Second Sino-Japanese War: Japanese Invasion of China (1937-45)

Japamese invasion of China
Figure 1.--The decesions that led to the Japanese invasion of China were made by the Japanese Army and politicans either friendly to the Army or intininated by it. (Politicans who disturbed the military were likely to be assasinated.) The reasons for the invasion were primarily economic. The Japanese wanted to control the resources of China, both mineral resources and agricultural production. The Japanese also wanted control over the vast Chinese market where Japanese industrial products could be sold. This photograph was taken by a Japoanese soldier in China, but is undated.

The Japanese invaded China proper, launching the Second Sino-Japanese War. (July 1937). The Japanese Kwantung Army turned a small incident into a full-scale war. Chinese forces were unable to effectively resist the Japanese. The Japanese military was not only better armed and organized, they were also incredibly brutal. The rape of Nanking was some of the most terrible atrocities of World War II. The Japanese methodically moved south, seizing control of most of eastern China and all of the major ports by the time war broke out in Europe. (1939). The Kuomintang Army was battered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy it. Chiang used the same tactics that Mao and the Communists had used, withdraw into the rugged, easily defensible interior. The Japanese moved up rivers and railroad lines into the interior of China. Much of the Japanese Army was committed to the war in China. It did not prove as draining for Japan, however, as the Soviet campaign did for Germany. This was in pat because of the ineffectiveness of the Kuomintang Army. Resistance to the Japanese fell primarily on the Kuomintang because the Communists were in the remote areas of northwestern China. Also neither Chiang or Mao wanted to weaken their forced by fighting pitched battles with the Japanese.

Manchuria (1931)

The Japanese Kwantung Army occupied Manchuria, a Chinese province, using as a pretext a faked incident on the main railroad (1931). Japan then declared "Manchukuo" an independent state, setting up Pu Yi, the last Manchu Emperor of China as puppet Emperor (1932). Anti-Japanese disturbances broke out in Shanghai. The Japanese bombed the unprotected city to quell the disturbances. There was no effort to hit military targets. This was the first of many Japanese terror bombings of civilian populations. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations as a resulted of the criticism of her military operations in Manchuria and China (1933). The Japanese encouraged Japanese "colonizers" to emigrate to Manchukuo, but few responded to the propaganda films depicting an Asian paradise. For the Chinese in Manchukuo, life became increasingly difficult.

Japanese Economy

The Japanese Army was professionally competent compared to the Chinese, but they were not economists. The occupation of Manchuria did not return notable economic benefits to Japan. In fact, the occupation necessitated considerable costs, primarily increased military outlays. The Government was forced to adopt costly monetary and tax policies that affected living standards. This did not dissuade the militarists who sought another incident to justify their next step, the invasion of China proper.

Marco Polo Bridge Incident (March 1937)

The Japanese invasion of China proper, launching the Second Sino-Japanese, developed from a small border skirmish (July 1937). Some historians also date the beginning of World War II with the Japanese invasion. Fighting began with the Battle of Lugou Bridge, often referred to as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (July 7, 1937). The incident occurred during provocative Japanese military maneuvers. Precisely what occurred at the bridge is not know with any real certainty. There were casualties on both sides. After the incident. as armistice was negotiated, but lasted only a short period. Chinese resistance was stiffer than the Japanese had anticipated. The Japanese government yielded to pressure from the military and dispatched more troops to China expanding their presence. It was enough for the Militarists to cast the invasion of China in terms necessary to avenge the Emperor's honor. The Japanese Kwantung Army turned this relatively small incident into a full-scale war between Japan and China. The Japanese Government, however, did not formally declare war.

Chinese Forces

Chinese forces were unable to effectively resist the Japanese. Japan had a modern, well-equipped army. China did not. China had not industrialized like Japan. The country did not have the capability of designing and manufacturing modern weapons. The Nationalist Army relied on importing weapons. They had almost no air force, few armored units, and inadequate artillery. Nor was the leadership of the Nationalist Army as professional, honest, or as committed as the Japanese.

Japanese Military

The Japanese military was not only better armed and organized, they were also incredibly brutal. The rape of Nanking was one of the most terrible atrocities of World War II. The Japanese military had no idea what they were getting involved with in China. Some commanders estimated that they would be able to defeat Chiang's Nationalist Army in 3 months. This was a mistake they would repeat again when several years later they attacked the United States. Curiously the Japanese seemed not to have realized that their success in China was due in large part to superior equipment and exceptionally poor leadership of the Nationalist armies. Rather the Japanese seemed to have assumed that their success was largely due to a mixture of racial superiority and a martial spirit. Thus they were willing to go to war with the Unites States, a country with a far superior industrial base that was able to equip its military with modern weapons .

Initial Campaign (1937-38)

The Japanese after the incident of the Marco Polo Bridge quickly seized Tianjin and then drove for the key port of Shanghai. Chiang did not want to commit his army, but for Shanghai he had no choice. He knew his forces were not capable of stopping the Japanese, but he also knew that the Chinese people would not accept acquiesce to the Japanese advances. The Chinese fought a series of set piece battles with the Japanese. The Japanese were shocked at the level of Chinese resistance, but brought in added forces. The Japanese committed terrible atrocities both on Chinese soldiers and civilians. This proved to be the conventional phase of the War. The Chinese would never again challenge the Japanese in conventional operations. The best divisions in the Nationalist Army were shattered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy Chinese resistance. After suffering a series of defeats, the Chinese adopted the strategy of trading of "space for time". The Nationalist Army refused to engage the Japanese in pitched battles in which it could be cut off and destroyed. Rather they engaged in delaying actions around important northeastern cities. The objective was to allow to allow important professionals and officials to flee west into safe interior cities. There was also an attempt to move key industries.

International Reaction

The international community had been shocked by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. In response to League of Nation condemnation, Japan withdrew from the League. The international community did not see what happened in Manchuria as few Europeans lived there. And after the Japanese seized control, Manchukuo was essentially closed off the foreigners, especially journalists. The Japanese placed former Qing emperor PuYi onto its throne, creating a puppet regime with the fiction of an independent state. The Japanese invasion of China proper was a different matter. The Japanese moved south. When they reached the Great Wall of China, Chiang Kai-shek pulled back his army in order to avoid a war with Japan while he fought the Communists. Elements in the the Nationalist Army were less willing to tolerate Japanese advances. This led to the Marco Polo Bridge incident which the Japanese military followed up with an attack on Shanghai. The Japanese bombing of Shanghai was the beginning of the Second Sino- Japanese War. It was something that Chiang could not tolerate or hush up. Japanese bombers virtually obliterated the city for no real military objective before brutally occupying it. And this was done in the full glare of international scrutiny from the international sector of Shanghai which the Japanese did not attack. A few months later, the Japanese Army committed "The Rape of Nanjing" which was all observed by numerous international observers. The Japanese behaved with a barbarity unseen since the Middle Ages and made all the more horrible by the use of modern weapons. These reports were widely published around the world. The Missionary movement helped create an emotional attachment with the American public that made the Japanese brutalities in China a more personal matter. The reports firmly established an image of Japan as both lawless and brutal. A reputation it would live up to in its 7-year occupation of China and then other countries after launching the Pacific War. These reports were not only moved the Chinese communities in America and other countries, but also public opinion in Europe and more importantly the United States. The Japanese atrocities in China so affected American opinion are one reason that President Roosevelt had more leeway in dealing with Japan than public opinion allowed with NAZI Germany. American diplomatic protests were gradually escalated to both economic sanctions and economic and military support for China. The primary issue which divided America and Japan was China which ultimately led to Pearl Harbor.

The Soldiers

Chinese soldiers

Japan faced two Chunese armies after it uinvased (1937). Most of the resistance to Japan was conducted by the Nationalist forces, athough this was not thevpropaganda issued by the Communists. The Communists also had a smaller army inthe northwest as well as guerilla forces in other areas of China.

Japanese Soldiers

There seems to be no indication that the Japanese soldiers in Chuina were commited to the task of securing China for the Japanese Empire. If any had reservations, there is little of no evidence of it. That is not too surprising and not all that unusual at the time. Ehat us unusual is the behvior of thE Japanese soldiers in China. Japanese savagery in China defies understanding. Many first hand accounts exist as to what occurred in Nanking to both POWs and civilians. But Nanking was only one city. This barabaric behavior ocurred throughout China during the Second Sino-pJapanese War (1937-45). It is difficult to know to what extent this was ordered by the High Command or was the action of the individual soldiers. Surely both was involved. But it is undeniable that part of the policy of the Japanese military was to intimdate the Chinese to destroy Chinese morale. And Japanese soldiers were no well supplied. They were exopected to largely live off the land. This expalins seizures of food. It does not, however, explain their barbaric vbehavior. There appear to be virtually no limits placed on Japanese soldiers. Rape, torture, mutalation, murder, and canabalism were all permitted. The Japanese Army did not take Chinese POWS. They were all simplly killed shortly after surrendeing, and often in brutal ways such as being used in bayonet practice, beheaded, burried alive, or in myriad other ways. Given the extensive nature of the attrocities perpetrated in China, it appears to have been something both ordered by the High Command and in the nature of the individual Japanese soldier. The Japanese did not have industrial gas chambers like the Germans, but the actual body count is probably higher. Yet there are images showing Japanese soldiers exhibiting a degree of affection toward Japanese boys. (We are guessing that Chinese parens did not allow theur girls any where near Japanese soldiers if they could prevent it.) Here we are not talking about propaganda photography, but what looks like snap shots taken by the soldiers. We do not know how to explain this given the behavior if the Japanese in China. Perhaps these children were from families cooperating with the Japanese. One reader tells the image here looks staged. Hopefully other readers will also have some insights to offer.

Air Attacks

The small Chinese air force consisted of mostly obsolete air craft. The Chinese also had no tactical doctrine for effectively committing the aircraft they had. As a result, the Japanese destroyed most of the Chinese air force early in the War. This left the Chinese Army without air cover. The Japanese used their air superiority not only to attack military targets, but to indiscriminately attack Chinese cities as well. The cities had no anti-aircraft defenses or organized civil defense systems. The result was extensive civilian casualties. It is unclear what the Japanese objective was in attacking civilian targets. Presumably it was to terrorize the Chinese into surrendering. This did not occur. The Chinese simply moved deeper into the interior of China beyond the reach of the Japanese Army, but not beyond the range of Japanese bombers. One unintended impact of the Japanese bombing raids was a huge impact on the Japanese image among Americans. The Japanese attacks were reported by Western journalists who also provided terrifying images in both newspapers/magazines and movie newsreels. Public opinion in America which was already pro-Chinese turned massively anti-Japanese. There was no interest in entering the war, but there was considerable sympathy for aiding China. And one of China's main requests was aid in developing a modern air force.

Second Nationalist-Communist Truce (1937)

After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (1937) resulted in negotiations between the Kuomintang and the Communists and a Second Truce. The alliance never really took hold. There was to much distrust between the two. There were incidents as early as 1938 which became more frequent in 1940. The Japanese operations were primarily aimed at areas occupied by the Nationalists. The Communists used the Nationalist weakness to expand their influence. They courted the peasantry with administrative reforms as well as land- and tax-reform.

Japanese Offensive

The Japanese methodically moved south, seizing control of most of eastern China, all of the major ports, and the rich Chang Jiang Valley in central China by the time war broke out in Europe. (1939).

Chinese Strategy

The Kuomintang Army was battered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy it. Chiang used the same tactics that Mao and the Communists had used, withdraw into the rugged, easily defensible interior. The Nationalist learned that open combat with the Japanese was suicidal. Thus Chiang's strategy was to preserve his army at all cost. The army was withdrawn into remote areas that the Japanese found difficult to reach in strength. The Nationalist and Chinese also attempted to maintain pockets of resistance within Japanese occupied areas to harass the enemy. This helped to complicate Japanese attempts to administer and exploit occupied areas economically. It also forced the Japanese to divert combat troops to occupation duties.

Japanese Commitment

The Japanese moved up rivers and railroad lines into the interior of China. Much of the Japanese Army was committed to the war in China. It did not prove as draining for Japan, however, as the Soviet campaign did for Germany. This was in part because of the ineffectiveness of the Kuomintang Army. Resistance to the Japanese fell primarily on the Kuomintang because the Communists were in the remote areas of northwestern China. Also neither Chiang or Mao wanted to weaken their forced by fighting pitched battles with the Japanese.

Japanese Objectives

The Japanese goal was not to conquer China and administer it as they did in Formosa and Korea, at least immediately. The Japanese invasion had been launched by the Kwantung Army. The Government policy which eventually developed was to destroy the Nationalist Army so China had no potentially strong central government that could offer effective resistance. They could then set up puppet governments that they could control. The Japanese gained victory after victory, but could not decisively defeat the Nationalists who withdrew into the vastness of central China. The growing nationalism of the Chinese people made it difficult for the Japanese to establish puppet regimes. Their incredible brutality ultimately made it impossible.

Home Front

We have been able to find little information on the Japanee homefront and rhe attitudes of the Japanese public toward the War. The invasion of Manchuria and subsequent invasion of China proper was done primatrily for economic reasons to guarantee markets and access to needed natural resources. Assessing public opinion is virtually impossible. Japan by 1937 was a police state with a controlled media. Officials who spoke out against the Government were subject to extral-judicial attacks. The military had been practicing assainations simnce the 1920s. And individuals who might speak out were subject to arrest by the Kempeitai (憲兵隊), secret police. Given those conditiins, obviously gaging public opinion was impossible.And after the War, many denied that the had favored agression. To an extent this is similar to what occurred in Germany. Although there were differences. Many Germans did not want war, the losses had been too great. At the same time, they wanted lost territories returned. After the NAZIs seozed control, many Germans especially older Germans still had an horror of war, although it was no longer safe speak openly about it. The Japanese did not have the same horrifying experience in World War I with millions o men killed. The Japanese even more than the Germans were culturally hard wired to support their government, a tendency strengthened by the military regime's propaganda. And here the Goverment provide a fantasy that few Japanese would have questioned even if they could have. The Japanese were told that their troops were going into Chija to peotect Japanese civilians from Chinese attack. Never explaimed was what the Japnese civilians were doing in China. They were also not told about the horrifying actions of the Japanese military like the Rape of Nanking. Nor we they told that airforce was bombing civilians, something modern Japanese authors commonly forget when discussing the American strategic bombing offensive. The military though that control of China cpold be achievbed quickly (as was the case in Manchuria) and solved the country's economic problems. Instead the enormous cost of a full-scale war only created more problems. And the military found themselves despite victories in the field unable to complete the conuest of China. The China embroligo was already having serious repersussions in the economy when Japan launched the Pacific War. Even so, there is no indication that the puvlic had begun to question the war in China.


The Japanese respected the International Settlement in Shanghai. When they bombed Shanghai, they avoided the International Settlement. The Japanese military had, however, by this time developed rabid hated toward Westerners both culturally and racially and was promoting this attitude among the Japanese people. The military's attitude came out in the attack on the USS Panay (December 1937). The Japanese Government did not want a war with America or Britain, but 4 years before Pearl Harbor, elements in the military were already spoiling for a fight. The Japanese authorities continued to respect the International Settlement until Pearl Harbor (December 1941). There were, however, Westerners (Americans and Europeans) living all over China outside the view of the international media. This included Western missionaries operating large numbers of Christian missions. We do not yet have information on how the Japanese Army dealt with these missions and missionaries as they moved through China. We would be interested in any information that readers may have concerning Westerners. A reader has asked us specifically about a German national teaching at a mission near Shanghai. He tells us that she was raped by a Japanese soldier.

Foreign Assessment

Foreign military especially after the sweeping Japanese advances concluded that the Japanese would defeat the Chinese. They noted in particular that the Japanese were seizing the coastal, most industrialized and most prosperous areas of the country. Thus they reason that China could not adequately equip and supply its armies. In addition, other countries except for the Soviet Union seemed reluctant to get involved by supplying war material least they damage their own relations with Japan.


Jing-hui, Fu. An Introduction of Chinese and Foreign History of War (2003).


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Created: 7:02 AM 2/2/2005
Spell checked: 5:31 PM 3/5/2013
Last updated: 9:47 PM 3/16/2014