1936 was bound to be a defining year for the Empire of Japan. Emperor Hirohito and his regime were in agreement that the Empire needed to expand in order to support the Japanese imperial ambition. The only problem was which direction? The Imperial Japanese Navy, one of the strongest in the world by 1936, had drafted the Southern Expansion Doctrine, which advised that the Navy should lead the way in expanding Japan into South East Asia and the Pacific. The Army had its own counter argument, justifying Northern Expansion, calling for the seizure of Siberia and other resource rich lands to the north. Both offered the proper solutions, it was just a matter of finding one that fit with Japan’s long term goals. Pushing into the Pacific would initially be an easy task, but it was almost a sure guarantee that it would lead to conflict with the United States. It was a fight Japan could win, but at what cost? The Army could handle Northern Expansion, China was larger but certainly not formidable, but this would certainly lead to tensions with the giant that was the Soviet Union. The task at hand was a double edged sword, but a decision needed to be reached, and quickly.
The Imperial Japanese Army had their own doubts about Japan’s future, and the leadership of Emperor Hirohito. High ranking leadership was split into two factions. Kōdō-ha, led by General Araki Sadao considered the spiritual purity of the IJA to be the backbone of Japan’s military strength, and emphasized the need for Japan to strike at the Soviet Union. General Tetsuzan Nagata became the face of the Tōsei-ha faction, which was heavily influenced by the study of German doctrine. Tōsei-ha believed in the modernization of Japan’s Army, and the transition to a focus on mechanized forces. Total war was a necessity and inevitable, and they had their sights set on China.
On February 26th, the Kōdō-ha faction attempted a coup d’état, aimed at assassinating Hirohito, and seizing control of the government. The coup lasted three days, but in the end Kōdō-ha had failed. The IJA was no stranger to violence within its own ranks, but this incident was met with swift and decisive action against the perpetrators. Kōdō-ha’s leaders were tried and executed, and other supporters were imprisoned. Tōsei-ha now had firm control over the IJA, and as a result, the military’s influence over the government grew dramatically. Japan now began posturing against China.
China responded immediately to the sudden buildup on their border. The IJA was miles from the border city of Beijing, and tensions eventually reached a tipping point. The beginning of the conflict can be traced to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, occurring on the 13th of May, 1936.
The Japanese Army began conducting exercises, despite being dangerously close to Chinese forces. Who fired the first shot is unknown, but the result was a skirmish over the Marco Polo railway bridge. China held the bridge and the IJA withdrew back to the border, leaving the battle to be fought by diplomats. Finger pointing and accusations followed for the next several weeks, and it was clear that war was inevitable. As a part of preparations, the Japanese government demanded the withdrawal of German military advisors from China. The decision would be pivotal, as Germany was now given an ultimatum to choose sides. To the relief of Tokyo, the German Reich agreed to recall all of their advisors back to Berlin. Now all Japan needed to do was cross the border.
24 divisions, under the command of Tomoyuki Yamashita made preparations to push deep into Chinese territory, which they did at midnight on the 26th of July, 1936. Japan was now at war, and there was no turning back the Imperial ambitions.
Japan’s puppet states of Mengkuko and Manchukuo came rushing to aid the invasion. Beijing fell almost immediately, and the Chinese line of defense began to collapse. Several weeks into fighting, the People’s Republic of China, led by Chairman Mao, came to the aid of China. This stretched the IJA thin, as their frontline doubled in size. Territory was still being gained, but at a much slower pace. The IJA had the technical and doctrinal ability to overcome the weaker but much larger China, but their rate of advance was frustratingly slow. By this time, the IJN had secured the waters around China with little effort, destroying any hope China had to import and export supplies by sea. China was suffering crushing losses, losing 150 thousand men in the first month, compared to seven thousand Japanese casualties.
As the fighting raged, Japan couldn’t shake the question of the Soviet Union. In late November, Germany had drafted the “Anti-Comintern Pact,” declaring Communism their greatest enemy. It appeared that Germany would not rest until the Red menace had been purged from the Earth, and Hitler looked to see where Japan’s loyalties lie.
The German Reich was a desirable ally, but signing in favor of the Anti-Comintern Pact could prove to be an irreversible insult to the Soviet Union, and the Japanese government had doubts that they could handle such a threat. Hirohito reluctantly turned down the Pact, severely damaging relations with Germany. The relationship was still cordial, but hopes of a Japanese-German alliance was all but destroyed for some time to come. In the meantime, Japan could continue to focus on its war with China, without worrying about millions of Russians storming across the border.
The IJA continued its crawl south, and achieved a major victory by occupying Nanjing on January 2nd, 1937. The situation was bleak for the two China’s, and the broken PRC surrendered several weeks later. The collapse of the PRC allowed a number of General Shunroku Hata’s divisions to sweep west uncontested, forcing the Chinese to fall back further south. The IJAs slow push could not be stopped, and by June, China had suffered just over 1 million casualties. Japan had lost 135 thousand of their own, and the logistical burden made it increasingly clear how badly they needed this expansion. Due to a lack of natural resources, Japanese factories struggled to make enough weapons and equipment to supply the IJA. Logistics was now a bigger enemy than China.
Upon being pushed back to the South China Sea, the Chinese spirit had been broken, and the inevitable surrender occurred on the 23rd of October, 1937, nearly 15 months after the first Japanese forces charged across the border. Over one and a half million casualties were suffered between the two China’s, paling in comparison to the quarter million lost by Japan. The Empire of Japan now occupied all of former China, bringing in large amounts of precious resources needed to expand both the army and navy.
A recovery period was in order, as the IJA needed to replace the men and equipment it had lost. This process would take at least a year, but the IJA would certainly be stronger than ever at the end of the process. But it was still not enough. Japan lacked oil and aluminum, and only had just enough rubber sustain its current level of production. As the Army recovered and Hirohito ordered an expansion of industry, a new solution needed to be proposed and developed.
Japan would look to expand once again, but was faced with the increasingly difficult question: Where? Any move north would incur the wrath of the Soviet Union, and that was out of the question. West or South would mean war with the Allies, which by 1937 was just the United Kingdom and her colonial possessions. But the UK was growing closer with France by the day, who would certainly come to her aid. There was very little resistance the Allies could manage, but the world’s democracies were binding together, and war with the Allies could very well mean war with the United States, and the only thing more threatening than the Arsenal of Democracy was Stalin himself. War with the young Allies was the next step, and Japan swallowed the fact that war with America was inevitable…unless their allegiance could be changed.