Of the many atrocities committed during the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese army, as part of the Empire of Japan's invasion the Republic of China in 1937, the kill 100 with a sword contest stands out for its heartless savagery and bizarre publicity campaign. For the contest, two Japanese officers, Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai, competed to see who could slay 100 foes with a samurai sword first. Their killings were in effect wartime Japanese executions; victims weren't typically killed in battle, but in captivity.
Noda and Mukai weren't alone in their method of dispatch; many Japanese officers murdered captured prisoners with swords, especially during the Nanking massacre. Their quest, however, stood out for the attention it drew. The Japanese media, supported by a war-mongering state, encouraged and promoted the contest, putting updates on the front pages of papers, running articles with distasteful puns such as "Mukia [and] Noda... running neck to neck". It didn't matter that most of the contest's victims weren't killed in combat. Rather, the officers preyed on those who surrendered in hopes of fair treatment.
What follows is an account of what's known of the contest. Much of the information on this competition has been lost. Japan spent the decades following the war denying such things happened. Enough information survived, however, for historians to piece together what really happened in the Pacific War.
Hyakunin-giri kyōsō, or the contest to kill 100 people using a sword, made headlines in Japan, and became an ongoing narrative in media outlets including Osaka Mainichi Shimbun and Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, both newspapers. Accounts were sent from the frontline, with kill counts reported regularly. Articles used language from baseball - one headline read "Both Second Lieutenants Go Into Extra Innings."
Mukai even granted a braggadocios interview with reporters during a battle, as enemy rifle reports blasted the air. From a resultant article:
“'I’m happy that we both exceeded 100 kills before we found out the final score. But I damaged my [sword] on some guy’s helmet when I was cleaving him in two... '
Then, amidst a barrage of incoming enemy bullets, he showed one of the reporters his [sword], which had soaked up the blood of 106 people.”
Noda and Mukai, the men who participated in the contest, weren't in constant contact with one another throughout the relentlessly violent march to, and siege of, Nanking. Because of this, they could only compare their kill count occasionally, when they met in person. As a result, both killed more than 100 people without realizing the other had also passed the milestone.
To quote a newspaper report on the contest from 1937:
"Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyochi [sic] Noda, the two daring second lieutenants in the Katagiri Regiment who started an unusual contest to “cut down 100 people” before entering Nanjing, have—amidst the chaos of the battle to capture Purple Mountain on Dec. 10th—recorded their 106th and 105th kills respectively. When they met each other at noon on Dec. 10th, they were both carrying their swords in one hand. Their blades had, of course, been damaged.
Noda: 'Hey, I got 105. What about you?'
Mukai: 'I got 106!'…
Both men laughed. Because they didn’t know who had reached 100 kills first, in the end someone said, 'Well then, since it’s a drawn game, what if we start again, this time going for 150 kills?' They both agreed, and on the 11th, they started an even longer contest to cut down 150 people."
The Japanese propaganda apparatus made it seem as though Mukai and Noda pursued their contest during proper combat with Chinese soldiers. However, as Mukai revealed while speaking at a Japanese elementary school (what?), "I didn't kill more than four to five people in hand-to-hand combat."
As it turns out, the vast majority of the 200+0 Chinese victims of the competition were killed after being captured or surrendering; they were prisoners of war used by soldiers having a jocular game of Who Can Kill More Of Them?. Mukai once explained how Japanese soldiers got their opponents ready for slaughter:
"We'd face the enemy trench that we'd captured, when we called out 'Ni, lai-lai!' ('You, come out!'), the Chinese soldiers were so stupid, they'd rush toward us all at once. Then we'd line them up and cut them down, from one end of the line to the other."
The Rape of Nanking, also known as the Nanking Massacre, is one of history's darkest chapters. During the six-week siege of the city (now Nanjing), which was the capital of Nationalist China, babies were murdered in stomach-churning ways, hundreds of thousands of civilians were raped or murdered, and Chinese citizens were wrapped in barbed wire and forced to dig their own graves and kill their own children.
Mukai and Noda undertook their competition on the road to Nanking, as they marched inland from Shanghai, which fell to the Japanese in November 1937. The slaughter continued during the Nanking Massacre, which granted Mukai and Noda the perfect backdrop for their game.