The Rape of Nanking: A Book Review

A refelction on the forgotten holocaust


*Reader discretion is advised*

Where is the justice, when systematic murder is a game? Where is the justice, when women are raped at any time of the day? Where is the justice, when looting is commonplace? Where is the justice, when arson has destroyed a third of the city?

This description may sound like a dystopia, but the brutality took place less than one hundred years ago in the city of Nanking, located in the northeastern portion of China not far from the East China Sea.

Although it is estimated that roughly 260,000 to 350,000 died in seven weeks, the massacre is largely unknown outside of those in Asia. Labeling the event a slaughter or massacre is no exaggeration, it is the truth. But what caused man to inflict such brutality? The answer is simple: superiority.

Japan felt the need to establish their power and dominance in Asia. However murdering the poor, elderly, and young left in Nanking was unfounded in every respect. The methods of killing the Japanese included live burials, mutilation, death by ice, fire, and dogs. The Japanese would hold contests to see how many Chinese they could kill. The citizens of Nanking were often too afraid to flee to safer ground or stay in their house in fear of meeting their demise by the Japanese. There was no good option. Even when some of the Chinese did reach the neutral zone, called the International Safety Zone, the Japanese would not respect its position and would steal people away. No one was safe. To top it off, the Japanese got tired of cremating and burying the dead bodies of the Chinese that they were dumped in the Yangtze River. No, the Japanese did not only kill for power, but for pleasure.

These thoughts are truly sickening to me. As I read about these horrifying acts against humanity, I thought to myself “Why had I never heard of the Rape of Nanking before?”. Certainly, an event that killed hundreds of thousands in such a vicious way would be remembered, right?

Political Ideology

Totalitarian and fascist elements can be observed in Japan’s control over Nanking. One of the major pillars of totalitarianism is that the government declares an official ideology to justify the actions of the regime. In Japan’s case, Chang suggests in the epilogue that Japan’s ideology stems from their belief that the emperor is the natural ruler of the world. The Japanese’s rationale was the closer a person is to the emperor, the more important they must be. Consequently, the Japanese perceived themselves as superior to the rest of the world. Indeed, the Japanese believed that the Chinese were sub-human or lesser beings. The lives of the Chinese held no value to the Japanese. This ideology points to one of the major reasons why Japan acted so cruel towards the population of Nanking. It is much easier to kill a person once they have been dehumanized. It is not so easy to kill when you realize your victim has thoughts or feelings.

Another pillar of totalitarianism that is evident during Japan’s occupation is when the regime exercises a monopoly on mass communication. The Japanese easily cut off access to electricity and telephone services, making long-distance communication nearly impossible for the Chinese living in Nanking. The Japanese also kicked-out all foreign correspondents and banned more from entering the region. Communication in Nanking was ultimately controlled by the Japanese, which allowed them to manipulate the narrative around Nanking.

Although totalitarian elements can be applied in the control of Nanking, fascism more accurately describes it as severe repression, hyper-nationalism, and militarism can be pinpointed. Systemic killing certainly falls under the description of severe repression. People were being killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People were being killed, whether they were a man or women, young or old. People were being killed based on the grotesque pleasures of the Japanese soldiers. The Japanese did not discriminate based on gender or age, but rather on nationality.

Japan’s hyper-nationalistic nature stemmed from their official ideology, that the Japanese were the superior country and race. Children who attended school in Japan were conditioned to idolize their country and despise all others. These teachings further perpetuated the belief that violence could be justified for the good of the country.

Violence was then concentrated into militaristic means, which was severely aggressive. The harsh nature of the Japanese stems from their samurai roots. Notably, the samurai code states that death is preferred over surrender. The kamikaze suicide missions in World War II point to this sentiment as men would sacrifice themselves to bring down American ships.

Nazis vs. the Japanese Soldiers

Another comparison that was interesting to learn about was the comparison between the Nazi’s and Japanese soldiers. Firstly, the Nazis and the Japanese used their master-race mentality to repress others. Japan’s superiority came from their relationship with their emperor. When this notion was challenged by the United States and China due to their growing prosperity the Japanese could not reconcile with reality, resulting in widespread hate for those countries. Meanwhile, the Nazis infamously believed that the Aryan race was entitled and used the Jews to justify their unlawful actions. In both cases, each group justified their actions by identifying a group to project their nation’s issues onto.

Secondly, both the Nazis and the Japanese demonstrated aggressive militaristic traits. From a young age, schools in Germany and Japan operated like military units. Schools were run for the good of the country, not the people. Individualism was squashed and discipline was considered a virtue. The Japanese and Nazis were not born to become killing machines but conditioned to serve their country. Hitler’s and the emperor’s demands were not just orders, but law.

Thirdly, the use of propaganda between the two creates an eerie parallel. The Japanese tried to cover up the Rape of Nanking using various propaganda that ranged from biased news articles, radio airings, photos, and posters. Media events were staged in China to distract outsiders that lead them to allude to a peaceful occupation, when just hours ago corpses lined the same streets visitors were walking on. The Nazis similarly utilized the press, radio, films, educational materials and everything in-between on a larger scale. The Nazi concentration camp, Terezín, was used as a staged example of Nazi management. It was filmed for propaganda uses and outsiders were allowed to visit it. Terezín was specially created to give off the impression that the Nazis were treating their prisoners humanely, but it was largely used to mislead people away from the Führer’s final solution.

However, Japan and Germany’s reaction to the war crimes they inflicted in the 1900s are vastly dissimilar. Germany has taken full accountability for their cruel acts against humanity by paying almost sixty million in reparations. Furthermore, the government has repeatedly apologized to the victims of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Japan has not paid any reparations or apologized to the victims of the Rape of Nanking.

The Japanese cite that the San Francisco Peace Treaty settled the conflict, but in actuality, the treaty just postponed payment of future reparations. Today, the nation still chooses to ignore, minimize, and spin the Rape of Nanking within its government and educational system. They have gone so far as to protect some of their wartime criminals who are now in positions of power and censor the history in their textbooks.

In result, the victims of the Rape of Nanking have been greatly marginalized, unlike those impacted by the Holocaust. The Rape of Nanking victims has been silenced.

The head of the International Safety Zone in Nanking, during the time of the massacre, watched this treatment of the Chinese first-hand. John Rabe ceaselessly defended the Chinese both personally and diplomatically. Rabe was a German businessman living in Nanking, who was also staunch Nazi member. He tirelessly tried to negotiate with Japan hoping that his home country would support the vulnerable Chinese, to no avail.

John Rabe’s story is particularly compelling since he was deemed in the book as “The Nazi who saved Nanking”. Although Rabe never single-handedly saved Nanking, he relentlessly stopped atrocities when he saw them happening and gave up his lodging to victims who required shelter.

The victims of the Rape of Nanking would fall to the ground begging for his protection when they would see Rabe’s swastika, while Japanese soldiers would run away from it. In this instance, Rabe’s swastika was used for good. Although the swastika is commonly associated with a negative sign, this example proved that it could be used for good. Rabe was not the stereotypical evil Nazi people picture today. He genuinely wanted to stop the ongoing terror of the Japanese. Rabe is an example of how individuals do not always reflect a group’s mentality.

After Rabe returned to Germany, he continued to express his concern over the treatment of the Chinese, but the Nazi-ruled government at the time-pressured him into silence over the matter.

Making Connections

“The Rape of Nanking” created connections between three different books I had read previously titled “Never Fall Down”, “The Book of Forgiving”, and “Silence”.

Never Fall Down

“Never Fall Down” is a fictional account of the Khmer Rouge’s oppression of the people of Cambodia from the first-person perspective of a young boy. McCormick’s work was the first book that introduced me to an example of genocide outside of the western hemisphere and demonstrated the extent of how cruel man could be towards others. It is a startling fact that in just four years the Khmer Rouge would kill one to two million Cambodians for the sake of communism. The population was subjected to mass killings, starvation, and torture. In “The Rape of Nanking” and “Never Fall Down”, I could never quite wrap my head around the endless cruelty. When I thought the protagonist’s suffering could not get worse, it did. Brutality upon brutality seemed unceasing to the point of which it would be almost normal for the victims to be suffering.

I believe that the Rape of Nanking and the Cambodian genocide have not gotten their fair share of credibility. I would have never learned about either massacre if I had not taken the time to read about the topic myself. I now wonder what other genocides have gone unjustly unrecognized by the international community and how ongoing tragedies will be avoided in the future, if at all. Surely, the Holocaust should be taught, but other atrocities abroad should too.

The Book of Forgiving

The idea of political reconciliation in chapter eight of “The Rape of Nanking” reminded me of “The Book of Forgiving”. “The Book of Forgiving” revolves around the topic of healing post-apartheid in South Africa. In it, the authors recommend a fourfold path to healing that was identified through their experience with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The four steps involve telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship The fourfold path should be applied to the Rape of Nanking since it too dealt with a violation of human rights on a large scale.

Unfortunately, politics have prevented the victims of the Rape of Nanking to undergo the fourfold path. Not only has Japan avoided the subject of reconciliation, but Japan’s strategic alliances with China and the United States have hurt any potential progress.

China aligned themselves with Japan because they wanted to be viewed as legitimate on an international level. The United States created an alliance with Japan due to its strategic location concerning Russia during the Cold War era. The United States and China have denied the Rape of Nanking’s victims the closure they deserved, almost as much as Japan. This notion is ironic since both nations created the immediate trials that Japan’s war criminals underwent after the slaughter, a trial that lasted for almost three years.

The fourfold path cannot start without taking the first step, which lets the victims tell their story. In this case, it is nearly impossible when people have not even heard of the Rape of Nanking and governments create barriers towards restoration.


“Silence” is the last work that proved to be a connection to the “Rape of Nanking”. The narrative depicts a Portuguese Jesuit, named Rodrigues, whose goal is to evangelize the Japanese people. The Japanese are portrayed just as brutally in “Silence” as they are during the Rape of Nanking. In the first town that Rodrigues visits, the Japanese threaten the village to renounce their Christian faith and to turn in a suspected priest in hiding. The townspeople refuse to yield, resulting in their martyrdom.

Painstaking deaths from being dragged by a horse to waiting days for the sea to engulf the Christians to drowning are grimly described. By the end, Rodrigues must choose between renouncing his faith or “allow” more Japanese Christians be tortured at the hands of officials. Should he choose his faith or abandon it due to the violence he has witnessed? Rodrigues simply asks himself “Why does God let bad things, happen to good people?”.

If the Japanese felt no remorse torturing their own people for being Christians, it is not too hard to comprehend that they would extend the same sentiment towards people abroad.


It truly is a dishonor to ignore the Rape of Nanking. After the event, its victims endured lives of poverty, chronic, and mental pain. It pains me to think about the people who survived the massacre. They must feel such anger, confusion, desperation, and abandonment.

How could such cruelty exist in this world and be repeated? How could an event that was at the front of the news only decades ago be completely ignored at present? How could a government that is looked to protect people, conspire to erase such a violent incident from the collective memory of the world? Truly I ask, where is the justice?



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