• SHARE

Last of two parts

On Dec. 25, 1937, Masatake Okumiya, an Imperial navy pilot, by chance became a reluctant witness to atrocities committed during the Rape of Nanking.

Okumiya, 89, who later served as a staff officer for air operations during the Pacific War, believes it is vital that “we accept that the Japanese army carried out the massacre in Nanjing.”

“Unless we have a correct understanding of the Rape of Nanking, it is impossible to establish truly friendly relations with China,” he said.

After having taken part in the Dec. 12 bombing and sinking of the USS Panay in the Yangtze River, Okumiya traveled in a chauffeur-driven car for several days with an interpreter and a bodyguard to search for downed Japanese aircraft and the bodies and belongings of pilots killed during air raids over the city.

“I believe that no other people went around inside and outside the walled city, combing the area like me at that time,” Okumiya said.

On the first and third days of his search, Okumiya came across disturbing scenes — the indiscriminate slaughter of Chinese by Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. He remembers a scene at Lake Xuanwu on Dec. 25. “There I saw numerous bodies in the lake and on its shore. They were so many that I could not count them. They were both young and old, and both men and women,” Okumiya told The Japan Times. “From the clothes. I knew that they were Chinese, although it was hard to tell Chinese military uniforms from Chinese civilian clothes because they looked similar.”

At Xiaguan the same day, Okumiya came across Japanese soldiers executing Chinese.

“It was a quay facing the Yangtze River. There were warehouses and a square,” Okumiya recalled. “The Chinese were bound with their hands behind their backs. About 20 soldiers were beheading the Chinese with their Japanese swords, the beheading task successively taken over by other groups of soldiers. The Chinese were forced to sit on the square so their heads would drop into the river.

The heads did not always separate from the torsos. Anyhow, Japanese soldiers were throwing the bodies into the river. If the victims were still alive, the soldiers finished them off with a rifle shot,” Okumiya recalled.

“I asked the soldiers why they used swords. They replied that their superiors had ordered them to save ammunition. I talked with a noncommissioned officer and a second lieutenant. But I did not see high-ranking officers at the scene.”

Okumiya learned that the Japanese army first used the Chinese for work inside the city and then took them to Xiaguan in trucks on the pretext that they would be served meals there. He believes the soldiers bound the Chinese inside the warehouses.

At the execution site, there was no resistance from the Chinese, who seemed to have given up, he said. “It also seemed that the soldiers who executed them stopped thinking about what they were doing. The atmosphere was just extraordinary,” Okumiya said. “The execution was like assembly line work. Some people say that in Nanjing, there were no organized or systematic killings by the Japanese army. But what I saw was nothing other than organized and systematic killings.”

Okumiya also admitted, “The question of whether it was morally right to do this kind of thing did not occur to me. I felt that because the army was doing it, it was not something a navy officer like me could come forward to protest. “Also, because the executions were being done in an organized and systematic manner, it did not occur to me that I should interfere and protest.”

He arrived at the execution scene at about 2 p.m. that day and stayed for about an hour. On Dec. 27, Okumiya again visited Xiaguan and once more witnessed executions.

After that, he continued searching for downed aircraft and pilots. He visited the western half of the walled city and the Nanking Safety Zone, an area inside the city administered by German businessman John Rabe and other foreign residents to protect Nanjing residents from fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers.

He then went to Yuhuatai, a hill south of the city, where he found that the bodies of nine Japanese pilots had been neatly placed in coffins and buried by a Chinese burial association.

Okumiya said that over the two days, he saw about 15 trucks, each carrying about 30 Chinese, arriving at the warehouse area. “I think that about 500 Chinese were killed there in the two days. There is no definition of how many killings constitutes a massacre. But killing 500 people is large-scale slaughter,” Okumiya said.

“Having seen the execution scene at Xiaguan and the numerous bodies in and by Lake Xuanwu, I am convinced that the Japanese army committed massacres in Nanjing.” He added: “It is impossible to accurately determine the number of victims. Looking at reports compiled by interested members of Kaikosha (an association of former Japanese army officers) in the mid-1980s, I think that the view that about 40,000 people were killed is near the truth.

“I cannot accept China’s contention that as many as 300,000 people were killed. But at the same time, I feel more repulsion toward the argument that no massacres took place in Nanjing.”

Okumiya seldom saw Chinese inside the walled city except in the safety zone. “There were numerous people in the safety zone. But I did not see anything unusual like a riot, happen. There were no people throwing stones and nobody was speaking ill of the Japanese. It was just like walking through an ordinary Chinese city.

“Some Chinese there were very cooperative in my search for the downed air-craft and pilots and provided detailed information. In villages outside the city, the Chinese were polite and kind and bowed as our car passed by them. I felt as if I was in the countryside of Japan.”

After the fall of the city on Dec. 13, many Chinese soldiers discarded their weapons and swapped their military uniforms for civilian clothes in order to avoid being captured. As a result, the Japanese army could not accurately distinguish soldiers from ordinary citizens. Therefore Chinese civilians were also executed.

Okumiya said the soldiers who changed into civilian clothes did not intend to fight the Japanese army and should not be regarded as guerrillas. Once captured, they should have been treated as prisoners of war, he said.

He noted that the Japanese army’s acts violated the Hague Convention of 1907 on laws and customs of ground war, which says in Article 4 of its annex that prisoners of war must be treated humanely, and also violated the Geneva Convention of 1929 on the treatment of POWs that prohibits retaliation.

Japan signed and ratified the Hague Convention. It signed the Geneva Convention but did not ratify it. But after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, then Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo told the Allied powers that Japan would treat POWs in the same manner as the Geneva Convention stipulates. “Other major powers like the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Italy ratified the Geneva Convention. China also ratified it,” Okumiya said. “Because of this, some Chinese soldiers who knew the convention must have thought that if they surrendered or were captured, they would not be killed. But if Japan killed such soldiers, what kind of excuses can there be?

“If soldiers have surrendered or are captured, they are POWs. It is wrong to think that soldiers in civilian clothes who have been captured are not POWs,” Okumiya said. “It is wrong to think it is legitimate to kill such soldiers.”

Okumiya traces the cause of the Nanking Massacre to the fact that Japan did not have sufficient logistical support to carry out modern warfare. He said that without such support, the Japanese army in China in many cases relied on seizing food from local people to feed its soldiers and did not have the means to feed a large number of POWs. Orders from army commanders prohibiting units from taking prisoners amounted to a death sentence for the POWs, he said.

“If Japan was to abide by the international treaties, it should have had a system and logistical means to take good care of POWs,” said Okumiya, who in 1954 joined the Air Self-Defense Force, later to retire as a lieutenant general. “But what happened shows that the Japanese government and army were not prepared to correctly deal with POWs and did not have the will and ability to abide by the international treaties.”

Coronavirus banner