Second Sino-Japaese War: Japanese Occupation Regime

Japanese occupation of China
Figure 1.--These Chinese peasants had to kneel to the invading Japanese forces. We unfortunately do not have the details on when and where the photograph was taken.

The Japanese militarists became obsessed with the idea of controlling China. It was seen as vital to the Japanese economy. How to seize and administer such a large country, however, was never fully worked out. Western historians have addressed the subject of German World War II occupation policies in some detail. The Japanese police, specially in China are less well covered. The Japanese attempted to set up Quisling governments before the term had become had become notorious. Japan after the initial 1937-38 campaign refused to recognize Chang as the attempt to create splits in the KMT. The Japanese political strategy in China was to undermine the KMT by setting up a number of regional puppet governments. This was the approach taken in Manchuko where the former Emperor, PuYi was installed. The Japanese planned that by controlling these regional satrapies that they could control and exploit China. The Japanese did succeed in exploiting Manchuko as they did Korea, but China proved different, in part because the Imperial Japanese army proved incapable of fighting the war to a conclusion and defeating the Nationalists. And the occupation instead of producing benefits to the Japanese economy proved very costly and a drain on the economy. The Japanese could defeat Nationalist armies, but were unable to effectively occupy the areas won. Even in occupied areas, the countryside was not secure. And the Japanese found themselves in a Catch-22. They did not have a large enough forces to occupy the areas they conquered, let along the whole country. They could strengthen a garrison to improve security, but the benefits gained were negated by the added costs of supporting the expanded garrison. The Japanese formed collaborationist units, but they to had to be paid, equipped, and fed. Food proved a major problem. The Japanese had the military force to seize food from the peasantry and they did so. More Chinese would die from starvation and diseases related to malnutrition than as a result of military action. But this in returned increase anti-Japanese feeling and the will to resist the invaders. The Japanese exploitation of China proved so unprofitable that the military turned to drug trafficking. In the end the Japanese policy for controlling China was brutality, best exemplified by the Three Alls. And as part of this policy the Japanese resorted to Weapons of Mass Destruction, both chemical and biological weapons.


The Japanese invasion of China began in the north near Manchuria which the Japanese had seized (1931). There were already Japanese troops in China, most notably in Shanghai, China's most important commercial city. The invasion began at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing (July 1937). The Japanese claimed they were fired on by the Chinese. As in Manchuria, the Japanese used this as an excuse to launch a full-scale invasion of China. The Japanese called it the 'China Incident'. Troops were available in Manchuria and reinforcements were rushed to China. There was a series of fierce battles, especially around Shanghai where Chang committed the best Nationalist units. Finally Shanghai fell (November 1937). Nanjing (Nanking), the KMT capital fell (December 1937). There the Japanese forces went wild. The degree of central control is not well understood, but the killing that ensued and went on for weeks was not the result of troops out of control. The Rape of Nanking was one of the most horrific incidents of the World War II era. No one really knows how many Chinese men, women, and children the Japanese killed somewhere 0.25 million people. Some estimates are even higher. Chang established the KMT capital deep into the interior at Chunking where the Japanese could not get to except by aerial bombing. The Japanese had seized China's largest cities by the end of 1937. They thus controlled the major communication and transportation systems. After this, the Japanese moved more slowly. But eventually they controlled all the important ports and nearly all of the coastal area. The last port to fall was Hong Kong, seized after they launched the Pacific War (December 1941). The Japanese could have gone further, but they did not have sufficient forces to occupy all of China. And they did nor see the Chinese hinterland as of strategic importance. In addition, the cost of seizing and occupying was not justified by the cost of doing so. The Japanese eventually committed 2 million troops to China, but even so the areas conquered were not totally controlled. The last Japanese offensive, Ichi-Go, took areas in southern China (May-June 1944). The KMT had built bases for the new B-29 bombers designed for launching a strategic bombing campaign against the Home Islands.

Puppet Governments

Japan after the initial 1937-38 campaign refused to recognize Chang as the attempt to create splits in the KMT. The Japanese political strategy in China was to undermine the KMT by setting up a number of regional puppet governments. This was the approach taken in Manchuko where the former Emperor, PuYi was installed. The Japanese planned that by controlling these regional satrapies that they could control China. One and the best known was the Nanjing Nationalist Government headed by former KMT premier Wang Jingwei. The effort achieved little success. Japanese brutality so alienated the Chinese population that any Chinese leader associated with then, even the war lords, lost their legitimacy. And the Japanese refused to convey any real powers to their puppets so few effective leaders had any incentive to join them.

Resistance Movements

The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) launched the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937). The first year of the war was conventional combat. The Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Army surprised the Japanese with their combat capability. There was bitter fighting, especially for Shanghai. The Chinese did not have the industrial capacity of the Japanese. After the first year of the War, the best Chinese divisions had been chewed up and much of their heavy equipment as Nationalist armies retreated into the interior. The Nationalist strategy shifted from fighting conventional battles with the Japanese to avoiding pitched battles, substituting space for time. The Chinese seeing that they could not defeat the Japanese sought to drag out the war for as long as possible, conducting low level operations so as not to exhaust their resources. The idea was to exhaust Japanese resources and make the Japanese war effort as costly as possible all the while building up Chinese military capacity in the interior. American general Joseph Stilwell who served in China during the inter-War era, including stints as a military attache before America entered the war described the Chinese strategy as 'winning by outlasting', an accurate description an actually the only option available to the Chinese. The Nationalist Army was not totally reactive. They developed the concept of 'magnetic warfare'. The idea was draw advancing Japanese forces forward to positions where they were exposed to ambush, flanking attacks, and encirclement. One example of this tactic was the successful defense of Changsha which resulted in substantial Japanese casualties (1939 and 1941). The Japanese as the war progressed did, however, advance from their northern area of control both south and west and occupied increasingly large areas of China, including large areas of productive agricultural lands. While this denied more and more agricultural lands to the Nationalists, it also meant taking areas that were too large to control as long as the Nationalists had an army in the field that the IJA had to confront with most of its force. Local Chinese resistance forces organized separately by both the communists and KMT behind Japanese lines. And these resistance groups became a major part of the Chinese war effort. These two resistance forces made it difficult for the IJA to fully control conquered areas, especially at night and beyond the urban centers administered by the Japanese. This made it difficult foe the IJA to effectively exploit conquered areas. It also raised the cost of the War. The IJA not only had to have a large force to engage the conventional Nationalist Army, but had to support substantial garrisons throughout the huge area of China that they conquered. The guerillas carried out attacks both on the Japanese and on Chinese cooperating with the Japanese. The resistance effort frustrated the IJA. They had suppressed resistance operations in Manchuria and expected to do the same in the rest of China. Th difference was that unlike Manchuria, the Nationalist Army fought and only a part of the IJA force could be used in occupation pacification operations. The IJA response was the "Three Alls Policy" (kill all, loot all, burn all) (三光政策). This meant terrible Japanese war crimes. Japan had succeeded in occupying much of north and coastal China and was moving into central China (by 1941). But KMT Government and Army had successfully retired into the western interior. The Communists retained control of their Shaanxi base area. The Japanese to conduct major operations in the interior required major logistical support which would prove costly and the costs associated with what they called the China Incident had already cost far more than what they anticipated and after 4 years of fighting showed no sign of reaching a conclusion. But the situation was even worse than suggested by maps showing areas captured. The IJA was making no progress in consolidating their control over the conquered area. The Japanese firmly controlled the cities and more or less the connecting rail lines ('points and lines'). They were unable to exert administrative control of the huge expanse of rural China. Here Chinese guerillas (both Nationalist and Communist) operated freely. The ability of the Doolittle flyers to reach safety show how little control the Japanese had on the countryside even in coastal areas. Incredibly the Japanese militarist, frustrated with their inability to defeat the Nationalists, decided that they would could win the war by attacking the United states as part of an effort to seize the Southern Resource Zone. They had gone to war with China to seize resources, but now they decided they needed the SRZ resources to complete the conquest of China. Much more was going on in the Chinese countryside besides resisting the Japanese. A second war underway between the Nationalists and Communists who were often more active against each other than against the Japanese. The KMT complained bitterly that the Communist were attacking their forces rather than the Japanese. Communist propaganda often belabored the Nationalists for ineffectual resistance to the Japanese. In actuality, except for a few well-publicized actions, the bulk of the fighting was conducted by the Nationalist Army.


The Japanese supported a major school system in Manchuko as they did in Formosa and Korea. Chinese was banned in Formosan schools and Korean in Korean schools. Manchuko was somewhat different. Chinese was allowed in the schools, but we are not yet sure to the extent. We have little information at this time about the schools in Japanese occupied China or to what extent schools continued to operate. We know that many schools closed, but we believe that some schools contunued to operarte. A factor here would be who would pay the teachers' salaries.


The Japanese policies in occupied China were the polar opposite of that which they would proclaim, but largely ignore, as part of their Greater East-Asia Co-prosperity Sphere (GEACPS). Notably, Chinese representatives were no where to be seen at GEACPS functions. The Japanese goal was to exploit Chinese resources and sell to a captive Chinese market. This proved fairly successful in Manchuko which was rich in natural resources and in which resistance to the Japanese did not develop. China proved very different. Exploiting China and taking advantage of the vast potential market proved very difficult in th middle of a War which Japan proved incapable of bringing it to a conclusion. The Japanese encountered continuing difficulties in administering and garrisoning the occupied areas. This was because the Japanese could not control the countryside. Here there was a Catch 22 operating. The Japanese could increase a garrison to secure a given area, but this increased the cost of occupying that area, thus negating any advantages gained.

Occupation Costs

The Japanese militarists who launched the invasion of China saw a short military campaign to be won with a relatively small force. And this would result in huge profits to be gained from occupying and exploiting China as another Japanese colony. As it turned out the military campaign was not only not short, but it continued on and one requiring more and more men and costly material. Even so, the expected profits never materialized as planned. The costs of the effort, however, proved far greater than anticipated. The salaries of Japanese civilian officials had to be paid. The major cost was, however, the military operations which continued year after year. This is because military operations even if conducted by poorly paid and supplied military conscripts are very costly operations. Much of the costs could be covered from domestic sources. Military operations, however, required the heavy use of costly imported oil and rubber. Truck and other vehicles were needed as well as large quantities of expensive military equipment. Japanese commanders expected their soldiers to live off the land. Thus little food was shipped to China for the soldiers. While grain and other food was shipped from Manchuko to the Home Islands, this did not occur to the extent anticipated from China. Most of the grain and food seized in China went to feed the Japanese armies operating there. This was a massive non-productive force, but they had to be fed by Chinese peasant farmers, many of who existed on the razor edge of subsistence. There was no huge agricultural surplus. The war reduced Chinese harvests. And without a substantial surplus there were no huge quantities of food to be shipped back to the Home Islands. China is a huge country. The Japanese military force in China was massive. The Japanese not only had to have large force to fight the Nationalists, but also to occupy and garrison the areas conquered. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor after more than 4 years of fighting, the Japanese had mobilized 51 divisions. There 35 divisions in China and 39 independent brigades, almost all of which were also in China. This amounted to about 80 percent Japanese Army's total force. And even so, the Japanese had not defeated the Nationalists nor gained full control of the rural areas of the territory conquered. The never ending war and the huge costs were a major factor in the Japanese decision to launch the Pacific War.

Collaborationist Units

The Japanese in an effort to control the areas they occupied formed Collaborationist Chinese Arny units. Army. The size of the collaborationist units are believed to have reached some 1.1 million menm althiugh we gave see lower estimates of 0.7 million. This does not include polic amd militia groups orgabized by the Japanese which may have inluded some 0.3 million men or more. Rhese were generally pootly armed. We are not sure about the reliability and performance of Collabirationist units or the equipment and training. We suspect that they were primarily used in occupation duties. Nor are we sure about the motivation of the men involved. One factor here is food. Many Nationalist soldiers were very poorly fed and equipped. Working for the Japanese at least the men involved got food. A Jaoanese Chinese reader reported that many of these men were recruited from captured KMT soldiers. He was explaining why the Japanese at the end of the War had no POWs to release. (The basic Japanese policy was to muder Chinese POWs.) The Collaborationist Army was the variously named Provisional (1937–1940), Reformed (1938–1940) and Reorganized National Governments of the Republic of China (1940–1945). The KMT referred to them as 'puppet' troops. [Jowett, pp. 71-72.].


At the time of the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into World War II, the Chinese had been fighting Japan for 4 years. The Japanese seized coastal areas and some of he most productive agricultural land. The loss of the Hubei Plain was a particularly serious blow (1940). The Nationalists lost 20 percent of their rice growing regions and 60 percent of their wheat lands (1940). [Pusen, p. 158.] Until this point the Nationalists had been managing the food situation fairly well. The Nationalists had adopted measures to increase food production, but the savagery of the Japanese drove some 50 million refugees into the Nationalist areas greatly increasing the number of hungry mouths at the same time food producing areas were being lost. And further Japanese advances only increased the invader's control over food producing areas and transportation lines. As a result, the nationalists were forced to increase demands on the peasantry, including higher taxes, seizures, and conscription of men. There are reports of press ganging peasants and selling them to the Nationalist Army. There are even more horrifying accounts of huge numbers perishing in the process. [Rummel, p. 116.] This reduced the rural work force, adversely affecting food production. Unlike other Allies, like Britain and the Soviet Union, there was no way to get food to the Chinese. Japan when they seized Burma, cut the Burma Road (May 1942). We do not yet have details in Japanese food policies in occupied areas. The flood of refugees to Nationalist areas presumably affected food production. And the Japanese tendency to simply seize food probably affected production. The lack of security in the countryside was probably another factor. But we have no good source addressing this topic.

Drug Trade

Japan before World War II signed and ratified the opium conventions. It was thus obligated not to engage in drug traffic. Drugs were outlawed in Japan itself with very stiff penalties. Japan after the invasion of Manchuko, however, became a major participant in the international drug trade. China had also prohibited the trade. China before the War made considerable progress in wiping out the drug trade, especially opium production and selling. Under the Japanese Opium poppies became an important crop openly grown in Manchuko. The League of Nations found before the War that that 90 percent of the illegal 'white' drugs in the world were of Japanese origin. Opium consumption which had been driven underground, under the Japanese both increased and was once again openly practiced. Japanese commanders at the highest levels were involved in the drug trade and taking their cut. The Japanese had several reasons for promoting the drug trade. First the officers involved found it a lucrative activity. Second, the funds earned helped finance the occupation. Thirdly, debasing Chinese society help to undermine the ability of the Chinese to resist the Japanese. The Japanese involvement in the drug trade was proven by a mountain of evidence at the Tokyo IMT trials. One author reports, "By the time the Japanese witnesses left the stand, the financial manipulators among the accused emerged as little more than glorified drug peddlers. In the dock Hoshino, Kaya, and Suzuki sat like lizards on a rock, motionless except for the involuntary blink of their eyelids." [Brackman, p. 194.]


The template for Japan's occupation policies were established by the May Incident (May 30, 1925), two decades before Japan invaded China. Japanese factory guards shot and killed workers. he Japanese used this incident to justified increased troop deployments. The Four Alls concept was conceived as a way of dealing with the Chinese. Brutality was a policy conceived by Japanese military commanders to force the Chinese into compliance with Japanese rule. It has worked in Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuko. The Japanese in the process of invading China committed war crimes and atrocities on an unprecedented level against the Chinese civilian population. The most savage of these explosions of barbarity was the Rape of Nanking, after the fall of the capital Nanking. Here European diplomats and missionaries witnessed the brutality of the Japanese. It should be noted that these atrocities were not inherent in the Japanese character. The Japanese conduct and treatment of both prisoners and civilians during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I had been correct and in accordance with accepted international standards. The Japanese military invading China behaved very differently.


Brackman, Arnold C. The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Story of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials (William Morrow: New York, 1987), 432p.

Jowett, Phillip S. Rays of The Rising Sun, Armed Forces of Japan’s Asian Allies 1931–45 Volume I: China & Manchuria". (26 Willow Rd., Solihull, West Midlands, England: Helion & Co., 2004).

Pusen, Jin. "To feed a country at war: China's supply and consumotion of grain during the war of resistnce,' in David P. Barrett and Larry N. Shyu, eds. China in the Ant-Japanese War, 1937-1945: Politics, Culture and Society (Peter Lang: Oxford, 2001), pp. 157-69.

Rummel, R.J. China's Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900 (Transactions Publishers: Londin, 2007).


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Created: 4:46 AM 12/16/2013
Last updated: 10:21 PM 12/29/2014