The Effects of Influence in Nanking

           Based on historical accounts, it can be demonstrated that a combination of sociological factors served as the driving forces behind the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on the Chinese at Nanking.  Bibb Latane’s social impact theory supports the powerful influence that immersion in Japan’s anti-Chinese society had on the actions taken by Japanese soldiers at Nanking.  The idea of normative influence further explains how Japan’s deep-rooted cultural and religious traditions, coupled with its long-existent anti-Chinese sentiment, also contributed to the shockingly dehumanized behavior of the Japanese soldiers.  In addition, the social comparison theory sheds light on the dependence many Japanese soldiers had on the actions of their fellow soldiers in validating their own behavior. Together, these three influences provided the powerful basis on which ruthless acts of murder and mutilation were committed by Japan’s Imperial Army during the attacks on Nanking.

            According to Bibb Latane’s social impact theory, the impact of any source of influence depends on the strength, immediacy, and number of influencing individuals involved.  This same theory can be applied when analyzing the events that occurred at Nanking.  Historical accounts have revealed that anti-Chinese sentiment had been a part of Japanese society long before the bombing of the Japanese-owned railway that led to Japan extending its military control further into China.  Cultural, political, and religious differences all contributed to Japanese society’s contempt for the Chinese.  These eventually became a part of the Japanese way of life, and were reinforced in the classroom, at the workplace, and in the home.  Japanese citizens alive at the time of Japan’s invasion of Nanking had been exposed to years, and in some cases lifetimes, of anti-Chinese propaganda relayed by their government and their peers.  The effects of such an overwhelming influence on the citizens of Japan, many of whom would take part in the atrocities committed at Nanking, were immeasurable.  The social impact theory suggests that Japanese citizens would have been extremely effected by the strength, immediacy, and the number of people involved behind their country’s anti-Chinese sentiment.

            In a 1998 CNN interview, Mr. Shiro Azuma, a former Japanese soldier involved in the incidents at Nanking, provided what he believed to be an explanation for the frightening ease with Japanese soldiers committed horrifying acts of violence against the Chinese:

                                        “We (Japanese) were taught that we were a superior race

                                        - since we lived only for the sake for a human god - our

                                         emperor.  But the Chinese were not.  So we held nothing

                                         but contempt for them...the Imperial Army was consumed

                                         with a prejudice so intense that killing became easy.”


Through his account, Azuma revealed how the Japanese were guided by the powerful and personal issues of race and religion, all supported by the social impact theory.  In addition, Azuma shed light on several other sociological forces that may have also been at work leading up to and during the actions taken by Japanese soldiers at Nanking.

            The behaviors of the Japanese soldiers were heavily influenced by the long-standing norms that had been created within their society over many years.  By definition, normative influence is a form of social influence “that results from personal and interpersonal pressures to conform to group norms.”  The atrocities committed at Nanking did not come at the hands of innately vicious and evil men.  Rather, they were committed by the hands and blades of members of a society in which disdain toward the Chinese had been established as a way of life.  Aside from their negative perceptions of the Chinese, the Japanese soldiers were also influenced by Japan’s cultural and military mentality to protect the country’s interests and to further extend its political power.  The importance traditionally placed by the Japanese on one’s society over the individual helped contribute to the violent actions taken at Nanking.  As Azuma explained, Japanese society had produced a military that “believed that human life had no value.”

            Azuma’s statements suggest that many of the Japanese soldiers taking part in or witnessing the monstrosities at Nanking may not have recognized the magnitude of the atrocities that they were committing on the Chinese people.  The personal component of normative influence suggests that people obey norms to fulfill their own expectations about proper behavior.  Japanese contempt toward the Chinese had long been an accepted and established norm for members of Japanese society.  As the theory of normative influence explains, there is a tendency for members of a group to accept the legitimacy of the group’s established norms and to make it an ultimate priority to support these norms.  Consequently, the decisions made by Japanese soldiers to brutally rape, torture, and murder thousands of defenseless human beings, may not have been based only on fear of the negative interpersonal consequences - ostracism, ridicule, punishment - that would have resulted from challenging Japan’s societal norms.  Japanese soldiers were also driven by their perceived duty to obey the ideas and behaviors that they had accepted as proper.

            There remains evidence that yet another sociological factor may have contributed to the actions of the Japanese soldiers at Nanking.  There were soldiers, as Azuma described, that may have questioned the actions that were expected of them at Nanking and looked to their immediate surroundings for answers and resolution.  Social comparison theory assumes that groups members are inclined to treat other people’s responses as data when formulating their own opinions and making decisions.  Thus was the case for these soldiers:  as the attacks on Nanking began, many soldiers turned to the actions of their fellow soldiers to validate their behavior.  Rather then behaving in a “brainwashed” way, these soldiers treated the behaviors of their peers as data which helped them determine their own course of action.

            In his interview, Azuma recalled a day on which he beheaded four men that had claimed to simply be farmers, not Chinese soldiers.  As the day progressed he continued to have a difficult time justifying his actions, recognizing the possibility that these men may have actually been innocent farmers.  It was not until his fellow soldiers convinced him otherwise - through their actions and their words - that Azuma began to feel that his brutal actions were justified.

            The accounts of men such as Shiro Azuma, along with those shared by many others throughout the years, have made it possible to demonstrate the powerful effect that certain sociological factors had on Japanese soldiers at Nanking. Bibb Latane's social impact theory supports a strong correlation between immersion in Japan's anti-Chinese society and the actions of Japanese soldiers at Nanking. The idea of normative influence sheds additional lights on Japanese society's long existent contempt for the Chinese, and its powerful influence on Japan's Imperial Army when coupled with Japan's deep-rooted cultural and religious traditions. Lastly, the social comparison theory further examines the dependence of many Japanese soldiers on the actions of their fellow soldiers in validating their own behavior. Together, these three influences provide us with a better understanding of the basis on which horrifying acts of murder and mutilation were committed by Japanese soldiers during the attacks on Nanking.