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 vacated its capital days earlier, on December 1, 1937.)

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, also known as the 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 Asaka or Matsui from what tran­spired next because neither officer countermanded it.

Leaving the “kill all captives” 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 noncom­ba­tant. 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 to 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 Japa­nese Supreme War Coun­cil until the end of the war in August 1945—Prince Asaka, like his uncle the Emperor, 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

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

 Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887–1981) in 1940Gen. Iwane Matsui (1878–1948) and Prince Asaka, Nanjing, December 17, 1937

Left: Prince Yasuhiko Asaka in 1940. Asaka (1887–1981) was com­mander of Japa­nese forces in the final assault on the Chinese capital of 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 (sources place the number of dead between 50,000 and 300,000 or more) 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 Gen. 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 four times 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.

Survivor Recounts Nanjing Massacre (Rape of Nanking) Using Contemporary Japanese Footage