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On the Contemporary Relevance of the Manchurian Incident

by Gary Leupp

On September 18, 1931 (70 years before the Sept. 11 attacks), the opening salvoes of World War II were fired in Manchuria. As I have been reading Bush’s comments comparing Saddam to Hitler, and German justice minister Herta Da?bler-Gmelin’s remarks comparing Bush to Hitler, in this season of tortured analogies, the following comes to mind. Manchuria as of 1931 was internationally regarded as part of China, a sovereign country, although like most of China it was governed by a warlord rather than an effective central government. Japan’s incipiently fascist government had acquired treaty rights to station forces in Manchuria, protecting its railroad, port and other interests. Japan was a major imperialist power, having wrenched Taiwan from China in 1895, established its rule over Korea in 1905, and acquired a slough of Pacific islands during World War I. (The “international community” had endorsed such colonizing activity, the U.S. exchanging its nod for Japan’s acceptance of its imperial dominion over the Philippines and Guam, the French trading their recognition for Japan’s acceptance of French colonialism in Indochina, etc.)

From Sept. 18 Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria, having provoked an “incident” with local military forces, fanned out from Mukden and in short order conquered the whole Chinese province. The action was not authorized by the Prime Minister, Diet, or even the High Command in Tokyo, but undertaken after careful conspiratorial planning by a small cabal of field-rank officers who had a vision of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Tokyo had to go along with it, insisting, on the global diplomatic stage, that its forces had been provoked.

But this attack of the regional superpower on the weak nation of China met with international indignation, particularly as Japan established an imaginary state called Manchukuo. The Japanese sought League of Nations approval for the fait accompli, but the Lytton commission, in a carefully balanced statement (prepared by a British lord not at all disposed to oppose imperialism in principle), condemned it. So the Japanese delegation walked out, helping seal the fate of the League. What did Japan need, after all, from a body inherently suspicious of it, unsympathetic to its national security interests, unable to comprehend its racial destiny? Why should the League’s condemnation prevent Japan from bringing its superior way of life to the benighted Manchurian people, and from taking advantage of its mineral resources and the Lebensraum it could provide Japan’s expanding population? Japan’s act of war was in fact an act intended to secure the peace in a troubled region.

One thing let to another, and six years later Japanese forces got into a full-scale war with China which resulted in such unpleasantries as the Rape of Nanking. To prosecute the war effectively, Japan required oil that the U.S. refused to supply, which meant Japan needed to attack and conquer the Dutch Indies, which meant having to take out Pearl Harbor, bases in the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. All hell broke loose, and ultimately, the Japanese people paid the price in the form of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and conventional bombing of Tokyo and other cities that was equally destructive.

Just goes to show: stage an unprovoked attack; lie about it; ignore the world’s sentiments; let policy be set by a cabal of fanatics with visions of grandeur; encourage racist, condescending views of other peoples; and things can spin out of control. The world today is a far cry from the world of Herbert Hoover, Chiang Kai-shek, and Wakatsuki Reijir?, men at the helm in their nations as of Sept. 1931; there is only one superpower whose leaders’ provocations, ignorance, fanaticism and racist condescension can trigger another world war. Not a war between evenly-matched blocs, this time, but one nation’s war against the world, defined at the outset as endless.

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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