Back on July 7, 1937, Japan made a fateful choice to subjugate China, propelling it into a wider war in Southeast Asia and a Pacific War with the U.S. In 1937 the military informed Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and Emperor Hirohito that it would take just three divisions only three months to pacify China. Didn’t anyone look at a map?
Japanese leaders had dreams of regional hegemony, believing that the nation’s destiny was to preside over Asia. This involved displacing Western imperial rivals and also coping with the rising tide of anti-Japanese nationalism among Chinese that was hampering Tokyo’s plans to tap China’s resources and markets. Doing so was essential to catapult Japan into the ranks of the leading powers. Problematically, the political unrest that beset China from 1912, when the Qing Dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China, and intensified over the next 25 years targeted Japan as public enemy No. 1.
In 1895 Japan was victorious in the war it instigated against China and imposed a punitive peace settlement that required China to empty its treasury for reparation payments to Tokyo, snatched Taiwan and the Pescadore Islands, and claimed the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria. It also joined the club of Western powers in imposing unequal treaties on China that facilitated commercial expansion and exploitation. In response, three of those powers — Russia, France and Germany — forced Japan to retrocede the Liaotung Peninsula, a humiliating outcome that sparked outrage when Russia subsequently leased the very same territory. To prepare for the coming war with Russia, Japan concluded an alliance with Great Britain in 1902, gaining status while ensuring Japan was no longer diplomatically isolated.
Victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 heralded Japan’s emergence as a power to be reckoned with — one that drew admiration from nationalists across Asia who dreamed of independence from colonial rule. Japan’s successful Meiji Era (1868-1912) modernization culminated in the first defeat of a white nation by a nonwhite one, encouraging the colonized around the world to believe that they too could challenge the white-dominated status quo.
They saw in Pan-Asianism, a vague concept nurtured from the late 19th century in Japan, a possibility for solidarity against a common enemy. But this dream was betrayed by Tokyo’s own ambitions, meaning that liberation from the yoke of Western colonialism was sacrificed in favor of Japanese imperialism.
The peace deal brokered by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that ended the Russo-Japanese War denied Japan reparations, but it did facilitate Japan’s takeover of Russian assets in Manchuria and allowed it a free hand in Korea. In the decisive decade from 1895 to 1905, Japan thus became a significant imperial power in Asia, with much at stake given the widely anticipated imminent collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Japan had seen off Russia, its key regional rival, but was burdened by the heavy debts incurred in waging that war.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was thus a godsend for Japan, which quickly took advantage of Europe’s auto-genocide to displace its commercial rivals in China. Japan also declared war against Germany in solidarity with the U.K., providing a pretext to seize German concessions in China and the South Pacific.
Tokyo went on to take advantage of China’s weakness and Europe’s distraction by issuing the 21 Demands of 1915, which sought to make China into a quasi-colony. Pressure from the U.S. and U.K. forced Japan to water down the demands, but the demands did succeed in significantly expanding its access and rights in Manchuria while signaling Japan’s hegemonic ambitions in China.
Following WWI, Japan tried to retain the German concession in Shandong, but the Chinese were outraged and in protest launched a boycott of Japanese products. There was no turning back from this debacle as mutual animosities intensified over the next decade.
Japan went from complaining that there was no effective central government to worrying that an increasingly unified China under Chiang Kai-shek endangered its dreams of power. In 1928, when it seemed the warlord in Manchuria might cooperate with Chiang, the Japanese assassinated the local leader. As political turmoil in China intensified, Japan shed its moderate internationalist foreign policy associated with Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara and backtracked from commitments to resolve disputes through negotiations and diplomacy.
The U.S. helped to discredit Japanese moderates in the wake of WWI by refusing to accept Tokyo’s proposal to include a racial equality clause in the charter of the League of Nations, imposing immigration restrictions in 1924 that effectively excluded Japanese migrants, and subsequently globalizing the Great Depression by erecting a tariff barrier in 1930 that slashed international trade. This series of events reinforced many Japanese leaders’ perception that the international system was biased against Japan, and undermined the arguments of moderates who favored advancing national interests by working from within that system.
On Sept. 18, 1931, in Mukden, Japanese soldiers staged a bombing of Japan’s South Manchurian Railway and sought to blame Chinese bandits. Following an investigation, in 1933 Japan was censured at the League of Nations for this action and admonished to return to the status quo ante, but by this time the bombing incident had provided a pretext for invading and conquering all of Manchuria.
This subjugated territory was renamed Manchukuo, with quasi-colonial status, so instead of obeying the League of Nations, Japan walked out. This renunciation of internationalism among the “haves” was followed by the 1936 decision to join forces with other “have nots,” Germany and Italy, in establishing the Anti-Comintern Pact, ostensibly to fight the spread of communism by bookending the Soviet Union. This was later upgraded into the Axis Alliance in 1940 that plunged the world into the cataclysm of WWII.
Domestically, state security forces neutralized potential opponents of Japan’s escalating aggression using sweeping new powers conferred by the 1925 Peace Preservation Law, which resembles current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new conspiracy law in the way it handcuffed democracy.
The rightward militarist shift in Japan in the 1930s mirrored developments in Europe, although scholars disagree on whether or not Japan was truly fascist. But there is no disagreement that Japan’s actions at Marco Polo Bridge, and its subsequent campaign to conquer China, unleashed a nightmarish maelstrom that casts a long shadow over Abe and his fellow revisionists’ intemperate efforts to turn the page on this history. This heedless view of shared history handicaps any efforts to improve relations with contemporary China.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.