The Japanese Empire of the 1920s included the Home Islands, Korea, Taiwan, and several Pacific islands. By 1931 Manchuria—then part of China—had been annexed and turned into the client state of Manchukuo. Manchuria was a source of considerable mineral resources that could be exploited by Japanese industry. It also served to settle colonists from the expanding Japanese population, and to build new factories. The annexation put Japan on a collision course with the Republic of China. In the following years China’s president, Chiang Kai-shek, took a hard line against further Japanese aggression.
In 1937, Tokyo launched a general military offensive into China. They referred to their invasion as the “China Incident” to avoid the diplomatic ramifications of an openly declared war. Nobody was fooled, of course, and this led to both London and Washington DC taking steps to prepare their armed forces for a possible future war in the Pacific.
The Japanese believed Chiang would back down. He didn’t, and the Japanese found themselves tied up in what appeared to be a never-ending war on the mainland. While they could defeat Chinese armies in the field, Chiang would fall back and refuse to negotiate, even when faced with the loss of major cities such as Peking and Shanghai. Mao Tse-tung (Zhedong) and his communist guerrillas tied down even more occupation troops.
Japan could not withdraw because Manchuria provided coal and iron for Japan’s industries as they geared up for war production. China provided additional resources, but not enough for Japanese self-sufficiency. Neither region provided rubber, bauxite (used in the manufacture of aluminum), and especially petroleum. These all could be found in Southeast Asia, the lands stretching from Burma through Malaya and Indochina to the East Indies. The IJA and IJN, therefore, prepared for another war.
This blog is part of Joseph Miranda’s analysis of the Malaya campaign during World War II. Look for more information regarding Japanese operations in Malaya in the upcoming World at War issue #51 with the article “Malaya Campaign 1941-1942” and join the conversation on Facebook!