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The massacre occurred over a period of six weeks starting on December 13, 1937, the day that the Japanese captured Nanjing.

During this period, soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army murdered Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants who numbered an estimated 40,000 to over 300,000, Since most Japanese military records on the killings were kept secret or destroyed shortly after the surrender of Japan in 1945, historians have been unable to accurately estimate the death toll of the massacre.

In August 1937, the Japanese army invaded Shanghai where they met strong resistance and suffered heavy casualties.

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By mid-November the Japanese had captured Shanghai with the help of naval bombardment.

The General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo initially decided not to expand the war due to heavy casualties and low troop morale.

To prevent civilians from fleeing the city, he ordered troops to guard the port, as instructed by Chiang Kai-shek.

The defense force blocked roads, destroyed boats, and burnt nearby villages, preventing widespread evacuation.

Nevertheless, on December 1, headquarters ordered the Central China Area Army and the 10th Army to capture Nanjing, then-capital of the Republic of China.

After losing the Battle of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek knew that the fall of Nanjing was a matter of time.

The Nanjing garrison force set fire to buildings and houses in the areas close to Xiakuan to the north as well as in the environs of the eastern and southern city gates.

Targets within and outside of the city walls—such as military barracks, private homes, the Chinese Ministry of Communication, forests and even entire villages—were completely burnt down, at an estimated value of 20 to 30 million (1937) US dollars.

Perhaps the most notorious atrocity was a killing contest between two Japanese officers as reported in the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun and the English language Japan Advertiser.

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