Tokyo, Japan · December 5, 1937

On this date in 1937 Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, a lieutenant gene­ral in the Imperial Japa­nese Army and uncle by mar­riage to Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa), flew from Tokyo to his new assign­ment—tem­po­rary com­mand of the Japa­nese Shang­hai Expe­di­tionary Force, a unit of Gen. Iwane Matsui’s Japa­nese Cen­tral China Area Army (CCAA). Mat­sui’s forces besieged 300,000 Nation­alist Chi­nese troops in the vicin­ity of Nan­jing (Nan­king), the for­tress capi­tal of Chiang Kai-shek’s govern­ment. (The Chi­nese govern­ment had fled its capi­tal on Decem­ber 1.) Two days after Asaka’s arrival, the CCAA mounted its final assault on Nan­jing’s walls. Asaka, acting for the elderly Matsui who was ill, allegedly issued the order to “kill all cap­tives,” thus sanc­tioning what became known as the Nan­king Mas­sacre (“Rape of Nan­king”). That the order may have been issued by a known ultra-nation­alist staff mem­ber of Gen. Matsui’s CCAA with­out the prince’s know­ledge or assent does not absolve the prince or Matsui from what tran­spired next because neither offi­cer counter­manded it. Leaving the crimi­nal order in place may have had much to do with events four months earlier, for on August 5, 1937, Hiro­hito rati­fied the lifting of Japa­nese army con­straints on the treat­ment of Chinese pri­soners of war, whether com­ba­tant or non-com­ba­tant. In­deed, Hiro­hito’s direc­tive advised staff offi­cers to avoid even using the term “POW.” And so with the appear­ance on Decem­ber 13 of the first Japa­nese troops in Nan­jing, a six-week orgy of bes­ti­ality, rape, mur­der by bay­o­net or ma­chine gun, theft, arson, and other war crimes com­menced. The post­war Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East esti­mated that 20,000–80,000 men and women, ranging from the elderly to in­fants (whose bellies were often slit open), were raped, many by gangs of sa­distic sol­diers going from door-to-door. As tem­po­rary com­man­der of Japa­nese troops in Nan­jing in early Decem­ber 1937, Prince Asaka was impli­cated in the hor­rific events through February 1938, when he was recalled to Japan. How­ever, because he was a mem­ber of the Im­perial family—even repre­senting the family on the Su­preme War Coun­cil until the end of the war in August 1945—Prince Asaka, like his uncle, escaped indictment and trial as a war criminal.

It baffles me that there remains any contro­versy surrounding the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the aus­pi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926. Some assert he was but a pas­sive ruler reluc­tantly manipu­lated by an elite group of Japa­nese mili­tarists and nation­alists who con­trolled the levers of power. Others view him as a co-conspi­rator who should have been charged with war crimes in a post­war mili­tary tribu­nal as were Gen. Hideki Tōjō and others who regularly reported to him. Herbert P. Bix, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, consigns the con­tro­versy to the ash­can of his­tory. Bix asserts that Hiro­hito, as com­mander in chief of his coun­try’s armed forces, must bear the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bility for the crimi­nal con­duct of his mili­tary in the Asia Pacific Theater in the 1930s and 40s. Certainly he bears direct respon­si­bility for sanc­tioning the bombing of Chi­nese cities and Japan’s use of poi­son gas on Chi­nese sol­diers and civil­ians. Bix proves to my satis­fac­tion that Hiro­hito was a serial vio­lator of inter­na­tional peace, beginning in 1931 with Japan’s ille­gal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in north­eastern China, con­tinuing in 1937 with the start of the Second Sino-Japa­nese War inau­gu­rated by the grue­some eight-week-long Rape of Nan­king watched over by his nephew-in-law, Prince Yasu­hiko Asaka, and ending in August 1945 only when he and his crimi­nal asso­ci­ates could find no way out of the debacle they had caused in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito was the missing person in the defen­dants’ dock during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

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Two of Emperor Hirohito’s Accomplices in the Nanking Massacre, 1937

 Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1906–1947) in 1940Gen. Iwane Matsui (1878–1948) and Prince Asaka, Nanjing, December 17, 1937

Left: Prince Yasuhiko Asaka in 1940. Asaka (1906–1947) was com­mander of Japa­nese forces in the final assault on Nan­king (now Nan­jing). His culpa­bility in the issuing the “kill all cap­tives” order and in the sub­se­quent events in Nan­jing is fod­der for debate. Not open for debate is that the sanc­tion for the Nan­king Mas­sacre (the dead num­bered between 300,000 and 350,000) and the crimes com­mitted during the Second Sino-Japa­nese war (1937–1945) must ulti­mately be found in the August 5, 1937, ratifi­ca­tion by Emperor Hiro­hito of the Japa­nese army’s pro­po­si­tion to remove the con­straints of inter­na­tional law on the treat­ment of pri­soners (com­ba­tants and noncombatants) swept up in the Chinese conflict.

Right: Gen. Iwane Matsui (1878–1948) and Lt. Gen. Prince Yasu­hiko Asaka (in back­ground) on parade, Nan­jing, Decem­ber 17, 1937. Com­mander of the expedi­tionary forces in China from August 1937 to Febru­ary 1938, Gen. Matsui remarked to Japa­nese War Minis­ter Hajime Sugi­yama that the China prob­lem could only be solved by breaking the power of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and capturing his capital, Nan­jing. On Decem­ber 23, 1948, Matsui was hanged in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison, having been con­victed of war crimes and sen­tenced to death by the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal for the Far East for respon­si­bility over the Nan­king Mas­sacre. He was pre­ceded in death by Hajime Sugi­yama, who com­mitted suicide by shooting him­self with his ser­vice revol­ver on Septem­ber 12, 1945, four weeks after he and other senior Japa­nese mili­tary offi­cers had affixed their signa­tures to an agree­ment to carry out Emperor Hirohito’s order of surrender to the Allies.

Forgotten Holocaust: The “Rape of Nanking” (WARNING Mature Subject Matter Contains Scenes of Nudity, Extreme Violence, and Brutality of the Grossest Kind)