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Japan, China and Origins of War, 1920-36

Japan's manufacturing had been expanding. By 1921, Japan was supplying China, India and other Asian countries with manufactured goods. And Japan had expanded its empire, having gained a League of Nations South Pacific Mandate consisting of islands that had been part of Germany's empire.

At a conference in Washington DC in 1921-22, attended by nine nations, Japan agreed to reduce the size of its navy, and Japan's agreed to return to China control over Shandong province. Some in Japan didn't like these agreements, and British strategists didn't like Japan's concern about naval bases in the Pacific. Britain's alliance with Japan was would be officially terminated in 1923.

China since 1916 (during World War I) was in its warlord period, except in its southeast, where the government was in power led by Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary who believed in democracy.

Japan was holding on to some territory in Manchuria (just east of its possession, Korea) and there it was maintaining friendly relations with the Chinese warlord, Zhang Zoulin. Zhang was changing Manchuria into a prosperous part of China. There was immigration from other parts of China, and the Japanese were investing there and elsewhere, including cotton-mills in Shanghai.

Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925. Communists and more conservative elements of his movement were in a coalition with an army supported and trained by the Russians and led by Chiang Kai-shek. Their plan was to march north (the Northern Expedition) to overthrow warlords and unite China. Students and labor unionists associated with Chiang Kai-shek's forces were directing their energies against British and Japanese commercial interests in China and calling for a boycott of British and Japanese goods. On May 30, British municipal police in Shanghai fired on and killed thirteen demonstrators. China's Communist Party, fervently anti-imperialist, quickly expanded from a few hundred members to more than 20,000.

In 1926, the warlord Zhang Zoulin expanded from Manchuria to Bejing, and in 1927 he proclaimed himself Grand Marshal of the Republic of China. His government was recognized internationally.

The Northern Expedition was accompanied by a wave of strikes that brought production in China to a standstill, and the Left was encouraging peasant unrest, raising fears among landowners across China. In Nanking (a treaty port), they attacked foreign-owned concerns including Japanese, British and US consulates.

Warlords anticipating the coming of Chiang Kai-shek's army were finding it opportune to be politically friendly with Chiang, and wealthy Chinese businessmen offered moderates within Chiang's movement (the Guomindang) their support if they opposed its Communists and fellow travelers. When Chiang and his army entered Shanghai in April, he colluded with the foreign powers there and with Green Gang criminals and rounded up labor activists and others other leftists. Hundreds were murdered, with bodies tossed into trucks. China's Communists responded by declaring war on Chiang Kai-shek. Civil war in China had begun, with Chiang's "nationalists' on one side and Communists on the other and Communists going into hiding.

From Shanghai, and with the assistance of warlords, Chiang Kai-shek was headed for Beijing. He arrived in June. Zhang Zuolin handed to him and withdrew to Manchuria by train. Japanese were viewing Chiang Kai-shek's advance northward as a threat to their interests in China. A colonel in the Japanese army in Manchuria — the Kwantung Army — viewed Zhang as an untrusted ally for Japan. He believed that the assassination of Zhang would be the most expeditious way of installing a Chinese more amenable to Japanese interests. He had Zhang Zoulin train bombed and Zhang assassinated. It was condemned by military and civilian authorities in Tokyo and like many assassinations didn't change much. Zhang Zoulin's son, Zhang Xueliang, emerged in his place, joined forces with Chiang Kai-shek, nominally united Manchuria with Chiang's China.

In July that year the adminstration of Calvin Coolidge administration recognized Chiang Kai-shek's government as the legitimate government of China. It signed a tariff treaty with the Chinese and it recalled troops from China. In October, Chiang Kai-shek acquired dictatorial powers as Chairman of the National Government of China.

Economic Depression

Japan needed to sell goods abroad in order to buy food and to buy raw materials for manufacturing. Between 1929 and 1931, decline in sales to the United States brought decline to Japan's silk industry and rice growing. Japan's rice farmers and much of the nation suffered. Children were begging in the streets.

Japan's underground Communist Party was viewed as a growing threat. The Party was visible in its support of the legal socialist and labor-oriented political parties. Alarmed by gains these parties made in the recent elections, the government began a propaganda campaign that associated the pro-labor left in general with the Communist Party. The government began a repression that would include arrests, show trials and political prisoners.

Economic distress in the countryside was moving people there toward sympathy with chauvinistic nationalists – the patriotic societies. They agreed with the call from patriotic societies for "national reconstruction," military strength and reverence for authority. Most of Japan's young military officers and enlisted men came from rural areas, and they tended to dislike businessmen from the cities — a rival elite whom they saw as self-indulgent rather than as servants of the nation and the emperor. And they too tended to dislike foreigners, especially Westerners. Some among them dreamed of Japan creating a new order for all of Asia – an Asia free of Western influences, an Asia for Asians.

More Trouble in Manchuria

In Manchuria were nearly 800 hundred Japanese-owned factories. Strategic thinkers in Japan believed that without Manchuria the population of Japan would suffer more hunger and deprivation. Japanese analysts believed that a secure Manchuria was necessary if Japan's military was to compete with other militaries. Strategic and military thinkers worried about Chinese nationalism and also about a vastly improved Russian Army on the north side of Manchuria's border.

In Manchuria, the Chinese were building rail lines parallel to Japanese rail lines. On the night of 18 September 1931, members of Japan's army in Manchuria (the Kwantung Army) blew up a section of railway just north of the city of Mukden and blamed it on Chinese subversives. Using their authority to respond immediately without waiting for approval from higher military authority, Japan's army in Manchuria overran Mukden and occupied nearby strategic points and towns, accomplishing this in four days against only a token Chinese force.

And the expansion continued. In October the commander of Japan's Kwantung Army followed an inclination to extend his control. He declared his intention to pacify all of Manchuria and Mongolia. China appealed to the League of Nations, and on 24 October the League passed a resolution demanding that Japan withdraw from areas it had conquered. Japan voted against the resolution, and because such resolutions required unanimity, Japan interpreted it as not binding.

On 24 December (1931) the Kwantung Army launched an offensive southward along the coast toward China's Great Wall, using bomber aircraft. China sent an army to stop the Japanese advance, but it made no determined stand. The Japanese overran the cities of Chinchow on December 28. On 4 January 1932, it reached the town of Shanhaikwan, where the Great Wall meets the sea.

The Kwantung Army had the support in the press and a good portion of the public, whose impulse was to support "our boys" in Manchuria. There were large public rallies, and common people donated money for the building of warplanes. Members of the army's general staff in Tokyo were outspoken in their opinion that it was unwise to restrain the activities of their officers in Manchuria.

Emperor Hirohito told a palace official of his desire for peace and his worry about intervention by Western powers. His brother, Prince Chichibu, suggested that he take control of the government and suspend the Constitution if necessary, and Hirohito responded that he would never do anything that would "besmirch the honor of his ancestors."

If ever there was a slippery slope, Japan was on it. In late January (1932) Japan lands troops at Shanghai in response to expressions of hostility by Chinese citizens there. Japanese troops challenged a Chinese army unit in the vicinity. The Japanese navy shell Chinese targets in support of its troops. The fighting extended into February.

By May, Japanese troops left Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek began another "Communist suppression" expedition near the northern border of Hunan Province in the south. By the end of the year, attacks by Chinese guerrilla forces against the Japanese in various areas of Manchuria had subsided, and the Japanese were focusing on bringing the province of Jehol, just north of the Great Wall, under their control. their control.

In Manchuria in 1932 Japan created the puppet state called Manchukuo (map). Its head of state, Puyi, was of the overthrown Qing (Manchu) dynasty, with the title of emperor, while authority remained with Japanese military officials.

In February 1933 the League of Nations ordered Japan to leave Manchuria. Instead, Japan in 1934 left the League. Many League members had important trading links with Japan, and the League could not agree on sanctions against the Japanese.

Economic Recovery and Politics

By the mid-thirties, economic recovery in Japan was well underway. In 1936 Japan had full employment. A devaluation of its currency helped produce its recovery in exports. The importation of luxury goods had begun rising, worsening Japan's trade imbalance and Japan was forced to ship abroad nearly half of its gold reserves. Then the government cracked down on the importation of luxury goods, while it continued production for the military, which helped stimulate the economy.

Japan's interest in military prowess remained, and the Japanese were arming themselves (as were the Germans). Japan renounced all treaty obligations and was designing battleships larger than the limitations agreed to at the Washington Conference back in 1921-22. On 25 November 1936, Japan signed the anti-Comintern with Germany, a pact that offered mutual assistance in case of war with the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, there had been the failed coup attempt by naval officers and right-wing ideologues back in May 1932, a coup that succeeded in assassinating the prime minister. One of the plotters was Shumei Ōkawa, a nationalist who rejected the right-wing label, a writer, scholar, critic of capitalism and a friend of persons at the royal court, including the Emperor's brother, Prince Chichibu. He was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for his involvement in the plot. Fifty-four other participants in the coup were imprisoned but all would be free by 1935 except for six who would be free by 1940. Killing for political motives was considered a crime of passion, and assassins were receiving light sentences because of their patriotic motives — similar to what had happened in Germany in the early 1920s.

On 26 February 1936 another attempted coup d'état shook Japan. It began with a Shinto fundamentalist, Lieutenant Colonel Saburo Aizawa, killing with his sword the chief of the Military Affairs Bureau who had dismissed the director of military education whom he had admired. Defense lawyers turned Aizawa's trail into a spectacle of patriotism (similar to Hitler's trial in 1924) and the courtroom was filled with off-duty army men supporting Aizawa. Young army officers believed there was a plot to transfer them to Manchuria to remove them from Tokyo during the trial. These officers responded by leading about 1,500 soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government. A leaflet announced the purpose of the coup: "remove the villains who surround the Throne." The villains were men with opinions that rivaled their interpretation of Japan's essence (kokutai).

The insurgents assassinated several leading officials, including two former prime ministers), but they failed to assassinate the existing prime minister (Keisuke Okada), who survived by hiding under a pile of laundry for a couple of days. The insurgents occupied Tokyo's government center, burned down one building, turned a hotel into a command post and occupied various other buildings, but not the Imperial Palace. On the third day of the crisis, after waiting for dithering generals to act, Hirohito issued an edict ordering the rebels to "speedily withdraw." At the age of thirty-five he was learning command. He told the army that if the rebels did not withdraw he would personally lead the Imperial Guard Division against them.

The coup leaders surrendered, some of them hoping for more show trials at which they could make speeches and win leniency. Hirohito commanded that there were to be no public trials and no speeches. Over one hundred of the rebels were charged with treason and tried in a series of courts-martial secluded from public view. Fifteen were executed by firing squad. No dates were given for the executions, and no ashes were returned to their relatives. But for Hirohito to have the peace he wanted was to be a greater challenge.

Meanwhile back in October 1934 in China, pressure from Chiang Kai-shek's forces had sent Communists on "Long March" from China's southeast, a march that would take them across 6,000 miles, 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers. In October 1935 about 20,000 survivors of the Long March arrived in Yenan (Shaanxi Province) in the far north, where they were able to recuperate.

China's size and terrain benefitted its Communists but would be a burden for those Japanese thinking of defeating China militarily. As the Germans would learn in 1941-42, geography mattered.

CONTINUE READING: Japan, China and War, 1937 to 1940

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