The Anti Japanese War in Chinese History

On 7th July 1937, the Japanese invaded China, sending the country into a state of turmoil and destruction. However, the origins of what is now known as the Anti-Japanese War began 20 years earlier.

During the First World War in 1918, Japan had been involved with other nations in the division of China into areas of influence. Unfortunately, the Japanese were incapable of adjusting to the post-war anti-imperialist policies of the Soviet Union and the United States. Although Russia and the West were eventually willing to recognize a strong, united China in control of its own destiny, the Japanese were not. They believed, right up to 1945, that China was a country of separated states that could be manipulated against one another. This belief that the Japanese refused to drop was one of the reasons behind the war. 

The western world, especially that of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, changed its relations with China. Japan, however, saw little reason to. “They therefore saw no reason to back down to the demands of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, for treaty revision in the 1920s. When the British, along with the Americans, suddenly adopted a more conciliatory attitude at the end of 1926, Japanese obduracy left the country diplomatically isolated”.For the Japanese, this was seen as a betrayal.

Not only this, but the Great Depression also became a cause for the war with China. Japanese exports had been hit hard. In 1931-32, the Kwantung Army, originally stationed to protect the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railroad, overran Manchuria. They were certain that Manchuria would provide the markets, raw materials and food supplies that Japan needed. Not only this, but the army leaders believed that this position would “make possible the autarky necessary for the coming war with the West they believed would decide the future of the world”. This position was thought as the very survival of the Japanese.

After the occupation in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army started to gain additional puppet states in the south and the east. They wanted to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ along the Mongolian borders in order to keep out the Soviet Union.

By this time, the Chiang Kai-shek had already expelled most of the Communist forces from southern China, the remainder being driven to Yenan. In 1934, the Japanese declared that it would be responsible for the maintenance of peace, as well as the destruction of Communism, in all of East Asia.

Within three years, Japan had invaded the rest of China. One reason for this was the rich iron and coal resources from Shanxi Province. Another was to force Chiang Kai-shek to recognize the independence of Manchukuo, due to seating Pu-yi as the Manchurian Emperor. The Chinese did not recognised the boy’s sovereignty and the Japanese were only using Pu-yi as a means of getting what they wanted.

The Japanese believed that the Chinese army was no match for them and dismissed the claims that China was united by patriotic feelings. They believed that they could control Manchuria and North China with three divisions in three months, at the cost of one hundred million yen.

The war began 7th July 1937 at the Marco Polo Bridge just outside of Peking. One scholar believes that this clash between Chinese and Japanese troops was the cause that Japan needed to invade China, although other experts say that it was the Japanese navy which was the true author of the war. Either way, the war had truly begun.

In December of 1937, the Japanese destroyed Nanking in one of the bloodiest massacres in history. Between 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese were killed (scholars cannot agree on the number killed). The main cause for this was the Japanese looking for supplies. By the end of 1938, the Japanese had gained control over the Yangtze River valley, which was very rich in natural resources, as well as most of China’s ports.

After the Nanking massacre, the Japanese invasion slowed. Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to yield to Japanese demands after the fall of Nanking and later of Hankow meant there would be no early end to the war, despite the fact that Japan held the richest cities and the railroads.

The Japanese, seizing Hainan in 1939 and northern Indochina the following year, were merely attempts to starve China out of her supplies. The Japanese great offensives into China had ceased, although the army did send offenses for limited goals, such as seizing the Yangtze River port of I-Chang to stop the flow of rice from central China to Chungking in 1940.

Chiang, like the Japanese, also had depleted forces and chose to wait. At this time, he sought out foreign allies to aid him. This search was largely unsuccessful; his attempts with Britain, United States, Germany and the Soviet Union all met with failure.

The end of the war came unexpectedly in 1945 when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to this, the Soviet Union had invaded Manchuria in 1941 and Japan held an uneasy peace with them. Soviet-Japanese relations stayed uneasy, but peaceful, until 1945. At this time, President Roosevelt, worried that the Kwantung Army might maintain fighting even if Tokyo surrendered, had gained the promise of Soviet support in Manchuria. The Soviet Union invaded Manchuria and the Japanese surrendered.

During the time the Japanese invaded China, there were a huge amount of war crimes that the Japanese government has still not publically acknowledged or apologised for. The use of women forcibly conscripted into the army as prostitutes or ‘comfort women’ has received a lot of scholarly attention in recent years.

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito himself has expressed no remorse, guilt, or even responsibility for events since 1931. He has denied that Japan had ever had the objective to “”infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations, or embark upon territorial aggrandizement”. His role in the war crimes in China has led to serious controversy in debates.


Gordon, David M. (2006) Historiographical Essay: The China-Japan War, 1931 – 1945, The Journal of Military History, Society for Military History.