Day of Infamy: The First Move: Manchuria

Posted by Rebekah
Nov 03 2011

In honor of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I’m presenting a series on the steps to war, and what better way to start than at the beginning?  Soon I’ll catch up and we’ll go thought what happened in real time.  Many WWII historians consider the Mukden Incident and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria to be the start of the Pacific War, and how and why that was important, was interesting.  I hope you enjoy.


Most historians agree that the roots of the European theater of WWII lie, at least in part, in the Versailles Treaty and the reparations required by Germany after WWI.  The roots of the Pacific theater of WWII reach much further back, even before WWI, or even the 20th century.  Those roots, like many, run deep and are rather tangled, so this will be a simplified account of what happened.

Shortly after Japan opened its doors to international trade in the 1850’s, they began to quickly modernize and have a population  explosion-which was a problem.  Japan had (well, has) extremely limited land and resources, and has long relied on trade, even during their isolationist “Shokoku” period.  In the late 1800’s the Japanese relied heavily on trade with Korea, and feared that if some other country took it over, colonized it, or it came under the influence of an unfriendly nation, it could make life difficult. The Japanese needed to annex it, or at least make sure it remained independent, and 1894 there were over three thousand Chinese Troops in Korea. The first Sino (Chinese)-Japanese War (1894-1895) ended with the Japanese capturing the Korean emperor, and signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which guaranteed Korean independence in perpetuity and gave the island of Taiwan (a Chinese island at that point) to Japan.

This move made both China and Russia nervous, so in 1898, China and Russia signed a treaty in Moscow, called the Li-Lobanov Treaty.  It essentially pledged mutual support in case of a Japanese attack (another one of those “secret treaties” that caused so much trouble during WWI), but also allowed the Russians to build an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railroad through a part of China known as Manchuria, just north of Korea, and control of the city the rail ended in: Port Arthur (modern Lünshunkou).  Port Arthur was a warm water port, something Russia doesn’t have many or any of in various points in her history, so this was a great, and well protected resource for them.  The treaty also gave them territorial authority to defend and man the rail, including depots, repairs, and more.

This map shows the strategic location of Port Arthur and its relative location to Korea, Manchuria and Beijing. From

So enter the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). This war is considered the first great war of the 20th century by some historians. It’s origins are rather convoluted, but in the end, it centers around Port Arthur, which had seen action and occupation during the Sino-Japan war.  Besides being a warm water port, Port Arthur was important because it’s a bit like Gibralter in the Med, it’s a choke point and those who control Port Arthur can potentially control all shipping into and out of Beijing.  Those were the Russians, who also had a 25-year lease on the place. And as long as they had control, they were going to use it. They built up fortifications, machine shops, ammo and fuel depots, and all support facilities for the Russian Navy, which, in 1904 consisted of a number of modern battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

This made Japan uneasy.  Negotiations about this dragged on, and on and on and finally, on February 8, 1904, Japan struck Port Arthur again in a surprise night attack using a torpedo boat destroyer.  They quickly destroyed two Russian battleships and cruiser and distracted everyone….from the Japanese troops landing in Korea.

Japanese postcard showing battle of Port Arthur, and the destruction of Russian ships.

(Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Japan declared war on Russia three hours after the attack on Port Arthur began.  When the Russians complained that Japan had attacked without a formal declaration of war, Japan pointed out that Russia had attacked Sweden during the Finnish War nearly 100 years before prior to a formal declaration of war. After this war, it became international law to formally declare war opening actions.)

In the end, Russia capitulated (it didn’t help that Bloody Sunday and the ensuring 1905 Russian Revolution was also happening, making the war an unpopular drain)  Russian turned Korea over to the sphere of Japanese influence, and signed over its rights to Port Arthur and the railway that they had built.

Japan created a semi-private company and created the Southern Manchuria Railway, which ran from Port Arthur to Mukden.  Japan soon expanded along the railway zone, building coal mines, hotels, warehouses for goods, and bringing over Japanese men and their families to run most of it.  Soon there were smaller companies, mills, power plants, and steel works, and they soon acquired the contract to work the Korean Railway system.  During this expansion of growth, more and more Japanese came to live and work in Manchuria, protected by segments of the Japanese military which guarded the rail and the railway zone.

Fast forward to 1931, and the first step to war.  Sometime after 10 pm on September 18, 1931, a small bit of dynamite exploded near a track south of Mukden where a freight train was soon to come through (didn’t damage the track, the train came in just fine). This is what is now called the Mukden Incident. The Japanese soldiers stationed there claimed that they saw Chinese dissidents light the dynamite, and this was used to invade the local Chinese barracks (which was, due to tensions with Japanese troops in the area, aremed with dummy rifles…soooo…it wasn’t a long fight.) then Manchuria, utilizing troops from Korea as well, all in the name of self defense and defense of the Japanese people working the rail and the attached businesses.  The invasion of Manchuria (soon to be known as Manchuko) had begun.

This was precisely what the League of Nations had been formed to prevent, or at least, solve without violence.  Both China and Japan were members, and China had no problems taking this affair to the League.

Besides, there was something fishy about the Chinese dissident story…


Information about the Sino-Japanese war and Russo-Japanese War

US Department of State website about the Mukden Incident

The Russo-Japanese War Research Society

Trackback URL for this entry