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JAPAN'S WAR against CHINA and the SOVIET UNION (1 of 4)

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Japan Wars against China and the Soviet Union

Incidents and War in 1937 | Shanghai, War and China's Alliance with the Soviet Union | The Rape of Nanjing | Japan Battles China and the Soviet Union

Incidents and War in 1937

By the mid-thirties, economic recovery in Japan was well underway. In 1936 Japan had full employment. Arms production stimulated the economy, with the devaluation of its currency, the Yen, helping to bring a 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.

Japan's was preparing for the possibility of another world war. Strategic materials were available through trade with the Western powers, but Japan's strategic thinkers believed that Japan should not count on these. They believed that for a long war their country needed to be self-sufficient in resources, including resources available to it from China.

The public was still inclined to support the military in its actions abroad, which it saw as in the interest of the nation. The public supported a strong military, but in elections in April, 1937, it demonstrated that it also preferred that the military not run the government. In June a new government was formed in Japan under the leadership of Prince Fumimaro Konoe.

Konoe belonged to a most prestigious family dating back before the 1200s. He was a man who knew influential people in the military, business and government. His prestige had made him many friends. He was a social gadfly but sincere. He believed that Japan could pursue its goals without quarreling factions or parties. Emperor Hirohito placed some hope in Konoe and suggested that he begin his term by making a radio broadcast to the nation promising reconciliation between the army, the political parties and the public.

Hirohito was now into his study of fishes – a task he found more pleasant than public matters and dealing with the military. Some army leaders found the Emperor's avocation peculiar and spoke of their belief that he should be worrying about high strategy and propitiating the gods rather than playing with fish. The palace advisor, Lord Yuasa, persuaded Hirohito to keep his marine biology study a secret, and thereafter Hirohito did his study of fishes in secret.

Hirohito still favored peace between Japan and China, and as conquerors do so too did many in Japan's military, but they wanted a peace on their terms. They sought cooperation from the Chinese – a word not far from a word they would not use: submission.

Japan had 4,000 soldiers stationed just outside Beijing – accorded to foreign powers at the conclusion of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. On the night of July 7-8 at the Marco Polo Bridge, eight miles west of Beijing, Japanese troops were having a nighttime marching drill when a few shots rang out. Or maybe it was firecrackers. Later that night the troops were missing one of their soldiers and they began a search for him. The missing soldier turned up safe and sound, but around five in the morning fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops, a battle that lasted four hours and ended in negotiations. But when Japanese reinforcements arrived the fighting resumed.

The high-command in Japan's military did not want to be provoked into an escalation of its conflict with the Chinese, and it 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.

Contrary to the strategy of the high command, a faction within the Japanese army urged using 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 if it did not involve escalation of the conflict.

A new movement of troops to China began – three divisions – but they would not arrive in China for a couple of months. Japan's newspapers made a sensation of the troop movement, most of them editorializing that agreements with the Chinese had to be backed by Japan's military force rather than "trusting" the Chinese. And the Japanese public, excited by the outbreak of fighting back in July, was giving enthusiastic support to their boys in China. People gathered at public meetings and they contributed money to the nation's defense.

Emperor Hirohito was less enthusiastic. Aroused by the commotion, he had asked what was happening and had summoned Konoe and ordered him to give personal attention to putting an end to fighting in China. But the emperor's orders were had not been specific enough to stop the three divisions from being sent or to reverse the additional troops and equipment that Japan in July was pouring into northern China from Manchuria: a brigade of Japan's Kwantung army; a division of Japan's Korean army; and an airforce squadron. Nor were the Emperor's orders specific enough to limit initiative among local commanders in China.

In China, Chiang Kai-shek was also becoming agitated. He spoke to a gathering of China's leaders and complained that the only way to maintain peace was to allow Japanese troops to come and go as they please on Chinese soil, to allow the Japanese to shoot at the Chinese if they wished and for the Chinese to refrain from shooting back. Chiang announced that China's armies were making purely defensive military preparations in response to Japan's decision to send more troops, and he spoke of peace being possible with Japan only if Japan allowed China territorial integrity and stopped interfering in China's affairs.

On July 25 another incident occurred. 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.

On July 26, a hundred Japanese soldiers in motor lorries arrived at one of the gates of Beijing. They demanded entry and described themselves as belonging to the Japanese consulate in the city. The Chinese troops guarding the gate allowed part of the Japanese force through the gate. Then the Japanese outside the gate opened fire with machine guns and field artillery. The guards closed the gate, and Chinese soldiers manning the walls threw hand grenades down on the Japanese just inside the wall. And the battle lasted through the night.

General Kazuki believed he had the right to chastise the Chinese and to defend his troops, and he received from the army high command its backing but with orders not to move the fighting south of the Yungting River (which ran under the Marco Polo Bridge). On the 27th, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Chinese troops at Tungchow, 12 miles east of Beijing. Japanese airplanes dropped bombs on Chinese positions at Tuanho, about ten miles southeast of Beijing. Combined Japanese forces, including aircraft, attacked China's army positions just outside Beijing at Nanyuan, Hsiyan and Peiyuan, with Nanyuan, the headquarters of China's 29th army, receiving the brunt of the attack. Chinese casualties were heavy, with commanding officers among the dead.

Rather than see their city destroyed, Chinese authorities in Beijing gave their city to the Japanese. 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 war against Japan was on, and it was to last seven years, to 1945.

Konoe had met with the Emperor the day before and the Emperor suggested a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The army high command agreed, but most army officers, especially middle ranking officers, were enthusiastically in favor of continued military action to force Chinese obedience. Japan's Kwantung army in China offered its solution to the problems in China: the establishment of autonomous regimes in China's five northern provinces and disbanding China's government in Nanjing.

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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