A Historian's Quest for the Truth



The Nanking Safety Zone

The immense fortress that is the city of Nanking was constructed by Hong Wu (1368-1398), the first Ming emperor. Granite was used for the foundation, on top of which huge bricks were laid. Above some of the gates (Zhonghua Gate, for instance), the wall tops were paved with stones so that they could be used as roads for vehicles (see Chapter 3).

According to Nanking, edited by the Nanking Japanese Chamber of Commerce, the circumference of the city walls was 34.24 kilometers.1 Within those walls was the Nanking Safety Zone. As described in Chapter 2,2 the Safety Zone, roughly square in shape, was 3.2 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide, with a total area of 3.86 square kilometers.

Nanking After the Fall

The city walls presented both advantages and disadvantages. They were useful for defense purposes, but once the city was surrounded by enemy troops and the gates captured, the defenders would be trapped inside. Such was the case when the Japanese invaded Nanking, since they attacked the gates from the east and the south. The only escape route available to Chinese troops was Yijiang Gate in the north of the city.

According to the testimonies of Captains Sekiguchi Kozo and Hashimoto Mochiyuki3 in Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol.10, the road leading from Yijiang Gate to Xiaguan (located on the banks of the Yangtze) - the escape route used by Chinese troops - was "littered with blue-and-yellow uniforms" for a full kilometer.

During their flight, Chinese troops, who "had been careful to retain their rifles and machine guns," crossed the Yangtze in rowboats and barges, on rafts and even doors, but not one of them was in uniform. Stragglers on the riverbank fired their rifles, but "none of them waved white flags, or raised their arms to show that they wished to surrender." The Japanese pursued the fleeing enemy soldiers, and shot them, just as every army has done in every war throughout history. From these testimonies, we know that Chinese soldiers discarded their uniforms and attempted to escape through Yijiang Gate. What became of those whose attempts were unsuccessful?

Yijiang Gate after the fall of Nanking, viewed from inside the city. (Source: Reprint from Film Records of the Battle of Nanking, Series 21)

The view across the Yangtze River from Xiaguan to Pukou. The 1.5-kilometer bridge at left, the Changjiang River Bridge, was completed in 1968.

Chinese Soldiers Infiltrate the Safety Zone Before Nanking's Gates Are Breached

Tillman Durdin, an American journalist who departed from Nanking on December 15, wrote the following in a dispatch to The New York Times (January 9, 1938 edition).
Sunday evening [Chinese troops] spread all over the safety zone and thousands began shedding their uniforms. Civilian clothes were stolen or begged from passing civilians, and when no "civvies" could be found the soldiers nevertheless discarded army garb and wore only their underclothing.

Arms were discarded along with uniforms, and the streets became covered with guns, grenades, swords, knapsacks, coats, shoes and helmets.4 [Italics supplied.]

Here, too, Chinese troops discarded their uniforms and masqueraded as civilians. In another article (December 18, 1937), Durdin wrote that he witnessed "the wholesale undressing of an army that was almost comic."5 When they robbed civilians of their clothing, some Chinese soldiers even murdered their victims for their garments,6 as James Espy, vice-consul at the American Embassy in Nanking, inferred. Since these events took place on the night of Sunday, December 12, we know that Chinese troops had fled to the Safety Zone before Nanking fell.

Nanking: A Deserted City

The Japanese entered Nanking on the night of December 13. By then, Chinese troops had completed their flight into the Safety Zone. Sumiya Iwane was an artist assigned to the 3rd Fleet, Central China Expeditionary Force, on board the battleship Ataka. His description of Nanking on December 13 appears in Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol.10.
At the time, I was on board the Ataka, the flagship of the 11th Squadron, on the Yangtze River. After Nanking fell, a newspaper reporter drove me to the city from Xiaguan. On the way, we passed corpse upon corpse lying near Xingzhong Gate [northwest of Nanking, directly north of Yijiang Gate].

The streets were deserted, and the houses had been damaged by fires. I got out of the car and found a bicycle. It was functional, though I had to ride slowly because there was something wrong with the pedals. I rode to the seat of the Nanking municipal government, the Headquarters of the General Staff, and the city assembly hall. At each of these places, I dismounted and went inside. But all was quiet, and there was no one in sight. ... The Ono and Wakizaka units, Army units that had invaded the city, seemed to have located buildings with roofs intact to serve as billets. In any case, I saw no Japanese soldiers. Nanking was truly a deserted city. ...

The next day, I explored more of the city on the bicycle, because I thought it strange that I hadn't encountered any of its residents. I came upon a banner on the street that read "Refugee Zone: Do Not Enter." The zone was packed with refugees. I don't think I have ever seen such a crowded place.7

An eerie silence reigned in Nanking. Yasuyama Kodo, a colonel in the Army Medical Corps and the 3rd Fleet's head physician, also described Nanking as a "deserted city"8 in his war journal entry for December 19. The headquarters of the 80th Division, the Ministry of Communications, and the Railway Ministry had been burned to the ground, another example of the scorched-earth strategy. There were no signs of life. Nanking had been abandoned. Most of its residents had congregated in the Safety Zone.

Armed Chinese Troops Hide Among Civilians

On December 13, there were no hostilities between the Japanese and Chinese within the city limits. But that did not mean that Nanking was a safe place immediately after it fell. As we can see from the accounts cited above, Chinese soldiers became "civilians" by casting off their uniforms, and disappeared into the Safety Zone.

The Safety Zone had been established to accommodate civilians (noncombatants). But in their midst were regular Chinese Army personnel dressed in civilian clothing. No matter what they were wearing, they were still soldiers. Some of them had discarded both their uniforms and their weapons, but certainly not all. Chinese military personnel had concealed an enormous quantity of weapons, as we shall demonstrate later. They could have planned and launched an attack at any time. Chicago Daily News correspondent Archibald Steele wrote that Chinese soldiers were still shooting from concealed points of vantage in the city.9

According to The Battle of Nanking, on December 14, a Japanese tank company was shot at by several dozen Chinese stragglers when some of its members alighted from their tanks on Zhongshan Road and entered a nearby auditorium. They rushed back to their tanks, barely escaping injury or death.10 Other Japanese soldiers were shot at by stragglers during their sweep of the city. Nanking was not yet a safe place.

Japanese Sweep Nanking in Accordance with Invasion Outline

If Chinese troops had not concealed themselves among civilians, the Japanese sweep of Nanking would have proceeded without difficulty. The sweep was begun in accordance with the "Nanking Invasion Outline," issued on December 7.

As William Webb, the presiding justice at the Tokyo Trials, said, a sweep is conducted to "drive out or drive away the enemy."11 International Prosecutor's Office: Interrogations, Vol. 50: The Nanking Incident defines a sweep as a legitimate military action that involves "driving out" or "driving away" enemy soldiers.12

The "Nanking Invasion Outline" included two important instructions to be followed during the sweep of Nanking, one of which was:

3. ... Each division shall designate one infantry regiment as its core unit, which shall sweep the city. With the exception of that unit, the main strength of the division shall assemble at an appropriate location outside the city.13

Even units that did enter Nanking were not permitted to move freely about the city, as substantiated by Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 8. According to that publication, when the 20th Infantry Regiment, 16th Division captured Zhongshan Gate and entered Nanking, 2nd Lieutenant Muguruma Masajiro's 9th Infantry Regiment, 16th Division, was "forbidden to advance into the city." He reported that "Japanese military control was strict, as it should be." But, to his disadvantage, there were "no buildings to use for barracks" and, forced to bivouac, he slept poorly because it was so cold.14

Troops Not Participating in the Sweep Forbidden To Leave Their Barracks

Takeuchi Goro, a medical corpsman with the 9th Infantry Regiment, was billeted at the Nanking Military Academy until the end of 1937, when he moved to a barracks in Tangshuizhen. Takeuchi wrote that, like Muguruma's unit, "we were not permitted to leave our barracks while we were in Nanking."15

A 38th Infantry Regiment order issued on December 14 at 9:30 p.m. instructed the main strength of the regiment to "form village bivouac"16 at Xiaguan. Xiaguan, located outside Nanking, was in ruins, having been burned by Chinese troops.

In addition to soldiers' accounts, there is other evidence that attests to the fact that the Japanese bivouacked or were forbidden to leave barracks, in the form of regimental orders and a division commander's testimony.

On May 2, 1946, not long after World War II had ended, Fujita Susumu, commander of the 3rd Division, Shanghai Expeditionary Force, when interrogated by the International Prosecutor's Office during the Tokyo Trials, was asked if all units were granted freedom of movement in Nanking after the ceremonial entry into the city on December 17. Fujita answered in the negative, and added that he had ordered his men to remain in their quarters when they were off-duty, and to refrain from approaching the Safety Zone. Moreover, his entire division had moved outside the city after the ceremony.17 Sergeant-Major Fujita Kiyoshi (later promoted to 1st Lieutenant), attached to the 2nd Light Armored Vehicle Company, an independent unit, testified that "on the 21st, my company moved to the Chinese training unit's barracks at the Military Academy in Nanking ... we were forbidden to leave our quarters unless we were on official business."18 [Italics supplied.]

During an interview, 2nd Lieutenant Inukai Soichiro, head of the 9th Infantry Regiment's Signal Section, told this writer that each day, someone from his unit was appointed bivouac orderly officer, and that non-commissioned officers and members of the rank-and-file were assigned to sentry and patrol duty. He added that it was against the rules for Japanese military personnel to leave their barracks, except when on official business.19 His testimony demonstrates that the aforementioned instruction, i.e., that "the main strength of the division shall assemble at an appropriate location outside the city,"20 was strictly enforced.

Designation of Operation Areas and Accountability

The other important instruction included in the "Nanking Invasion Outline" was as follows.
4. During the sweep of the city, operation areas shall be designated and strictly observed, thus ensuring that there is no fighting among Japanese military personnel, and that perpetrators of unlawful acts are held accountable.21

Japanese military authorities did not tolerate unlawful acts. Operation areas for the sweep were designated, and notice was given that crimes would not go unpunished. The operation areas were:

  1. The area northeast of Nanking (north of Zhongshan East Road), including the fort at Shizishan: 33rd Regiment (the Noda Unit) and the 38th Regiment (the Sukegawa Unit), 30th Infantry Brigade (under the command of the 16th Division)
  2. The area west of Guanghua Gate extending to Hanxi Gate: 19th Infantry Regiment (the Hitomi Unit), 18th Infantry Brigade (under the command of the 9th Division)
  3. The area east of Zhongshan Gate extending to Zhongshan East Road (south of Zhongshan East Road and east of Zhongzheng Road): 35th Infantry Regiment (the Fujii Unit), 6th Brigade (under the command of the 9th Division)
  4. The northern part of the city (west of Zhongshan Road and north of Hanzhong Road): 7th Infantry Regiment (the Isa Unit), 6th Brigade (under the command of the 9th Division)22

No units were assigned to the area near Zhonghua Gate (South Gate) and the eastern sector of the city. No sweep was needed there, because Chinese troops had already retreated to the Safety Zone or left the city through Yijiang Gate (North Gate).

As Major Yamazaki Masao, staff officer with the 10th Army, recorded in his war journal, the eastern sector of Nanking was "a vast empty space."23 Major Kisaki Hisashi, a 16th Division administrative staff officer, described the southern sector of the city as "residential," and the northern and western sectors as "agricultural" in his journal.24 No sweep was scheduled for the eastern sector because it was impossible for Chinese soldiers to hide there.

The Sweep of Nanking

The testimony of First Lieutenant Tsuchiya Masaharu, commander of the 4th Company, 19th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division, describes the sweep as follows. (Tsuchiya was the officer whose unit commenced its sweep at Guanghua Gate (Southeast Gate) on December 13. His testimony appears in The Battle of Nanking.)
The walls had been destroyed by bombardment, but the homes inside were completely intact. Not even one roof tile had been displaced. However, an atmosphere of eerie silence and desolation pervaded the city, and even my stalwart subordinates hesitated for a moment. In the midst of this ineffable silence, one that I had never experienced before, I found myself, at some point, standing at the head of my company.

As we proceeded further into the city, I sensed that Nanking was truly a "deserted city." No enemy bullets flew at us. We saw no one? only endless, silent rows of houses.25

A captain, commander of the 3rd Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, wrote that on December 13, "At night I heard nothing, not even dogs barking in the distance. Nanking was completely silent."26 An entry in Battle Report No.12 (dated December 14) prepared by the 38th Infantry Regiment, which swept the northeastern sector of the city, stated that "There are numerous refugees in Nanking, but they have all congregated in one area [the Safety Zone]. We saw very few civilians during our sweep."27

It is no wonder that Japanese troops saw few civilians, since it would have been foolhardy for the latter to venture out into a battle zone. Moreover, according to International Committee Document No.9, "we had nearly all the civilian population gathered in a Zone."28

However, in the northeastern sector of the city, to which the 30th Infantry Brigade (the Sasaki Brigade) had been assigned, the 33rd Infantry Regiment and the 38th Regiment apprehended and executed hostile enemy soldiers.

Sino-Japanese War: An Illustrated Report, March 21, 1938, with the following caption: "Farming begins again inside Guanghua Gate. In the background is Zijinshan."

Sweep of the Safety Zone

However, as we have previously indicated, the Safety Zone presented the most serious problem, because it harbored both civilians and soldiers. The objective of the sweep was to ferret out Chinese soldiers hiding in the Safety Zone, and to intern soldiers who surrendered. It also involved executing restive soldiers in the Safety Zone, and confiscating their concealed ordnance.

The sweep of the Safety Zone, as stated earlier, was the responsibility of the 7th Infantry Regiment (6th Brigade, 9th Division). The sweep order issued by the 6th Infantry Brigade at 4:30 p.m. on December 13 instructed the 7th Infantry Regiment and other units to "comport themselves in accordance with the Nanking Sweep Outline during the sweep."29

The first three items in the Nanking Sweep Outline read as follows.

1. Sweep the enemy stragglers remaining in the city.
2. During the sweep, precautions relating to entry into the city are to be strictly observed, except in areas where the enemy resists.
3. When buildings are burned because of enemy resistance therein, special precautions are to be taken so as not to obstruct communications between units.

Power plants, the Electricity Bureau, post offices, telegraph offices, water sources, gas companies, warehouses, factories, and any other facilities suitable for military use are to be occupied expeditiously to prevent the enemy from destroying or burning same.

Since we assume that the majority of fleeing enemy soldiers have donned civilian clothing, apprehend any suspicious individuals, and detain them at an appropriate location.30 [Italics supplied.]

Precautions to be observed upon entering Nanking were as follows.

1. In light of the fact that this operation, due to its magnitude, will come to the attention of the entire world, all units are instructed to set a standard for the future by comporting themselves honorably, and by refraining, at all costs, from looting, fighting among themselves, and committing unlawful acts.
2. Japanese military personnel shall not approach foreign concessions or foreign diplomatic missions, and shall refrain from entering the neutral zone [the Safety Zone] unless absolutely necessary.31

Precautions Issued by Brigade Commander Akiyama

In accordance with the Nanking Sweep Outline, the following precautions were relayed to the 7th Infantry Regiment and other units by the commander of the Right-Flank Unit (Major-General Akiyama Yoshimitsu, commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade), at 4:30 p.m. on December 13.
2. Entry into any building in a foreign concession is strictly forbidden, unless said building is being used by the enemy.

This precaution was issued because there would be serious, lasting repercussions if the Japanese entered a foreign embassy, or a foreign residence.

3. Sweep units are to annihilate enemy stragglers. The sweep shall be conducted by units commanded by officers (including warrant officers). Anyone ranking non-commissioned officer or below is absolutely forbidden to act independently.

Only officers could serve as commanders of sweep units. The purpose of the sweep was to annihilate enemy soldiers, not to commit atrocities against civilians. Independent activity was, of course, strictly prohibited.

4. Assume that men aged 16 to 40 are stragglers or soldiers wearing civilian clothing. Apprehend and intern them. With that exception, Chinese civilians who do not behave in a hostile manner, especially the elderly, women, and children are to be treated kindly, so as to earn their respect for the dignity of the Imperial Army. [Italics supplied.]

Since Chiang Kai-shek had conscripted all able-bodied men and sent them off to the battlefield, it was extremely likely that all men between the ages of 16 and 40 were stragglers. That is why they were to be arrested and confined.

On the other hand, "Chinese civilians who do not behave in a hostile manner, especially the elderly, children, women, and girls" were to be treated leniently. To earn their respect, Japanese military personnel were to comport themselves with dignity. 5. Post sentries at public or private banks, but do not enter such establishments.
6. Refrain from entering private homes and looting them.
7. Anyone who commits arson or accidentally causes a conflagration shall be severely punished, as per the warning issued by the Army commander..
8. Military personnel are not to fight among themselves.
"Kanazawa" and "Toyama" [Japanese place names] have been designated as passwords.

Even though Nanking had fallen, hostilities were still taking place over the entire Zijinshan area. The city was still a dangerous place. There was good reason to designate passwords in advance. Most of the members of the division hailed from Toyama, Ishikawa (in which Kanazawa is located), or Fukui prefectures.

9. If a fire is sighted, sweep units, as well as any other units in the vicinity, shall endeavor to extinguish it.32

Sweep units were also given instructions as to their attire. According to an infantry order (7th Infantry Regiment Operation Order No.106A), issued at 9:30 p.m. on December 13, military personnel were to wear their uniforms minus knapsacks.33 The soldiers normally carried knapsacks, which held their daily necessities, but also impeded their movement.

Sweep of the Safety Zone Commences on December 14

Infantry Operation Order No.107A, reminded military personnel to "leave the city once the sweep had ended."34 Headquarters did not want soldiers to be roving aimlessly around Nanking.

Furthermore, in Order No.130A (a 9th Division operation order) issued at 7:00 a.m. on December 13, part of the 18th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Major-General Ide Nobutoki, was designated as the left-flank unit. Part of the 6th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Major-General Akiyama, was designated as the right-flank unit.

A 9th Division Sweep Unit Order, issued at 7:00 p.m. on December 14, prohibited the left-flank unit, which was not involved in the sweep, from leaving the area to which it was assigned.34 It also forbade any units other than the left- and right-flank units to enter Nanking.36 Therefore, not all Japanese military personnel proceeded into Nanking? not even the entire 9th Division entered the city.

Four Tanks Captured

The material cited above represents only a small portion of the operation order. Orders related to the sweep were also very detailed. Japanese military regulations were exceedingly strict, and that is why the behavior of Japanese soldiers was quite different from that of their Chinese counterparts. The 7th Regiment's sweep of the Safety Zone commenced on December 14. Seventh Regiment Commander Isa wrote the following in his war journal: "We begin the sweep in the morning. There is a refugee zone in our assigned area."37 On the night of December 13, the 7th Regiment entered the city from east of Zhongshan Gate, and bivouacked near Gugong Airfield.38 The men had not yet reached the Safety Zone.

The Regiment's "Report on the Results of the Sweep of Nanking" (compiled between December 13 and December 24)39 reveals exactly how undisciplined the Chinese soldiery was.

This table lists only one-third of the items confiscated during the sweep conducted by the 7th Regiment.

Chinese soldiers who discarded their uniforms without any intention of surrendering were clearly in violation of international law. Furthermore, there was a huge cache of their weapons in the Safety Zone? also a violation of international law.

No hostilities took place in the Safety Zone. The incident described by Durdin in the December 18 edition of The New York Times, in which he writes that a group of 100 Chinese soldiers was bombarded by Japanese tanks, never took place.40

1. Rifle bullets 5000 rounds, Heavy machine-gun bullets 2000 rounds
2. Stragglers bayonetted or shot 6670
3. Confiscated items
15-cm.guns2Ammunition for same600 rounds
20-cm.guns8Ammunition for same1000 rounds
Rifles960Ammunition for same39,0000 rounds
Water-cooled heavy machine guns12
Light machine guns33
Revolvers103Ammunition for same26,1350 rounds
Anti-aircraft guns1
Anti-aircraft machine guns1
Mountain guns6Ammunition for same82 rounds
Trench mortars10Ammunition for same5,7218 rounds
Tank shells3,9000
Hand grenades5,5122
Chinese broadswords2020
Anti-tank guns2
Pom-pom guns1
Artides of civilian dothing2300
Summer trousers2,5300

Chinese Military Personnel Found in Safety Zone Executed

Nevertheless, according to the "Report on the Results of the Sweep of Nanking," the 7th Infantry Regiment bayonetted or shot 6,670 Chinese soldiers to death. We will provide an account of that incident from another source. In his war journal, Private 1st Class Mizutani So, 1st Company, 7th Infantry Regiment, made the following entry.
Every young man has been rounded up, or at least the ones we were able to locate. ... Each company has rounded up several hundred of them. The 1st Company had the least success, but still brought in close to 200. Individuals we assumed to be family members (wives and mothers) wept and begged us to release them. We released all civilians, after ascertaining that they were indeed civilians, and shot 36 individuals.41 [Italics supplied.]

The 1st Company, 7th Regiment released several hundred persons after determining that they were civilians, and shot 36 soldiers in civilian clothing on the banks of the Yangtze. A similar entry in the war journal of Private 1st Class Inoie Matakazu, 2nd Company, 7th Infantry Regiment, dated December 16, appears in Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1.

At 10:00 a.m. we set out on our sweep of enemy stragglers. We confiscated one trench mortar. We resumed our work in the afternoon. We apprehended 335 young men. We arrested every one of the refugees whom we suspected of being a soldier. ... We removed those 335 stragglers to the banks of the Yangtze, where they were shot.42

The entry cited above is supported by another journal entry, also from Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking. It was written by Colonel Isa Kazuo, commander of the 7th Infantry Regiment: "On December 16, we moved to new quarters in private homes on Chibi Road. During the three-day sweep, we disposed of approximately 6,500 individuals in the most severe manner possible."43

If the Japanese had shot someone in error, someone who had not been a soldier, his family members surely would have submitted a protest, which would have included the victim's name. However, the International Committee made no such protests.

Furthermore, Chibi Road was located at the northern edge of the Safety Zone. The 7th Infantry Regiment moved its headquarters there to conduct sweeping operation around the noon of December 16.44 According to the Battle Report, "the sweep of the assigned area, the Safety Zone in particular, commenced on December 16."45 It was completed on the following day, the day of the victory parade.46

We would like to digress a bit, and mention that the 7th Infantry Regiment had its headquarters on Chibi Road until it departed on December 26.47 Until 6:00 p.m. on December 24, when the unit received orders to "end the sweep now"48 (7th Infantry Regiment Operation Order No.117A), it had been assigned to sweep the Safety Zone. However, the sweep was, for the most part, completed in three days, by December 16.

The much-discussed sentence, "we disposed of approximately 6,500 individuals in the most severe manner possible," probably means that 6,500 Chinese soldiers, out of all those who had been captured? regular army soldiers in civilian clothing? were executed because they were extremely hostile. Europeans and Americans in Nanking were critical of those executions. Were they in fact violations of international law? We shall address that issue in the next chapter.

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