Amid tensions between the military and political leadership of Japan, the increasingly independent Guandong Army began a military campaign to regain control of Manchuria. On 18 September 1931, Japanese staff officers of the Guandong Army in southern Manchuria set off an explosion close to the main line of the South Manchuria Railway near Mukden (Fengtien after 1932 and Shenyang today), blaming the act on nearby Chinese soldiers. Guandong Army leaders used the Mukden Incident (or Manchurian Incident) as the excuse to take control of Mukden and mount a campaign to conquer all Manchuria. Presented with a fait accompli by its own military, Tokyo nonetheless supported the action.
By October 1931, Japanese forces controlled all of Manchuria. The Japanese falsely claimed that they had acted only in self-defense and insisted that the crisis be resolved through direct negotiations with China. The Chinese government, however, appealed to the League of Nations; this was the first major test involving aggression for that organization. The League Council was reluctant to initiate tough action against Japan, without the assurance of support from the United States, which was not forthcoming. The British also opposed strong action.
In February 1933, the League Assembly voted to approve the report of its investigating committee, which blamed Japan. It also approved a resolution that called on league states to adopt a doctrine of nonrecognition of Manchukuo (Manzhouguo). Japan alone among the 42 member states voted no. The Japanese delegation then walked out, and Tokyo gave formal notice of its intention to withdraw from league membership.
In March 1932, meanwhile, the Japanese established Manchukuo. Larger than France and Germany combined, this puppet state of Japan had a population of some 34 million people. In March 1933, Japan added to it the Chinese Province of Jehol, and in 1935, it added eastern Chahar.
The Chinese people deeply felt the loss of their five "eastern provinces," and this led to strong anti-Japanese nationalism in China, especially among the educated classes and students. In 1936, in the aftermath of the Xi'an (Sian) Incident, a united front of Nationalists under Jiang Jieshi and Communists under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) was formed to oppose Japanese imperialism in China. Tensions continued to mount, and in July 1937, an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing (Peking) between Japanese and Nationalist forces precipitated war between China and Japan, marking the effective beginning of World War II in Asia.
Nominally independent, Manchukuo had a Chinese dynastic figurehead in the last Qing (Ch'ing) emperor, Aixinjueluo Puyi (Aisingioro P'u-i, known to Westerners as Henry Puyi), after which the state became known as Manzhoudiguo (Manchoutikuo), but Japanese officials controlled its affairs and instituted an immigration policy that brought in thousands of Korean and Japanese settlers. Some 240,000 Japanese in Manchuria increased to 837,000 inhabitants by the end of the war. Japan maintained its control of Manchuria until the last weeks of World War II.
On 9 August 1945, the Soviets launched a three-pronged offensive designed to capture Manchuria and destroy the vaunted Guandong Army. The Soviet's bold operation, conducted in difficult terrain against what were considered some of Japan's best troops, ended by 16 August. The experienced Soviet commanders and their battle-tested formations quickly defeated the defending Japanese forces and gained control of Manchuria.
Soon after the end of the war, U.S. forces acted to support the large-scale redeployment of Nationalist troops to accept the surrender of Japanese forces and regain control of the lost territory. Jiang utilized some of the surrendered Japanese forces in northeast China to fight the Communists in the opening rounds of the Chinese Civil War.
J. G. D. Babb and Spencer C. Tucker
Craig, Albert M., John K. Fairbank, and Edwin O. Reischauer. East Asia: The Modern Transformation. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.; Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army. New York: Random House, 1991.; Mitter, Rana. The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance and Collaboration in Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.; Young, Louise. Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.