*** World War II-- Japanese invasion of China Second Sino-Japanese War

Second Sino-Japanese War: Japanese Invasion of China (1937-38)

Japanese 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 indoctrinated by it. (Politicans who seriously 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. The Japanese militatists experienced considerable military success in China, although they were unable to complere their victory. The Nationalist held out in remote western Chuna. The Jaoanese militarists do not seen to have understood why they were so sucessful in China. They erte comvinced that it was their innate superority, not their modern industrial base that was the central reason. Nor did they understand why they were defeated by the Red Army at Khalkhin Gol (1939). As a result, their Militarists decided that the way to bring the the war in China to a successful conclusion was to attack the United States--the world's greatest industrial power. Historians including Japanese historians still marvel at the incomprehensible miscalculation. This photograph was taken by a Japanese soldier in China, but is undated. While educated Chinese were nationalistic, the hihe peasant population barely inderstood that they were Chinese.

"Before my eyes, myu son was pleased. People are shoying 'Banza!'. I told my daughter, 'Don'cry'. .... Your father just smiled. I knew if I showed my fears, it woykd only be more painful for my husbabnd." *

-- Tora Nochita, wife of inducted man needed as reenfircements to fight the war in China, 1937.

The Japanese invaded China proper after an indident at the Marco Polo Bridge (July 1937), launching the Second Sino-Japanese War. (July 1937). Again local Japanese commanders played a central role. 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 major battle was fought over Shanghai. Chinese resistance surprised the Japanese, both in the air and on land. 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.

Attempts to Negotiate (1931-37)

Chiang knew that the KMT did not have the military capability to resist the Japanese Army. This was especially true in Manchuria. So he adopted a policy of negotiaing with Japan to avoid war and try to build up the Nationalist Army. There were various negotiated truces reached with Japan after they seized Manchuria. The impact of these treaties was to enable the Japanese to expand their control further souh from Manchuria. The Tang’gu Truce wasreached in the region near the Great Wall (mountainous region protecting North China), akind of DMZ (1933). ; The He-Umezu Truce which frced the KMT to withdraw its mayors of in Beijing and Tianjin aswell as the governor of Hebei Province. TheKNT also had to deploy its army further south (1935). The Qin-Doihara Truce also required further KMT concessions to Japan (1935). [Yang]

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. What the Chinese did have was a few effective divisions that had been trained as part of the German military mission which began before Hitler seized control of Germany. The German trained divisions were the elite-quality, best trained and equipped infantry divisions trained under Sino-German Cooperation Program beginning in 1926. It is these divisions that surprised the Japanese and put up a much more effective fight than the Japanese had exprcted, espcially during the fight for Shanaghai. Much of the The finest most effective fotces in the Nationalist Army were destroyed in the process.

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

The Chinese and Japanese soldiers were very different. Japan was the only industrial power in Asia. The Japanese with its industrial base were able to equip their soldiers for modern war. The Chinese were not. But equipment was not the only difference. Japan was not only an ibdustrial power, but had fonded an Ruropean-style educationl system. This included openinf shools in the country side. This meant that Japanese soldiers were not only literate, but politicized. Chinese students were highly patriotic, but this meant mostly the middle-class in the cities. Chuna had a much larger population than Japan, but was still a largely agraian peasant society. Mny peasabts were not literate and there were few schools in the coiuntry side. Thus the Chinese peasant soldier was not nearly as politicized as the Japanese soldier. The Chinese peasantry saw the Japanesw as invaders, but often the Nationalist army was as much as a danger as the Jsosnese, seizing both food and forcibly drafting the young men for military service. And the pressire on the peasantry from both sides only increased as the War dragged on and the Japanese seized more amore agricultural land. Chinese soldiers were often not capable of combat bcause they were so pporly fed. Many actually starbed to death in the last years pf the War. There was another difference. The Chinese soldiers were not, like the Japanese, taught or prepared to fight to the death. The Japanese, however, murdered every Chinese soldier who surrenbdered or was captured.

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.

Subsequent Japanese Offensive

The Japanese had to fight pitched battles with the Nationalist Army during the first year of the War. After that and the strong of costly lossess, the Chines were less inclined to go toe to toe wuth the Japanese. As a result, the Japanese methodically moved south, seizing control of most of eastern China, and all of the major ports. The ports were a major priority. China unlike Japan had not industrilized. Thus they had to obtain heavy weapns oversea. Seizung the ports cut off the Chinese from foreign arms and other supplies. The Japanese also seized the agriculturally rich Chang Jiang Valley in central China by the time war broke out in Europe (1939). The Chinese were driven steadily into the interior. There the Japanese faced a costly dilemma. Wars are expensive. And the Japanese expectation of a short victoirious campaign leading to the easy exploitation of China, turned into a long, draining struggle. Worse for the Japanese, the deeper they drove the Nationalist into the interior, the more difficult it became to come to grips with them and defeat them. China did not have modern infrastructure system, even in the east, moving west into the interior the infrasture was virtually non existent. China's backwardness thus proved and asset. It mase it increasingly difficult for the Japanese to bring their superior military forces to bear. And even worse, as they seized mote of China, they had to garison their conquests. This meant that more and more troops were needed, increasing the cost of the war, but only a fraction of the force could be deployed at the front.

Chinese Strategy

The Kuomintang Army was badly battered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy it. Chiang used the same tactics that Mao and the Communists had used, withdrawing into the rugged, more easily defensible interior. The Nationalist learned that open combat with the better varmed and more disciplined Japanese was suicidal. Chiang's strategy was to preserve the KMT army at all cost and to outlast the Japanese. He also did not want to exhaust the KMT's strength knowing the fightv was cominb with the Communists. The KMT army was withdrawn into remote areas that the Japanese found difficult to reach in strength. Not oiny did the raiklroids not extend inti the uinterior, but the roiads began narriow tracts. The Japanese Aemy was not motiorized. The great bulk of the Army moved on foot. And this also meant the army's logistics which away from the rail heads was mostly on foot. This made supllying a klarge firce difficult. The Chinese srtegy was to simply out last the Japanese. Wars are expensive as the Chinese contuinued to resist, increasing strain was put in the Japese economy. Chiang also hoped that the Westerbn Allies would increase theur assustance. And america gradually increased oressure in Japan as well as aid to China. And of course, the Japanese took the fateful step of asttscking Pearl Hrbior thrusting nmerica into the War. The 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 in the huge area they needed to cintrol.

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.


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.

American Assistance

Chinese-Americans began raisung funds for China after the Japanese seized Mnchuria (1931). Chinese groups formed many committees were to raising funds to aid the Chinese people. This effort increased when the Japanese invaded China proper (1937). The Nationalist Army fought it out with the Japsnese (1937), had after a series of defeats (1938), retired into the interior and was difficult for the Japanese to get to without increasing their invasion and occupation force. Thge Japanese in addition to terrible atrocities, began to bomb Chinese civilans, essentially waging a campaign of terror on cities crammed with regugees. The United Stared Government at first protetesed and then begam nom-beligerant actions to push Japan to end its aggression in China. This began with moral embargoes (1938). Chinese immigrant organizations to make the raising of funds more efficient by reducing duplication of effort, several committees joined together in 1941 to found United China Relief (UCR). It was chartered in the State of New York, with its headquarters in New York City. Among the founding organizations were the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China, the Associated Boards for Christian Colleges in China, the China Emergency Relief Committee, the Church Committee for China Relief, and the China Aid Council. UCR sought to provide funds for the relief and rehabilitation of the Chinese people. UCR also aimed at informing Americans on events and conditions in China. Chinese officials hope for a great American Government commitment to China. Here UCR and Church groups with missionary activities in China were having some impact. The United States Government began applying economic sanctions against Japan and provide aid to the Nationalists. The United States with the Export Control began to transition from moral to legal embrgoes on Japan (1940). Sectretary Hull's Four Principles were demands for Japan to withdraw from China (April 1941). This was followed by an oil embargo, an economic sanction that Japan could not ignore (July 1941). The first direct military aid would be the American Volunteer Group (AVG)--the Flying Tigers (December 1941).


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

Yang, Luca. Fudan University. Internet post (February 27, 2017).


This quotation came from a British video, "Japan's war in colour". We had trouble understanding it. If you can make out more of it, please let us know. It is at[13:10-45]


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Created: 7:02 AM 2/2/2005
Spell checked: 5:31 PM 3/5/2013
Last updated: 3:51 AM 8/3/2023