Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

Japanese Invasion of Manchuria

The Japanese Invasion of Manchuria and the Beginning of World War II


When did World War II begin?  For the U.S. it began officially in 1941. For Europe in 1939. For Asia, and the world as a whole, it began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on 18 September 1931. While this invasion marked the beginning of World War II, for Japan it was another stage in the expansion of the Japanese empire which began with the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria represented a new stage in Japanese expansion, growing out of the control of the Japanese government by chauvanistic nationalists and militarists with a vision of Japanese control over the eastern half of Asia and the Pacific Ocean out through the Hawaiian islands. Along with strategic importance of Manchuria to Japanese imperial ambitions, it also held useful resources for the Japanese economy.


Learning Objective

  • Identify key features of Japanese politics and territorial expansion prior to the outbreak of World War II, including the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • Explain why and how the Japanese invasion of Manchuria occurred, and assess the historic significance and impact of this invasion, particularly in World War II.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Kwantung Army - Japanese field army that invaded Manchuria in 1931, without the authorization of the Japanese government, an action that reflected the militarization of Japan

Manchukuo - puppet state created by the Kwantung Army

Manchurian Incident: a staged event engineered by Japanese military personnel as a pretext for the Japanese invasion in 1931 of northeastern China, known as Manchuria

League of Nationsan intergovernmental organization founded on January 10, 1920, as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War; the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals as stated in its Covenant included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration.


Japan had been pursuing expansion into Manchuria since the 1890s, defeating China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 in limited wars as part of these efforts. On 18 September 1931 the Japanese force in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army, invaded Manchuria on the pretense of protecting Japanese interests in Manchuria. Manchuria was then under Chinese control, but Japan held certain interests within Manchuria by various treaties. The Kwantung Army had been formed in 1906 as part of the effort to expand the Japanese presence in northeast Asia. Kwantung refers to the territory in Manchuria that Japan took from China in the 1894-5 war.

To provide an excuse for invading Manchuria on September 18, members of the Kwantung Army blew up a small section of the South Manchurian Railway, for which the Kwantung Army had responsibility, otherwise known as the Manchurian Incident. The Kwantung Army then carried out a campaign to take control of Manchuria, which ended successfully for the Kwantung Army in February 1932. The Kwantung Army then created the puppet state of Manchukuo to legitimize its conquest, placing the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, on its throne.

Along with initiating World War II, this invasion marked the militarists taking control of the Japanese government. The Kwantung Army carried out the conquest of Manchuria without the authorization of the Japanese government. Because of the growing strength of nationalistic and militaristic army and navy officers within the Japanese government during the twenties and early thirties, and because of the constitutional requirement that the army and the navy be represented in the Japanese cabinet, the civilian government not only had to accept the Kwantung Army's invasion of Manchuria, it also had to support the Army's and the Navy's program for expanding the Japanese Army. Tragically, in the classic and literal definition of this word, militarists remained in control of the Japanese government and the Japanese war effort until the detonation of a second atomic bomb over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, ending Japan's war.

Along with marking the beginning of World War II, the Kwantung Army's invasion of Manchuria also contributed to the end of the League of Nations. In response to this invasion the League formed the Lytton Commission, named after the British politician and lord who led it, to investigate. The Commission released its report in October 1932, stating that Japan was the aggressor, the invasion had been wrong, and Manchuria should be returned to China. In March 1933 Japan formally withdrew from the League, further weakening it then already in decline.

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