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The Japanese Invasion and Occupation of China During World War II

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.

Gen Hideki Tojo 40th PM of Japan

Gen Hideki Tojo 40th PM of Japan

Centuries old enmity

The Chinese have always envied and coveted Japan. They have tried to colonize Japan right from the 11th and 12th centuries. In 1274 and again in 1281 two Mongol fleets under Kublai Khan attacked Japan. The Japanese claim that kamikaze meaning "divine wind" two winds or storms occurred and the fleets were destroyed. Japan continued to prosper while China lagged. In 1904-1905 Japan became the first Asian power to defeat a European nation when the Russian fleet was destroyed by the Imperial Navy. The world now began to take notice of the rising power of Japan.

Japan however had a paucity of minerals and resources. There was no iron ore, coal, or oil. Japanese were looking for a source for material and created the Mukden Incident, (September 18, 1931). The Imperial army seized the Manchurian city of Mukden (now Shenyang, Liaoning province, China). The Mukden Incident was a Japanese engineered explosion along the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway to occupy Mukden; in retaliation for this "Chinese attack," the Japanese army began artillery attacks on a nearby Chinese garrison the next day. On September 21, Japanese reinforcements arrived from Korea, and the army began to expand throughout northern Manchuria. This action was taken by the local Kwangtung army of Japan and did not have the sanction of the Japanese Prime Minister Wakatsuki Reijiro. There was popular support for the action of the Army and the Japanese Prime Minister had to resign. This was followed by military action and within three months Japanese troops had spread throughout Manchuria. They created a Japanese-dominated state which they called Manchukuo.

The Japanese installed Pu Yi a descendant of the Chinese imperial dynasty as Emperor of the state. The Emperor was just a puppet and he very soon realized that he had no say in any matter. The Chinese government was militarily weak had to accept this reality. The Chinese imperial dynasty had been overthrown in 1911 in a revolution. The Dynasty got a fresh lease of life under the Japanese but Japan called all the shots and matters came to a head when even the princess, the wife of the Emperor was impregnated by a Japanese officer of his bodyguard.

The world sat and watched the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo. The Western powers including the United States mildly condemned the Japanese but the league of Nations did nothing.

The Japanese had already colonized Korea and the establishment of Manchukuo made Japan the dominant power in Asia. The Chinese leader General Chang Kai Shek proved powerless. He tacitly accepted the Japanese occupation as he was more intent in trying to defeat the Communists led by Mao Tse tung.


Battleground China

There was an uneasy peace for the next six years. Japan was getting closer to Nazi Germany. The Japanese now wished to consolidate their hold over entire China. In the spring of 1934, the Japanese government declared all China to be a Japanese preserve and sphere of influence in which no power had any say without their consent. In 1935 the Japanese took over Hebei and Chahar (now part of Inner Mongolia) and Suiyuan, Shansi, and Shantung came under threat. A life and death struggle soon broke out between China and Japan.

The battle in China began with a minor incident. There was a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge not far from Peking on July 7, 1937. This soon developed into a full-scale war. There was an urgency behind the Japanese action as by 1937 the Chinese communists and Nationalists agreed to bury their differences and united to fight Japanese aggression.

From a military point of view, the Japanese were much better prepared than the Chinese. Despite a united front being formed the Chinese army was very poorly equipped with hardly any mechanized divisions and their navy was non-existent. They also had no air force worth the name.

Within two years the Japanese army made rapid progress. The Imperial Army captured most of the ports and a majority of the major cities as far west as Hankow and almost the entire railway network. Peking and Tientsin were occupied in July 1937. Thousands of Chinese soldiers were taken POW. All were summarily executed.

The Japanese advance was relentless and by the middle of November 1937 Nanking, the Nationalist capital was captured. In mid-December 1937, after the city had been occupied the imperial army carried out a great atrocity. This is known as the Nanjing massacre. I do not think that even the Nazi party carried out any such massacre. It is estimated that 300,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered troops were killed. This was not all, the Imperial army raped thousands of women on the orders of Japanese commander Matsui Iwane. He was a general in the Japanese Army and commander of the expeditionary force sent to China in 1937. He was tried for war crimes at the end of the war and hanged in 1948.

The capital was moved to Hankow but the city fell in October 1938. In the same month, the Chinese lost Canton and the lower part of the Yangtze valley. The Japanese had superiority in the air and they bombed the Chinese cities at will. The loss of life was enormous. The Japanese had complete control over the sea with the result that the Americans had to look for a supply line to the beleaguered Chinese national Army from the Burma Road and across the Himalayas from India.

By the end of 1939, the imperial army thought they had won the war in China. But the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek now supported by the Americans refused to throw in the towel. The communists also started guerrilla warfare in the countryside From 1940-44 a stalemate commenced. A stage came when the Japanese were controlling only the cities, the railway line, and much of the countryside was out of their control. Like the Germans, they started reprisals. Captured Chinese soldiers were summarily beheaded and the peasants were supposed to kneel down to the Japanese whenever they passed. Chinese girls and women were picked up at will as comfort women. Many were butchered for no reason at all after gratification.

China had become a big battleground and the atrocities on the Chinese by the Japanese were unheard of. Elsewhere in the Pacific, the imperial Navy was defeated..

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Conquering and ruling China

From 1944 the Chinese began to harass the Japanese. The imperial army came on the defensive. The Japanese were also pushed back in Burma and by the end of 1944 Rangoon and Singapore were recaptured by the British.

The Japanese found it tough in China. This was the period when the Japanese military continued its policy of repression on the Chinese. There are reports that there was a race among Japanese officers to see who can behead the most Chinese. It may or may not be true but it points to a complete disregard of human life by the occupying army. Hong Kong and Shanghai had also been captured by the Japanese and they controlled the sea lanes. Supplies to the National army was only through the airlift from Assam in India by the US Air Force.

The Japanese could find no collaborator. They had made their position untenable in mainland China by the atrocities they committed. Thousands of Chinese POWs were just lined up with their hands tied behind their back and machine-gunned and those who survived were bayoneted to death.

The war would perhaps have lasted another two years if the United States had not used the atomic bomb on Japan. When the bombs fell on Japan, the Japanese army was still controlling vast areas in China and Korea. In September 1945 the imperial Army surrendered. In May 1945 the Russian army also invaded Manchuria and the puppet Emperor Pu Yi was captured and taken to Siberia. Later he was released and handed over to the Chinese.

In retrospect one can say that the Japanese lost the war mainly because they treated the occupying nationalities in an abominable manner. It is a wonder that the only persons the Japanese treated with respect were the Indians who had formed the Indian National Army and Subhas Chandra Bose to fight along with them.

Collapse of the Empire

The dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japan hastened the end of the empire which was intact in many places. The Red Army had advanced into Manchuria. The Imperial army surrendered and General Chang Kai Shek took over. He was an extremely shortsighted man and he changed his priority from the Imperial army to the communists at the end of the war. The commander of all Japanese forces in China was Lt Gen Yasuji Okamura. He was arrested but he was found not guilty of any war crime by the Shanghai War Crimes Tribunal after the war. He died in 1966 at the age of 82. General Okamura admitted that he ordered the recruitment of Chinese girls for brothels for Imperial army soldiers in Shanghai and other places. Perhaps this had something to do with Chiang's changed priorities.

A peace deal hammered by General Marshall who had visited China was not accepted by him as he feared he would lose the election. The rest is history as Japan collapsed, Chiang kai Shek also collapsed much to the chagrin of the Americans who had put in millions of dollars in weapons, advisors, and soldiers. It led to the rise of Mao Tse Tung who in some ways was a bigger tyrant but I will have to keep that for another article.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 05, 2020:

JAPANhad colonized China

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 04, 2020:

Tom, there was no choice I China was important for minerals and the Chinese had started a guerrilla war

tom on October 03, 2020:

large no of jap divisions committed in china ,should have been used elsewhere

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 01, 2020:

Thanks Mike for your comment

Readmikenow on October 01, 2020:

Fascinating picture of history. This is a well-written article. I enjoyed reading it.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Pamela, thank you for commenting.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 30, 2020:

This is a another good article about the history of war and power. My husband was just talking about the Americans and the millions of dollars the other day, yet communism won out. You write such excellent historical articles, MG.

tom on September 30, 2020:

i checked internet john lone played puyi ,i have copy of movie

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, regarding Peter O'Toole, maybe you are correct, I frankly don't remember.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Anupam so nice of you to comment. I have not been able to read and comment on your article as I have been busy with my work and also working overtime to get 2 books ready for publication. How are you?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, Japanese invasion of India was basically to conquer India. Their supply lines were greatly extended and fresh troops of the Indian Army and the command of General slim spelled their doom. My great uncle fought in Burma, he was a captain.

tom on September 30, 2020:

john lone acted as puyi ,otoole was his tutor reginald

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, when Dr. Kotnis went to China the situation was different. The same Mao in an address to the Central Committee in 1961 wanted war against India. It was the weakness of Nehru that Mao could capture Tibet. The Soviets won in Manchuria and gave weapons to Mao and that made the communists a force.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, Peter O'Toole, did a wonderful job as emperor Pu Yi in the "The last emperor"

Anupam Mitu from MUMBAI on September 30, 2020:

Is there any humanity shown by these barbaric demons?

It's the height of brutality to act in such inhumane way.

Thank you so much Manohar for updating our history.

tom on September 30, 2020:

warlords controlled china,burma road ledo sole lifelline for chiang ,so japenese attacked north east india

tom on September 30, 2020:

chiang and mao supported indian freedom struggle ,medical mission dr kotnis worked with mao v shantarams movie classic ,edgar snow book red star over china ,general gc marshall secretary of state mediation failed ,his marshall plan successful,manchuria under japanese control ,kwantung army one million troops in china siberia border defeated by soviets in 1945, soviet war movies on this battle in youtube,captured weapons given,to mao by stalin

tom on September 30, 2020:

movie the last emperor shows this henry puyi

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