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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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12 November: Sun Yat-sen and Akihito

For Asia, 12 November has been an auspicious day.  In China, a future leading reformer was born; in Japan, an emperor was installed.  Ironically, the first had a role in ensuring the second.

In 1866, Sun Yat-sen was born during what was then the Qing (in the West, the Manchu) dynasty of China.  As a young man Yat-sen (of his many names, this one will be used) was educated first in Hawaii, then in Hong Kong under missionary hospital doctors, picking up fluent English.  Soon after he was licensed to practice medicine and was baptized a Christian, he fell into revolutionary movements and was exiled in 1895.  While living in Japan he was active in arming the Philippine nationalists against the Americans.  Traveling extensively in Europe, Asia and the Americas to raise money for one failed revolt after another from 1900 to 1907, another failed revolt had him exiled to Japan once again.  The successful 1911 Wuchang uprising caught him by surprise and still in America.  He had returned to China by the end of the year.  Elected the provisional president of a Chinese republic, he took office 1 January 1912.  But he was not president of a great country, but a lot of territory with an economy in a shambles, a government without any enforcement power, and several splintered factions.  While he was popular enough to stay in power, stepping down and up again several times, his influence over most of China’s affairs was limited to the power of the warlords who backed him, and they changed with the seasons.  At his death in 1925 China had got rid of the empire, but not of its internal issues.

On 12 November 1990, Japan’s Emperor Akihito was enthroned.  As the 125th (traditionally) emperor, he succeeded when his father the Showa emperor Hirohito died in 1989.  As a teenager in 1945, Akihito received a much-ignored letter from his father, which explained why the emperor issued his Imperial Rescript withdrawing his support for the war.  The reasons the Showa cited were that they dynasty had to survive even if he did not, and the soul of Japan, then embodied in the Imperial Objects, could not fall into non-Japanese hands. Though likely too young to understand the implications, it would appear to Japan watchers that Akihito took his father’s implied admonition to heart: the first duty of the emperor is to serve the throne and the dynasty.  As the first emperor in a dynasty over two millennium old who did not accept living divine status, his service, indeed his life, is as the symbol of modern Japan and little else.

While Sun Yat-sen died years before Akihito was born, the chaos that China’s civil wars fueled from 1911 onward made China a tempting target for Japan.  While the United States always had a soft spot for China, its sympathies for Japan have waxed and waned over the past century.  When Japan went to war with China starting in 1932 (technically with Manchuria, which was legally separate at the time) it was because Yat-sen’s constant revolution weakened China so severely that Japan merely took the opportunity for expansion.  After a generation of war, America and China stood over the wreckage of Japan, yet preserved the monarchy.

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Why Nanking Matters

By 18 February 1938, the Japanese Army had exhausted itself in Nanking, and about 300,000 Chinese civilians had been dead, maimed, mutilated, or raped to death in Nanking, and the first reports were reaching the world outside.  Refugees, diplomats, the odd reporter, and the sheer volume of horror carried the story, but it was not widely reported.  Japan, to this day, denies the scale, and is generally silent about the issue.

More than seventy years later, the issue of Japanese war guilt is indisputable, but the issue of exactly what atrocities were committed is not, especially in Japan.  The west insists that massacres like Nanking happened, and that the many scores of perpetrators be punished (albeit many already have been).  Japan insists that these incidents were exaggerated, that “comfort women” were volunteers, and that Unit 731 was not a biological warfare outfit that used humans as guinea pigs.  At minimum, Japan often suggests, Japan was only doing what was necessary to survive.

While the gods of Expediency often is worshiped in wartime, that does not excuse atrocity.  To say “I know you are but what am I” to accusers holding evidence of barbarity (deflecting guilt by saying “so did you”) is just frivolous. While the Americans burned Tokyo and a score of other Japanese cities with firebombs and torpedoed hospital ships that routinely carried ammunition, the Soviets invading Manchuria in 1945 were as brutal to the Japanese and Chinese they encountered as they were to the Germans,  Yes, these crimes were committed in the name of the Expediency gods, but that does not excuse Japan’s denials.

Japan’s excuse-making deflection may be intolerable, but so is the litany of finger-pointing every year when some prominent Japanese visits the Yasukuni shrine.  The west insists that this is a place of worship for the “killers” of WWII.  Trouble is, it’s for them…as well as for every other Japanese who ever died in any battle, including WWI and the Peking Relief in 1900, side by side with the west’s finest fighting men.

The reason Nanking matters even to this day is though Japan was guilty, so is popular perception of a war that had enough tragedy to go around.  No one has to compound it by making up things, or by denying the undeniable.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look and Japan At War, 1945-45 is a study of Japan’s motivations and methods up to and including WWII.  Available in hardback and paperback at fine booksellers everywhere.