8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class

Larry Holzwarth - November 26, 2017

Beginning with a dispute between Japanese and Chinese troops after decades of Japanese adventurism in China, the Sino-Japanese war erupted according to most scholars on the night of July 7, 1937, near what was known as the Marco Polo Bridge. Random shooting soon developed into a full-scale battle which led to the capture by the Japanese of the port city of Tianjin and the larger city of Beijing. Japanese civilians living on the Chinese mainland were drawn into the conflict and the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek were soon in full-scale warfare with Japanese troops and civilians. Fighting on all fronts of the Sino-Japanese war was fierce and bloody, and civilian populations were often the victims of strikes from both sides.

Soon the war took on darker overtones when the city of Nanking fell to the Japanese and was quickly followed by atrocities that became known as the Nanking Massacre and the Rape of Nanking. This was only the beginning. Throughout the course of the war, which continued until the surrender of Japan to the United States and its Allies in September 1945, atrocities committed by Japanese troops against Chinese prisoners of war and civilians mounted. At first, Japan hoped to limit the war with China, maintaining its strength for what it believed would be a showdown with the Soviet Union. Instead, Japan’s activities drew the attention of the United States, who took diplomatic steps to stop Japanese aggression and assist the Chinese. These steps eventually led to Japan’s attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Chinese civilians are removed from a bomb shelter in Nanking by Japanese troops, December 1937. Wikimedia

Here are eight examples of Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War and subsequently World War II.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Chinese women were rounded up by Japanese troops following the fall of Nanking. Rape and murder of Chinese women was rampant for six weeks. Wikimedia

Nanking Massacre. December 1937 – January 1938

After losing the battle of Shanghai in 1937 the Chinese Revolutionary Army, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, was aware of the impossibility of holding the city of Nanking, despite the heavy casualties which had been inflicted on the Japanese. By December 9 the Japanese were in position to assault the city and by December 13 the Chinese forces defending it had largely withdrawn.

Japanese troops entered the city. According to a journalist traveling with the Japanese troops, they were inspired in part by the knowledge that looting and rape would not be in any way curtailed by their officers once the city was in Japanese hands. Several western neutrals, including German national and businessman John Rabe, a member of the Nazi Party, recorded the events which followed in diaries and journals.

For the next six weeks, Japanese troops perpetrated mass murders, rapes, thefts and looting, arson, and lesser crimes against the civilian population of Nanking. Two Japanese officers, Toshiaki Mikai and Tsyuoshi Noda, had conducted a contest during the march to Nanking to decide which of the two could kill a total of 100 Chinese using their swords. Neither had reached that total when they entered Nanking, and both continued the contest. Following the combat which took the city both had exceeded 100 kills, and unable to decide which had reached that number first, they decided to extend the total to 150. Both officers were eventually tried and convicted of war crimes after surviving the war, and both were executed by firing squad.

More than 20,000 Chinese women were raped by Japanese troops, with most of the victims being killed after the rape was completed, many with their bodies defiled with bamboo stakes or other items such as bayonets. Estimates of the number of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war who were murdered by Japanese troops vary, with Chinese sources claiming over 300,000 and western observers leaning towards 200,000.

Many Japanese sources deny the extent of the massacre, contending that the reports of the event were an exaggeration by the Chinese. As recently as 2005 Japanese history textbooks used for the equivalent of junior high school made no reference to the massacre. The official Japanese position is that although some killings of civilians did take place, the event is fabricated and grossly overblown by the Chinese and is a point of contention in Sino-Japanese relations today.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
According to the Chinese government this photo shows a plague experiment being conducted by members of Unit 731. Xinhua Press

Unit 731. Manchukuo 1935-1945

Unit 731 was part of the Japanese Army in the puppet state of Manchukuo, used to conduct human experimentation, biological, and chemical warfare experiments. For purposes of these experiments, which were conducted covertly, Chinese, Soviet, and other Allied prisoners were selected for study. Those who survived the experiments were routinely executed.

Unlike the Nazis in Europe, who left behind detailed records of similar activities to be captured by the Soviets and Western Allies, the Japanese destroyed much of the evidence chronicling their war crimes prior to and just following their surrender to the Allies. Following the war, the United States offered immunity to members of Unit 731 in return for any records of their experiments. Unit 731 was located in Harbin, then the largest city in the Manchukuo province.

The Japanese researchers at Unit 731 referred to their victims as logs and when they were finished with them disposed of them via incineration. Some victims were deliberately infected with diseases and after symptoms presented they were subjected to vivisection, usually without any anesthetics. These procedures were conducted on men, women, and children, and were almost always fatal.

Female prisoners were often raped prior to being used for experimentation and sometimes as part of the experiments. One form of the experiment required the infection of one prisoner with syphilis followed by forced sex with other prisoners. Other prisoners were forced to acquire frostbite, which was then left alone to become gangrenous. Still, others were deliberately impregnated after being exposed to syphilis.

Japanese experimentation led to the development of bacteriological weapon, one of which was scheduled to be used against San Diego on September 22, 1945. Those who argue that the atomic bomb should not have been used should consider the effect of a plague bomb being used in the California city should the war have continued. Following the war those members who had been captured by the Americans were granted immunity from prosecution for war crimes, which were never mentioned in their testimony and reports to American and British investigators, a policy endorsed by General Douglas MacArthur. Those captured by the Soviets, who had invaded Manchukuo late in the war, were prosecuted and convicted, although the sentences they received were not very strict by Soviet standards. By the 1950s all of the prisoners who had been held by the Soviets were back in Japan.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
A Chinese girl from a liberated Japanese Comfort Station is interrogated by a Flying Officer of the Royal Air Force. Imperial War Museum

Comfort Women. 1932-1945

Beginning in Shanghai in territory conceded by the Chinese to the Japanese, comfort stations were established for the benefit of Japanese troops. Japan had long offered legalized and open prostitution, and military leaders believed that a similar situation would help establish better discipline among the troops, particularly occupation forces, as well as lower rates of venereal disease.

Although the Japanese military hierarchy did not pay particular attention to charges of rape against their troops, they were aware of the potential for retaliation from friends and family of rape victims which could place the troops in danger.

Initially the Japanese attempted to recruit women to act serve as prostitutes in the comfort stations but when their efforts failed to generate sufficient numbers they resorted to kidnapping and forced slavery. As the war went on the central military command in Japan experienced difficulty in providing supplies to front line units, and the responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of comfort stations became an issue for local military commanders, who did little to distinguish rape from the use of the stations, regarded as brothels by the military.

Although the Japanese promised financial compensation for many of the women assigned to comfort stations very few were ever paid. Medical care was also scarce, and when the comfort stations were found to have little negative effect on rates of venereal disease – and may have in fact increased them – women who were found to be infected were simply turned out.

Comfort women were brought to China from other nations overrun by the Japanese Army including Korea, Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. Documents revealed in the 21st century indicate that more than 200,000 women were forced to serve as comfort women in China during the war. Japanese racial attitudes towards the Chinese led to many suffering severe beatings for various reasons, including sexual gratification, and up to 75% died while assigned to the brothels. Many of the islanders seen to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs on Saipan were actually comfort women, according to Japanese and American records.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Chinese guerrillas escorting some of the Doolittle Raiders to safety in China in 1942. The Chinese paid a heavy price for their actions. Ibiblio

Retaliation for the Doolittle Raid. 1942

In 1942, in a mission which was largely undertaken as a boost to American morale following Pearl Harbor, Army bombers took off from a Navy carrier to strike the Japanese mainland. The bombers were incapable of landing on the carrier, USS Hornet, and it was planned that the pilots fly on to Chinese-held territory, where they could expect the assistance of Chinese troops to help them return to Allied territory. In the event, the Hornet was sighted by the Japanese while still well short of the planned launch point. Forced to take off earlier than planned, most of the planes were unable to reach territory held by the Chinese and almost landed in areas where the Japanese Army was active.

Chinese civilians and European missionaries nonetheless rose to the assistance of the Doolittle Raiders, providing medical care, food, and guides for the Americans to reach safe territory. Many of the Americans bestowed gifts on the Chinese, including candy, gum, cigarettes, lighters, and other items which were clearly of American manufacture. These items became death sentences in the face of the Japanese retaliation against anyone suspected of helping the Raiders.

Doolittle had hoped to reach the region of Chuchow in China, and when the Japanese learned of this planned destination they attacked it with a vengeance, despite none of the Raiders having been able to land there. The Japanese launched air raids against the city – which had no military garrison or value – killing more than 10,000 civilians as retaliation for Doolittle’s attack.

Coastal areas where many of the fliers had landed were attacked by the Japanese Army and Naval Infantry, where anybody suspected of having any contact with the Americans, or for failing to report the presence of Americans, was indiscriminately slaughtered.

Unit 731 prepared typhoid-infected bread rolls which were provided to temporarily hold Chinese prisoners. Once symptoms presented they were released to return home and spread the disease. Japanese retaliations were witnessed by neutral missionaries and reported to the US government and press, but were soon forgotten as the war unfolded.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Chinese prisoners under Japanese Guard in Shanghai. The stamp in Japanese across the photo reads “Not Permitted.” These prisoners were likely executed, the reason for the photo being censored. Geocities

Prisoners of War. 1937-1945

The official position of the Japanese government was that the war in China was an “incident” rather than a formally declared war and that international conventions regarding the treatment of captured Chinese soldiers did not apply. The Japanese made no effort to establish POW camps for captured Chinese. In a manual published by the Japanese Infantry Academy, it was noted that “…the Chinese system of residency registration is imperfect, and most soldiers are homeless anyway and seldom registered. Thus no problems will arise if we kill them or deport them.”

When the commander of a Japanese battalion, Major General Kaiko-Sha, captured over 14,000 Chinese troops near the Chang Jiang River he ordered his men to machine gun all of them, an event which took two full days to complete and which he recorded in his diary.

Other Chinese troops in the early days of the war shed their uniforms after deserting, hoping to hide within the civilian population. The Japanese, aware of the deception, resolved the problem by executing soldiers and civilians alike. Similar massacres took place in Singapore, where Chinese troops served under the British, as well as other captured territories.

Because the Japanese neither considered surrendering Chinese troops to be prisoners of war nor officially recorded the taking of prisoners it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of Chinese murdered as a result of Japanese policy. At least 5,000 were murdered following the surrender of Singapore, as witnessed and reported by surviving European prisoners. Many more who were not killed at the time of capture died while serving as slave labor. After the surrender of Japan, a total of 56 Chinese prisoners were released.

Japanese treatment of all prisoners of war was inhumane and has been well documented, but their treatment of the Chinese who fell into their hands has been less reported and was clearly worse than that of Europeans. The constraints of international law towards the treatment of Chinese prisoners were removed by a directive signed by Emperor Hirohito in August 1937.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
After the British surrender of Singapore, Japanese General Yamashita (seated center) ordered the screening of the Chinese population. Imperial War Museum

Sook Ching Massacre. February-March 1942

The Sook Ching massacre was the planned elimination of the Chinese population of Singapore following its capture by the Japanese from the British. It was later extended to include the Chinese population of Malaysia. Officially Japan admits that approximately 5,000 Chinese were killed in the massacre, estimates by western scholars and others set the total as high as 70,000.

The massacre was planned and military units established for the purpose of carrying it out well before the Japanese attack on Singapore. It was documented in a paper entitled, “Implementation Guideline for Manipulating Overseas Chinese” in late December 1941.

Once Singapore was in Japanese hands the secret police (Kempeitai) began screening the Chinese and other Asian population for individuals deemed to be undesirables. All Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 were screened, most were then killed. Women and children were sometimes screened as well. The age limits were at the discretion and judgment of the screener rather than based on official documents. Those few who passed the screening were issued square ink stamps on their arms, the rest were marked with a triangle. They were then trucked to one of multiple killing sites.

Upon arrival at the sites the Chinese were murdered, some by firing squad, some by machine-gunning, some by beheading, and some by bayoneting. Mass graves have been discovered at eleven sites on the Malay Peninsula. British prisoners awaiting transportation to POW camps later reported hundreds of bodies washed up near the former golf course where they were interned.

In the mid-1960s an independent Singapore demanded that Japan apologize and make reparations for the massacre. The Japanese government agreed to pay $50 million to Singapore – half in the form of a loan to be repaid – and refused to apologize for the event.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Containers filled with mustard gas for the use of the Japanese Army. The Japanese used chemical weapons in China. Australian War Memorial

Chemical Weapons. 1937-1945

The use of chemical weapons had been banned by the Geneva Convention (which also outlined the treatment of prisoners of war) which Japan did not sign. Nor did Japan believe the international conventions, such as the Hague Convention, applied to the Sino-Japanese War since there had been no formal declaration of war.

For these reasons, as well as their belief in the racial inferiority of the Chinese, the Japanese had little qualms regarding the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield and in the suppression of cities under their control. Emperor Hirohito directed the use of chemical weapons specifically in China, signing the orders in 1938, and is known to have directed their use over three hundred separate times.

Chemical weapons were used by the Japanese against Chinese troops on numerous occasions. Phosgene gas, chlorine gas, mustard gas, and others were deployed. Japanese commanders found the use of gas weapons to be effective against both Chinese troops and fleeing civilians. At the Battle of Yichang, about 3,000 Chinese Nationalist troops were shelled with over 1,000 mustard gas shells, supported by another 1,500 red gas shells, which contained a gas combination that induces nausea and choking. The area shelled by the Japanese was also crowded with civilian refugees. Chinese casualties were over 50% of the troops present. Civilian casualties were not reported.

Japanese troops in the field also tested the lethality of gases on prisoners of war, including POWs from Australia and Dutch units who had been captured early in the war. In prison camps in Indonesia, cyanide gas was tested for potential use on the battlefield, using POWs as test cases.

Prior to the beginning of the war with the western powers including England, the United States, and Australia, the League of Nations formally condemned Japan for its use of chemical weapons. Despite their use being personally directed by the Emperor, Hirohito was never charged with any war crimes after the Japanese surrender.

8 Horrifying Japanese War Crimes Against China in World War II You Never Learned in Class
Emperor Hirohito authorized the suspension of International Law in China as well as the use of chemical weapons, but was not charged with war crimes and allowed to remain on the throne as a constitutional monarch. Wikimedia

Unit 1855. 1938-1945

Unit 1855 operated under the supervision of Unit 731, tasked with the role of performing experiments in the use of plague, typhus, cholera, and other communicable diseases as weapons against both military targets and civilian populations. It was located in Beijing and was staffed by about 2,000 members.

Its existence was considered top secret, and it was commanded by a Japanese Army Colonel who was also a surgeon. The Japanese employed both Chinese and Korean interpreters at the site, conducting all personal contact with “patients” through them. Patients were prisoners brought to the site for the purpose of human experimentation.

The prisoners were kept in the facility in different areas depending upon whether they had been infected with disease which was as yet dormant, were presenting symptoms, or were not yet infected. Some were infected with plague, some with typhus, some with cholera, and others with varying combinations or all three. Through the interpreters, Japanese doctors would question the infected about their symptoms, recording the responses for each case, but no attempts were made to alleviate the symptoms or to arrest the spread of the disease.

The interpreters were used to ensure the personal safety of the Japanese doctors, most interpreters were sickened and died after repeated exposure, or were condemned to become “patients.” Later the interpreters would speak to the patients from behind the safety of a glass partition, using a microphone.

As the war went on vaccines were developed in the unit, and some patients were vaccinated against typhus as a control group while others were forced to consume typhus-infected beverages. The experimentation at Unit 1855 continued until the Japanese surrender, at which time it fell under the same arrangements with the United States as did its overseer, Unit 731. None of the experimenters at Unit 1855 were ever charged with war crimes, nor was the building destroyed after it was occupied by Chinese forces. Over 1,000 Chinese and Koreans died as the result of the human experiments conducted by Unit 1855 over the course of the war.