Chaos theorists like to speculate how a butterfly flapping wings in Beijing might cause an earthquake in Latin America. But history could have something even more chaotic to say — how a Japanese soldier’s toilet stop near Beijing in 1937 plunged Japan into an eight-year war with China, rescued Europe from a decade of Nazi domination, and sent Japan to crashing defeat in 1945. The story is relevant, now that China has decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat with a large commemorative exhibition at the Marco Polo bridge just outside Beijing.
The Chinese say some shooting by Japanese troops near the bridge on the night of July 7, 1937, followed by the false claim that a Japanese soldier was missing in a nearby town, were deliberate provocations by the Japanese military to justify Japan’s subsequent attack into China.
But reliable Japanese sources who have interviewed in depth the Japanese participants in what is now called the Marco Polo Bridge incident tell a rather different story. They say there were some shots of unknown origin, probably accidental, fired during the exercises, and that a Japanese soldier sent to deliver an order was found to be missing soon after. Claiming he had to avenge the loss of the soldier, a belligerently Emperor-worshipping commander ordered preparations for a retaliatory attack on Chinese forces stationed nearby.
But the missing soldier re-emerged soon after, claiming to have lost his way after a toilet stop. Even so, the commander insisted on making the planned attack, claiming that the original shots and some others, also fairly accidental, had been fired deliberately at his forces.
Japanese officials sent to the nearby town the next day to arrange a ceasefire are said to have made impossible demands for apologies for the allegedly deliberate shootings, punishments for those responsible and, for some strange reason, the right to search the town for an allegedly missing soldier (presumably the same soldier as the one who had been temporarily missing the day before).
Claiming that the response from the Chinese lacked sincerity (which was very understandable), the Japanese side launched full-scale hostilities. Three days later Tokyo endorsed that move by promising to send reinforcements.
Not surprisingly, China has come to see this tragedy of errors as deliberate rather than accidental. Yet few in Japan’s top military and political circles sought full-scale war with China at the time. Japan’s creeping advance into Manchuria and then north China had already given them much of the control over China they wanted. The next target was Siberia.
Crucial to Tokyo’s decision to send troops to China were the anti-China hysteria and anti-China contempt being whipped up by the media and in the lower military echelons during and before the Marco Polo bridge incident. Subsequent attacks on Japanese citizens and property in China by anti-Japan elements led to further escalation.
Even so, Japan’s powerful and semi-autonomous Kwantung army in Manchuria still clung to its plans for an attack into Siberia. Only in 1939, as the China quagmire deepened and following defeat of a probing action at Nomonhan on the Manchurian border, did Tokyo finally change its strategy from “Go North” to “Go South.” This sent Japanese troops even further into China and then into French Indochina which in turn led to the U.S. trade embargo on Japan, the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s eventual defeat in 1945.
It also led to Soviet super-spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo being able to assure Moscow that Japan would not attack into Siberia. This allowed crack Soviet troops stationed there to rush to the successful 1941 defense of Moscow and then Stalingrad. If that planned Japanese attack into Siberia had been coordinated with Hitler’s 1941 invasion into the Soviet Union, Stalin’s armies would almost certainly have been defeated. A triumphant Germany and Japan would have divided up much of the rest of the world. Today most of us would be speaking either German or Japanese.
Japan’s rightwingers tell yet another story. Led by Sophia University historian Shoichi Watanabe, they claim the 1937 Marco Polo bridge shots were not accidental, that they were a plot by China’s Communist forces to induce a full-scale war with Japan that would help the Communist side in its civil war with the central government. Today those rightwingers fume over the way the Communists succeeded not only in winning that civil war but also in distracting Tokyo from its plans against Moscow and in dragging Japan into an unwinnable war with the United States and nuclear humiliation.
Be all that as it may, what is clear is that, if not for the role played by that briefly missing Japanese soldier, the world today might have been a very different place. For the record, his name was Kikujiro Shimura.