Tokyo, Japan September 18, 1931

The assassination of the Manchurian war­lord Zhang Zuolin in June 1928 was the first in a daisy change of major Sino-Japanese crises faced by the new Japa­nese emperor, Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Em­peror Shōwa), whose reign began 18 months before. Manchu­ria (some­times referred to by its histor­ical name Guan­dong) lay directly north of two Jap­anese posses­sions on the Asian main­land: Korea, since 1905 a Japa­nese protec­torate that was later annexed (1910); and the Kwan­tung (Guan­dong) Leased Terri­tory in the southern part of the Liao­dong Penin­sula, which Japan leased from China for 99 years beginning in 1905. The Japanese Kwan­tung garrison became the Kwantung Army (see map).

In the 1920s Manchuria’s economy alternated between boom and bust under Zhang. The last bust occurred in the winter of 1927–1928 following Zhang’s adven­turism in China—Zhang had managed to capture the Chinese capi­tal at Peking (now known as Beijing) in June 1926. In May 1928 Zhang was defeated by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nation­alists. A month later Zhang was killed by a bomb planted by a Japa­nese Kwan­tung Army offi­cer as the war­lord’s train was en route to the Manchu­rian city of Muk­den (Shen­yang in Chinese) over a track operated by Japanese-own South Man­churia Rail­road. Mili­tants in the Kwan­tung Army were furious over Zhang’s failure to halt the advance of the Nation­alist army, which at the time was backed by the Soviet Union, then Japan’s strategic rival on the Chinese mainland.

Just over two years later, on this date, Septem­ber 18, 1931, another set of mili­tarist Japa­nese soldiers planted a bomb, again near Muk­den, on a tiny section of the same South Man­churia Rail­road, set to deto­nate when a Japa­nese train passed close by. Local ele­ments of the Imperial Japa­nese Army (IJA), tasked with guarding the rail­way, accused the near­by Chinese garri­son under Zhang Zuolin’s son of an unpro­voked attack and responded by occupying Mukden on Septem­ber 19 at a cost of 500 Chinese and two Japanese lives. This incur­sion, known variously as the Mukden or Manchu­rian Inci­dent, was intended to legit­i­mize the IJA’s response of protecting a vital trans­por­tation, com­mer­cial, and indus­trial hub in China’s north­east. Kwantung Army head­quarters and troops were moved out of the Leased Territory to Mukden to enhance security.

At the same time an IJA division stationed in Korea made an incur­sion into Man­churia. Initi­ated by local com­manders, both the Kwan­tung Army and IJA incur­sions presented the cen­tral govern­ment in Tokyo with a dilemma. The Japan­ese cabinet reluc­tantly accepted the army’s fait accompli and appro­pri­ated funds to send in rein­force­ments from Japan. Emperor Hiro­hito, as com­mander in chief of Japan’s armed forces (dai­gen­sui), let slip the oppor­tunity to question the cabi­net’s decision, possi­bly fore­stall the army’s further inde­pen­dent, insub­or­dinate, and violent expan­sionist actions (he was person­ally opposed to them), and bring the main­land armies under Tokyo’s tight grip. Telling the Army General Staff in Tokyo to “be more care­ful in the future,” Hiro­hito embarked on a series of imperial retreats in the face of the army’s deter­mi­nation to solidify its influ­ence over foreign affairs and domes­tic politics as well as by his fear of inter­nal insta­bility and mili­tary coup. By 1937, the start of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the mili­tary establish­ment was aggres­sively running the whole show without serious criticism or intrusion from the emperor or anyone else.

Manchukuo: Springboard for Further Japanese Expansion 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 Kwan­tung Army the pre­text to create the Man­chu­kuo state (March 1, 1932), 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.

Manchurian Incident: Supposedly damaged South Manchuria Railway tracksManchurian Incident: 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 (5 ft) (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. (The Japa­nese used the term “inci­dent” as diplo­matic cover to avoid an offi­cial decla­ra­tion of war.) 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.

Manchurian Incident: Japanese cavalry enter Mukden (Shenyang), September 18, 1931Chinese 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 Council of the League of Nations voted to demand the imme­di­ate with­drawal of Japanese and Chinese troops from con­tested areas in Man­churia, 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 expan­sion in China, Tokyo announced the estab­lish­ment of the pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo headed by the last Emperor of China, Henry Pu Yi. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, an act Hirohito personally regretted.

Japanese Aggression in Manchuria and China, 1931–1945