Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Japan, Role in the War

The efforts of Japan, one of the three major Axis powers of World War II, to enhance its own position in East and Southeast Asia were responsible for making the conflict a truly global one and the Pacific region one of the two major fulcrums of a worldwide war. From the late nineteenth century onward, a modernizing Japan sought to become the dominant power in Asia, replacing the European empires and subjecting China and Southeast Asia to its own effective hegemony. In 1895, Japan annexed the Chinese island of Taiwan (Formosa), which it retained until 1945. After its victory in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War, Japan sought to replace Japanese influence in the northeastern Chinese provinces of Manchuria. In 1910, it annexed the neighboring state of Korea.

Japanese leaders, who quickly joined World War I in 1914 on the side of the Allied powers of Great Britain and France, saw that conflict primarily as an opportunity to secure further gains in Asia. By the end of 1914, they had taken over the German concession in Shandong (Shantung) Province, China, and driven Germany from various Pacific possessions—the Marshall, Caroline, and Marianas Islands—that Japan annexed. In early 1915, Japan also demanded substantial political, economic, and territorial concessions from China, which would have given it a special status in that country. Under pressure, the Chinese government initially accepted most of the Twenty-One Demands, but it later repudiated them. From 1918 to 1920, Japanese troops also intervened in northeast Russia in the Vladivostok area, as did British and American forces. Their mission was supposedly to protect rail communications links and safeguard Allied supplies in the region after the Bolshevik government that took power in November 1917 negotiated the peace of Brest-Litovsk with Germany and abandoned the war. Japan's allies, however, feared that Japan sought permanent territorial gains at Russian expense, something they hoped their own forces might manage to prevent.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Japan sought to replace Germany in the Shandong concession. Student protests in China, which began on 4 May 1919 in Beijing, forced Japan to renounce its privileges formally, but in practice, the area remained under effective Japanese control. Under the 1921–1922 Washington conference treaties, Japan agreed to accept a fleet only three-fifths the size of those of Great Britain and the United States and to respect both the territorial integrity of China and the interests of other nations, including the Western colonial powers, in the Pacific region. Throughout the 1920s, Japanese troops from the Guandong (Kwantung) Army remained stationed in north China, supposedly to safeguard Japan's special economic interests in China. The chaotic state of much of China, divided between rival warlord armies and the Republican governments of the Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT)—of Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-sen) and his successor, the military leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), was an additional pretext for the Japanese military presence.

In 1931, units from the Guandong Army deliberately staged the Mukden Incident, an episode in which Japanese officials alleged Chinese troops had sabotaged Japanese-controlled railway lines near Mukden (Shenyang) in Manchuria. This event became the pretext for Japanese forces, without authorization from the civilian government in Tokyo, to take over all of northeast China; there, in March 1932, they established the puppet state of Manzhouguo (Manchukuo, later Manzhoudiguo [Manchoutikuo]), a nominally independent nation under the rule of the last emperor of China, Aixinjueluo Puyi (Aisingioro P'u-i, known to Westerners as Henry Puyi). In response to protests from the League of Nations—most of whose member nations, together with the United States and the Soviet Union, refused to recognize the new state and imposed rather weak economic sanctions on both Japan and Manzhouguo—Japan withdrew from the league in 1933.

Japanese forces were also based throughout much of north China, their presence a perennial irritant to the Chinese government, with the potential to provoke military clashes. For much of the 1930s, the Chinese Nationalist government, now firmly under the control of President Jiang Jieshi (who had consolidated his military position in the late 1920s), effectively acquiesced in Japanese demands. Although Jiang believed that war with Japan was probably inevitable in time, he sought to defer this until, with the benefit of German military advisers, he had successfully modernized China's armed forces. In the early 1930s, his first priority was to eliminate the GMD's major political rival, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP was led by the charismatic and innovative Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), against whose forces Jiang mounted annual campaigns every year from 1930 to 1935. Only after December 1936, when another leading Chinese politician, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsüen-liang) captured him and made his release conditional on joining with the Communists to form a united Chinese front against the Japanese, did Jiang reluctantly and temporarily renounce his deeply rooted anti-Communist hostility. The two camps never trusted each other, and political factionalism within the GMD also persisted throughout the war, hampering Jiang's freedom of action and his ability to wage effective warfare against Japanese forces.

Full-scale war between Japan and China began in July 1937, when long-standing tensions with Japan—provoked by Japan's effective annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and a continuing series of territorial, economic, and political incursions in other areas—caused the escalation of a small skirmish near the Lugouqiao (Lukouch ao) Marco Polo Bridge, close to Beijing (Peking) in Hebei (Hopeh). The Chinese invariably referred to the conflict as the "War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression." Until December 1941, when China formally declared war on Japan and thus aligned itself with the Western Allies after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan dismissively referred to the conflict as the "China Incident"; after that date, it became part of the "Greater East Asia War."

In its early stages, the war was one of rapid movement and military victory for Japan. In late July 1937, Japanese troops took over the entire Beijing-Tianjin (Tientsin) area of north China. They inflicted a series of major defeats upon Jiang's military, wiping out most of his modernized units and, over the following 18 months, successively taking Shanghai and Nanjing (Nanking), Guangzhou (Canton), and Wuhan, China's provisional capital after Nanjing fell. Although Chinese troops had occasional triumphs, notably the April 1938 Battle of Taierzhuang (Hsieh Chan T'ai-Erh-Chuang), these were rarely followed up. Japanese leaders assumed Jiang would sue for peace before the end of 1938, but to their frustration, he refused to do so. Instead, he adopted a strategy of trading space for time, based on the assumption that by retreating, the Chinese could force the Japanese to overextend themselves, making them vulnerable to a lengthy war of attrition. This prediction proved substantially correct, as by 1940, Japanese forces were bogged down in an inconclusive war in mainland China, occupying vast tracts of territory without fully controlling them. Even so, despite the scorched-earth policy Jiang followed, the regions he ceded to Japanese rule from March 1940, exercised through the puppet regime of renegade Chinese politician Wang Jingwei (Wang Ching-wei), included most of China's leading cities, its major industrial areas, and most of the fertile and densely populated agricultural regions.

Much as they did between 1914 and 1918, Japanese leaders in the 1930s believed the deteriorating European situation offered them further opportunities to enhance their influence in Asia. From May 1932, when military cadets assassinated Japanese premier Inukai Tsuyoshi, Japan's military largely dominated the government. In November 1936, Japan and Nazi Germany, whose National Socialist dictator Adolf Hitler had pursued increasingly aggressive policies in Europe since 1933, signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement directed at all Communist states and individuals, whom both these authoritarian and Fascist regimes perceived as their chief ideological opponents. The prime target was the Soviet Union, whose territory both Germany and Japan ultimately coveted. In 1937, Fascist Italy also joined the pact, effectively aligning all the dissatisfied have-not states of the post–World War I era together. In 1938 and 1939, Japanese forces in Manchuria and Mongolia clashed repeatedly with Soviet units, encounters that culminated in August 1939 in a major Soviet victory at the Battle of Nomonhan on the Manchurian border, the world largest tank battle to that date.

In October 1938, the Japanese government announced its intention of creating a New East Asian Order, which would end western colonialism in the region and replace it with Japanese leadership and dominance. One year later, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, whereon Britain and France declared war on Germany. The spring 1940 German blitzkrieg quickly brought the defeat of Belgium and the Netherlands as well as French and German domination of virtually all of western Europe, leaving Britain embattled against Hitler and British, Dutch, and French colonial possessions vulnerable to Japan. In September 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed the Tripartite Pact, obliging each nation to assist the others should another country attack them, though not to assist in a war in which one of three was itself the aggressive party. Japanese officials hoped this agreement would persuade Great Britain and the United States to make concessions to Japanese interests in East Asia, including pressuring the recalcitrant Chinese government into a peace settlement that would end the war in China and grant Japan easy control of much of that country. They also sought Western acquiescence in the establishment of Japanese bases in French Indochina, which would be particularly useful in interdicting the flow of military and other supplies to southwest China.

For some months, Japanese military and political leaders debated whether they should follow a northern strategy and attack the Soviet Union or a southern strategy designed to enhance their position in Southeast Asia at the expense of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States. After bitter debate, Japan picked the second option in April 1941 and signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, while opening protracted negotiations with the United States in the hope of persuading the American government to accept Japanese dominance in both China and French Indochina. In late July 1941, Japanese troops moved into French Indochina, allowing the Vichy-affiliated colonial authorities to continue as the nominal government but establishing bases and effectively controlling the colony. The American government responded by freezing Japanese assets in the United States and imposing a complete embargo on trade with Japan. Japan purchased virtually all its oil from the United States and only had sufficient stockpiles to supply its military for two years. The two countries continued intensive diplomatic negotiations for several more months, but until early December 1941, most Japanese leaders, unwilling to relinquish, moderate, or compromise their ambitions in China and Southeast Asia, believed war with the United States and other Western states was inevitable. Japan was under some pressure from Germany to take military action against its enemies; Hitler would have preferred that Japan move against the Soviet Union, which his forces had invaded in June 1941, but he settled for Japanese action against Britain and the United States, even though he was not yet formally at war with the latter.

Negotiations between Japan and the United States finally broke down at the end of November. On 7 December 1941, carrier-based Japanese warplanes attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at its base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, only declaring war after this assault had taken place. Japanese forces quickly swept through and conquered much of Southeast Asia, and by mid-1942, they controlled the former American colony of the Philippines; Dutch Indochina (Indonesia); and the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and Hong Kong. They also threatened Australia and India. Japan now controlled most of the valuable economic resources it had coveted, including the oil wells of Dutch Indochina, Malaya's tin and rubber, and Southeast Asia's rice fields. Defeating Japan took second place in Allied strategy to victory over Germany and Italy, which both declared war on the United States immediately after Pearl Harbor. Even so, in the long run, Japan could not match the United States in industrial capacity or population, and it found itself unable to continue the war indefinitely. Although Japan proclaimed the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, to which all those areas under its hegemony could belong, and although it established quasi-independent collaborationist governments in China, the Philippines, and Burma, Japanese rule was far from popular with its new subjects. Japanese military successes undoubtedly played a crucial role in the dissolution of Western imperialism in Asia once World War II was over, but brutal atrocities committed against the local populations and the blatant exploitation of all available resources for the Japanese war effort undercut Japan's claims to gratitude as the power that had liberated most of Asia from Western colonial dominance.

Japan's strategy rested on the hope of a quick victory in Asia, after which its leaders trusted they would be able to persuade the Western allies, especially the United States, to accept a negotiated peace. In June 1942, the U.S. victory in the Battle of Midway, in which the American fleet destroyed three of Japan's four fleet carriers, effectively restricted the Japanese navy to defensive operations in the future. The rapid drives by Japanese troops through much of Southeast Asia ended about the same time, and Japanese military power reached its furthest extent in summer 1942. Throughout the war, the China theater continued to tie down over a million Japanese troops. In late 1942, Allied forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur began the selective island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific that would gradually isolate Japan, interdicting the shipment of vital supplies and slowly threatening the Japanese homeland. Although Japanese forces often fought bitterly, exhibiting the bravery of desperation, they found themselves increasingly outnumbered and outequipped, with little hope of reinforcements. On the home front, the Japanese civilian population—like those of the areas occupied by Japan and, indeed, Japanese soldiers as well—experienced increasing privations from 1943 on, with food and other staples rationed and in ever shorter supply. From summer 1944, American airplanes subjected all major Japanese cities except the shrine city of Kyoto to ferocious bombing raids, and after three months of heavy fighting, U.S. troops took the island of Okinawa in late June 1945, opening the route for the invasion of Japan itself.

By the summer of 1945, facing what seemed inevitable defeat, some Japanese politicians sought to explore the possibility of a negotiated peace, using the still officially neutral Soviet Union as an intermediary, but these talks proved inconclusive. Military leaders in Japan were still determined to fight on and defend the homeland islands to the last. At the July 1945 Potsdam Conference of Allied leaders, Soviet president Josef Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan. Receiving word that the first atomic bomb test had been successful, U.S. President Harry S Truman called on Japan to surrender forthwith or face horrific attacks from new weapons of unparalleled destructiveness. The Potsdam Declaration proved unavailing, and on 6 August 1945, an American B-2 bomber exploded a nuclear device over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and on 9 August, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. By this time, Soviet troops had already begun a highly effective campaign in Manchuria. Faced with the prospect of additional casualties in a homeland invasion and uncertain whether Japan might have to endure yet further nuclear attacks, the Emperor Hirohito exerted his authority over the still recalcitrant Japanese military on 14 August and made a radio broadcast accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. Three days later, he instructed Japanese forces to lay down their arms.

Japan ended the war devastated—its cities in ruins, its population starving, its shipping and trade largely destroyed, and its colonial empire gone. Over 1.5 million Japanese soldiers and civilians died during the war, and until 1952, the country was under American occupation. Ironically, Cold War pressures soon meant that Japan became a crucial ally of its former enemies, especially of the United States, and the linchpin of American strategy in Asia. China, by contrast, where the Sino-Japanese War helped to weaken the Nationalist government and enhance the position of the Chinese Communist Party (which took power in October 1949), was for several decades after that event a sworn enemy of its former ally, the United States. Other Asian powers undoubtedly had long memories of Japanese wartime atrocities against their countries, and they particularly resented efforts by the Japanese government and nationalist organizations to minimize these or even deny that they ever occurred. Yet by encouraging the Japanese economic recovery, the United States helped to make Japan Asia's strongest economic power, thereby enabling it to achieve the dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region for which Japanese leaders had strived since the late nineteenth century.

Priscilla Roberts and Saito Naoki


Further Reading
Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. New York: New Press, 1992.; Dower, John. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.; Hanneman, Mary. Japan Faces the World, 1925–1952. New York: Longman, 2001.; Haslam, Jonathan. The Soviet Union and the Threat from the East, 1933–41: Moscow, Tokyo, and the Prelude to the Pacific War. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.; Ienaga Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931–1945. New York: Random House, 1978.; Iriye Akira. Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.; Iriye Akira. The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific. New York: Longman, 1987.; Lamb, Margaret, and Nicholas Tarling. From Versailles to Pearl Harbor: The Origins of the Second World War in Europe and Asia. New York: Palgrave, 2001.; Li, Narangoa, and Robert Cribb. Imperial Japan and National Identities in Asia, 1895–1945. New York: Routledge, 2003.; Marshall, Jonathan. To Have and Have Not: Southeast Asian Raw Materials and the Origins of the Pacific War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.; Spector, Ronald H. Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
 

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