IT was known as the ‘Mukden Incident’ – an attack against a Chinese city 90 years ago today, devised by rogue Japanese army officers. Here in the West, it is now largely forgotten.
But the action of September 18, 1931, would turn out to be a pivotal event in the war-torn history of the 20th century, a link in a chain of armed aggression that eventually saw the entire world engulfed by conflict.
Mukden, the ancestral capital of the Manchu dynasty, was the largest city in the fertile, resource-rich province of Manchuria in north-east China.
Following their victory over Russia – their rival for control of the region – in the Battle of Mukden during the war of 1904-1905, the Japanese annexed territory near the city as their own militarised enclave. It gave them a firm foothold in Manchuria to help supply food and raw materials to their crowded homeland islands 600 miles away across the East China Sea.
Many in the Japanese army had their sights set on further expansion and emigration into China’s vast hinterland, in the same way that Adolf Hitler earmarked the Soviet Union to provide Germany’s lebensraum.
These fanatical bushido warriors believed it was the destiny of Japan – the Land of the Rising Sun – to rule the peoples of South East Asia, whom they regarded as racially inferior. However, time was not on their side. They had to strike before China became strong enough to resist or expel them.
So on the night of September 18, 1931, officers whose troops were guarding a Japanese-owned railroad near Mukden took matters into their own hands by faking a Chinese sabotage attempt.
They exploded a small charge of dynamite near the tracks, causing little damage and not even disrupting train services. But next day, the militants used the incident as an excuse to launch an assault on a nearby Chinese garrison. By nightfall, they had captured Mukden.
The taking of the city happened without the knowledge of the government in Tokyo. When the maverick officers were told by their high command to stand down, they ignored the order and instead launched a wider offensive.
A full-scale invasion of Manchuria swiftly developed. As the troops advanced, there was little opposition from the Chinese, whose ruling nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were occupied fighting a civil war with Mao Tse Tung’s communists. In Tokyo, the cowed civilian government had little option but to endorse the military’s fait accompli, and dispatched reinforcements.
In January 1932, while Manchuria was crumbling, the Japanese provoked riots 700 miles away in Shanghai, the centre of Western commerce and trade with China. They then bombed and shelled the city before attacking it with thousands of troops. Heavy casualties were suffered on both sides before a ceasefire brokered by the League of Nations halted the fighting in March.
By February 1932, Japanese forces had secured Manchuria. They renamed it the Empire of Manchukuo and installed the last emperor of China, 27-year-old Puyi, as its puppet ruler.
A year later, Japanese delegates dramatically walked out of the League of Nations after being condemned for the conquest.
However, the League took no further action, showing future European aggressors such as Hitler and Mussolini that it was a toothless watchdog which could be ignored with impunity. The Manchuria takeover was formally endorsed by a truce agreed between China and Japan in May 1933.
Amid the uneasy peace, Japanese forces further encroached south in the direction of Peking, taking control of parts of Heibi province.
But by 1936, Chinese nationalist and communist forces had formed a united front against any further Japanese expansion. In July 1937, after clashes around the Marco Polo Bridge in the small fortress town of Wanping, near Peking, full-scale war broke out.
The better-trained and equipped Japanese troops advanced relentlessly into southern China. On August 18, Peking was captured. In November, after a bloody three-month siege marked by stubborn Chinese resistance, Shanghai fell. The urban fighting, which left around 250,000 dead, was so severe that the battle was later dubbed ‘Stalingrad on the Yangtze’.
In December 1937 the Chinese capital, Nanking, was overrun. Here, the unspeakable cruelty that was to be the hallmark of the conquering Japanese reached its pitiless peak in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.
All prisoners of war were slaughtered and soldiers embarked on a frenzied six-week orgy of mass murder, rape, arson and pillage against the civilian population which left up to 300,000 Chinese dead.
Over the next few years, Japan’s advance was irresistible. It had occupied Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1910, and in September 1940 – following France’s defeat by Germany – it seized French Indochina. Soon after that, it signed the Tripartite Pact, allying itself with Germany and Italy.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese took the momentous step of bombing the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, while simultaneously invading British-held Malaya.
Britain and America immediately declared war. Four days later, Germany and Italy – already at war with Britain and the Soviet Union – declared war on the US. China declared war on Germany, Italy and Japan. The titanic clash of ideologies and races now encircled the globe and became the Second World War in all its terrible fullness.
By June 1942, the knights of bushido were masters of the Far East. As well as occupying a quarter of China, they had conquered or had control over Burma, Thailand, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, part of New Guinea and several key Pacific islands, and had come within striking distance of Australia and India.
Japan planned to absorb its newly acquired empire into its so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere ruled from Tokyo. But the Allies slowly fought back in a long, costly campaign imbued with extra horror by the inhumanity of the enemy.
Finally, on August 6 and August 9, 1945, almost 14 years after the small staged explosion that set Japan on its blood-soaked road of conquest, came the infinitely mightier blasts of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender, telling his people with some understatement: ‘The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’
In all, China is thought to have suffered some 20million military and civilian deaths during its conflict with Japan, second only to the estimated 26million losses of the Soviet Union fighting the Germans. However, the agony of the Chinese people did not end there. In 1949, following a bitter civil war, the communists triumphed over the nationalists, who retreated to Taiwan.
Over the ensuing decades, under the leadership of Mao Tse-Tung, atrocities and famine would kill possibly 55million Chinese. The tyranny of the Japanese had been replaced by an even bloodier home-grown version.
Ninety years on from Mukden, history has turned full circle. A resurgent China is now a superpower, while a demilitarised Japan mainly depends on the US for external defence.
Trade and diplomatic relations between Peking and Tokyo are supposedly normalised, but underlying tensions persist and occasionally flare up. It is at such times that memories of Japan’s onslaught are revived, and the question arises of whether the wounds will ever really heal.
An interesting footnote to the Manchuria saga is China’s nomenclature of the Second World War. The start of the conflict is dated by most people from September 3, 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany following its invasion of Poland. But the Chinese – and some historians – used to date the war from the Marco Polo Bridge incident on July 7, 1937. Four years ago, China backdated the start by six years to the 1931 Mukden Incident, and the 14-year conflict is now officially known as the War of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.