Book Summary/ The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

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The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang (Paperback; 2011 Edition; 314 pages) 

Brief Overview

Americans consider World War II to have begun when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  Europeans generally understand the war to have started with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.  The Chinese might use the occupation of Manchuria, a region of China, by the Japanese all the way back to 1931.

Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany in the 1930s.  Fascists gained control in Italy (Mussolini) and Spain (Franco). Japan’s leadership also grew more fascist, including seizing Manchuria from China. After winning control of Nanking they were guilty of many heinous atrocities there.  In each case, there are many stories of horrible wrongs being committed.

The Rape of Nanking discusses the atrocities committed by the Japanese when they seized control of the Chinese capital in 1937.  Since the late 19th Century, Japan had imperialist goals in the Far East, including seizing Chinese territory such as Taiwan.  After an extended battle, Japan defeated Nationalist Chinese forces in the mid-1930s.  They seized control of Nanking.  

The aftermath was an extended period of murder, rape, arson, and overall terror that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  The ability to commit such wrongs was a result of an extended process of dehumanization that helps explain how people could do such things.  

A bright spot among the horror included a safety zone run by foreign nationals, including ironically those with Nazi beliefs.  They helped to spread the word to the world about what was happening there.  This book is intended to be a modern-day attempt to do the same.  

The Japanese at first acted quite blatantly but eventually did many things to try to hide their actions.  This mentality was retained by a segment of the population until the current day.  There was limited justice in war crimes tribunals. There were no financial restitution and official admission of wrongdoing akin to what occurred in Germany.  

The victims of Nanking (Nanjing) often did not tell their stories because of their feeling of shame.  When a wrong is forgotten, or purposely covered up, it adds to the existing wrong.  This book is unpleasant to read as are other accounts of horrible wrongs.  It is still our duty to remember and try to understand.  And, learn for the future.  This book helps us to do so.   

Note: This book was first written in the late 1990s.  This review discusses a 2011 paperback edition, which has a new epilogue written by the author’s husband. Also, a blanket trigger warning that this is a hard subject and some of the details will upset many readers.  

Favorite Quote

Unlike the atomic explosions in Japan or the Jewish holocaust in Europe, the horrors of the massacre of Nanking remain virtually unknown to people outside Asia.  

Iris Chang first heard about the horrors discussed in this book as a child from her parents, who survived years of war and revolution in China.  But, it is not something that the American public as a whole knows much about.  This book intended to tell the story, including how the horrors could happen, and why even at the time it was written many Japanese would not admit to it.  

Should I Read It?

Those interested in Japanese history and the World War II era will find this account interesting.  It does not only provide the basics about a specific aspect of Japanese history, including the background and aftermath. The book also tries to understand it from various perspectives, including the Japanese, the Chinese, European and Americans.  

This book is not a pleasurable read.  The graphic accounts of the horrors make it inappropriate for younger readers or those too sensitive for the material.  For the appropriate audience, the book is well-written and geared to the general reader.  The book is a work of scholarship without it being only for scholars.   It is appropriate for high school and college classes. 

The book has over twenty pages of black and white photographs.  The book also has a couple of maps, but it would have been ideal if it had more maps to help understand the overall setting of events.  The updated edition helps the reader understand Iris Chang’s illness and suicide.  

Comprehensive Summary


Iris Chang discusses her parents talking about the Rape of Nanking when she was a child, which became truly real when she saw graphic photos of the massacre as an adult.  At the time, in the mid-1990s, there was no full-length English nonfictional account of the event.  She also was motivated by strong Japanese opposition to admitting what happened.

[Since the writing of this book, other works have been written, and documentaries aired.  This includes a recent film  based on this book.  Still, the facts are widely unknown.]  


1: The Path to Nanking

Japan had a long history of worshiping a social hierarchy that was sustained through martial competition.  A code of conduct (bushido) in which death with honor was the highest honor was instilled into the population.  There was also a history of isolation for the island nation, which over time did not only promote xenophobic isolation, but also led Japan to be a backwater.  

Japan was forced into the modern age when U.S. naval gunboat diplomacy in the 1850s showed its weak international condition. Japan quickly modernized and provided strong competition to European powers in the Age of Imperialism.  Japan had an economic downturn in the 1920s, helped by economic boycotts by China.  This helped Japan feel victimized by foreign powers. 

An ultranationalistic policy, including in education that promoted the idea that each person only had value if they served the needs of the state, arose.  Many in Japan thought the only way for them to succeed once more was by conquering surrounding territory.  

China provided a tempting target, because of various internal weaknesses. The Japanese were taught to dehumanize the Chinese, made easier because the Japanese themselves were submitted to dehumanizing, brutal, education.  Manchuria was defeated in 1931, but capturing Shanghai in 1937 was a lot harder.  The Japanese troops were in the mood for revenge. 

2: Six Weeks of Terror

After the defeat of Shanghai, the path to Nanking (ancient cultural center and recent capital of China) was wide open.  The commander most likely to be sympathetic to the Chinese became sick and was replaced by a member of the royal family.  Prince Asaka either gave the order, or looked the other way when it was given, to kill all the captives (hundreds of thousands).  

The surrender of the Chinese military in the area left the civilians unprotected, resulting in six weeks of terror. The Japanese military systematically killed civilians in Nanking and the surrounding countryside.  The brutality of it all even horrified Japanese journalists.  

The ultimate outcry as a result of the massive rapes of civilian Chinese women (of all ages) also led the Japanese government to set up an organized system of military prostitution, the so-called “comfort women” seized from the women of the areas that they conquered.  

3: The Fall of Nanking

Nanking was defeated in December 1937. After losing a hard fight battle, Chinese forces were demoralized and disorganized after the defeat of Shanghai.  Chinese in Nanking did not have air support.  Soldiers were a mixed bunch from various parts of the country, who often did not even speak the same language.  China’s leader basically assumed it was a lost cause.  

The city, even with many Chinese soldiers inside, would fall in a matter of days. The quick surrender and passive nature of the Chinese prisoners increased the Japanese military’s disgust of the Chinese.  The Japanese were taught basically to fight to the last man.  

4: Six Weeks of Horror

The random killing, torture, and rape of Nanking took place over the next series of months, but a six-week period after the capture of the city in December 1937 was the worst period.  It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people might have died.  

There was brutal creativity to the process. There were killing contests where Japanese soldiers determined who could behead the most people in the shortest amount of time, the dead (or maybe still living) bodies were used for bayonet practice.  Various means of torture such as mutilation, death by fire, death by ice (such as in an icy pond), and being torn apart by dogs.  

And, there were the actual rapes, of women of all ages, perhaps the greatest mass rape aside from the Pakistani soldiers raping Bengali women in 1971.  Girls and women of all ages were raped. The Japanese soldiers dehumanized them though out of some form of guilt did regularly kill the girls and women after the rape.  

Any survivors had deep shame, leading few to ultimately talk about it or seek compensation and justice later on.  Any mixed raced babies were also taboo as well as horrible memories of what happened to them.  It is believed most were killed by the mothers and their families.  

5: The Nanking Safety Zone

There were many stories of people who fought back though no organized action by the mostly unarmed civilians against tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers is known.  The civilians and foreign nationals at first hoped (or expected) that the Japanese would peacefully transfer power.  There was also a human tendency to go along in the face of greater force.  

Foreign nationals, including Germans (that would be Nazi Germany) and Americans, before the fall of the city, set up a small safety zone.  It is likely that this zone saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. A small group of foreigners, including ironically a Nazi supporting German industrialist (John Rabe), were saviors of many people.  


6: What the World Knew

There were foreign journalists on hand in the area.  They left within a few days of the Japanese occupation but were able to report a lot of what happened before then.  

The Japanese media, after openly reporting the war news (including a killing contest), started to provide propaganda accounts that pretended all is well.   

A newsreel of the bombing  of the USS Panay, a U.S. gunboat used to carry out diplomats, refugees, and journalists was later shown in U.S. theaters.  The U.S. government did have it edited to hide just how close the ship was shot (the Japanese claimed it was an accident), probably to help negotiate a diplomatic solution. 

The American government was able to decode Japanese diplomatic messages, which included talking about what was going on. The German government, allies with the Japanese, also learned what was happening.  The foreigners running the safety zone also sent out many written accounts and were able to sneak out film of what was happening.  

7: The Occupation of Nanking

The Rape of Nanking continued for months though the worst was in the first six to eight weeks.  The Japanese burned and looted the city, not respecting the property of American and German nationals.  Almost a billion (1939 U.S. dollars) of public and private property damage occurred.

The Japanese at first would not let any clean-up, including garbage and removal of corpses, be done.  The new Japanese government was inaugurated in January 1938.  Once under control, one way used to encourage a submissive population was to encourage opium and heroin use.  A facility was also opened that committed medical experiments on the Nanking people. 

The city was eventually allowed to go back to its normal everyday life.  A massive clean-up and medical inoculation program was performed.  The city recovered though harsh treatment (including treating Chinese employees as slave labor) and wartime shortages and the like were no worse than in Chinese controlled areas. 

The Japanese left after the war was over, on the day of the surrender, most Chinese residents hid in fear that the news was false.  Retaliation against the defeated army was limited. 

8: Judgment Day

The Allied forces planned before the end of the war to have war crime trials to obtain some sort of justice.  The famous Nuremberg Trials are the most well-known result of this process. There were also war crime trials for the wrongs committed by the Japanese.  

Only a limited number of Japanese war criminals were prosecuted.  These trials provided a moment of mass catharsis, a chance for the Chinese to tell the world what happened to them.  

Two of the leading generals involved in the invasion of Nanking died before being able to be brought to justice.  Ironicially, the one who showed the most remorse was found guilty and executed.  Prince Asaka was protected by an agreement to protect the emperor and the royal family.  The U.S. agreed to this to provide a smoother transition for the Japanese to peace.  

9: The Fate of the Survivors

The start of the Cold War led to a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Japan as well as a failure (as compared to Germany) to purge the government of war criminals.  

There never was a system of reparations set up for the victims of Nanking.  Communist China did not want to make waves because it wanted peaceful relations with Japan.  Communist China also often badmouthed the foreign nationals who did so much to help the victims.  

The foreigners who organized the Nanking Safety Zone generally did not get the respect they deserved, many not knowing about their exploits at all.  

John Rabe struggled after the fall of Nazi Germany but was helped greatly by care packages and assistance from the Nanking people. He was worried even about releasing his diaries because of his troubles after the war arising from his Nazi beliefs.  He died in 1950.

An American woman (Minnie Vautrin) known as the “The Living Goddess of Nanking” had a mental breakdown from the stress of caring for so many people and later committed suicide.  


10: The Forgotten Holocaust: A Second Rape

A major concern of Iris Chang was that there was a continuing effort to hide what happened during the Rape of Nanking.  This led to intimidation of those who spoke openly about what happened and self-censorship from many more. 

The people involved included members of the government.  There was a continual sense that if anything the Japanese were the victims. 

Efforts to include details in textbooks were suppressed, resulting in an extended lawsuit.  Many historians covered up or denied the breadth of the wrongs, including saying that the “comfort women” were voluntary prostitutes or that the Japanese government was not involved.  

This book was written in 1997 and there is some evidence that the situation is at least somewhat better now. Chang herself shows that there was no total radio silence or anything.  She notes, for instance, two camps of people debating about what happened (“massacre” vs. “illusion” factions).  The bottom line is the need for a nation to be honest about its history.

Note: I will not try here to find some bottom line “truth” (I put that in quotes advisedly) on this debate.  For your information, here is a take by the Ministry of Japanese Foreign Affairs.


The Rape of Nanking was only one of many incidents of brutality during its war with China. 

One policy was to destroy parts of the northern Chinese countryside, which by some estimates killed millions of people. The Japanese also waged biological warfare.  Most of the victims of the war were civilians, dying from mass starvation as much as military bombing raids.  

Various things might explain the mindset necessary to commit so many atrocities.  First, it gave military men without much power to dominate people with even less.  Second, contempt was cultivated against the Chinese by propaganda, education, and social indoctrination. Third, a sacred meaning was applied to the violence, explained to be furthering a higher power.  

The reasons suggest that the problem is not the Japanese as a race, but a dangerous government able to rationalize how it applied its power.  Absolute power opens up the path to genocide.  And, once genocide occurs, humans have an ability to accept it or at least rationalize not doing much about it.  Communism “justified” leaving those behind the genocide in power.  

Epilogue for the 2011 Edition

This additional epilogue was written by Brett Douglas, Iris Chang’s husband, and the father with her of an autistic son.  He talks about her education and her writing of The Rape of Nanking.  He also talks about her mental breakdown that eventually led to her suicide. 

Points to Ponder

The book at one point notes that some historians found the level of Japanese brutality in this period hard to understand.  The level of brutality was more akin to the acts of the Mongols than what people expected from the history of Japan.  

The linked history, however, suggests the Mongols used a sort of pragmatic brutality to destroy their enemies. They were not quite as sadistic about it. What are the similarities and differences there?  Were the Japanese very different from other conquerors? 

An overall thought I had is that many are interested in military history and warfare.  How often do we consider the dark side of war, including the suffering of the civilian population?  War is not just set piece battles.  War is nasty, including the ability to go to war anyway.  


Iris Chang was a Chinese-American journalist, author of history books, and activist.  You can watch her talk about the book in this Booknotes segment.  

She also wrote Thread of the Silkworm, about the father of the Chinese missile program, and The Chinese in America, a 150 year history of Chinese immigrants and their descendants.   

Iris Chang committed suicide in 2004, which her husband discusses in the 2011 edition of this book.  Chang’s mother and Paula Kamen also wrote biographies of Iris Chang.  

Is The Rape of Nanking a Reliable Source?

William Kirby is a Professor of China Studies at Harvard University and the author of many works discussing the history of modern China, including the period covered in this book. He wrote a forward to The Rape of Nanking praising the scholarship of Iris Chang’s account.

Iris Chang is not a historian by training.  She did write three well received historical works, working on a fourth at the time of her death.  This book is a work of deep scholarship that is well sourced with extended end notes.  The book offers some theories for events but backs up these opinions.  The Rape of Nanking is a reliable work of history.

Criticism of The Rape of Nanking 

The book received some criticism, which she responded to in various respects.  Readers can compare this book to other source material, including documentaries, some produced after the original writing of this book in the late 1990s.  

One criticism is that Iris Chang exaggerated the “untold story” nature of the events because there are many accounts in Japan and also American academic works.  Nonetheless, this to me is a bit of a strawman.  For instance, Chang discusses barriers to teaching the full history in Japan while also noting many attempts to do so.  She does not claim total radio silence. 

And, the events are still generally unknown to many in the United States, including as compared to the Holocaust.  There is a vague sense Japan was guilty of war crimes (such as the Bataan Death March) without a full sense of what happened, especially war crimes against locals.  

Critics also might argue that Iris Chang is somehow anti-Japanese. Chang makes sure in the book to note that she does not believe there is something inherent in Japanese blood or something that led them to act in the way they did.  She argues that the Rape of Nanking is but an example of the results of xenophobia, authoritarianism, and failure to respond to injustice.  

Iris Chang’s focus was Chinese history and her own family has stories from the time period.  

(Some might even argue that her choices in determining what to include in a short form historical work did not say enough about the Chinese people.  Some might want to learn more about the Chinese side of things, especially life in Nanking from 1938 on.  There are various works that do this.  History books usually leave you wanting more.  So much to learn about.)