The Nanjing Atrocities: A Murder Mystery

Posted by Guest Blogger on April 28, 2022

This guest blog is part of a series, “A Network of Innovation: Ideas, Questions, and Wisdom from our LA Partner Schools.” Each of our partner schools has at least one unit-length Facing History case study that every student experiences on their path to graduation. At Valor Academy High School, there are numerous Facing History units. Ben Katcher’s unit on the Nanjing Atrocities has long stood out to us because while this is a particular event that is often unknown and untaught, it nevertheless touches on so many critical universal themes that students find relevant and compelling. We invited Ben to share about his approach. 

Facing History and Ourselves' case study, The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War, provides the coveted opportunity to combine the study of large historical concepts, universal essential questions, and human emotions and motivations. Nanjing Atrocities Book Cover

In our 10th-grade course, we frame the Nanjing Atrocities as a murder mystery. On the first day of the unit, students read an unforgettable primary source, published in a Japanese newspaper, about a "100-man killing contest" that took place in China in the 1930s. Students inevitably want to know how and why these crimes happened. I tell them that we are going to investigate this very question and we introduce our unit essential question, "Who & What is Responsible for the Nanjing Atrocities?"

We then travel back to 1853, when Commodore Perry first "opened" Japan to the world by ending the country’s self-imposed isolation, forcing it to open its market to foreigners. Through a variety of primary sources, videos and images, students learn about how Japan raced to emulate Western countries in many ways, both large (industrialization, imperialism, nationalism) and small (dress, manners). We also study the impact of American racism toward the Japanese, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and lack of recognition at the Paris Peace Conference. At the end of each lesson, we reflect on these historical patterns and who or what may bear some responsibility for the atrocities.s.. We also read first-person accounts of the leaders and civilians who participated in these events and speculate how universal human emotions such as humiliation, pride and envy may have contributed to the crimes.

We then zoom in on the atrocities themselves, using Facing History's excellent primary source videos and texts to learn more about the crimes and the roles of Japanese soldiers' choices and Japanese leaders' failure to lead. We also examine the choices of Chinese leaders and whether they could have done more to protect their people.

At this point, students are prepared to begin to construct their answers to the essential question. The students create a "pie of responsibility" where they select at least three of the historical concepts, human emotions, and groups of people that they believe are most responsible for the atrocities. Students discuss and debate their decisions about to whom they attribute the most blame.

The next step is to engage in a Socratic Seminar. Students are provided with Level 3 questions (questions that require students to combine evidence from the unit and their opinions) and Level 4 questions (universal questions that are inspired by the unit, but that do not require content-specific knowledge to answer) and choose at least four questions to answer in writing before the seminar. Popular questions include:

  • How responsible are leaders for the actions of their followers?
  • What role did racism play in the Nanjing Atrocities?
  • What were the Japanese soldiers trying to show themselves and others through their horrific actions?

Before formally answering the essential question, students learn about different methods for achieving justice (peace and reconciliation, punishment, "forgetting") and debate which would be the most appropriate method to help the Japanese and Chinese heal following World War II. Students then learn about the Tokyo Trials and debate the extent to which the trials achieved justice.

This unit is among the most popular of the year. The resources are rich, the range of universal questions is deep, and the range of opinions and explanations is vast. My students are inspired to grapple with universal questions of human behavior, to explore the impact of historical patterns and trends on individual human beings, and to consider the choices they may have made under similar circumstances. The concept of “responsibility” is an accessible way for students to analyze complex historical developments as well as their own lives.

Ben.KatcherBen Katcher is a teacher at Valor Academy High School, a public high school in the San Fernando Valley where he also facilitates professional development for history and social studies teachers at Bright Star Schools. Ben loves the multi-dimensional challenge of teaching. His greatest joy comes from planning and executing units of study that allow his students to explore universal questions of identity, society, and history.

Topics: International Justice, The Nanjing Atrocities, Socratic Seminar, classroom lesson, Lesson Ideas, responsibility

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