Mukden, Manchuria · September 18, 1931

The political and economic consequences of the col­lapse of pro­duce prices in the 1920s and the on­set of the Great Depres­sion in Japan were marked by an unem­ploy­ment rate of 25 per­cent in 1931, factory idle­ness at 50 per­cent, exports down by two-thirds, mal­nourish­ment in farming settle­ments, and high tariff barriers in Euro­pean colo­nial mar­kets in East Asia. Using an argu­ment sim­i­lar to the Nazis’ man­tra for Lebens­raum (“living space”) in East­ern Europe, oppor­tu­nistic Japa­nese poli­ti­cians, mili­tary offi­cers, and media out­lets, with popu­lar sup­port (uni­ver­sal male suf­frage was on the hori­zon), looked to main­land China for new terri­tory to acquire, new areas for agricul­tural exploi­tation, addi­tional markets for the pro­ducts of their indus­try, and a national econo­mic recovery powered by an aggres­sive China policy. By 1928 many in Japan felt that Man­chu­ria, a richly endowed pro­vince three times the area of the Japa­nese home­land and con­taining 40 mil­lion con­sumers, was the solu­tion out of the economic distress felt by 80 million of their countrymen.

On this date in 1931 Japan seized Man­chu­ria by force after con­tri­ving an inci­dent—the so-called Muk­den or Man­chu­rian Inci­dent—when a 5‑foot sec­tion of rail­road owned by Japan’s South Man­chu­ria Rail­way Com­pany was damaged in an ex­plo­sion. Five months later, on Febru­ary 18, 1932, Japan estab­lished the pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo (1932–1945), despite Chinese appeals to the League of Nations and to the United States under terms of the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) and the Nine-Power Treaty (1922). To create a sem­blance of legiti­macy, the last Em­peror of China, Henry Pu Yi, was in­vited to be the head of state for Man­chu­kuo. In actu­ality, Pu Yi was nothing more than a figure­head; real author­ity rested in the hands of Japa­nese mili­tary offi­cials. Manchu minis­ters served as front men for their Japa­nese vice-ministers, who made all decisions.

Most world powers refused to recog­nize Man­chu­kuo, choosing to ignore Japan’s fait ac­com­pli and un­willing to engage the Japa­nese out­side the halls of diplo­macy. Japa­nese machi­na­tions in North­eastern China led to one expan­sive move after another and ulti­mately to full-scale war with China in 1937 followed by war with the United States and its colony-holding Allies in the Asia Pacific region. Within a year after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Japanese aggressors finally met their match.

Manchukuo: Springboard for Further Japanese Aggression in China and Southeast Asia

Japanese puppet state Manchukuo, 1931–1945

Above: Manchukuo (1931–1945) and its neigh­bors. A portion of the Liao­dong Penin­sula and the Korean Penin­sula, labeled “Japan” on this map, had been Japa­nese pos­ses­sions since 1905 and 1910, respec­tively. The Muk­den Inci­dent (Septem­ber 18, 1931), which gave the Japa­nese the pre­text to create the Man­chu­kuo state, took place near pre­sent-day Shen­yang, as it appears on the map. During the Man­chu­kuo era Shen­yang was called Feng­tian in Chi­nese and Muk­den in both Eng­lish and Manchu. A key rail­way junc­tion and regional capital, Shen­yang devel­oped into a center of heavy industry during the Japanese occupation.

Supposedly damaged South Manchuria Railway tracks Purported Japanese experts inspect scene of alleged Chinese railway sabotage

Left: Section of the supposedly damaged South Man­chu­ria Rail­way tracks near the old walled city of Mukden (now Shen­yang, capi­tal and largest city of Liaoning Pro­vince, as well as the largest city in North­eastern China). The Japa­nese cap­tion on the right reads, “Rail­way Frag­ment.” The night­time “sabo­tage” was planned by rogue junior offi­cers in the Japa­nese Kwan­tung (Guan­dong) Army, which was gar­ri­soned in Man­chu­ria to protect Japanese-leased terr­i­tories and pro­per­ties along the South Man­churia Rail­way and in the southern part of the Liao­dong Penin­sula. Pro­perties owned by the rail­way company included mines, schools, hospitals, repair depots, and factories.

Right: A photo published in the jingoistic Japa­nese news­paper Reki­shi Sya­shin shows several pur­ported Japa­nese experts in­specting the scene of the Chi­nese “rail­way sabo­tage” on a very small por­tion (circled) of the main track of the South Man­churian Rail­way in Septem­ber 1931. Most West­erners at the time believed the Muk­den Inci­dent, though coming on top of other Sino-Japa­nese inci­dents, was way over­blown and should not have led to Japan’s take­over of Man­chu­ria. Japa­nese pub­licists were quick to point out to their Amer­i­can audi­ence how pro­vo­ca­tions in the U.S.’s Caribbean backyard had brought swift intervention by U.S. Marines.

Japanese cavalry enter Mukden, September 18, 1931 Chinese delegate addresses League of Nations members, September 1931

Left: Japanese cavalry entering Mukden (Shen­yang), Man­chu­ria, Septem­ber 19, 1931, after claiming that the explo­sion on South Man­chu­ria Rail­way tracks was the action of terrorists pro­testing growing Japa­nese influ­ence and pre­sence in the area. That same month Japan’s Kwan­tung Army began a mili­tary incur­sion in North­east China (time to “cut the Chi­nese melon,” in the words of some army staff) and by Decem­ber 1931 it occupied a large part of Manchuria.

Right: A Chinese delegate addresses the League of Nations after the 1931 Muk­den Inci­dent. The Chi­nese For­eign Minis­try issued a strong pro­test to the Japa­nese govern­ment and called for an imme­di­ate halt to Japa­nese mili­tary opera­tions in Man­chu­ria. On Septem­ber 19, 1931, China appealed to the League of Nations head­quarters in Switzer­land. A month later, on Octo­ber 24, the League of Nations passed a reso­lu­tion man­dating the with­drawal of Japa­nese troops, to be com­pleted by mid-Novem­ber. Japan, how­ever, rejected the League’s reso­lu­tion. In March 1932, following Febru­ary elec­tions that gave the Japa­nese govern­ment a man­date for its aggres­sive stance in China, Tokyo announced the estab­lish­ment of the pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo. Japan also withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.

Japanese Aggression in Manchuria and China, 1931–1945

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