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January 28th Incident and Groundhog Day 2019

As January grinds down once again, it’s time to reflect on a few truths. It’s cold in the Great Lakes, and it is in most of North America this time of year. It’s also wet, and cold and wet is the most miserable way to feel. Therefore, a good roof and furnace is vital; I hope you have both.

Since its successes of the late 19th century, the Japanese military leadership had been ever searching to expand Japan’s power base. WWI demonstrated to them that the single most important thing any state needed on its own was resources. While Japan had some things in abundance in the Home Islands–coal and silk–it lacked many of the resources that modern states needed to be competitive in the world market. Unfortunately, as an agrarian state, Japan was too poor to buy them. So the military leadership steeped in the samurai traditions resolved to take by force that which she needed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China-Manchukuo-map.svg
East Asia, 1932. Japanese Empire in salmon; Manchukuo in green. Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s annexation of Korea and aggrandizing its South Manchuria Railroad holdings to include all of Manchuria while China was in a state of civil war was relatively easy, often bloodless. By 1932 China itself had settled down after Kuomintang (KMT) party had taken control of the administrative apparatus of the country.

China in 1932 was a tinderbox waiting for a light, and Japan was more than willing to supply the flame. The cosmopolitan city of Shanghai on the Wangpoa River near the East China Sea coast was a busy seaport and Pacific Rim financial center, with several “concessions”–European quasi-colonies resulting from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Japan saw Shanghai as a potential target for another takeover…as long as it could make up a reason to do so.

On 18 January 1932, five Japanese Buddhist monks were beaten by a Chinese mob in Shanghai: one died. Later that same day, a factory was burned down and a policeman killed. It is impossible to think that these incidents were not brought about at the instigation of the Japanese military, who were adept at creating “incidents” of this kind. They weren’t necessarily sanctioned by the government in Tokyo, but the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) didn’t necessarily care: they created these situations knowing that the leadership would–eventually–back them.

By 27 January, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had positioned 7,000 IJA troops, some 40 warships (including Japan’s first aircraft carrier task force of 38,000-ton Kaga and 9,000-ton Hosho) and 40 combat aircraft for the coming battle. Also, there was the Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) of some 2,000 men. The force that would become the Shanghai Expeditionary Army was commanded by Shirakawa Yoshinori. Just outside Shanghai, the Chinese 19th Route Army*–called by some little more than a warlord force–containing about 20,000 men in three divisions. Though they had been paid to go away, they were in the city when the fighting started. With fortress garrisons and armored trains, China had maybe 30,000 initially available men for the defense of Shanghai, overall commanded by Cai Tingkai.

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Shanghai, 1932

On 27 January, the Japanese issued an ultimatum to China, demanding reparations for any damage to Japanese property or harm to Japanese citizens. While China agreed by the deadline, Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Shanghai at midnight on 28 January, the first major aircraft carrier attack in East Asia and a foretaste of the terror bombing of civilian populations that would follow. Simultaneously, IJA troops attacked targets all over the city, meeting fierce Chinese resistance.

As the fighting spread throughout the city, the members of the international communities tried to broker a cease-fire, which the Japanese at first refused, pouring more men and aircraft into the fighting up until 12 February, when a half-day truce was agreed to so that civilians could get out of the way.  That same day, the Japanese demanded that all Chinese troops be withdrawn. The Chinese responded on 14 February by sending the Chinese 5th Army– of two divisions and an independent brigade, perhaps another 20,000 men–to Shanghai.

The fighting continued until the Japanese had sent nearly 100,000 men into the battle. The two Chinese armies, pummeled by superior Japanese artillery and desperately short of supplies, had to withdraw on 29 February. Chinese casualties were about 13,000 to Japan’s 5,000.

The “peace process” brokered by the League of Nations that followed made a mockery of Chinese sovereignty, but there was no hope for it. Shanghai was “demilitarized” only of Chinese soldiers–the Japanese were allowed to keep a small garrison.

The 28 January Incident in Shanghai was yet another example of Japanese military passive-aggressive tactics that succeeded so often it gave them a sense of false confidence. They came to believe that anything they did–even a strong bluff like southern Indochina–they could eventually get away with because of their military prowess and the fear of the West of another war. When they went too far in 1941, their fate was sealed.

*A Chinese Route Army was a larger field force than an Army of more than two divisions, often more than three corps.


Yes, yes…Groundhog Day is 2 February; next Saturday. The American/Canadian custom date was first documented in 1840, in a Morgantown, Pennsylvania (traditionally Pennsylvania Dutch country) diary, where the locals believed that if a groundhog saw its shadow on Candlemas (also 2 February), the winter would be longer than if it didn’t.

My mother, of old German/English stock, knew the accuracy of the groundhog-swami to be absolute, declaring to my sisters and me that if the shadow were seen, winter would last another six weeks; if not, spring would arrive in just a month and a half.

Don’t overthink it.

The more formal custom followed in 1887 in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, which is known for nothing else at this writing. The beast is coaxed out of its lodgings at a given time, and its handlers declare whether or not Puxatawney Phil has seen its shadow. Accuracy figures are sketchy but don’t seem to exceed those of random chance.

SInce 1887, other locales have acquired their own overgrown squirrels, from Texas to Russia to Nova Scotia–and some are stuffed. Potomac Phil in Washington DC predicts the end not of winter but of Congressional gridlock–and has never been right.

SOMEONE has to point out that Bill Murray has turned an otherwise dull and mundane non-holiday into a freaking meme. For those who haven’t seen the 1993 Harold Ramis film,  Groundhog Day was released to generally favorable reviews and good sales worldwide. The story centers on a TV weatherman (Murray) who is trapped in a time loop, reliving the same 2 February over and over again with the same people, but he’s the only one who realizes it. While better film analysts and critics than I have dissected the film over and again, I have to state that I found it was mildly amusing the first time, but afterward was dull not because of the repetitive nature, but because, like many comedies, the fun stems from the unexpected.

Since the film’s release, “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand in popular culture for the repetitive nature of everyday life.  Frankly, the only thing about Groundhog Day that this correspondent finds repetitive is the insistence upon attention to it. But that’s me.

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