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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

CRSV: The Nanjing Massacre

This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

The Nanjing Massacre refers to an incident of mass murder and mass rape by the Imperial Japanese troops, targeting the residents of Nanjing – which was the capital of China at the time – during the Second Sino-Japanese War that took place from 1937 to 1945. The Nanjing Massacre took place over six weeks, starting on December 13, 1937, with the Japanese capture of Nanjing (Chang 1997). The Japanese Army invaded Shanghai and were met with strong resistance that caused major casualties. By mid-November, the Japanese captured Shanghai after aerial and naval bombardment. On December 1, the Japanese Army’s headquarters ordered the capture of Nanjing, the erstwhile capital of China.

In the course of the capture, the Imperial Japanese Army murdered scores of unarmed Chinese civilians, while also perpetrating widespread rape and pillage (Lee 2010). Estimates show that between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese people were killed (Levene and Roberts 1999). Accurate estimates remain elusive as the Japanese records of the incident have either kept secret or were destroyed. According to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo (1948), over 200,000 Chinese civilians were killed in the massacre, while China’s official estimates suggest that over 300,000 people were killed (Wakabayashi 2008; MacDonald 2005).

Prevalence of Sexual Violence

According to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1948), 20,000 women and some children and the elderly were raped during the occupation and siege of Nanjing. Rape and sexual violence were systematically carried out by Japanese soldiers who went door to door in search of women and girls (Museums n.d.). Once captured, the women and girls were often gang-raped, and killed immediately after being raped through torture and explicit mutilation (Dagong Daily 1938).

Several of the Japanese troops also forced men to commit incestuous acts against the women in their families – where sons were forced to rape their mothers, fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and brothers were forced to rape their sisters (Chang 1997). According to Iris Chang (1997), as many as 20,000 to 80,000 women were raped – and the victim toll included men, as well, who were often sodomized. Further, Japanese officials also fortified comfort stations – where they consolidated the underground system of prostitution of women and girls into sexual slavery.

Strategic Use of Sexual Violence

Sexual violence was used as a means to exert power and to intimidate women the people of Nanjing. It was deliberately deployed as part of the conquest, to dominate over and subjugate the people of Nanjing. The aim of the attack on Nanjing was to occupy the territory and defeat China in the course of the war. Targeting women was a way to exert that control and dominance.

Sexual violence was also systematically deployed to humiliate women in front of their families, and to terrorize whole sections of people at a time. It was also carried out to “protect soldiers,” where research has shown that Japanese soldiers often made amulets out of the personal possessions or pubic hair of their victims to protect themselves in the course of battle (Hicks 1997).

Legal redress

While the government of Japan has admitted to the massacre of several non-combatants, as well as the pillage and other forms of violence, there are several actors who have opted for revisionist accounts and outright denials of the occurrence of the Nanjing Massacre (Yoshida 2006). The government has not explicitly acknowledged the use of mass rape as a war crime and as a crime against humanity.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1948), acknowledged the occurrence of mass rape, and indicated that 20,000 cases took place. Although rape charges formed a part of the indictment against General Iwane Matsui, for his primary role in failing to stop the mass violence and rape and he was sentenced to death by hanging, no victims were called to give their testimonies. No one else was specifically charged with sexual violence or rape among the over 100 military personnel who were convicted and executed by China at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal.


  1. Chang, Iris. 1997. The Rape of Nanking.

  2. Lee, Min (March 31, 2010). "New film has Japan vets confessing to Nanjing rape". Salon/Associated Press.

  3. Levene, Mark and Penny Roberts. 1999. The Massacre in History.

  4. "Chapter VIII: Conventional War Crimes (Atrocities)". Judgement: International Military Tribunal for the Far East. November 1948.

  5. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, ed. (2008). The Nanking Atrocity, 1937–38: Complicating the Picture. Berghahn Books.

  6. MacDonald, David B. (December 2005). "Forgetting and Denying: Iris Chang, the Holocaust and the Challenge of Nanking". International Politics. Palgrave Macmillan. 42 (4): 403–27.

  7. Museums (n.d.) "Japanese Imperialism and the Massacre in Nanjing: Chapter X: Widespread Incidents of Rape".

  8. "A Debt of Blood: An Eyewitness Account of the Barbarous Acts of the Japanese Invaders in Nanjing." Dagong Daily (Wuhan ed.). 7 February 1938.

  9. Yoshida, Takashi. 2006. The Making of the 'Rape of Nanking'.

  10. Hicks, George. (1997). The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. WW Norton & Co.

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