As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han. The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible caste system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans. At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural activities, and expected to provide the income that made the whole system work.
Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west. By force, if necessary.
The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste. In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868.
Many concluded as did feudal Lord (daimyō) Shimazu Nariakira, that “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated”. In the following decades, Japanese delegations and students traveled around the world to learn and assimilate Western arts, sciences and technologies. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Japan was transform from a feudal society into a modern industrial state.
The Korean peninsula remained backward and “uncivilized” during this period, little more than a tributary state to China, and easy prey for foreign domination. A strong and independent Korea would have represented little threat to Japanese security but, as it was, Korea was a “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan” in the words of German military adviser to the Meiji government, Major Jacob Meckel.
The first Sino-Japanese war of July 1894 – April 1895, was primarily fought over control of the Korean peninsula. The outcome was never in doubt, with the Japanese army and navy by this time patterned after those of the strongest military forces of the day.
The Japanese 1st Army Corps was fully in possession of the Korean peninsula by October, and of the greater part of Manchuria, in the following weeks. The sight of the mutilated remains of Japanese soldiers in the port city of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) drove their comrades to a frenzy of shooting and slashing. When it was over, numbers estimated from 1,000 to 20,000 were murdered in the Port Arthur Massacre. It was a sign of things to come.
Russian desire for a warm-water port to the east brought the two into conflict in 1904 – ’05, the Russo Japanese War a virtual dress rehearsal for the “Great War” ten years later, complete with trench lines and fruitless infantry charges into interlocking fields of machine gun fire.
Subsequent treaties left Japanese forces in nominal control of Manchurian railroads when, on September 18, 1931, a minuscule dynamite charge was detonated by Japanese Lt. Kawamoto Suemori, near a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden, in modern Shenyang, China. The explosion was so weak that it barely disturbed the tracks. A train passed harmlessly over the site just minutes later, yet, the script was already written.
The Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese dissidents of the incident, launching a full scale invasion and installing the puppet emperor Puyi as Emporer Kangde of the occupied state of “Manchukuo”, one of the most brutal and genocidal occupations of the 20th century.
The “Mukden incident” was entirely staged, a “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors some eight years later, nearly to the day.
As Western historians tell the tale of WW2, the deadliest conflict in history began in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The United States joined the conflagration two years later, following the sneak attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan.
Eastern historians are more likely to point to a day eight years earlier, when this and subsequent invasions and the famine and civil wars which ensued, killed more people than the modern populations of Canada and Australia, combined.
Feature image, top of page: Mukden Incident Memorial and Museum, Shenyang, China