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Prince Yasuhiko Asaka

Last modified 10 September 2011.

First published 29 July 2001. Updated 13 June 2010

Country: Japan, China.

Kill tally: 200,000-350,000 Chinese killed during the 'Rape of Nanking'.

Background: The final collapse of the Chinese Imperial Government at the start of the 20th Century brings a 30-year period of instability to China during which the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), headed by Chiang Kai-shek, battle the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), headed by Mao Tse-Tung, for ultimate control.

Across the East China Sea, Japan becomes progressively more nationalistic and militaristic, seeing in China an opportunity to expand on territory occupied in Manchuria (now Dongbei Pingyuan, north of Korea) and Shandong Province (across the Yellow Sea from Korea) after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and during the First World War.

The Japanese military is steeped in the tradition of unquestioning loyalty to the emperor. Commands from superior officers are regarded as equivalent to commands from the emperor himself. Military leaders have direct access to the emperor and the authority to transmit his pronouncements directly to the troops. The emperor is considered divine and the seat of ultimate power. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 2 October 1887 in Kyoto, Japan. He is a member of the Japanese imperial family and uncle-in-law to Emperor Hirohito.

1908 - He graduates from the Japanese military academy and is commissioned into the army as a sub-lieutenant.

1920-23 - He travels to France to further his military studies.

1927-29 - Japanese troops are sent to China to obstruct attempts by the Guomindang to unify the country. In June 1928 officers in the Kwantung (Guandong) Army, the Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, begin an unauthorised campaign to precipitate a war with China. Both the Japanese high command and the Chinese refuse to take the bait.

1930 - Asaka is promoted to the rank of major-general and appointed an instructor at the Japanese military staff college.

1931 - In September conspirators in the Kwantung Army stage the 'Manchurian Incident', blowing up a section of track on the South Manchuria Railway then blaming Chinese saboteurs.

With the Japanese Government powerless to intervene, the Kwantung Army mobilises, taking nearby Mukden (now Shenyang) then, in January 1932, attacking Shanghai, south of their territory in Shandong Province.

A truce is called in March 1932. The Japanese then establish the puppet state of Manchukuo, centred on Manchuria and headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi.

1932 - The Japanese military effectively takes control of the Japanese Government in May when the prime minister is assassinated. Manchukuo is formally recognised by the military-controlled regime.

1933 - Asaka is promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general in August. In 1934 he is made commander of the First Imperial Guards.

1936 - Following a military insurrection by Japanese troops in February Asaka presses his nephew-in-law the emperor to appoint a new government that is acceptable to the rebels. The government agrees to increase defence spending and boost naval construction. Japan is arming for war.

In November Japan and Germany sign the 'Anti-Comintern Pact', an agreement to fight the spread of communism. Italy joins a year later.

1937 - The Second Sino-Japanese War breaks out on 7 July following a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing. Chinese forces evacuate Beijing on 28 July.

The Japanese overrun Tianjin (100 km southeast of Beijing) on 30 July then attack Shanghai on 13 August.

The Japanese arsenal includes poison gas. Over the coming years the Japanese will use poison gas against the Chinese more than 1,000 times.

After a three-month siege, Shanghai falls and the Guomindang forces withdraw to the northwest towards their capital Nanking (now known as Nanjing). The Japanese pursue.

In November Asaka is made commander of part of the Japanese forces descending on Nanking, under commander-in-chief General Matsui Iwane. On 5 December Asaka reportedly issues a secret order to "kill all captives."

The ground assault on Nanking begins on 10 December after the Chinese troops assigned to defend the city refuse to withdraw. Matsui orders the attack, but when failing health due to tuberculosis incapacitates him, Asaka temporarily assumes full command. When Nanking finally falls on 13 December, just hours after the Chinese forces have fled, the Japanese begin a bloodthirsty massacre that will last for six weeks.

The 'Rape of Nanking' (Nanking Datusha in Chinese) results in the indiscriminate murder of between 200,000-350,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers. It is the worst single massacre of unarmed troops and civilians in the history of the 20th Century. Only the intervention of a small group of foreign nationals prevents further slaughter.

Matsui enters the city on 17 December and remains for nearly a week but does not stop the carnage. Japanese troops loot and burn the city and surrounding towns, destroying more than a third of the buildings. Chinese captives are tortured, burnt alive, buried alive, decapitated, bayoneted and shot en masse.

Between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women and girls of all ages are raped. Thousands are murdered after their ordeal. Thousands more are forced into sexual slavery. It is one of the worst cases of mass rape in history.

The atrocities set an example that leaves the Chinese population terrorised and passive to further Japanese advances.

1938 - Matsui and Asaka are recalled to Tokyo after the massacre at Nanking but neither is disciplined.

During the year, Emperor Hirohito appoints his uncle-in-law Asaka to the Japanese supreme war council. Asaka remains on the council until 1945. Matsui retires from the army. He ceases to play an active role in Japanese military affairs but is appointed a Cabinet councillor.

1939 - The Japanese attempt to invade Mongolia in May but are badly defeated by combined Soviet-Mongolian forces. Asaka is promoted to the rank of general in August but is never again given a major military command.

Meanwhile, in Europe, German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

1940 - Japan takes possession of northern Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) in September.

A few days later Japan joins the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy, signing the 'Tripartite Pact', an agreement to carve up the world following victory in the Second World War.

The United States responds by placing a ban on the export of steel, scrap metal and aviation fuel to Japan.

In China, the Japanese make Nanking the capital of their Chinese puppet state. On 29 April, Matsui is decorated by the Japanese Government for "meritorious services" in the war with China.

1941 - Japan and the Soviet Union sign the 'Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact' in April, removing the threat to Japan of invasion by the Soviets and allowing the Japanese military to concentrate its war efforts on the southward drive into China and Southeast Asia.

When Japan occupies southern Indochina on 23 July the US and Britain freeze Japanese assets, an action that has the potential to cripple the Japanese armed forces. On 1 December the Japanese decide to broaden the war to the Pacific.

The Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. The US and Britain respond by declaring war on Japan.

The Japanese follow-up the bombing of Pearl Harbour with swift invasions of Southeast Asian countries and Pacific islands. By May 1942 they control Hong Kong, Kiribati, Guam and Wake Island, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines and the north of New Guinea.

1942 - The first setback for the Japanese comes on 7-8 May at the Battle of the Coral Sea. On 4-5 June the Japanese fleet is forced to withdraw at the Battle of Midway or risk destruction. By February 1943 the Japanese have been driven out of Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomon Islands.

1944 - The Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19-20 June confirms US naval superiority in the Pacific and seals Japan's fate. The capture of Saipan in July puts the Japanese mainland within range of American B-29 bombers.

1945 - Beginning in February extensive firebombing raids will be conducted over Japan, concentrating on the capital Tokyo and the cities of Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. The raids result in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. The most devastating raid occurs over Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March. About 100,000 people are killed, around one million are left homeless and almost half the city is burnt to the ground.

In June the Japanese determine to fight to the finish. Their plan for a last-stand battle against an US-led invasion is called 'Ketsu Go' (Operation Decisive). Japanese troops are massed in the south of Kyushu Island, where the invasion forces are expected to land.

Japanese preparations for an all-out fight continue until the US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively, killing about 120,000 people outright and fatally injuring over 100,000 more.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally on 15 August, ending both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Japan is occupied by Allied military forces. The Japanese Army and navy ministries are abolished, arms and military equipment are destroyed and war industries are retooled for civilian output. Japan pledges never go to war again and surrenders its colonial holdings, including China.

About 15 million people have been killed in the Asia and Pacific regions during the Second World War, including over 11 million Chinese and nearly two million Japanese. The Second Sino-Japanese War has claimed at least 20 million Chinese.

Following the defeat of the Japanese, civil war between the Guomindang and CCP resumes in China. Mao's communists take Beijing without a fight in January 1949 and control the entire country by the end of the year. Chiang Kai-shek and his troops flee to the island of Taiwan and proclaim Taipei as the temporary capital of China.

1946 - At war crime trials held in Tokyo from May 1946 until November 1948, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convicts over 4,000 Japanese officials and military personnel. Of the 28 "class-A" defendants brought to trial only two, Matsui and Hirota Koki (the Japanese foreign minister at the time of the Rape of Nanking), are convicted for the Nanking atrocities. Both are sentenced to death and executed.

On 1 May Asaka is interrogated about his involvement, but as a member of the royal family is granted immunity.

War crime trials are also held in Nanking, although only four Japanese Army officers, including Tani Hisao, a lieutenant-general who personally participated in acts of murder and rape, are tried for crimes relating to the Nanking massacre. All four are sentenced to death and executed.

1947 - Asaka and his family become commoners on 14 October.

1951 - Asaka is baptised a Catholic on 18 December. He fills his time playing and promoting golf.

1981 - He dies of natural causes at his home in Atami, on the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo, on 13 April. He is 93 years old.

Postscript

Japan continues to downplay or deny the crimes against humanity committed by its military during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second World War.

A new secondary school history textbooks released by Japan's Ministry of Education at the start of 2005 describes the massacre at Nanking as an "incident" with relatively few causalities. The invasion of China is called an "advancement". References to the mass rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls are not included.

The release of the revised textbook inflames underlying tension between China and Japan. Demonstrators mob Japanese government buildings and businesses within China, calling on Japan to admit to and apologise for its war crimes.

In August 2006 a Chinese court orders two Japanese historians to pay damages of US$210,000 to a survivor of the massacre after they accuse her of fabricating evidence. The ruling, which carries no weight in Japan, is largely symbolic.

Meanwhile, a spate of movies about the massacre are produced.

The television documentary 'Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking', is made by a Canadian team and released in 2007. 'Nanking', a US-made documentary on the massacre and the efforts of Westerners like John Rabe to save the victims, screens in China in mid-2007.

'The Children of Huang Shi' by director Canadian Roger Spottiswoode opens in 2008. The film follow the experiences of a British journalist caught in the conflict. 'Purple Mountain', a Chinese, US and British co-production is also released in 2008. The film provides personal accounts of the Japanese occupation of China

'City of Life and Death' (aka 'Nanking Nanking') by Chinese director Lu Chuan opens in China in April 2009. 'John Rabe' by German director Florian Gallenberge also opens in 2009. The film dramatises John Rabe's story.

Japanese officials, however, continue to question the extent of the massacre. In June 2007 about 100 parliamentarians from Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party publicly state that documents from the Japanese Government archive indicate that only about 20,000 people were killed.

Comment: Sure, the evidence against Asaka is pretty flimsy and it would be a mistake to hold him completely responsible for what happened in Nanking at the end of 1937 and the start of the new year. Matsui is equally or more culpable, although it is also hard to apportion total blame.

The events of the Rape of Nanking appear to a large degree to have been spontaneous and self-perpetuating; a rolling, uncontrollable and hysterical killing spree under an imperial seal. Something like the massacres that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

Asaka is a symbol of the culture that spawned the terrible events at Nanking and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific during the 1930s and 40s - the dangerous convergence of the imperial and the military. That Japan remains reluctant to admit the wrongs of the past and apologise diminishes its claim to have been the last victim of the Second World War.