written by Todd DePastino

History Museum in Shenyang, China commemorating the Mukden Incident in September 18 1931

The September 18 History Museum in Shenyang (陳炬燵, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On September 18, 1931, the first seeds of catastrophe were sewn when a five-foot section of rail in the city of Mukden, China, sustained minor damage from small explosion.

The so-called “Mukden Incident” was a “false flag” operation, staged by the Japanese and used as a pretext to attack China. We may consider it the unofficial start of World War II in Asia.

If the Mukden Incident was the start of something big, it was also the culmination of one of the most remarkable national transformations in history.

Back in 1853, Japan was a closed and isolated pre-modern “Hermit Kingdom” that no one could leave or enter. Then, in steamed US Admiral Matthew Perry with his four gunships to Japan’s Edo Bay—Tokyo Bay.

Dewey fired some shells—the Japanese had never seen such weapons before, let alone steam engines—and ordered Japan to open up to the West.

After much storm, stress, and 15 years of civil war, Japan responded by adopting the slogan, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em.”

Over the course of the next 30 years, through what was known as the “Meiji Restoration,” Japan thoroughly modernized, industrialized, and embraced European-style nation-state building.

The transformation reached down to the minutiae of everyday life. People now ate beef, wore suits and ties, shopped in stores, and traveled by railroad.

They also looked abroad for colonies to support their country’s industrialization, just as Europe and the United States had done.

Japan had more incentive than most Western nations to invade neighboring territories. The islands making up Japan contained few of the natural resources essential to industrialization: fossil fuels, iron or copper. Japan didn’t even have enough wood or land for industrial agriculture.  The only thing Japan possessed in great abundance, it seemed, was fish.

Japan looked, first, 30 miles off its southern tip to the Korean Peninsula, which harbored abundant coal and iron.

China, however, had claimed dominion over Korea, so to get the resources it needed, Japan had to take on its massive neighbor across the Sea of Japan.

The First Sino-Japanese War began in July 1894 and was over in nine months, a total rout on land and at sea. China surrendered after losing Formosa (Taiwan) and Manchuria (Northeast China), and with Beijing a day or two from capture.

The Great Powers of Europe, who also wanted access to China, pressured Japan to return Manchuria to defeated China. Adding insult to injury, the Russian Empire, part of the European cabal demanding Japanese leniency toward China, itself moved into Manchuria and built the Chinese Eastern Railway to connect Russia’s frozen north to warm water Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea.

Japan, now, turned on Russia with a surprise attack on the Russian Eastern Fleet at Port Arthur on February 9, 1904. Like the previous war against China, the Russo-Japanese War was a rout, especially at sea. For the first time in history, an Asian nation defeated a Western nation in war.

And, once again, Western powers intervened. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace deal in 1905 at Portsmouth, New Hamphire. And, again, the Treaty of Portsmouth compelled Japan to cede some of its conquests back to Russia.

All this was infuriating to the Japanese who sensed a degrading double standard in Europe’s rules of warfare and diplomacy. “Europe taught Japan how to play poker,” one Japanese diplomat reportedly said.  “Then, when Japan won all the chips, declared the game immoral.”

The year 1905 is really the moment when Japan began making the turn from an aspirant Great Power to an ultranationalist and militaristic imperial aggressor.

Like Germany, Japan would be motivated by grievance toward other Great Powers, a deep-set resentment against those who viewed Japan as unworthy or inferior. Also like Germany, Japan would lash out with compensatory aggression toward its neighbors and would forgo the niceties of diplomacy and treaty negotiation. After 1905, Japan would rely solely on its military might.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea outright and imposed a murderous colonial regime intended to wipe out all vestiges of Korean national identity.

Japan then attempted a similar takeover in Northeast China, Manchuria. The Treaty of Portsmouth had left a critical section of the Chinese Eastern Railway in Japanese control. Japan stationed troops along the railway and used them to push outward from the railroad right-of-way to claim as much surrounding territory as possible.

China, now under the leadership of modern nation-builders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, resisted these expansionist efforts. Control over Manchuria stalemated.

By September 18, 1931, the most militantly nationalist elements of the Japanese Kwantung (another name for Manchuria) Army had had enough. They orchestrated a crisis.

Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara ordered dynamite set near a section of the South Manchurian Railway in Mukden. The explosion was minor and caused minimal damage. But the Kwantung Army used it as a pretext to take action.

First, they accused Chinese dissidents of the bombing. Then, on September 19, they launched a full-scale invasion of Manchuria, occupying the region and swiftly extending their control over other parts of northeastern China.

The international community was quick to respond to the Mukden Incident . . . . with verbal condemnation.

The League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations, hurled opprobrium at Japan which, in turn, quit the League of Nations.

In Manchuria itself, Japan created a new puppet state called “Manchukuo,” and began plotting further expansion into China and elsewhere.

The international community was at a loss. Japan’s aggression in Manchuria exposed the League of Nations as a paper tiger. Nationalist elements in Germany and Italy took notice.

Not many Americans remember the Mukden Incident, but in China today, September 18, 1931 marks the official beginning of what we call “World War II” and the Chinese term their “War of Resistance” to Japanese imperialism.

On September 18 at 10:00am, around the time of the false flag explosion, air-raid sirens will blare across China in remembrance of the time when Japan attacked, and the world stood by and did nothing.