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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: March 2017

5 - The Second Sino- Japanese War (1931– 1941)


Communism has already invaded China, and the alarming extent and success of the invasion is far too seldom realized. A communized China would constitute a problem for Europe and America beside which other questions would pale into insignificance.

1933, as Japan withdrew from the League of Nations

The military eclipse of civil authority marked a return to the pre-Meiji Restoration balance between civil and military institutions. During the shogunates, the army had ruled. But army rule was a throwback to a system no longer adequate to navigate the problems Japan faced. Its modern army missed the strategic advantages conferred by an island location to misidentify Japan as a continental, not a maritime, power. This led to a succession of errors of commission: the universal answer to problems in China became escalation. This produced a protracted war for control of the Asian mainland that need never have been fought. There were better ways to achieve the policy objective of restoring domestic prosperity and maintaining Japan as a great power.

The Sino-Japanese conflagration that broke out in 1931 ignited an accumulation of highly combustible grievances. World War I had destroyed the European political system and the Great Depression had destroyed the global economic system. Both the Great War and the Great Depression were of unprecedented scale. Botched military strategy in the former followed by botched economic strategy in the latter put Fascism and Communism on the march as the only two political systems apparently capable of restoring economic health. As the countries of the world tried to navigate these turbulent uncharted waters, they became increasingly focused on their own dire situations and ever less cognizant of the equally dire situations of their neighbors. This blinded them to the interests of others and to the likely countermeasures to their own policy choices. Escalation became the name of the game.

Army leaders, their many civilian supporters, and the Japanese public perceived no alternative to an aggressive foreign policy in China in order to overcome the Great Depression and to counter Russian territorial and ideological expansion. They faced an intractable dilemma: good citizenship in the prevailing global order promised economic disaster with the collapse of international trade caused by Western protectionism.