Empire of Manchukuo
Part One, The Founding

By John Walsh
October 2022

Japan’s land holdings in China began with victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the seizure of the Liaotung Peninsula along with the city of Port Arthur. At this early period of Japanese imperial thinking, this holding was a comparatively minor part of a greater Japanese state that was also to include Korea and Taiwan, among other island conquests. Liaotung was part of the somewhat wild and ungoverned Manchurian region which had once been the home of the nomadic Manchu people who had conquered the whole of China and inaugurated the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911). However, Manchuria grew in importance as a place offering much-needed resources, markets and lebensraum – the “room to live” that imperialists always saw in overseas lands which, in their imagination, were empty canvases on which their national dreams could be painted.

The peninsula was guarded by the Japanese force known as the Kwantung Army (Kwantung being a landing spot there). This army, removed from civilian political control, became the means by which Japanese holdings in China were to grow. Its purpose was to hold existing possessions and garrison suitable areas but this became insufficient. Expansionists, dreamers and criminals in the Kwantung Army contributed to the gekokujo (insubordination) by which the Army came mostly to be known. Its military importance grew as Manchuria grew in importance to the Japanese economy. The end of the war with Russia had left Japan with railroad stations in its hands and these formed the basis of a new network, the South Manchuria Railroad System, which became a significant investment in its own right and a means of improving the economy. The Kwantung Army began to expand its sphere of operations in moves of dubious legality.

Several attempts were made to provoke the kind of large-scale military action that would provide a pretext for the Kwantung Army, operating against orders from the civilian government, to carve out its own territory. These included the assassination of the leading Chinese Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuelin and other provocations. However, this was not a solely military adventure. For some years, Japanese civilians had been migrating to Manchuria to make their fortune. Although these were mostly poor subsistence farmers struggling in the face of looming global recession, there were wealthier and better-educated groups too. These included the managers and administrators of the South Manchuria Railroad System, who were prominent among the 3,000 new members of the Manchurian Youth League (Manshu seinen renmei), which established a lecture tour and pressure group activities in favour of a solution to what was becoming known in Japanese newspapers as the Manchurian-Mongolia Problem (Manmo Mondai). The occupation of Manchuria was far from placidly received by the Chinese population, who organized labor strikes and operations to disrupt the railroad. In 1928, a nation-wide boycott of Japanese goods was launched. Nevertheless, the Japanese-controlled region attracted investment from the home country and many entrepreneurs travelled in search of new opportunities. Inevitably, therefore, Chinese and Korean migrant labor was also encouraged to move to the region – further convincing the Japanese, in fact, that what their empire-building was achieving was in fact to the benefit of all concerned.

In 1931, the Wanpaoshan Incident further intensified tension. This involved conflict between Chinese and Korean farmers over access to water resources. The Japanese, who had been instrumental in encouraging the immigration of Koreans, were able to pose as their protectors in the face of Chinese aggression. No blood was shed in the immediate aftermath, although guns were fired and subsequent anti-Chinese riots in Korea did lead to deaths, as did reprisal attacks in Chinese cities. Almost simultaneously, Captain Nakamura Shintaro, travelling with some companions in Machuria, was seized by Chinese authorities as a spy and shot dead. The final straw came with the so-called Mukden Incident, in which Japanese forces claimed that Chinese had shot at them and this became the pretext for seizing the city. The Kwantung Army subsequently conquered railway towns across Manchuria, reaching the Great Wall in the north and Harbin in the east (taken on February 5th, 1932). The Kwantung Army had by then been swollen by the addition of other Japanese army elements and the acceptance of Korean boys and men into the military as "special volunteers."

Japanese troopers ride into Mukden, 1931.

In March of 1933, the Kwantung Army declared the creation of the Manchukuo Empire, as an independent nation dedicated to protecting the interests of its multicultural population. It took as its formal leader the former Qing Emperor Henry Puyi, who had been deposed in 1911, while other former Qing officials were drafted into administrative posts in order to try to add some legitimacy to the state. Although Germany swiftly recognised Manchukuo as a new state, the League of Nations (following the work of the Lytton Commission) refused to do so and the rest of the world considered the so-called Empire to be nothing more than a Japanese puppet state. However, the ability of the League of Nations actually to do anything about the situation was very limited.

The principal opponents to the Japanese in Manchukuo would be expected to be the Nationalist Kuomintang faction under Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Communist Party and the semi-autonomous Manchurian warlords. However, Generalissimo Chiang felt constrained to continue with the modernization of his armed forces with the assistance of German experts and, in any case, considered the Communist Party a more pressing threat (a disease of the heart of China, in Chiang’s view, while the Japanese were a disease of the skin). Chiang’s willingness to give the Japanese a free hand ultimately cost him the whole of China. He went on to sign the Tanggu Truce of 1932 which ceded military control of parts of northern China to the Japanese and also acknowledged the presence of a demilitarized zone between Beijing and the Great Wall. The Communists, meanwhile, were still busy in building their own strength and conducting the Long March. In Manchuria itself, the assassination of Zhang Zuelin had proved to be a significant curb to military leadership there and little meaningful opposition developed.

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