In June 1937 the new prime minister was Fumimaro Konoe. a member of Japan's House of Peers, an intellectual intimate with Western philosophy, literature, sociology, and social and economic problems, particularly the problems of the poor. One of his major advisers at Kyōto University later became one of Japan’s leading Marxist economists.
Hirohito asked him to create a government, and, as Prime Minister, Konoe chose to adopt most reasonable of the army’s demands while controlling the military's reckless elements. He declared that he sought to realize social and international righteousness and to alleviate internal friction and discord.
It fell apart on him. He, the emperor and the military establishment were supporting the status quo: the stationing of military forces outside Beijing in accordance with an agreement back in 1901 at the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion. On the might of July 7, a Japanese military unit did what military units often do: it had a marching drill. A few shots rang out. Or maybe it was firecrackers — to be known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Later one of the Japanese soldiers was missing. A search for him began. Chinese troops thought fired on the Japanese that lasted four hours, ending in negotiations until Japanese reinforcements arrived and the fighting resumed.
The missing soldier turned up safe and sound. The Japanese, of course, blamed the Chinese. But not wanting more trouble, Japan's military command in China issued a formula for continued peace in China: withdrawal of Chinese troops from around the area of the Marco Polo bridge and from the left bank of the Yangtze River; guarantees that incidents such as had occurred at the Marco Polo Bridge would not happen again; punishment of those responsible for the incident; and an apology. The Japanese apparently gave no weight to the idea of their troops in China were a provocation. but withdrawal was not something proud military men politicians were inclined to favor. Instead, a faction within the Japanese army used the Marco Polo incident as an opportunity to send more troops to China. Konoe and his cabinet supported this recommendation, and the army high command went along with it, believing that it was not an escalation. Three more troop divisions were sent to China and would arrive within a couple of months.
In Japan, public opinion supported to troop movement, with most newspapers editorializing that agreements with the Chinese had to be backed by Japan's military force rather than "trusting" the Chinese. People again gathered at public meetings and contributed money to the nation's defense.
Emperor Hirohito was less enthusiastic. He summoned Konoe and ordered him to give personal attention to putting an end to fighting in China. But the emperor's orders were short on specifics.
There were another incidents involving exchanges of gunfire. Halfway between Beijing and Tianjin, Chinese troops fired upon Japanese soldiers who had been sent to repair telegraph lines. The Japanese commander in the area, General Kazuki, retaliated with an attack upon the Chinese troops, and he sent an ultimatum demanding the immediate withdrawal of Chinese troops from the area by noon on the 28th. And there were exchanges outside a gate to the city of Beijing and a battle that lasted through the night. Japan's commander believed he had the right to chastise the Chinese and to defend his troops, and he was supported by the high command. On the 27th, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Chinese troops at Tungchow, 12 miles east of Beijing. The Chinese set fire to the city. Around 260 Japanese civilians living there died while around 60 survived, and this shook public opinion within Japan.
Authorities in Beijing gave their city over to Japanese forces rather than watch it damaged or destroyed. Japan took possession also of the nearby major city of Tientsin (Tianjin) which has access to the sea. On July 31, Chiang Kai-shek spoke to the nation, announcing that "the hope for peace has been shattered." He announced that China had no option but to fight the enemy "to the bitter end" and expel him "from our land." The Second Sino-Japanese War was on, to last until 1945.
Japan's military in August 1937 was concerned about Japanese civilians living in Shanghai. There a Japanese force of around 2,500 was facing a Chinese army of 120,000 who were stationed just outside the Shanghai area. Anticipating trouble, the Japanese meanwhile were withdrawing their nationals from Hankow and elsewhere along the Yangtze River.
On the night of August 12, Chiang Kai-shek ordered a general offensive against the Japanese. At dawn on the 14th, the Chinese 87th division, with a nascent air force, attacked the Japanese military positions around Shanghai, and they attacked Japanese textile mills in the area. They tried to sink the Japanese flagship anchored in front of the International Settlement, but they only damaged the ship. That same day, Japanese planes raided the Chinese airfield at Hangchow. And the air war continued to the 15th, when Japan sent its airplanes against Nanking and the Chinese section of Shanghai.
On August 21, China signed a military pact with the Soviet Union. And China's Communist Party felt that it had a new lease on life – offered by the Japanese. The Communists had been clamoring for an all-out war to rid China of Japanese intrusions, and now they had it. The Red Army was reorganized into the Eighth Route Army, to fight under the centralized command of Chiang Kai-shek, to advance against the Japanese and to carry on guerrilla warfare.
On August 28, Japan erected a naval blockade against Chinese ships going to and from Chinese ports, and it claimed that "peaceful commerce carried on by third powers will be fully respected."
President Roosevelt on October 5, with Japan and Italy in mind, called for a "quarantine of the aggressor nations." The Japanese were still calling the war that had erupted an incident, while Chiang Kai-shek was appealing to the League of Nations for help, and on On October 6, the League condemned the Japanese action in China but little offered little help. From the United States and Britain, China received little more than sympathy.
By November 9, Japanese were celebrating their hard-won victory in Shanghai (having lost 98,417 killed and wounded). The Chinese army was in retreat toward Nanking, with the Japanese military pushing against them, and Chiang Kai-shek's government in Nanking withdrew to Chongqing (Chungking) in southwestern China.
In advancing toward Nanking, the Japanese were setting fires and killing civilians. Their air force was bombing densely populated cities. By December 7, the Japanese were at Nanking's outer defenses. On December 12, Japanese aircraft attack the USS Panay, a gunboat motoring on the Yangzi River, away from Nanking. Three were killed and 43 sailors and 5 civilians wounded. In the US, public opinion became more hostile toward the Japanese. (The Japanese would claim that the didn't see the boat's US flag, and they would agree to pay an indemnity.)
On December 13 Nanking fell to the Japanese, with Chinese soldiers fleeing from the city or rushing to change into civilian clothes. The advancing Japanese were blaming the war on the Chinese. Seeing themselves as doing right by their God, they were outraged that Chinese soldiers were trying to kill them. Japanese soldiers in China were depicting the Chinese as monsters, while the Chinese were depicting the Japanese as devils.
Japanese society put a high premium on accommodation and good behavior, but, as with other nationalities, recruits into the military were taught to respect brutality. Soldiers who entered units in combat might have been appalled when first introduced to killing, but wanting to measure up to the level of the experienced men around them they struggled to overcome their squeamish respect for the humanity of the enemy. And unfortunately, when occupying Nanking they were given freedom to act as they pleased against a people whom they had come to despise.
At first it was the Chinese soldiers whom the Japanese victimized. The Japanese were concerned about Chinese soldiers in the city who were masquerading as civilians. Anyone whose appearance, including hand calluses or other markings that suggested they were soldiers, were rounded up and executed. In Nanking, Japanese soldiers engaged in an orgy of looting and raping. The Japanese soldiers had cameras and forced women to expose themselves – creating evidence of their actions that would remain into the twenty-first century. Common soldiers felt a new power over women – the kind of power dreamed of by some adolescents or ineffectual men. The historian Jonathan Spence estimates that 42,000 soldiers and citizens were killed and 20,000 women raped.
In January 1938, Prime Minister Konoe was frustrated by what he saw Chiang Kai-shek's lack of cooperation, and he made it clear that Japan would no longer try to deal with Chiang and his government. On January 16, Japan withdrew recognition from Chiang's government and announced a policy of annihilating his regime. In April, recognizing that it was deep in war, Japan passed the National General Mobilization Law. All aspects of Japanese life was to be arranged for the sake of military efficiency.
By October, Japanese troops were occupying the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou), hoping to cut China off from the rest of the world. By November the Japanese had pushed about 400 miles inland from Shanghai. And that month the Japanese announced a New Order for East Asia, which they claimed would include trade mainly between Japan and China — while nations such as the United States, Britain, Germany, and France would have to settle for leftovers. One supporter of the New Order was General Hideki Tojo, former commander of the Kwantung army and now an army minister. General Tojo saw the New Order as a cooperation between the Chinese and Japanese, with China contributing its raw materials and Japan contributing capital, skills in technology and administration "for the mutual benefit of both countries."
By 1939, Japan's lines of communications were stretched and the war became stalemated. In July the Japanese and Soviet forces clashed along the Manchurian-Soviet border. Ten days of fighting ended in late July with the Japanese declaring their own casualties as 18,000 dead and wounded. Hirohito was furious with the army for having initiated the fighting. The army was planning a new offensive against the Soviet Union when Hirohito sent an order that the battle was to stop. He told his war minister to sack the commander of the army. Then he returned to his passivity toward the military, in tune with the popular view that the military was heroically pursuing the interests of the nation. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, and in mid-September the Soviet Union and Japan signed a peace treaty. (Two days later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland.)
In May 1940 it was the United States that concerned Japan's military strategists. The US Navy moved the base of its Pacific Ocean fleet from San Diego to its naval base at Pearl Harbor, in the Hawaiian Islands — closer to Japan. (President Roosevelt hoped that it would help deter Japan.) Admiral Yamamoto, commander of Japan's Combined Fleet, described the move as "tantamount to a dagger pointed at our throat." Strategists were concerned that a rapid deployment of US naval forces from Pearl Harbor could hit the flanks of expanding Japanese forces. And they saw a need to eliminate US bases in the Philippines and Guam.
In July, President Roosevelt annoyed the Japanese by ordering a partial trade embargo on aviation fuel, lubricants and high-grade scrap metal to Japan. To continue its war in China, Japan needed a continuous supply of oil, and Japan was eyeing the oil in British and Dutch-ruled territory in the Indonesian Archipelago.
Chauvinism had been intensified by war. Germany had defeated France in June, and after negotiations, the Hitler-friendly Vichy France in France gave Japan permission to place its troops in the southern part of French Indochina. In August, Japan announced its plan to build a "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" – empire building that would include Manchukuo, China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Siberia, and perhaps the outer regions of Australia, India, and the Pacific Islands. On 26 September, Japan's parliament declared a holy war against China. The following day, Japan responded to Germany's call for the military alliance called the Tripartite Pact.
Military strategists in Japan were viewing their country's strike against the United States, British and Dutch in the Pacific as a good gamble, and with much at stake they looked forward to divine assistance. Kami (God) they thought was surely on Japan's side.
CONTINUE READING: Japan and War in 1941
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.