What Really Happened in Nanking: An Analysis of Tanaka Masaaki’s Denial of the Nanking Massacre

What Really Happened in Nanking: An Analysis of Tanaka Masaaki’s Denial of the Nanking Massacre

            It is possible that the Chinese derive such pleasure from [incestuous sexual] assaults, but that is    certainly not true of the Japanese, who have never found such acts amusing[1].

            –What Really Happened in Nanking?


During World War Two, countless unspeakable tragedies and crimes against humanity took place—the Holocaust, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the utter destruction of much of Japan, the firebombing of Dresden, and the Rape of Nanking.  Some events, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were so huge and took place on such a large scale that their occurrence was never questioned.  Some tragedies, such as the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre, were more hidden from the rest of the world—evidence and witnesses were destroyed, and information was slow to reach the rest of the world.  As with the Holocaust, the Nanking Massacre is a controversial topic that many people deny ever even occurred.

One of the more famous and controversial revisionist histories  of the Nanking Massacre was written by Tanaka Masaaki, What Really Happened In Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth.  Tanaka Masaaki began refuting the official interpretation of the Nanking Massacre in 1952, 6 years after he was drafted into the Japanese Army and served as a cryptographer[2]What Really Happened in Nanking is his approximately tenth book, and he claims that it is the summation of his life’s work on the topic.

His argument is moderately thorough in scope, although many of his arguments are short and need more elaboration.  His approximately a dozen arguments (leaving out many which overlap) include portrayal of the Japanese Army as highly ethical and incapable of a massacre, refuting population records, refuting the existence of corpses, attempting to highlight the lack of media attention (and protest) in China and the West, attempting to deny witness testimony, and arguing the validity of many photographs used as evidence.

On page 39, Masaaki goes into details about Japanese funerary procedures for fallen Chinese soldiers.  He notes the used of the bushido code of conduct for soldiers, and alleges that the funeral practices are evidence of an unwavering compliance with bushido, specifically asking “could soldiers and commanders of this caliber have participated in or even condoned the indiscriminate killing of innocent women and children?”[3]

Masaaki claims with absolute confidence that the population of Nanking at the end of 1937 was between 120,000 and 200,000 people, and notes that the claims of 300,000 murdered Chinese people are physically impossible due to the population of the city.  As Masaaki colorfully states, “even if the Japanese had murdered every[one], they could not have killed more than 160,000-250,000 Chinese.  To massacre 300,000 persons, they would have had to kill many of them twice”[4].

Masaaki references several people, including journalists, photographers, and Sakamoto Chikashi, commander of the 2nd Battalion, who claim they never saw any corpses, civilian or otherwise[5].  First Lt. Tsuchiya Shoji toured Nanking on December 13th, 1937 and noted the quiet and calm of the city, and left without seeing a corpse[6].  10th Army staff officer Tanida Isamu, on December 14th, 1937, saw “approximately 1,000 bodies…believed to be chose of Chinese soldiers killed in action on December 13th”[7].  Masaaki sums up his research on various eyewitnesses who claim to have seen nothing by saying that “no member of the Japanese military, no Japanese newspaper reporter, none of the 15 members of the International Committee, none of the five foreign reporters on assignment in Nanking, no foreign national saw scenes remotely resembling those described by Chinese witnesses”[8].

To show that the Chinese were ignorant of any wrongdoing by the Japanese in the city of Nanking, Masaaki cites a book called Chinese Military Affairs During Wartime, and notes that the book does not mention anything that could be construed as a massacre taking place during the time when it allegedly did.  He also cites an American Comintern member who travelled with Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai and wrote about the fall of Nanking—however, her book contains no mention of a massacre[9].

One of Masaaki’s longest and most in-depth arguments centers around a lack of publicity of the massacre in the British and American media.  Makes several claims about journalism during the war– that there were only two journalists who wrote about the massacre during the war (Harold Timperley and F. Tillman Durdin), that there existed a lack of editorials in newspapers around the world condemning the massacre, and that a group of 15 journalists was brought to the sites of the massacre and failed to find any evidence of mass murder.[10]  Masaaki specifically notes that Time magazine ran a story congratulating the Chinese on a victory against the Japanese, but failed to print anything about massacre taking place in China[11].

In chapter 13 Masaaki argues that there were no protests from any western nation (specifically, United States, Great Britain or France) about the Nanking Massacre.  He notes that these three nations lodged an international protest against Japan for “indiscriminate aerial bombing during the assault on Nanking”.[12]  Masaaki himself notes that through these aerial attacks, 600 Chinese civilians were needlessly killed.

Chapter 16 of Masaaki’s book is titled “A Massacre With No Witnesses,” a strong title for the stronger claim that the chapter focuses around.  He claims that 120 Japanese journalists who were in Nanking reported no massacre, and gives several specific examples of reporters and military officeres who were in Nanking who saw no evidence of a massacre.  The second part of the chapter notes many Japanese soldiers who also claim they saw no evidence of a massacre in Nanking.  The last part of the chapter is testimony from Masaaki himself, a description of what he saw (and more importantly, didn’t see) during his time in late 1938 in Nanking.  He writes from his own experience that he saw no dead bodies, and the damage to buildings and to the town was much less than he expected to see.

Masaaki’s final argument focuses around ten pictures that Iris Chang used in her book The Rape of Nanking.  These various photographs include pictures of heads, piles of dead bodies, Japanese soldiers and funerary proceedings.  Masaaki claims that these photographs were either doctored (he notes the use and misuse of shadows in one particular photograph) and also claims that some of the photos were used out of context (for example, he claims one photograph is actually of executed Chinese bandits, instead of Chinese soldiers executed by the Japanese army[13].  He acknowledges one photograph is indeed a photograph of hundreds of bodies washed up on the shore of a river, but claims that these bodies were those of the Chinese army, who were killed in action with proper respect to international law.

Although Masaaki refutes almost every type of evidence that was used to prove the Nanking Massacre happened in the first place, a preponderance of the evidence is useful in determining whether Masaaki’s methods and conclusions are correct.

Masaaki’s note that the Japanese soldiers followed the bushido code and were thus unable to participate in anything like a massacre is easily overthrown.  Claiming that someone applies to a particular philosophy or believes a certain dogma has no bearing on whether or not they do or do not take certain actions—for example, many Nazis were Christians, yet one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shall not murder.”  It is clear that Masaaki loves and takes great pride in his country; however, it is very misleading to argue that simply because the army had a code of conduct (as do almost every army in existence) that they could and would not take inappropriate action in a foreign country.

The same is true of the funeral practices.  Whether or not the Japanese army held funerals for the fallen Chinese soldiers has no bearing on whether or not they massacred other Chinese civilians.  Here Masaaki uses a classic red herring—by highlighting appropriate actions that the Japanese army took, he is attempting to wash over an entirely different issue.  The argument about the Nanking Massacre is whether or not the Japanese army raped and murdered Chinese civilians, not what was done with the corpses afterwards.

As for the population record, Masaaki’s claim is factually correct.  There were indeed only around 200,000 people in the Safety Zone.  However, he refutes Iris Chang’s claim that there were 200,000-300,000 people who were outside the safety zone at the time—many of whom were killed by the Japanese (Chang claims there were a few hundred thousand people outside of the Safety Zone, either in the countryside or in the Nanking Municipal Zone).  Iris Chang’s claim that the Nanking Massacre was more deadly that the Holocaust is obviously untrue; the truth of the actual number of people killed, although we may never know with 100% certainty, lies somewhere between Masaaki’s estimate of approximately zero and Chang’s estimate of “more than the Holocaust”.  However,  the entire point of the Safety Zone was a place where people would be safe.  John Rabe is generally credited with saving the lives of a few hundred thousand people because of the Safety Zone.  It is the areas outside of the Safety Zone, the other areas of the city and the rural countryside outside the city, where most of the killing and rape took place.  No one is claiming that the Japanese Army murdered the 200,000 people in the Safety Zone; in fact, this is the exact opposite of what most scholars argue, and most survivors claim.

Joshua A. Fogel, author of The Nanking Massacre in History and Historiography[14] makes the valid and apt argument that one should not be bogged down in arguments about the numbers—that the numbers will become numbers whose meaning have been lost in the debate—and that, like the number of victims in the Holocaust, historians and revisionists will never stop debating them.  The important point is that the massacre did happen; that widespread rape happened, and that the killings, rapes, beatings and burnings did happen on a large scale, not just isolated incidents.

The people who Masaaki cites as eyewitnesses also represent a problem.  He seems to call only upon Japanese witnesses who say that they never saw any bodies—obviously not the most reliable witnesses and certainly not convincing when he relies only upon them.  As we have seen with the Holocaust, the Germans denied that any gas chambers or any incinerators existed.  In addition, almost all of the witness testimony that Masaaki cites come from the days immediately following the Japanese occupation of Nanking.  This is clearly cherry-picking which eyewitness testimony he wants to use in his argument—there are likely to be few piles of dead bodies and widespread rape on the very same day that the Japanese invaded.  The murder and rapes took place over a period of weeks, not immediately on December 13th.

One important source we have for first-hand testimony is the American missionaries who were in Nanking at the time.  The collection Eyewitnesses to Massacre: American Missionaries Bear Witness to Japanese Atrocities in Japan[15] contains letter after letter, document after document of American missionaries who were in Nanking when the events took place.  Many of these are not even letters to anyone in authority; they are simply the writings and diaries of people there (one was a letter to his wife).  Although the United States and Japan were enemies in the war, the fact that most of these letters were personal and not meant to be published indicates that it is very unlikely that they were fabricated stories.

The aforementioned book that Masaaki cites, Chinese Military Affairs During Wartime, is easy to spot as being improperly used.  One of the main realities of the Nanking Massacre was that the Chinese Army retreated and ran away from Nanking; to state that an account of the Chinese Army is lacking reports of the Nanking Massacre is ludicrous.  The point Masaaki makes about Agnes Smedley, the American expatriate who wrote Battle Hymn of China, is easily disproved by a timeline of Smedley’s life, which includes her being in the United States during almost all of the Second World War[16].  Masaaki’s use of these two sources is an example of a snapshot fallacy—one small piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit in with the larger picture (in this case, the pieces include writings about China that don’t mention a massacre), so therefore Masaaki uses them to discount the events from occurring.  However, the fact that these two sources don’t specifically mention a massacre doesn’t prove anything.

Masaaki’s claim that Time magazine never ran any stories about the Nanking Massacre is one of the most easily disproved claims in the entire book.  A simple search of a Time magazine database, going back almost to the beginning of the 20th century, yields an article published on February 14th, 1938 that calls the events the “Nanking Atrocities.”  One particularly gruesome excerpt describes the events:

“I have seen jackrabbit drives in the West, in which a cordon of hunters closes in on the    helpless rabbits and drives them into a pen, where they are clubbed or shot. The spectacle at Nanking after the Japanese captured the city was very much the same, with human beings as the victims[17].”

Obviously, the American media knew what was going on and reported thoroughly on accounts of the situation.  Time magazine is one of the most popular and widespread weekly magazines in the country; to say that no American media outlet reported on the situation in Nanking is pure and utter falsehood.

Although there are indeed examples of newspaper and magazine articles that were printed during the war, Mark Eykholt, a noted historian on the topic of the Nanking Massacre, claims that there is another reason for an overall shortage of articles on this important event.  He states that “the Massacre was only vaguely known until after the war.  At the time of its occurrence, the only recorded evidence of atrocities was the writings of a few Chinese and Westerners…writings that were then smuggled to the outside world”[18].  Eykholt also notes that, just as in the Holocaust, the rest of the world was unable or unwilling to believe that the reports were true, and the extent of the killings and rapes was doubted by most.

Masaaki argues that if there were truly a massacre going on in Nanking, then the United States, Britain or France would have lodged an international protest, as they did with aerial bombings in Nanking.  However, there is a major problem with this logic—the fact that most of the outside world did not know what was truly going in Nanking at the time, not to mention the fact that these nations were all extremely preoccupied with the war.  Aerial bombing is something that is extremely easy to witness even from far away; most people within a certain radius will be able to know that aerial bombing is occurring.  However, during the Massacre Chinese civilians were rounded up, herded to one area and shot—in many cases, leaving no or few survivors.  It is harder to detect a massacre of this type; as previously stated, any witness accounts at the time had to be written down and smuggled out.  It is unlike that these three Western nations were going to lodge a major international protest without solid, concrete and incontrovertible evidence.  The evidence for the massacre, indeed even the knowledge of the massacre, was extremely limited at the time, precluding the possibility of France, Britain or the United States lodging an international protest.

Masaaki also claims that the “only explanation for this oversight is that no massacre ever occurred in Nanking”[19].  This is faulty logic—there have been many massacres, indeed genocides that the United States and other nations have refused to recognize.  For instance, at this very moment genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan is taking place.  There are very few people who will doubt that this true; however, the United States has still not called this what it is, a genocide because of the legal requirements connecting with naming it a genocide.

Masaaki notes that when he visited the areas where the Massacre took place, there were no rumors floating around and no one talked about what had happened.  This, however, does not mean that nothing did happen.  During the time when Masaaki was in Nanking, the war was still in full swing; the Japanese were still present in Nanking, and people still feared for their lives.  Daqing Yang notes that “the majority of the survivors of the Nanking Massacre, however, had to remain in the occupied city for nearly eight years before it was no longer dangerous to openly talk of Japanese atrocities…even then, not all surviving victims were eager to recount their sufferings”[20].  Obviously if people felt they were in danger, and knew that the Japanese army had intended to leave no witnesses (many mass executions had only one surviving witness, out of several hundred killed) then there would be very few people willing to talk about the Massacre.  If they were to talk about the Massacre, it is very unlikely they would have talked to Masaaki, a member of the Japanese Army.

The final argument that Masaaki makes is about the pictures in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking.  On pages 116 and 117 he prints two versions of the same photograph—one a more narrow view, and one more panned out[21].  The scene is a riverbed, filled with Chinese corpses.  Masaaki himself notes that the scene is “ghastly,” but according to him is a part of the war.  However, this is in direct conflict with one of his earlier statements—that the Japanese soldiers treated the corpses of the victims very well, including giving the bodies a traditional funeral[22].  Indeed one of the main hinges of Masaaki’s argument is how moral the Japanese army was, using their methods of the disposal of corpses as an example.  This contradiction is one of the most glaring fallacies in his book.

Masaaki gives one example of a photograph he believes to be doctored, and one photograph that he believes to be miscaptioned[23].  Although Masaaki doubts the legitimacy of two photographs, there are hundreds of other photographs in existance, sometimes from the private collections of Japanese soldiers, that he has not addressed.  Even if two photographs were doctored or mislabeled (I am not convinced they are) Masaaki fails to account for the hundreds or thousands of others.

In addition, Masaaki uses several other photographs as evidence that shouldn’t count as evidence.  For instance, he gives over 12 pages of photographs of various activities of the Japanese soldiers in Nanking—from the aforementioned funeral practices, to shopping in the Nanking bazaars, and acts of kindness by Japanese soldiers to Chinese citizens.  However, these photographs don’t prove anything.  Even if the Japanese were kind to the Chinese sometimes, or gave the Chinese army corpses funerals, it doesn’t mean that they did not, at one time, rape, murder and burn.

Examining the types of evidence that Masaaki uses, as well as how he argues his case, my conclusion is that Tanaka Masaaki’s What Really Happened in Nanking? has absolutely no historical merit, and is indeed harmful to the cause of accurate historical memory and respect for the victims.

The language that Masaaki uses is sometimes shocking, and sometimes indicative of his faulty logic.  Take, for example, the quote used at the beginning of this paper.  Masaaki seems to have a personal bias against Chinese people, as he writes (if not believes) that Chinese people would enjoy incestuous rape.  Masaaki also makes sweeping claims about evidence that are impossible to prove.  For instance, when discussing the photographs that he believes to be fakes, he claims that searching for real photographs of the Massacre “have been fruitless, which is not surprsing, since none ever existed”[24].  I don’t believe that a real historian, doing a real historical inquiry, would ever make such as a sweeping claim about the existence or non-existence of evidence, especially since a quick Google search will yield several hundred pictures whose provenance and captioning Masaaki has not yet refuted.

Masaaki also fails to give a motive for why the Chinese victims or the verdict at the International Military Tribune for the Far East was, in his opinion, completely fabricated.  He accuses practically everyone, from journalists and witnesses to judges and juries to fabricating evidence, believing fabricated evidence, or simply ignoring what, to him, are plain truths, but he never gives a motive for why he believes this.  In my opinion, he seems to be defending the honor of his country.  This is not, in and of itself, a bad goal; however, denying atrocities committed by his army and his country only anger the victims, China, and the rest of the world (Iris Chang called the revisionist movement a “second rape”).  Without a motive for making up a huge series of events, his revisionist work slips farther and farther away from plausibility.

One possible unstated theory for his motive for denying the Nanking Massacre could be his involvement.  He was, after all, in the Japanese army during World War Two (although he was not in China during the Nanking Massacre), he may be shouldering some guilt for what happened.  He was very close with many people, such as General Matsui, who were indicted in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and executed.

Unfortunately, denial of the Nanking Massacre has effects wider than just ahistorical and inaccurate revisionist works.  The Nanking Massacre has always been one of the least known massacres of the war—misinformation and denial has always been a part of the historiography of the Nanking Massacre.  This has even spread to Japan’s textbooks.  The controversy over Japanese textbooks is widely known—the Japanese government is very strict in their scrutiny of textbooks, especially those relating to history or social sciences.  Takashi Yoshida, a Japanese historian who wrote about the historiography of the Nanking Massacre in Japan, notes that many textbooks mention that the Nanking Massacre occurred, but don’t explain the scope or number of people killed.  Not only is there a wider textbook censoring movement in Japan, but I was surprised to learn that Masaaki was not only a part of it, but leading it.  According to Takashi Yoshida, Masaaki objected to the terms “aggression” and “Nanjing Massacre” from even being used in secondary education textbooks at all, and sued for “suffering” that he incurred because of their use.  Not only is Masaaki attempting to use his own book to deny the Nanking Massacre, but has also sued to prevent other textbooks, textbooks that are supposed to be unbiased to educate the next generation of youths, from telling the truth.  Fortunately, the judge recognized the ridiculousness of Masaaki’s case and stated that “psychological sufferings claimed by the plaintiffs are nothing but displeasure and irritation attributed to historical and political views that they disagree with”[25].

Fortunately, the judge in this case is not the only person of influence in Japan that recognizes the Nanking atrocities and refutes Masaaki and others’ denial.  In 1993 Hosokawa Morihiro was elected Prime Minister; he was the first Prime Minister in thirty eight years who was not a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan.  Prime Minister Morihiro publicly apologized for the aggression of Japan in the Second World War and acknowledged that it was an unjust war; the revisionists in Japan reacted by forming the Committee to Examine History to raise awareness about their revisionist agenda[26].

Even schoolchildren are not fooled by revisionist attempts to deny the uglier parts of history.  According to Yoshida, sixth grade students in the Mie district learned in their history class about what happened during the Rape of Nanking, and decided that they would build a monument to remind themselves, and everyone else, to be kind to other people.  These students didn’t reach this conclusion by idly reading their government-screened textbooks or revisionist literature; they decided that the war and massacre needed to be remembered by interviewing comfort women and war survivors.  Children, even children as young as sixth grade, are smart and logical.  They can learn the true and correct history, if given the opportunity and access to historical information, such as interviews with survivors.  However, Tanaka Masaaki is doing the children of his country and the entire world a disservice by publishing clearly illogical and misleading works such as What Really Happened in Nanking.  He may be fighting to preserve the honor of Japan, but I believe that the rest of the world, including China, would look more fondly at Japan if the proper apologies and reparations were made, and the truth about the Nanking Massacre was recognized.



Works Referenced


Chang, Iris.  The Rape of Nanking.  New York: PublicAffairs, 1997.


Fogel, Joshua A.  The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography.  Berkeley: University of             California Press, 2000.


Mackinnon et al.  Agnes Smedley: Life and Times of an American Radical.  Berkeley: University of          California Press, 1990.


Masaaki, Tanaka.  What Really Happened in Nanking?  The Refutation of a Common Myth.  Tokyo:          Sekai Shuppan, 1987.


“War in China: Eyewitness.”  Time.  Feb. 14th, 1938.  April 27th, 2010.



Zhang, Kaiyuan.  Eyewitnesses to Massacre: American Missionaries Bear Witness to Japanese     Atrocities in Nanjing.  New York: Sharpe, 2001.

[1]   Masaaki 53

[2]   Masaaki 144

[3]   Masaaki 39

[4]   Masaaki 13

[5]   Masaaki 23

[6]   Masaaki 25

[7]   Masaaki 25

[8]   Masaaki 26

[9]   Masaaki 73

[10] Masaaki 81-92

[11] Masaaki 91

[12] Masaaki 80

[13] Masaaki 115

[14] Fogel

[15] Zhang

[16] Mackinnon

[17] Time Feb. 14th 1938

[18] Fogel 12

[19] Masaaki 80

[20] Fogel 139

[21] Masaaki 116-117

[22] Masaaki 126

[23] Masaaki 112-113

[24] Masaaki 111

[25] Fogel 89

[26] Masaaki 96


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