The Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which occurred in a suburb of Beijing in 1937, developed into an all-out war between Japan and China. The war developed into a stalemate because of the hard-line stance adopted by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. Questions that should be raised are: Couldn’t the country have avoided escalating the conflict? Why did Konoe, a politician with strong public support, not show effective leadership? What were lawmakers and politicians doing at such a critical period?
Marco Polo Bridge Incident is exploited by expansionists
On the sultry night of July 7, 1937 (the 12th year of the Showa Era), a burst of gunfire rang out near the Marco Polo Bridge (Lugouqiao in Chinese) on the outskirts of Beijing.
Japanese troops on a training exercise were using blanks; however, several live bullets were fired from a different direction. When the Japanese troops promptly assembled, a new volley of more than 10 shots rang out. The dawn of July 8 saw three more shots fired at the Japanese side. Regimental Commander Renya Mutaguchi then ordered his troops to fight back against the Chinese troops.
In the beginning, many people did not think that the skirmish would escalate into all-out war between Japan and China. But one decision after another exacerbated the situation. The unit of Japanese troops stationed in Tianjin under a treaty concluded following the 1898–1900 Boxer Uprising held an emergency meeting of staff officers early on July 8. The quasi-official Japanese war history series (Senshi Sosho), said, “The meeting showed no sign of tension at all; it was simply a discussion of how to deal with imminent issues.”
How did the central command of the Imperial Japanese Army back in Tokyo react to the incident? The central command was informed of the incident for the first time early on July 8. Kanji Ishihara, the head of the First Bureau (Operations) of the Army General Staff, told Akira Muto, the chief of the Operations Section, “If we now act against China, the sky will fall in. Let’s keep the incident from developing further and have the local [command] settle the issue.”
An instruction to that effect was sent to the Tianjin headquarters of the Japanese force on the evening of the same day.
However, Muto, together with Shinichi Tanaka who headed the Military Affairs Section of the War Ministry embarked on preparations for dispatching three Army divisions from Japan. The duo, from the same class at the Military Academy, thus played a key role in escalating the incident. In his memoirs, Torashiro Kawabe, the head of the War Guidance Section of the Army General Staff who opposed escalating the strife in China, wrote, “Military Affairs Section chief Kaneshiro Shibayama gave me a call, saying ‘A troublesome thing happened,’ but [Operations] Section chief Muto said, ‘A pleasant thing occurred.’ There existed a difference concerning approaches to the case—one group was thinking of trying to prevent the situation deteriorating while another group was attempting to pour oil on the fire for fun.”
While Ishihara was seeking to prevent the dispute in China from escalating, expansionists around him began pressing ahead with their plans. At the time, the Chief of the Army General Staff was Prince Kanin (Kanin-no-miya Kotohito Shinno) while Vice Chief Kiyoshi Imai was seriously ill. On July 9, War Minister Hajime Sugiyama, an active expansionist, presented to a Cabinet meeting a proposal to send divisions from Japan to China. But the Cabinet did not reach agreement.
For its part, the Tianjin-based command of the Japanese force in China continued making efforts to end the dispute. Consequently, the command managed to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Chinese side in Beijing at 8 p.m. on July 11. This should have provided closure following an isolated incident. However, a few hours earlier, the matter had taken a dramatic turn in Tokyo when, on the afternoon of July 11, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe decided to deploy three divisions from Japan to China.
The decision was followed by a government statement that read: “The incident was an act of armed aggression against Japan. There is no question about it. At today’s Cabinet session, grave decision to take necessary measures in connection with the dispatch of troops to North China was made.” Why did the government decide to deploy three divisions? Sahishige Nagatsu, a hard-liner who was the Chief of the China Section of the Army General Staff, said at the time, “The incident will be resolved once a Japanese vessel with troops aboard appears off the Tanggu district in Tianjin.” He believed that China would back down if Japan took a tough line.
Ishihara finally agreed to the deployment of the three divisions. Why did he fail to control Muto and others? Ishihara had been of the opinion that Japan should give priority to military preparedness for a war with the Soviet Union. But, upon being informed of a northward advance by China’s Central Army, the core of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, he felt that he should not ignore the danger facing the outnumbered Japanese troops in China.
As Ishihara was now preparing for troop mobilization, Kawabe said it was hard to understand the motivations of a colleague who was known to be an opponent of an expansionist policy. Ishihara’s firm response was, “Do you really believe I should do nothing and witness a crushing defeat for your elder brother’s [Masakazu Kawabe, the Commander of the Infantry Brigade, North China] brigade?”
Muto and other colleagues employed a “gekokujo” (the low-dominating-the-high) approach adopted earlier by Ishihara in the Manchurian Incident. Sadamu Shimomura, the head of the Fourth Bureau (Historical Records) of the Army General Staff, testified with reference to the lukewarm attitude of Ishihara that “[he] appeared to have conceded the issue, even though he remained opposed in principle [to the hard-liners].”
The Japanese troops stationed in China occupied Beijing and Tianjin by the end of July 1937. During and after August that year, an Army Corps under the command of Hideki Tojo, Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army, staged an incursion into Chahar Province. The war thus spread to northern China. Japanese and Chinese troops also clashed in Shanghai.
The Imperial Japanese Army deployed an expeditionary force under the command of General Iwane Matsui, the Commander of the Central China Area Army. As the Japanese forces met strong resistance from Chinese troops, reinforcements were sent from Lieutenant General Heisuke Yanagawa’s Tenth Army, which belonged to the Central China Area Army. At the end of October the Chinese forces subsequently retreated. The Japanese troops, ignoring the front-line for troop deployments established by the central command back in Tokyo, pursued the retreating forces hoping to have the honor of being the first to conquer the enemy’s capital. Commander-in-Chief Matsui led the Japanese assault on beleaguered Nanjing which was defended by China’s Nanjing Defense Corps, led by General Tang Sheng-chi (Tang Shengzhi), until it collapsed on December 13, 1937, and abandoned the Nationalist Chinese government’s capital to the Imperial Japanese Army.
During the capture of Nanjing and operations undertaken to mop up the remnants of the enemy, chaos ensued and in many instances Japanese troops killed Chinese prisoners of war and assaulted civilians. There are various estimates of the number of victims of what later became known as “Nankin Gyakusatsu (Rape of Nanking).” Some put the death toll at more than 200,000 while others place it anywhere between 100,000 and 190,000. Japanese historian Ikuhiko Hata carried out research trying to focus on reliable evidence and estimated the number of victims at about 40,000.
Reports about atrocities committed in Nanjing by the invading force reached Japan, prompting the Imperial Headquarters to dispatch a telegram to Matsui urging him to have his men maintain discipline. Factors contributing to the looting and violent behavior were the tendency to rely on enemy forces for the supply of provisions as well as the desperate attempts by troops hoping to prove themselves in battle. There was also a great deal of animosity toward the Chinese troops after the clash in Shanghai. Historian Hata wrote, “Considering the across-the-board breakdown of military discipline, it seems the commanders of the Army divisions concerned were to blame. In particular, Matsui, as the supreme commander, should have been held far more responsible.”
The quagmire of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45 continued to deepen as the Japanese military demanded a bigger budget and more troops every time it invaded major Chinese cities. Each time the military would say, “This is our last opportunity.” The Army General Staff envisaged that Japan would be able to establish its rule over China once Japanese troops conquered Hankou (Wuhan) in Hubei Province and Guangdong. In reality, such a prediction was completely wrong. Although Japanese troops occupied key Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xuzhou, Hankou and Guangdong, there was no end in sight to the war. The Japanese force in China swelled to 850,000 as of fiscal 1939 and the military budget surpassed 10 billion yen in fiscal 1941.
After the fall of Nanjing, the Kuomintang government retreated to Wuhan and finally to Chongqing, which became the wartime capital of China. It continued its resistance to Japan until the end of the Pacific War.