After the Manchurian Incident of September 1931(the sixth year of the Showa Era), Japan seceded from the League of Nations in 1933 and embarked on a path toward international isolation. Following a truce, however, Japan-China relations became calmer for a while. However, the Imperial Japanese Army advanced to northern China, and nationalism in China gathered steam. At this juncture, couldn’t Japan make any diplomatic efforts to prevent the war? To what extent did political and military leaders understand Chinese nationalism?
Adherence to Manchuria, secession from the League of Nations
Only six months after the Manchurian Incident, Manchukuo, with Aixinjueluo Puyi, the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty as ruler, was founded. The Kwantung Army was stationed in Manchuria and Japanese officers took the helm of government. This puppet state was held up as an ideal country with the peaceful coexistence of five races—Chinese (Han), Manchurian, Korean, Mongolian and Japanese. How did other countries view the situation?
Desperate to rebuild their domestic economies wracked by the Great Depression, particularly early on, the European powers and the United States did not react. These countries were more concerned about Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard. Britain itself had no intention of suppressing Japan’s actions in Manchuria unless the United Kingdom’s interests were adversely affected.
When the Shanghai Incident occurred in January 1932, however, Britain changed its policy as nearly 80 percent of Britain’s investment in China was concentrated in Shanghai.
The Shanghai Incident was actually hatched by Assistant Army Attache Ryukichi Tanaka of the Japanese Legation (a diplomatic representative office lower than an embassy) in Shanghai. Tanaka had been instructed by Seishiro Itagaki, a staff officer of the Kwantung Army, to carry out a plot to direct the world powers’ attention toward Shanghai. Tanaka testified after the war that he planned to attack Japanese monks in Shanghai. The Shanghai Incident led to a clash between Japan’s naval brigade and Chinese troops and the war expanded to include the Imperial Japanese Army.
Among world powers, the United States showed the severest reaction to the Manchurian Incident. Why did the United States, which hardly had a vested interest in Manchuria, take the leading role at that time? According to critic Kiyoshi Kiyosawa, the United States was trying to demonstrate the effect of the Kellogg-Briand (no-war) Pact of 1928 that it had devised—in other words, it was trying to show its “peculiar U.S.-style peaceful ideal” in “the special district of Manchuria.”
When he saw the invasion by the Kwantung Army that bombed Jinzhou from October to November 1931 and its occupation of Qiqiha’er (the capital of Heilongjiang Province), U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson was convinced that “the Japanese civil government could not only not check the Army’s course, but also that, in some important respects, it was willing to profit by the Army’s action.”
In January 1932, Stimson offered a formal notice to Japan and China. The “Stimson Doctrine” refused to recognize any situations, treaties and agreements that violated the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Council of the League of Nations supported the Stimson Doctrine and demanded that Japan implement the Nine-Power Treaty requiring Japan to respect China’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity. The Stimson Doctrine was repeatedly cited during the lead up to the Pacific War.
The League of Nations’ fact-finding mission—the Lytton Commission—compiled a report that said the Japanese Army’s actions could not be regarded as acts of self-defense and that Manchukuo was not created by a genuine independence movement. This finding was conveyed to Japan on October 1, 1932. Immediately before that report was presented, Japan had recognized Manchukuo, aiming to create a fait accompli.
The Lytton Report, however, did not one-sidedly condemn Japan. It stated that Manchuria should become an autonomous region. If Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai had not been assassinated in the May 15 Incident in Tokyo, he could have carried out his policy and “there could have been a great possibility of drawing up a compromise based on the report.”
However, every minister in the Makoto Saito Cabinet decried the Lytton Report. War Minister Sadao Araki, for instance, dismissed the report in a condescending manner, saying, “That’s nothing but a trifling travelogue.”
The Japanese House of Representatives unanimously agreed to recognize Manchukuo in June. Answering a question from Tsutomu Mori of the Seiyukai (Constitutional Party of Political Friends) at a plenary session in August, Foreign Minister Yasuya Uchida said: “We, as a sovereign nation, will not give up our assertion [the recognition of Manchukuo] even if it means reducing our country to ‘scorched earth.’”
A recommendation based on the Lytton Report was adopted at the General Assembly of the League of Nations in February 1933. Forty-two countries voted in favor; Japan was the sole negative vote while Siam (Thailand) abstained. Signifying Japan’s withdrawal from the League, delegation head Yosuke Matsuoka walked out.
Uchida, who uttered words of madness, Matsuoka with his ostentatious act of walking out, and genro senior statesman Kinmochi Saionji, who approved the withdrawal from the League of Nations as if it were unavoidable, proved to be politicians lacking conviction and foresight, and they failed to grasp international realities.
Why didn’t the League of Nations and other countries strongly demand that the Imperial Japanese Army pull back from Manchuria?
Japanologist Helen Mears, who was a member of the U.S. Labor Advisory Committee of the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers occupying Japan, wrote: “...Japan was not stopped because the major Powers were far from being sure of how to handle an extremely complex situation in which the problem, as they saw it, was not to stop Japan, but only to keep her within ‘reasonable’ bounds, in relation to their own interests in China, on the one hand; and on the other, still to use Japan as part of the British security system; to police a chaotic area, Manchuria; to act as buffer between China & Russia; to help against the possibility of a Communist revolution in China...”
While the General Assembly of the League of Nations was in session, the Kwantung Army invaded Rehe Province, close to the northern part of the Great Wall of China. Emperor Showa opposed the Rehe Operation and consulted people including his Chief Aide-de-camp Takeji Nara. Nara opposed the Emperor’s idea of resorting to his prerogative of supreme command to halt the operation. Nara said national policy should be decided by the Cabinet and it was not permissible for an outsider to intervene. The operation ceased on one occasion but the Kwantung Army crossed the Great Wall a second time and advanced deep into northern China.
Distinguished commentator Shichihei Yamamoto wrote that the Rehe Operation was “a turning point [in Showa history] and this became a seed of Nikka Jihen, or the Sino-Japanese War, which ultimately developed into the Pacific War.”