Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact

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An Inquiry into the Truth of the Sino-Japanese Incident

By Nagae Tarô,


What were the causes of the Sino-Japanese Incident ? called by some the “Sino-Japanese War”? Who benefitted most if Japan and China were embroiled in full-scale, head-on warfare? Who was it who turned the entire Chinese mainland into a war zone, and decided to make the international city of Shanghai a primary battlefield?

This essay, by Nagae Taro, asks these, and other, pertinent questions that are seldom examined. The essay attempts to answer them, but not by relying on ex-post-facto histories or personal anecdotal accounts, or modern perceptions of the events. Their answers to these questions are brought forth by studying the contemporary state accounts, official documents, reports, and records. The authors made use of both Japan’s and China’s official histories of the War, as recorded and stored in the respective Military Departments of both nations.

Conventional wisdom paints Japan as an aggressor state; but in 1936, conditions were improving between Japan and the Nationalist Chinese Government. In the few short year s since the Manchurian Incident, diplomatic missions were raised to embassies, ambassadors exchanged, regular post and telegraph service was restored, and even the trains were running between Manchuria and China proper. Things were getting better.

This is not the view of popular history ? even in Japan. Too few people know the real records, and are willing to settle for partisan accounts favoring the “innocent” China. Even Japanese politicians, they say, have bought the popular account rather than actually study the record. It is the intent of the author to rectify this.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was fighting a war in 1936 ? but not with Japan. He was fighting the Communists in China for control. And it was the Communists, who were losing badly, who needed to redirect Chiang’s(and China’s) attention to a different foe. It was the near-coup d’etat that was the Xi’an Incident in December of 1936, wherein Chiang was kidnapped by some of his own generals on the eve of perhaps the final stroke against the forces of Mao Zedong, that changed the situation. With his own generals marching to the orders of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, Chiang was forced to concede to their demands to cease fighting the Communists and join forces to fight the Japanese. Still, Chiang hesitated, and the Communists needed to force his hand.

To achieve this end, the author points to a series of escalating terroristic incidents staged or inaugurated by the Chinese partisans which were intended to force a Japanese reprisal and bring about the desired result of war. Even during the now infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the author points to the Japanese government’s own policies and contemporary directives (including General Order #400, issued on the day after, where Japanese forces were ordered to contain their response and keep hostilities from spreading) to show that the Japanese were trying not to get involved in a war.

Finally, when the situation did go south and war broke out, it was Chiang Kai-shek who sent his forces into Shanghai (in violation of treaty) to engage the Japanese marines who were stationed there to defend the Japanese concession in the city. It was Chiang who decided that a “scorched-earth” policy would be the order of the day for Chinese forces, thereby inflicting untold hardship on the Chinese civilians who happened to live in the paths of the armies.

Why is Japan viewed so negatively? She always had been. Prior to the breakout of the war, US opinion of Japan was at a low ebb to start with. Laws had been passed by the United States Congress forbidding Japanese the right of land ownership. Japanese school children were ordered to be segregated by San Fransisco school board. Anti-Japanese Committees were organized everywhere. Of course popular sentiment would favor China over Japan. American diplomats in China and Japan tried to correct the perceptions, but their accounts fell on deaf ears ? and the Chinese Communists forced Chiang’s hand, and the US moved to back Chiang.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But, the essay points out, the ones who might benefit most from a war between China and Japan did benefit. Rather than destroying the Communists (as Chiang had tried to do), the war gave them a new power and purpose. When a group of Japanese diplomats visited Mao in 1960 and apologized for Japan’s part in the War, Mao responded to them, “there is nothing to apologize for. [The Sino-Japanese War] has brought great benefits to China. Thanks to the Japanese Army, we were able to take control of the government.”

Finally, with one eye to the past, the authors look forward, noting China’s stance and policies today vis-a-vis Japan.