Commentary / Japan | COUNTERPOINT

Prelude to WWII: Japan's Nomonhan debacle

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

There has been considerable media hoopla about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. The subsequent slaughter of 16 million people was prompted by the assassination of an Austrian archduke and duchess, which activated the system of interlocking alliances intrinsic to the balance of power that was the ostensible guarantee against war.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attracted a storm of unfair criticism when he suggested that World War I demonstrates there is no room for complacency about rising tensions between Japan and China over rocky islets in the East China Sea. Extensive economic relations suggest that both nations have too much at stake to risk war, but similar arguments were made about Great Britain and Germany a century ago while Europeans were sleepwalking toward the abyss. But Davos was only a few weeks after Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, perhaps explaining why his sensible remarks were misconstrued as warmongering.

In response to Abe, China dialed up a different event, the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), initiated and won by Japan. During this conflict, Japan seized control of the disputed islands known here as Senkaku and as Diaoyu in China, contending they were unclaimed. This claim is disputed by China, which refers to them as war booty and therefore should be returned under the terms of the 1943 Cairo Declaration.

The complicated war of dates continues as China has now declared two “don’t forget to hate the Japanese” national holidays — Victory Day on Sept. 3 and Nanking Massacre Day on Dec. 13; splendid distractions from China’s smog, disparities and corruption.

Here I want to draw readers’ attention to a little-known conflict that erupted 75 years ago in the remote borderlands of the Soviet Union, Mongolia and Japanese-controlled Manchukuo. The summer of 1939 witnessed a sharp escalation of hostilities between Soviet and Japanese forces around the inconsequential village of Nomonhan due to skirmishing over a disputed border in an area of no strategic importance that spiraled out of control. Readers familiar with Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” will recall that Nomonhan is depicted as a scene of brutal massacre and senseless violence that haunts some of the characters the protagonist encounters.

The battle of Nomonhan, between the Japanese Imperial Army and the Soviet Army, had a significant impact on both countries’ diplomatic maneuvering and war planning on the eve of World War II. This “incident” was also a comprehensive defeat for Japan, one that revealed significant weaknesses in what many considered a formidable military machine.

The Japanese Kwantung Army based in Manchukuo was the tail wagging the dog, provoking hostilities in an obscure backwater mostly because it was itching for action, thought the Soviet military was weak due to Josef Stalin’s extensive purge of top brass and was jealous that Japan’s China Expeditionary Army was getting all the glory and medals. Issues of pride and honor also played a key role, as initial setbacks had to be avenged, leading to an escalation for which Japan was poorly prepared.

Hostilities began in May 1939 and proceeded in fitful sanguinary spurts until the Red Army launched a devastating offensive in August. At that time, Stalin was negotiating with both the Nazis and the British; toward the end of August, he finalized the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany. With victory against Japan at hand, cutting a deal with Nazi Germany protected the Soviet Union from a two-front war. It also left Poland ripe for the picking, igniting a wider war that pitted Germany against the U.K. and France, the intra-capitalist war that Stalin sought. Tokyo agreed to Moscow’s offer of a cease-fire in mid-September 1939 as German tanks advanced on Warsaw.

Gen. Georgy Zhukov’s brilliant victory at Nomonhan led to his promotion to command of the Red Army in 1941. He later became famous for his rousing defense of Moscow against the Nazis, made possible with veteran reinforcements from the Soviet Far East. If the Soviets had not sorted out the Japanese threat in the Far East at Nomonhan, these troops might not have been available and Moscow could have fallen, dramatically changing the course of World War II.

Zhukov mastered the coordination of tank, infantry and aerial warfare at Nomonhan and brought these lessons to bear against the Nazis. The Soviet victory against Japan also owed much to superior logistical planning. Zhukov ensured that he won the battle of supplies, enabling him to overwhelm and outgun Japanese troops. He also deployed tank brigades using unorthodox tactics that outmaneuvered and decimated the Japanese. Relying on deception, disinformation and improvisation, Zhukov outsmarted his Japanese counterparts. The Soviet tactic of stringing piano wire at tank-tread level disabled many Japanese tanks, while the Soviets swiftly adjusted to the “human bullet” suicide attacks against their tanks by Japanese soldiers armed with gasoline bombs by jury-rigging effective protections.

In addition, the Soviets’ huge advantage in long-range artillery enabled them to relentlessly pound Japanese positions. There was nothing in the Japanese arsenal to match Soviet firepower, and stockpiles of shells were quickly depleted.

The Kwantung Army’s hotheaded officers showed an inordinate obsession with honor and pride while the troops paid a high price for this hubris. In four months, Japan suffered staggering casualties, as many as 45,000 troops by some estimates.

To the detriment of their troops, Japanese officers believed that Yamatodamashi (Japanese spirit) would overcome the Soviets’ superior firepower and logistical advantages. They were wrong, but still decorated an officer who attacked a tank with his sword, honoring futile gestures rather than learning key lessons.

Japan’s defeat at Nomonhan foreshadowed its subsequent downfall in World War II where it also underestimated the enemy, and where no amount of bravery and sacrifice could offset inadequate supplies and equipment.

One of the consequences of the Nomonhan debacle is that many of the trigger-happy officers who had not demonstrated either competence or common sense were transferred to the central command in Tokyo. There they gained influential staff positions where they pressed for war against the U.S. The Soviet spanking forced reconsideration of plans to invade Siberia for its resources and made the lightly defended European colonies in Southeast Asia a much more appealing target, a strategy that required a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. This folly led to the deaths of more than 2 million Japanese and countless more Asians.

Nomonhan is yet another reminder that just because the reasons for war are unpersuasive or daft, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.