Every American is familiar with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the surprise attack by Imperial Japan that drew the US into the Pacific theater and ultimately led to the dropping of atomic bombs and the total Japanese surrender. Many people are less familiar with the role of China in the Pacific theater, aside from maybe the infamous Massacre or Rape of Nanking (now spelled ‘Nanjing’). But before Pearl Harbor, before the Nanking massacre, and even before the less famous Marco Polo Bridge Incident, was the existence of the “state” of Manchuguo in China’s northeast.
China’s Northeast (Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, and part of Inner Mongolia) was a key location for both strategy and trade in the 1930’s. The region laid claim to an abundance of natural resources as well as key rail lines that facilitated trade into much of Asia and Europe. Militarily, the region offered a staging point for an invasion of Mongolia, severing the area between China and the USSR, and allowing Japan to make a full invasion into China. It was key terrain for Japanese expansion, and the Generals eyed it hungrily.
As the story goes, the leadership in the Japanese military wanted to take the area by force, but the Japanese Emperor would not give the order. Eventually, the military made preparations for an invasion. The Emperor sent a message to the Generals to stand down, but the messenger was intercepted en route and was distracted and gotten drunk. The military, acting as if they had no knowledge of the Emperor’s message, moved into Manchuria (an area in the Northeast of China).
They placed a small explosive on a rail line and detonated it. Local Chinese troops believed they were under attack and attacked the Japanese. The Japanese used the Chinese actions as an excuse to move more forces in to fight the Chinese in “self-defense” and ran over the Chinese force. In 1931, the Japanese army had taken Manchuria.
In Mandarin, Guo 国 means nation. “Manchuguo” means Manchu Nation, and that’s exactly what Japan needed Manchuria to become. This all happened several years before Japan began its full assault on China, and it likely wished to mask its aggression and expansion so as to not anger the world too early.
Manchuria is home to the Manchu people who ran the Qing Dynasty. The Last Emperor of the Qing, PuYi, was only a small child when the Qing Dynasty fell and the Republic of China emerged, but in 1932 he was a grown man and held a birthright to the now-defunct Empire. Thus, the puppet state of Manchuguo was created with PuYi as its figure head. The explanation given for its existence would be that the Qing Dynasty had returned to its homeland, and there had simply re-established itself among the Manchu people. Much of the rest of China including Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Republic, felt otherwise.
Chiang Kai-Shek saw an even bigger enemy than the Japanese, though. The Communist Party and Chiang’s Kuomintang had experienced a brutal split which had launched a civil war. With various warlords around the edges of China and the Communist Party fighting for territory in several pockets around the country, Chiang had decided that his internal enemies were more important than external ones.
Split and occupied with the internal struggle, China appealed to help from the League of Nations. An investigation was made which resulted in a condemning report but no real action. It would not be until 1936, when the Communist Party convinced Chiang to accept an alliance with the purpose of fighting the Japanese, that the armies of China would unite against the foreign invaders. It was a fight that they would not win; one which would not end until the total surrender of Japan in 1945.
While officially condemned by the League of Nations report, Manchuguo would find recognition by several small Central American and Caribbean countries. However, with the later recognition of the fascist powers of Spain, Italy, and Germany, Manchuguo gained real allies. Later, the USSR would even recognize the state in exchange for a Japanese agreement of neutrality towards Mongolia. Manchuguo had started out as a quickly established puppet state to mask Japanese expansion, but it gained legitimacy and official relations that it would not lose until it lost everything.
Ultimately, Manchuguo can be remembered as a warning sign of things that were soon to come. The Japanese would not stop with Manchuria or even China, but would continue aggressive invasion of massive amounts of East and Southeast Asia. Had the Western powers taken early action, or had Chiang Kai-Shek focused on the Japanese rather than the Communists, WWII’s Pacific theater may have been a drastically different story.