A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview
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Japan in Wartime

On the night of July 7, 1937, Japanese troops engaged in a minor skirmish with Chinese soldiers in the vicinity of the Marco Polo Bridge just south of Beijing. On July 11 a local cease-fire took effect. Even so, the Japanese government sent additional troops from Korea and Manchuria. The Chinese challenged the Japanese positions, and further skirmishes took place. In late July Japanese forces attacked and occupied Beijing and Tianjin. Within a month of the Marco Polo Bridge incident a full-scale war was underway.


It is not clear who fired the first shots at Marco Polo Bridge. But in contrast to the events of the Mukden incident six years earlier, which sparked the takeover of Manchuria, it is clear that the Japanese cabinet under Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro authorized the decision to launch a major offensive. The army itself was divided between expansionists and a minority who feared a protracted war and wished to negotiate a cease-fire. Konoe sided with the expansionists. They wanted to control the iron and coal resources in North China. They also believed that Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government would always remain a threat to Japan's control of Manchuria and North China. The expansionist faction hoped to destroy the Nationalist regime and replace it with a friendly government.

Although he widened the war, Konoe initially sought to use military pressure to negotiate a settlement with the Nationalists. In the fall of 1937, Japanese forces extended their control south from Beijing. They occupied the Shandong peninsula and a large portion of the Yellow River. Aided by the navy, Japanese troops also took Shanghai. They then moved swiftly to occupy Nanjing by mid-December. But negotiations stalled. By early 1938, it was clear that the Nationalists would not recognize the Japanese conquests. Despite the loss of China's three major cities, Chiang Kaishek decided to withdraw to the west and continue a defensive war of resistance. In response, Prime Minister Konoe announced a new goal in January 1938. He issued a chilling call for a war to “annihiliate” the Nationalist regime.

Even as he spoke, one of the worst massacres in a century of horrific acts of


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A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present


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