Konoe, Hirota sit on their hands: The Sino-Japanese War
Those mainly responsible
Who bears the responsibility for the escalation of a small incident into all-out war between Japan and China? On June 4, 1937, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe launched his first Cabinet. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident—a brief unplanned battle between the Imperial Japanese Army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese National Revolutionary Army—occurred a month later on July 7. The incident was the trigger for the Sino-Japanese War. As the incident itself was unplanned, the slide to all-out war could have been avoided if the flare-up was handled properly. In fact, a ceasefire accord was signed in Beijing, and the matter appeared to have been settled locally.
But, on the same day, the Konoe Cabinet announced it would send more troops to northern China, a step that caused the escalation of military involvement. Konoe failed to exercise political leadership at each of the following critical phases:
In the early days of the Sino-Japanese War, Konoe indeed pursued a peaceful settlement by planning a summit with Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and attempting to dispatch an emissary to the Nationalist government. But he backed down when he met opposition, mainly voiced by Army officers. Foreign Minister Koki Hirota, along with Konoe, remained silent during a five-minister conference and the following Cabinet meeting that decided to send three Army divisions. Hirota and Konoe also did not voice any objection during a subsequent Cabinet meeting. Together with War Minister Hajime Sugiyama and Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, Hirota also called for an end to peace negotiations with the Nationalist government. Throughout the period during which the Marco Polo Bridge Incident expanded into the Sino-Japanese War, Hirota stood at the diplomatic helm, first serving as Foreign Minister, then Prime Minister and again as Foreign Minister.
After the February 26 Incident, Prime Minister Hirota made a series of decisions that sowed the seeds of future strife. The decisions included one to restore a system under which military officers in active service took up the posts of War and Navy Ministers, another on the Imperial policy principles that set the stage for the nation’s advance into Southeast Asia and still another on the signing of the Japan-Germany accord on defense cooperation that was aimed at containing the Soviet Union.
Maneuvers to annex northern China from the Nationalist government tipped Japan and China into full hostilities. Those involved in the operations included Kenji Dohihara; Takashi Sakai, Chief of Staff of the Japanese troops stationed in China; and Tan Takahashi, an assistant military attach They worked to conclude the so-called (Yoshijiro) Umezu-He Yingqin accord and the Dohihara-Qin Dechun accord, by which Nationalist agencies were expelled from Hebei and Chahar provinces. In November 1935, Dohihara launched a puppet autonomous government in eastern Hebei Province. The Imperial Japanese Army maintained that China should not be regarded as a single country. Vice Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army Seishiro Itagaki argued that Japan should directly conclude ties with each region in China.
In China, the Xian Incident in 1936 pushed China toward the second phase of collaboration between the Nationalists and the Communists. In the wake of growing anti-Japanese campaigns in China, relations between Japan and China were precarious. At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, Imperial Japanese Army leaders were sharply divided between those calling for an expansion of the war and those seeking to halt conflict. Head of the Operations Bureau of the Army General Staff Kanji Ishihara sided with those opposing expansion. But his subordinate, head of the Operations Section Akira Muto, advocated the dispatch of troops by allying himself with the head of the Military Affairs Bureau of the War Ministry Shinichi Tanaka. Having failed to control his subordinate, Ishihara allowed the mobilization of 13 Army divisions until he was transferred to the Kwantung Army as Vice Chief of Staff.
War Minister Hajime Sugiyama advocated expansion. He foiled peace efforts by making the terms of peace tougher after the fall of Nanjing, the Chinese capital at the time. Commander of the Central China Area Army Iwane Matsui exhorted top military officials to capture Nanjing and directed the operation. Upon Nanjing’s fall, a series of massacres and violence targeting prisoners of war and civilians, called “Nankin Gyakusatsu” (the Rape of Nanking) or “Nankin Jiken” (the Nanking Incident), took place. Such acts, which contravened military discipline, were committed particularly by members of the units led by Lieutenant General Kesago Nakajima, head of the Army’s Sixteenth Division.