helped fuel current tensions between China and Japan).

To this day, denials of the atrocities persist despite countless firsthand witnesses from France, the United States, Germany, and Japan. The denials even persist despite photographs like the ones in the gallery above that make the truth of the Nanking Massacre disturbingly clear.

After this look at the Rape of Nanking, learn about the horrors of Japan's Unit 731 that conducted disturbing experiments on live Chinese subjects during the Second Sino-Japanese War as well as other appalling Japanese war crimes committed during that period. Then, discover the story of John Rabe, the Nazi who saved thousands of Chinese people from the Nanking Massacre.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.