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Militarism and War, Occupation of Manchuria

Kwantung Army, Kellogg-Briand Pact, Mukden, Japanese military leaders, Japanese industry

Against a background of economic distress, social discontent, and political instability, the Japanese military launched a new phase of political expansion on the Asian continent in the early 1930s. Their primary motive was to protect Japanís existing treaty rights and interests in Manchuria and other parts of China against a militant new Chinese nationalist movement. This movement, led by Chiang Kai-shek, called for an end to foreign imperialist privileges. Because the Chinese nationalists cooperated for a time with the Chinese Communist Party, many Japanese military leaders feared an alliance between a radicalized China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Communist successor to the Russian Empire). Others saw Japanís expansion into Manchuria as a way of dealing with economic crisis and rural distress at home. Vast tracts of undeveloped land in the region offered opportunities for Japanese rural migrants, and its natural resources could supply raw materials, such as iron ore and coal, for Japanese industry.

On September 18, 1931, officers of Japanís Kwangtung Army (the military force stationed on the Liaodong Peninsula) blew up a section of track on the South Manchuria Railway outside of Mukden (Shenyang). Claiming the explosion was the work of Chinese saboteurs, Japanese forces occupied key cities in southern Manchuria. Within a few months they controlled the entire region. Although the Kwantung Army acted without authorization from the Japanese government, its decisive action was popular at home, and political leaders accepted it as an accomplished fact. Rather than create a new colony, the Japanese decided to set up the nominally independent state of Manchukuo under Emperor Henry Pu Yi, who had been the last emperor of China. Real control over Manchukuo remained in the hands of Japanese advisers and officials.

The United States and Britain condemned Japan for its violation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact but did little to stop the occupation. An inquiry commission dispatched by the League of Nations placed blame for the so-called Manchuria Incident on Japan, and in 1933 the League Assembly requested that Japan cease hostilities in China. The Japanese government instead announced its withdrawal from the league. Japanese military forces took over the Chinese province of Jehol as a buffer zone and threatened to occupy the cities of Beijing and Tianjin as well. Unable to resist the superior Japanese forces, in May 1933 the Chinese signed a truce that established a demilitarized zone between Manchuria and the rest of China.

Success in Manchuria emboldened the Japanese military to intervene in domestic politics. In February 1936 young, ultranationalist army officers staged a military insurrection in Tokyo to end civilian control of the government and put a military regime in its place. Army leaders put down the coup but in its aftermath acquired greater political influence as the country embarked on a new military buildup. In 1936 Japan signed an anti-Communist agreement with Germany, and one year later it signed a similar pact with Italy. Aggression and expansion now seemed inevitable.

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