Japan After World War I
A valuable ally during World War I, the European powers and the United States recognized Japan as a colonial power after the war. In Japan, this led to the rise of ultra-right wing and nationalist leaders, such as Fumimaro Konoe and Sadao Araki, who advocated uniting Asia under the rule of the emperor. Known as hakkô ichiu, this philosophy gained ground during the 1920s and 1930s as Japan needed increasingly more natural resources to support its industrial growth. With the onset of the Great Depression, Japan moved towards a fascist system with the army exerting growing influence over the emperor and government.
To keep the economy growing, an emphasis was placed on arms and weapons production with much of the raw materials coming from the United States. Rather than continue this dependence on foreign materials, the Japanese decided to seek out resource-rich colonies to supplement their existing possessions in Korea and Formosa. To accomplish this goal, the leaders in Tokyo looked west to China, which was in the midst of a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (Nationalist) government, Mao Zedong's Communists, and local warlords.
Invasion of Manchuria
For several years Japan had been meddling in Chinese affairs, and the province of Manchuria, in northeast China, was seen as ideal for Japanese expansion. On September 18, 1931, the Japanese staged an incident along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway near Mukden (Shenyang). After blowing up a section of track, the Japanese blamed the "attack" on the local Chinese garrison. Using the "Mukden Bridge Incident" as a pretext, Japanese troops flooded into Manchuria. The Nationalist Chinese forces in the region, following the government's policy of nonresistance, refused to fight, allowing the Japanese to occupy much of the province.
Unable to divert forces from battling the Communists and warlords, Chiang Kai-shek sought aid from the international community and the League of Nations. On October 24, the League of Nations passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops by November 16. This resolution was rejected by Tokyo and Japanese troops continued operations to secure Manchuria. In January, the United States stated that it would not recognize any government formed as a result of Japanese aggression. Two months later, the Japanese created the puppet state of Manchukuo with the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, as its leader. Like the United States, the League of Nations refused to recognize the new state, prompting Japan to leave the organization in 1933. Later that year, the Japanese seized the neighboring province of Jehol.
While Japanese forces were successfully occupying Manchuria, there was political unrest in Tokyo. After a failed attempt to capture Shanghai in January, Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated on May 15, 1932, by radical elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy who were angered by his support of the London Naval Treaty and his attempts to curb the military's power. Tsuyoshi's death marked the end of civilian political control of the government until after World War II. Control of the government was given to Admiral Saitō Makoto. Over the next four years, several assassinations and coups were attempted as the military sought to gain complete control of the government. On November 25, 1936, Japan joined with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in signing the Anti-Comintern Pact which was directed against global communism. In June 1937, Fumimaro Konoe became prime minister and, despite his political leanings, sought to curb the military's power.
The Second Sino-Japanese War Begins
Fighting between the Chinese and Japanese resumed on a large scale on July 7, 1937, following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, just south of Beijing. Pressured by the military, Konoe permitted troop strength in China to grow and by the end of the year Japanese forces had occupied Shanghai, Nanking, and southern Shanxi province. After seizing the capital of Nanking, the Japanese brutally sacked the city in late 1937 and early 1938. Pillaging the city and killing nearly 300,000, the event became known as the "Rape of Nanking."
To combat the Japanese invasion, the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party united in an uneasy alliance against the common foe. Unable to effectively confront the Japanese directly in battle, the Chinese traded land for time as they built up their forces and shifted industry from threatened coastal areas to the interior. Enacting a scorched earth policy, the Chinese were able to slow the Japanese advance by mid-1938. By 1940, the war had become a stalemate with the Japanese controlling the coastal cities and railroads and the Chinese occupying the interior and countryside. On September 22, 1940, taking advantage of France's defeat that summer, Japanese troops occupied French Indochina. Five days later, the Japanese signed the Tripartiate Pact effectively forming an alliance with Germany and Italy
Conflict with the Soviet Union
While operations were ongoing in China, Japan became embroiled in border war with the Soviet Union in 1938. Beginning with the Battle of Lake Khasan (July 29-August 11, 1938), the conflict was a result of a dispute over the border of Manchu China and the Russia. Also known as the Changkufeng Incident, the battle resulted in a Soviet victory and expulsion of the Japanese from their territory. The two clashed again in the larger Battle of Khalkhin Gol (May 11-September 16, 1939) the following year. Led by General Georgy Zhukov, Soviet forces decisively defeated the Japanese, killing over 8,000. As a result of these defeats, the Japanese agreed to the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1941.Previous: The Western Front in Europe | World War II 101 | Next: The Tide Turns in the Pacific