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The Mukden Incident, also known as the Manchurian Incident, was a staged event engineered by rogue Japanese military personnel as a pretext for the Japanese invasion of the northeastern part of China, known as Manchuria, in 1931.
On September 18, 1931, a small quantity of dynamite was detonated by Lt. Kawamoto Suemori close to a railway line owned by Japan's South Manchuria Railway near Mukden (now Shenyang). Although the explosion was so weak that it failed to destroy the track and a train passed over it minutes later, the Imperial Japanese Army, accusing Chinese dissidents of the act, responded with a full invasion that led to the occupation of Manchuria, in which Japan established its puppet state of Manchukuo six months later. The ruse was soon exposed to the international community, leading Japan to diplomatic isolation and its March 1933 withdrawal from the League of Nations.
The actual event is known as the "Liutiaohu Incident" (simplified Chinese: 柳条湖事变; traditional Chinese: 柳條湖事變; pinyin: Liǔtiáohú Shìbiàn, Japanese: 柳条湖事件, Ryūjōko-jiken), and the event including its aftermath is known in Japan as the "Manchurian Incident" (Kyūjitai: 滿洲事變, Shinjitai: 満州事変, Manshū-jihen) and in China as the "September 18 Incident" (simplified Chinese: 九一八事变; traditional Chinese: 九一八事變; pinyin: Jiǔyībā Shìbiàn).
Japanese economic presence and political interest in Manchuria had been growing ever since the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). The Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the war had granted Japan the lease of the South Manchuria Railway branch (from Changchun to Lüshun) of the China Far East Railway. The Japanese government, however, claimed that this control included all the rights and privileges that China granted to Russia in the 1896 Li-Lobanov Treaty, as enlarged by the Kwantung Lease Agreement of 1898. This included absolute and exclusive administration within the South Manchuria Railway Zone. Japanese railway guards were stationed within the zone to provide security for the trains and tracks; however, these were regular Japanese soldiers, and they frequently carried out maneuvers outside the railway areas. There were many reports of raids on local Chinese villages by bored Japanese soldiers, and all complaints from the Chinese government were ignored.
In Nanjing in April 1931, a national leadership conference of the Republic of China was held between Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueliang; the Muslim General Ma Fuxiang, along with his vaunted personal guard, also attended. They agreed to assert China's sovereignty in Manchuria strongly.
Believing that a conflict in Manchuria would be in the best interests of Japan, and acting in the spirit of the Japanese concept of gekokujo, Kwantung Army Colonel Seishirō Itagaki and Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara independently devised a plan to prompt Japan to invade Manchuria by provoking an incident from Chinese forces stationed nearby. However, after the Japanese Minister of War Jirō Minami dispatched Major General Yoshitsugu Tatekawa to Manchuria for the specific purpose of curbing the insubordination and militarist behavior of the Kwantung Army, Itagaki and Ishiwara knew that they no longer had the luxury of waiting for the Chinese to respond to provocations but had to stage their own.
Itagaki and Ishiwara chose to sabotage the rail section in an area near Liǔtiáo Lake (柳條湖 → liǔtiáohú). The area had no official name and was not militarily important to either the Japanese or the Chinese, but it was only eight hundred metres away from the Chinese garrison of Beidaying (北大營 → běidàyíng), where troops under the command of the "Young Marshal" Zhang Xueliang were stationed. The alleged Japanese plan was to attract Chinese troops by an explosion and then blame them for having caused the disturbance in order to provide a pretext for a formal Japanese invasion. In addition, they intended to make the sabotage appear more convincing as a calculated Chinese attack on an essential target, thereby making the expected Japanese reaction appear as a legitimate measure to protect a vital railway of industrial and economic importance. The Japanese press labeled the site "Liǔtiáo Ditch" (柳條溝 → liǔtiáogōu) or "Liǔtiáo Bridge" (柳條橋 → liǔtiáoqiáo), when in reality, the site was a small railway section laid on an area of flat land. The choice to place the explosives at this site was to preclude the extensive rebuilding that would have been necessitated had the site actually been a railway bridge.
The plan was executed when 1st Lieutenant Suemori Komoto of the Independent Garrison Unit (独立守備隊) of the 29th Infantry Regiment, which guarded the South Manchuria Railway, placed explosives near the tracks, but far enough away to do no real damage. At around 10:20 PM (22:20), September 18, the explosives were detonated. However, the explosion was minor and only a 1.5-meter section on one side of the rail was damaged. In fact, a train from Changchun passed by the site on this damaged track without difficulty and arrived at Shenyang at 10:30 PM (22:30).
Invasion of Manchuria
On the morning of the following day (September 19), two artillery pieces installed at the Mukden officers' club opened fire on the Chinese garrison nearby, in response to the alleged Chinese attack on the railway. Zhang Xueliang's small air force was destroyed, and his soldiers fled their destroyed Beidaying barracks, as five hundred Japanese troops attacked the Chinese garrison of around seven thousand. The Chinese troops were no match for the experienced Japanese troops. By the evening, the fighting was over, and the Japanese had occupied Mukden at the cost of five hundred Chinese lives and two hundred Japanese lives.
At Dalian in the Kwantung Leased Territory, Commander-in-Chief of the Kwantung Army General Shigeru Honjō was at first appalled that the invasion plan was enacted without his permission, but he was eventually convinced by Ishiwara to give his approval after the fact. Honjō moved the Kwantung Army headquarters to Mukden and ordered General Senjuro Hayashi of the Chosen Army of Japan in Korea to send in reinforcements. At 04:00 on 19 September, Mukden was declared secure.
Having recently lost a major military conflict against the USSR, Zhang Xueliang, falsely claiming to be under implicit instructions from Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Government to adhere to a non-resistance policy, had already urged his men not to put up a fight and to store away any weapons in case the Japanese invaded (a piece of information that the Japanese advisors to Zhang's army knew ahead of time, hence facilitating the planning). Therefore, the Japanese soldiers proceeded to occupy and garrison the major cities of Changchun and Antung and their surrounding areas with minimal difficulty. However, in November, Muslim General Ma Zhanshan, the acting governor of Heilongjiang, began resistance with his provincial army, followed in January by Generals Ting Chao and Li Du with their local Jilin provincial forces. Despite this resistance, within five months of the Mukden Incident, the Imperial Japanese Army had overrun all major towns and cities in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang.
Chinese public opinion strongly criticized Zhang Xueliang for his non-resistance to the Japanese invasion, even though the Kuomintang (KMT) central government was indirectly responsible for this policy. While the Japanese presented a legitimate threat, the KMT (also known as GMD) focused their efforts mainly on eradicating the communist party. Many charged that Zhang's Northeastern Army of nearly a quarter million could have withstood the Kwantung Army of only 11,000 men. In addition, his arsenal in Manchuria was considered the most modern in China, and his troops had possession of tanks, around 60 combat aircraft, 4000 machine guns, and four artillery battalions.
Zhang Xueliang's seemingly superior force was undermined by several factors. One was that the Kwantung Army had a strong reserve force that could be transported by railway from Korea, which was a Japanese colony, directly adjacent to Manchuria. Secondly, more than half of Zhang's troops were stationed south of the Great Wall in the Hebei province, while the troops north of the wall were scattered throughout Manchuria. Therefore, Zhang's troops could not have been deployed fast enough to fight the Japanese in any concentration north of the Great Wall. Most of Zhang's troops were under-trained, poorly led, and had poor morale and questionable loyalty compared to their Japanese counterparts. Japanese secret agents had permeated Zhang's command because of his past (and his father, Zhang Zuolin's) reliance on Japanese military advisers. The Japanese knew the Northeastern Army very well and were able to conduct operations with ease.
The Chinese government was preoccupied with numerous internal problems, including the issue of the newly independent Guangzhou government of Hu Hanmin, Communist Party of China insurrections, and terrible flooding of the Yangtze River that created tens of thousands of refugees. Moreover, Zhang himself was not in Manchuria at the time, but was in a hospital in Beijing to raise money for the flood victims. However, in the Chinese newspapers, Zhang was ridiculed as "General Nonresistance" (Chinese: 不抵抗將軍).
Because of these circumstances, the central government turned to the international community for a peaceful resolution. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a strong protest to the Japanese government and called for the immediate stop to Japanese military operations in Manchuria, and appealed to the League of Nations, on September 19. On October 24, the League of Nations passed a resolution mandating the withdrawal of Japanese troops, to be completed by November 16. However, Japan rejected the League of Nations resolution and insisted on direct negotiations with the Chinese government. Negotiations went on intermittently without much result.
On November 20, a conference in the Chinese government was convened, but the Guangzhou faction of the Kuomintang insisted that Chiang Kai-shek step down to take responsibility for the Manchurian debacle. On December 15, Chiang resigned as the Chairman of the Nationalist Government and was replaced as Premier of the Republic of China (head of the Executive Yuan) by Sun Fo, son of Sun Yat-sen. Jinzhou, another city in Liaoning, was lost to the Japanese in early January 1932. As a result, Wang Jingwei replaced Sun Fo as the Premier.
On January 7, 1932, United States Secretary of State Henry Stimson proclaimed the Stimson Doctrine, stating that the United States would not recognize any government that was established as the result of Japanese actions in Manchuria. On January 14, a League of Nations commission, headed by Victor Bulwer-Lytton, 2nd Earl of Lytton, arrived in Shanghai to examine the situation. In March, the puppet state of Manchukuo was established, with the former emperor of China, Puyi, installed as head of state.
On October 2, the Lytton Report was published and rejected the Japanese claim that the Manchurian invasion and occupation was an act of self-defense, although it did not assert that the Japanese had perpetrated the initial bombing of the railroad. The report ascertained that Manchukuo was the product of Japanese military aggression in China, while recognizing that Japan had legitimate concerns in Manchuria because of its economic ties there. The League of Nations refused to acknowledge Manchukuo as an independent nation. Japan resigned from the League of Nations in March 1933.
Colonel Kenji Doihara used the Mukden Incident to continue his campaign of disinformation. Since the Chinese troops at Mukden had put up such a poor resistance, he told Manchukuo Emperor Puyi that this was proof that the Chinese remained loyal to him. Japanese intelligence used the incident to continue the campaign to discredit the murdered Zhang Zuolin and his son Zhang Xueliang for "misgovernment" of Manchuria. In fact, drug trafficking and corruption had largely been suppressed under Zhang Zuolin.
Different opinions still exist as to who blew up the Japanese railroad at Mukden. Strong evidence points to young officers of the Japanese Kwantung Army having conspired to cause the blast, with or without direct orders from Tokyo. Post-war investigations confirmed that the original bomb planted by the Japanese failed to explode, and a replacement had to be planted. The resulting explosion enabled the Japanese Kwantung Army to accomplish their goal of triggering a conflict with Chinese troops stationed in Manchuria and the subsequent establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo.
The 9.18 Incident Exhibition Museum at Shenyang, opened by the People's Republic of China on September 18, 1991, takes the position that the explosives were planted by Japan. However, the Yūshūkan museum, located within Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, places the blame on Chinese militias.
David Bergamini's book Japan's Imperial Conspiracy (1971) has a detailed chronology of events in both Manchuria and Tokyo surrounding the Mukden Incident. Bergamini concludes that the greatest deception was that the Mukden Incident and Japanese invasion were planned by junior or hot-headed officers, without formal approval by the Japanese government. However, historian James Weland has concluded that senior commanders had tacitly allowed field operatives to proceed on their own initiative, then endorsed the result after a positive outcome was assured.
In August 2006, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's top-selling newspaper, published the results of a year-long research project into the general question of who is responsible for the "Showa war". With respect to the Manchurian Incident, the newspaper blamed ambitious Japanese militarists, as well as politicians who were impotent to rein them in or prevent their insubordination.
Debate has also focused on how the incident was handled by the League of Nations and the subsequent Lytton Report. A.J.P. Taylor wrote that "In the face of its first serious challenge," the League buckled and capitulated. The Washington Naval Conference (1921) guaranteed a certain degree of Japanese hegemony in the Far East. Any intervention on the part of America would be a breach of the already mentioned agreement. Furthermore, Britain was in crisis, having been recently forced off the gold standard. Although a power in the Far East, Britain was incapable of decisive action. The only response from these powers was "moral condemnation".
In popular culture
- The Mukden Incident is depicted in The Adventures of Tintin comic The Blue Lotus, although the book places the bombing near Shanghai. Here it is performed by Japanese agents and the Japanese exaggerate the incident.
- In Akira Kurosawa's 1946 film No Regrets for Our Youth, the subject of the Mukden Incident is debated.
- See also Junji Kinoshita's play A Japanese Called Otto, which opens with the characters discussing the Mukden Incident.
- The 2010 Japanese anime Night Raid 1931 is a 13-episode spy/pulp series set in 1931 Shanghai and Manchuria. Episode 7, "Incident", specifically covers the Mukden Incident.
- The violent manga Gantz has a reference when an elder says that an occurrence reminds him of the "Manchurian Incident".
- Dutch Death Metal band Hail Of Bullets covers the event in the song The Mukden Incident on their 2010 album "On Divine Winds", a concept album about the Pacific Ocean theatre of World War II.
- Chiang Kai-shek
- History of the Republic of China
- Military of the Republic of China
- National Revolutionary Army
- History of Sino-Japanese relations#Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II
- South Manchuria Railway
- Yoshitsugu Tatekawa
- Zhang Xueliang
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- CHRONOLOGY OF MAJOR INTERNATIONAL EVENTS FROM 1931 THROUGH 1943, WITH OSTENSIBLE REASONS ADVANCED FOR THE OCCURRENCE THEREOF 78th Congress, 2d Session. "An explosion undoubtedly occurred on or near the railroad between 10 and 10:30 p.m. on September 18th, but the damage, if any, to the railroad did not in fact prevent the punctual arrival of the south-bound train from Changchun, and was not in itself sufficient to justify military action. The military operations of the Japanese troops during this night, ... cannot be regarded as measures of legitimate self-defence..." [Opinion of Commission of Enquiry], ibid., p. 71
- Behr 1987, p. 182
- Chen, World War II Database
- The Mukden Incident by Thomas Ferrell, Journal of Modern History, p. 67, March 1955
- Behr 1987, pp. 182–183
- Weland, James (1994). "Misguided Intelligence: Japanese Military Intelligence Officers in the Manchurian Incident, September 1931". Journal of Military History 58 (3): 445–460. doi:10.2307/2944134.
- "WAR RESPONSIBILITY--delving into the past (1) / Who should bear the most blame for the Showa War?". Yomiuri Shimbun. 2006-08-13. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
- "WAR RESPONSIBILITY--delving into the past (1) / Manchuria start of slide into war". Yomiuri Shimbun. 2006-08-16. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
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- Lensen, George Alexander (1974). The Damned Inheritance. The Soviet Union and the Manchurian Crises 1924-1935. The Diplomatic Press.
- Long-hsuen, Hsu; Chang Ming-kai (1971). History of The Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) (2nd ed.). 33, 140th Lane, Tung-hwa Street, Taipei, Taiwan: Chung Wu Publishing.
- Jowett, Philip (2005). Rays of the Rising Sun, Volume 1: Japan's Asian Allies 1931-45, China and Manchukuo. Helion and Company Ltd. ISBN 1-874622-21-3.
- Matsusaka, Yoshihisa Tak (2003). The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932. Harvard University Asia Center. ISBN 0-674-01206-2.