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About the Production  |  Historical Background & Timeline  |  Safety Zone Committee Members


Japan had a presence in mainland Asia since 1931, when the annexed Manchuria and established Manchuoko, a puppet Japanese state. In August 1937, Japan began a full-scale invasion of China. The Japanese army fought a series of fierce ground battles in Shanghai and launched a massive air raid campaign against Nanking, then China’s capital. By November 12th, Shanghai had fallen and by December 13th, the Japanese had defeated the defending Chinese army and invaded the city of Nanking.

The events now known as ‘the rape of Nanking’ lasted approximately six weeks. The city was looted and burned, and marauding Japanese soldiers unleashed a staggering wave of violence on Nanking’s population. According to the summary judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – also known as the Tokyo Trials, “estimates indicate that the total number of civilians and prisoners of war murdered in Nanking and its vicinity during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation was over 200,000. Approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the city during the first month of the occupation.”

Prior to the fall of the city, many Chinese fled the approaching troops and all foreign citizens were ordered to evacuate. A group of 22 European and American expatriates, however, refused to leave. Despite devastating air strikes and the threat of an oncoming army, these Westerners – including John Rabe, a Nazi businessman; Bob Wilson, an American surgeon; and Minni Vautrin, the American headmistress of a missionary college – remained behind in order to set up a Safety Zone to protect civilians. Some two hundred thousand refugees crowded into the Zone, which spanned two square miles. During the brutal occupation, Safety Zone committee members vehemently protested the army’s actions to the Japanese authorities, but the carnage continued. Every day John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, and the others fought to keep the Safety Zone’s boundaries intact and the refugees safe.

By March, the worst of the violence had subsided and the army moved on, leaving behind an occupying force. The refugee camps in the Safety Zone were disbanded, though intensive relief efforts continued. The Japanese set up a puppet government that ruled Nanking until the end of the war. In 1948, the Tokyo Tribunal convicted Iwane Matsui, commander of Japanese forces in central China, of war crimes and sentenced him to death. Emperor Hirohito and his uncle Prince Asaka, who commanded the troops that actually occupied Nanking during the massacre, were spared.

Today, Many Japanese know little about the wartime atrocities their country committed throughout Asia. Seventy years later, the invasion of Nanking remains a divisive issue. Some Japanese ultra-conservatives deny or minimize the massacre; to this day, many Japanese believe stories of atrocities in Nanking are exaggerations and lies. Soon after producer Ted Leonsis decided to create a documentary about Nanking, mass protests broke out in China over Japanese approval of textbooks that called the Nanking massacre and ‘incident.’ The protests made headlines around the world. Many in Asia are also outraged by the former Japanese prime minister’s annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Along with millions of soldiers who died for the Japanese Emperor, Yasukuni – which translates as ‘peaceful nation’ – enshrines the souls of 14 class A war criminals.

In advance of December 2007, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Nanking, the Chinese and Japanese governments have convened a joint committee of historians in an attempt to agree upon a common version of the history of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including what happened in Nanking.



Japanese occupy Manchuria, establish Manchuoko (puppet Japanese state)





August 13

Japanese attack Shanghai

August 15

First air raid on Nanking

November 12

Shanghai falls

November 15

Chiang Kai Shek government begins leaving Nanking

November 16

Nanking Intern ational Committee for the Safety Zone conceived

November 22

Safety Zone proposal sent to the Japanese authorities, rejected weeks later

November 25

John Rabe wires Hitler for help establishing Safety Zone

December 8

Chiang Kai Shek and advisors flee city

December 10

Japanese forces wait for surrender flag at midday ; none arrives.  Assault on city begins

December 14 -21

Rape, pillage, murder: first major wave of violence

December 21

Japanese military reorganized to complete "mop-up;” second major wave of violence begins





Jan. 28 - Feb 3

Third major wave of violence


Safety Zone dissolved; relief efforts continue



After the war


May 3, 1946 – Nov 12, 1948

Tokyo Trials (International Military Tribunal for the Far East )

Aug 1946 – Feb 1947

Nanking War Trials

November 1948

Matsui convicted by IMFTE

September, 1972

Japan and China resume diplomatic relations