On January 28, 1948, two prisoners were executed in Yuhuatai, an urban district of the Chinese city of Nanjing. Their names were Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai, both Japanese, the same age -thirty-six- and convicted for the same reason: war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the infamous Nanjing Massacre, in which the Imperial Japanese Army killed an uncertain number of victims, estimated between one hundred thousand and three hundred thousand, in less than two months. In the specific case of Noda and Mukai, what led them to the firing squad was the so-called Hyakunin-giri kyōsō, a macabre competition to see who could kill a hundred people first with their swords.

The Japanese army, which had conquered Shanghai in October 1937, quickly marched on Nanjing, forcing the Chinese Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek to flee. The Japanese entered the city on December 13 and unleashed all sorts of atrocities, including looting, rapes, and fires. Massacres, of course, occurred as well, carried out under the pretext of eliminating resistance and not sparing women, children, or the elderly. It was a chilling six weeks, reaching a climax with the aforementioned Hyakunin-giri kyōsō.

As mentioned, the protagonists of this infamous and controversial episode were Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai. The former, born in 1912 in Tashiro (Kagoshima prefecture) and a graduate of the 49th class of the Military Academy, served as a second lieutenant in the 16th Division in the Sino-Japanese War, leading an infantry artillery platoon. It was during this time that he committed the acts that would ultimately cost him his life. He later participated in the Guandong campaign and World War II, stationed in Burma. At the end of the war, he returned to Japan as a hero, as we will see.

In the summer of 1947, he was arrested on charges of war crimes related to his time in Nanjing, based on a series of newspaper articles from a decade earlier that reported on the infamous competition he had with Mukai. Mukai, also born in 1912 but in the Yamaguchi prefecture, held the same rank as Noda and served in the same division. In July 1946, he was interrogated by the American prosecutor of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East to clarify what the journalists were reporting, but Mukai claimed it was a rumor, and he was released.

However, on September 2, he was arrested again and sent to Nanjing for trial. There, he coincided with his counterpart, who, contrary to what had been said, had not fallen in combat (he was in Japan, as we saw). One newspaper, the Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun, had reported that the news of Noda’s death prompted Mukai to increase the number of people to be killed to five hundred, in his honor. The whole affair became increasingly convoluted because, basically, the entire matter became known through the press.

The Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun was a newspaper founded in the Japanese capital in 1872 by the writer and entrepreneur Jōno Saigiku, assisted by the illustrator Utagawa Yoshiiku. It was considered a pro-government medium that merged with the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun in 1912 to form the Mainichi Shinbun newspaper. However, they continued to publish independently until 1943. In the first half of December 1937, two of its journalists, Asami Kazuo and Suzuki Jiro, wrote four reports about the insane competition between Noda and Mukai.

The shocking headline “Incredible Record for Beheading 100 People” reported on the healthy rivalry the two second lieutenants had to achieve the highest number of beheadings in the shortest time with their katana swords, updating the numbers every few days. The protagonists themselves were regularly interviewed to tell their story in the first person and assess their chances of winning, always in a relaxed manner. One of the articles said that, when they tied, they raised the stakes to a hundred and fifty:

In the hectic battle to capture Mount Shikin on the 10th, they set a record of sixteen and fifteen, and on the 10th, both second lieutenants debated in a casual tone, sword in hand. Noda: ‘Hey, I have a hundred and five, what about you?’ Mukai: ‘I have a hundred and six!’… Both lieutenants laughed: ‘Ha, ha, ha.’ In the end, it didn’t happen that way. No matter who reached a hundred people first. ‘Let’s do it, but how about we try a hundred and fifty men?’ Suddenly, they reached an agreement, and the killing of a hundred and fifty men began on the 11th.

However, these reports did not cause a scandal, far from it. Apart from their limited reach, that competition was seen almost heroically because, according to the journalists, what the two Japanese military men were doing was killing their victims in hand-to-hand combat during the skirmishes that occurred in the campaign. Unfortunately, the reality was likely more prosaic; military personnel and historians find such numbers challenging to achieve in combat and believe that their records were more likely the result of cold-blooded killings.

Noda himself would have acknowledged this when he returned to his hometown, as reported by journalist Katsuichi Honda, who published it in the chapter Nankin e no Michi (The Road to Nankin) of his famous book Chūgoku no Tabi (Travels through China):

In reality, I did not kill more than four or five people in hand-to-hand combat… We faced an enemy trench we had captured, and when we shouted ‘Ni, Lai-Lai!’ (You, come here!), the Chinese soldiers were so stupid that they all ran towards us at once. Then we lined them up and impaled them, from one end of the line to the other. I was praised for killing a hundred people, but in reality, almost all of them died this way. We had a competition, but afterwards. I was often asked if it was a big deal, and I said it was not a big deal…

The behavior of the two second lieutenants was considered exemplary at the time, to the point that the pedagogical material used by the Kusamuta Elementary School in Noda’s hometown described their feat as “a touching story full of blood and flesh”. Noda himself toured many schools giving talks and lectures to explain the issue of what was called the 100-nin-kiri. In 1945, with the arrival of peace, they were discharged from the army until two years later when that episode resurfaced, this time under a very different perspective.

The Allies had established the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, whose mission was to judge war crimes and crimes against humanity, genocides, and conspiracies that occurred during the war, although its scope was expanded to include the Nanjing Massacre. Each Allied country provided judges and legal experts with the corresponding support staff. The Chinese prosecutor Ziang Zhejun had as a translator the historian and lawyer Gao Wenbin, tasked with gathering information on the Sino-Japanese War. It was he who, in performing that duty, accidentally discovered a report in the Japanese military archives.

Noda and Mukai were confined in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, built in 1895 and dedicated since the thirties to the captivity of political prisoners, later housing those accused of war crimes after the war (among its illustrious inmates were former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsueoka, and Admiral Osami Nagano). From there, they were extradited to China, to the Nanking War Crimes Detention Center, where Captain Gunkichi Tanaka, responsible for three hundred executions of Chinese military and civilian prisoners that he personally carried out with his sword, soon joined them.

Although their trials were initially separate, it was evident that the entire Japanese army was being questioned for its brutal behavior. Speakers were set up outside the building so that onlookers could follow the proceedings. Judge Miyu Seki presided over the trial, admitting as the main evidence an English version (Murder Race by Harold J. Timperley) of the newspaper articles from Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun and Osaka Mainichi Shinbun. No witnesses were presented, and the defendants’ request to interrogate the journalists and their editors was not authorized, arguing that they were not telling the truth.

As expected, Noda and Mukai were found guilty and sentenced to death, just like Tanaka. They were executed in the Yuhuatai mountains in January 1948. Mukai had requested a new trial after obtaining certificates from journalists admitting inaccuracies in their accounts, but it was in vain. The verdict of the tribunal, read on December 4, 1947, stated:

The defendants Toshiaki Mukai and Takeshi Noda were accomplices in the Nanjing massacre. According to the accused, they continued to massacre prisoners and non-combatants, violating the Hague Regulations on Land Warfare and the Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity. They killed civilians for sport and used murder to compete and entertain. It was extremely cruel and unparalleled in its brutality. They were truly robbers of humanity and enemies of civilization. Unless they are severely punished according to the law, how can discipline be maintained and justice defended?

Tsuyoshi Noda had time to write a letter in which he denied the actual existence of the Hyakunin-giri kyōsō, lamented the horrors of war, and encouraged understanding among Eastern brothers:

I am Tsuyoshi Noda, who is said to have once competed in a newspaper with Toshiaki Mukai in a contest to kill 100 men. I admit that I am ashamed of myself, but I sincerely apologize for joking and deceiving the world with false stories of heroism (…) I never massacred a hundred people in Nanking. I ask the Japanese people to believe me on this point (…) God taught Japan through its defeat that weapons were not instruments of peace. If Japan wants to move forward on the path to world peace, it must discover and seek a different path than war. This is the main issue that remains for Japan in the future. What is that. The fundamental spirit is based on ‘love’ and ‘sincerity.’ I would like to offer these two words as an apology and farewell to the Japanese people.

Just before his execution, he wrote a second note expressing no resentment toward the court and emphasizing again a desire for brotherhood with China. Toshiaki Mukai also left a similarly florid written statement:

I have sworn to the gods of heaven and earth that I never killed any captive resident. I was not responsible for crimes like the Nanjing massacre (…) I hope that with my death, the resentments of the eight years of bitter resistance against China will disappear, and this will be a turning point in the cause of goodwill between Japan and China and peace in the East (…) Long live China. Long live Japan. Long live the emperor. I die and become a demon protecting the country.

Their deaths did not mark the end of the matter; it remained forgotten for two decades. In 1967, historian Tomio Hora, a professor at Waseda University, revived it for a work titled Kindai senshi no nazo (Riddles of modern war history), with which he sought to contribute to refuting the denial of the Nanjing Massacre. The debate about this uncomfortable episode had remained silenced in education until the Vietnam War stimulated the recovery of its memory, causing a real controversy. As mentioned, Katsuichi Honda recounted it in his Chūgoku no Tabi (Travels through China), published in installments in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, giving a voice to Chinese survivors whom he personally interviewed.

Hora used his own work as the basis for Nankin Jiken, a book he published in 1972, amid controversy since a year earlier Honda had brought the issue of the Hyakunin-giri kyōsō out of collective amnesia. All of this led to a wave of revisionists—some very zealous—who questioned the truth of the Nanjing Massacre, either in its entirety or in part. Among them, the most visible figure was a war veteran named Shichihei Yamamoto, who criticized Honda for talking about the competition of the hundred dead without naming names (originally using the expressions “Second Lieutenant A” and “Second Lieutenant B”), eventually forcing them to be made public.

What interests us here is the degree of historical accuracy of the account of the competition, which some consider exaggerated. Katsuichi Honda collected the autobiographical testimony of a soldier named Shintaro Uno, who claimed to have beheaded nine prisoners with his katana and considered it impossible for Noda and Mukai to have done the same with a hundred each. In any case, that soldier suggested that this was quite widespread and linked to the wartime circumstances. There was no way to clarify things, so the controversy persisted throughout the remaining decades of the 20th century—and would continue into the early decades of the 21st.

In 2000, the Journal of Japanese Studies published a new study on the Nanjing Massacre. It was authored by historian Bob T. Wakabayashi with the title “The Nanking 100-Man Killing Contest Debate: War Guilt Amid Fabricated Illusions, 1971–75”, who, despite defining the Sino-Japanese War as an imperialistic aggression, believed that the contest seemed like an invention. He cited the Canadian sinologist Joshua A. Fogel, who said that accepting the newspaper’s account as true and accurate requires an act of faith that no balanced historian can make. Other contemporary writers, such as Yoshimi Usui, Ken Kaiko, or Minoru Oda, also discredited the authenticity of the events based on the press.

In fact, three years later, the relatives of Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai filed a defamation lawsuit against the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun newspapers, as well as Katsuichi Honda, demanding a retraction and compensation of thirty-six thousand yen for defaming their relatives. The arguments were varied, ranging from the low quality of the katanas – whose blades bent after two or three uses and barely served more than as an honorary element, as demonstrated by a specially hired engineer – to the fact that the journalists wrote based on hearsay without ever witnessing an execution. There was also the claim that at that time, Mukai was in a field hospital recovering from a wound received in the battle of Danyo.

Against them, the defendants presented other arguments, such as the testimony of a soldier named Gosaburo Mochizuki, who claimed to have seen Noda behead a farmer and heard him say that he would compete with Mukai (Mochizuki wrote an account of it titled “My Incident in China”). There was also the testimony of Akira Shishime, a native of the same village as Noda, who recalled him giving a lecture at school during which he claimed that his mission in Nanking was to kill prisoners.

Ultimately, Akio Doi, a judge of the Tokyo District Court, dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that the articles were published in 1937 and any obligation to correct or retract them had already expired. Additionally, since both second lieutenants had already passed away, it could not be considered an attack on their honor. He also believed that the falsity of the information had not been proven and only admitted that there could be errors or inaccuracies in some elements, such as the number of victims. He rejected the idea that it might have been a mere joke among military personnel, as was suggested.

The plaintiffs appealed, but in February 2006, after a single hearing, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict and even had some disagreements with them after they tried to challenge one of the judges. A second appeal, also dismissed, closed the case in December.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 18, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia de los dos oficiales japoneses que compitieron por ver quién ejecutaba primero a 100 prisioneros con su espada

Sources

Katsuichi Honda, The Nanjing Massacre: A Japanese journalist confronts Japan’s national shame | Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-1938. Complicating the picture | Barak Kusher, Men to devils, devils to men. Japanese war crimes and Chinese justice | Suping Lu, The 1937–1938 Nanjing Atrocities | Asami Kazuo y Suzuki Jiro, Artículos de los periódicos Tōkyō Nichi Nichi Shinbun y Osaka Mainichi Shinbun | Wikipedia


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