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 Nan­king, 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 in Tokyo esti­mated that 20,000 to 80,000 men and women (per a Nation­alist Chi­nese tribu­nal, more than 300,000), 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.

There remains an element of con­tro­versy in the pre­war and war­time role of Japa­nese Emperor Hiro­hito, who had taken the aus­pi­cious reign-title “Shōwa” (“illus­tri­ous peace”) in 1926. A recent (2015) narra­tive by Noriko Kawa­mura, Emperor Hiro­hito and the Pacific War, portrays Hiro­hito as a sacred but cere­monial figure in a pre­carious and ambig­u­ous posi­tion when it came to sanc­tioning deci­sions taken by Japa­nese mili­tary leaders, espe­cially when they con­flicted with his own personal, less hawkish views. An opposing narra­tive asserts that Hiro­hito was a true war leader and that he should have been charged with war crimes at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribu­nal just as were Japa­nese Prime Minis­ter/War Minis­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō and other senior offi­cials who served the emperor. Herbert P. Bix, in his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, believes the latter narra­tive is correct. In Bix’s view Hiro­hito, as com­mand­er in chief of all Japanese armed forces (daigensui), bears the strongest share of poli­tical, legal, and moral respon­si­bil­ity for the crimi­nal behav­ior of his armed forces in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter in the 1930s and ’40s, and he cer­tainly bears respon­si­bil­ity for green-lighting the infamous slaughter of Chin­ese soldiers and civil­ians in Nanjing in 1937. Bix demon­strates to the satis­fac­tion of many readers that Hiro­hito was a repeat vio­la­tor of inter­na­tional peace, starting with Japan’s illegal sei­zure of Man­chu­ria in 1931, con­tinuing for more than a dozen years for peo­ple swept up in the grue­some mael­strom of war, and ending only in August 1945 when he and his sub­or­di­nates could find no way out of the tragic mess they had made in South­east Asia. Hiro­hito, in Bix’s bio­graphy, was the missing defen­dant in the dock—granted immunity—during the Tokyo Trials of 1946–1948.—Norm Haskett

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

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

Left: A member of the Japanese Supreme War Council from 1937 to the end of the war in August 1945, Prince Yasu­hiko Asaka (1887–1981) wears the uni­form of a general in 1940. Asaka was tem­porary 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: Aging Gen. Iwane Matsui (1878–1948) and 50‑year-old Lt. Gen. Prince Yasu­hiko Asaka (in back­ground) on parade, Nan­jing, Decem­ber 17, 1937. Like Asaka, Gen. Matsui held a seat (since 1934) on Japan’s Supreme War Council. Pulled from retire­ment after a rela­tively undis­tin­guished mili­tary career, Matsui was given com­mand of the expedi­tionary forces in China from August 1937 to Febru­ary 1938. Con­sidered a “China expert” owing to his life­long interest in Chinese civili­za­tion and postings to China as far back as the Russo-Japa­nese War (1904–1905), Matsui remarked to Japa­nese War Minis­ter Gen. Hajime Sugi­yama before leaving for his post in August 1937 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, the 70‑year-old 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. (By agree­ment of the U.S. occu­pa­tion author­i­ties, Asaka was spared indict­ment and con­vic­tion as a war crimi­nal and thus the hang­man’s noose owing to his relation­ship to the untouch­able imperial family.) Matsui 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

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