Japan Goes Fishing


IT is a long way, geographically, from Munich to Canton; and there is little in common culturally between the old Bavarian capital, with its well-known excellences in music, art, and beer and its new Nazi public buildings, swastikas, and Storm Troopers, and the teeming, turbulent City of Rams, metropolis of South China and spiritual home of Chinese nationalism. But there is a direct causal connection between the Munich Conference, with its capitulation of Great Britain and France to Hitler, and the hoisting of the Rising Sun Flag over Canton three weeks later. Convinced that its ‘ anti-Communist ’ ally, Germany, held the upper hand in Europe, Japan felt free to put aside all regard for British susceptibilities and to march boldly into what has always been considered a British sphere of influence in South China.

When, two weeks before the Japanese landing in South China, I visited the proud British crown colony of Hong Kong, perched on the imposing rock overlooking the magnificent harbor, it was booming with the familiar swollen prosperity of wartime trade. Japan had sealed up every other port of consequence in China; but Hong Kong, under the Union Jack, could not be touched. And through Hong Kong a steady stream of munitions had been pouring into China by rail and road, with Canton as the main point of transshipment. The munitions included airplanes from the United States and Great Britain, tanks from the Soviet Union, machine guns and small arms from Germany (business was business, despite the Anti-Communist Pact), Sweden, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. The swift and almost bloodless occupation of Canton is probably accounted for by a combination of military incompetence and unpreparedness on the Chinese side and a judicious distribution of ‘silver bullets’ among the more approachable Chinese commanders. It has placed Japan squarely athwart China’s most vital route of communication with the outside world, destroyed the significance of the Canton-Hankow Railway, and reduced Hong Kong temporarily to the status of a large rock in the Pacific Ocean, bound to suffer lean times so long as its commercial hinterland is cut off.

Japan has drawn two lessons from the Munich Conference and its aftermath. The first is that the democracies are on the run before the dictatorships. Typical in this connection is the comment of the Berlin correspondent of the Osaka Mainichi, a leading Japanese newspaper: ‘I need scarcely say that the Munich Conference ended in a sweeping victory for the Italo-German axis and in complete submission for the Franco-British bloc.’

The second impression in Japan is that no fundamental reconciliation has taken place in Europe, that the arms race is destined to continue indefinitely. And a divided Europe is a primary desideratum of Japanese foreign policy. It is believed in Tokyo that, so long as Great Britain and France see formidable potential enemies at their doors, they will have neither ships nor guns nor men to spare for backing up any vigorous policy in the Far East. Fishing in the troubled waters of Europe promises to be a profitable occupation, in the opinion of most Japanese.

It is interesting to note that such a representative Chinese nationalist spokesman as Mr. T. V. Soong accepts this view that Europe’s disunity is Japan’s opportunity. I talked with this well-known financier and brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek during a recent trip to Canton, and he said to me in substance: —

‘What is worst for China is a state of suspense, of suspicious armed peace in Europe, because this prevents China’s friends in Europe from making their proper influence felt in the Orient. War in Europe might bring some disadvantages to China in the beginning. But in the end China would benefit, because the democratic countries, although slower-moving, possess far greater resources than the dictatorships and would emerge as victors. China would share in the benefits of this victory. China would also stand to gain if there were a definite appeasement in Europe.’

Another aspect of this situation was touched on by Mr. Toshio Shiratori, frankest and most extreme of Japan’s diplomats, whom I recently interviewed on the eve of his departure to take up the post of Ambassador to Italy. Mr. Shiratori, who believes that if Great Britain can hold India with seventy thousand British troops Japan can hold China with one or two hundred thousand, gave the following answer when I asked him about the significance for Japan of the tripartite Anti-Communist Pact1 between Japan, Germany, and Italy: —

‘It has prevented the powers that are unfriendly to Japan from assuming too provocative an attitude. At the time of the Manchurian crisis, in 1931-1932, Japan stood alone. Now it has powerful friends. An attack on Japan would directly or indirectly lead up to a world war.’

Would Japan have been a participant if the threatened European war of last autumn had broken out? At the height of the crisis I was in Hong Kong, an admirable Far Eastern listening post under present conditions. One could have tea with an ardent spokesman for left-wing Chinese nationalism and dine with an unofficial Japanese emissary in the same hotel.

The British authorities at Hong Kong had made all preparations for the worst — namely, for Japanese intervention on the side of the Fascist powers. Practically all the British warships in Chinese waters had been shifted from the exposed ports of North and Central China, where they would have been easy prizes, to the relative safety of fortified Hong Kong. One of the two battalions of British troops at Shanghai was transferred to Hong Kong with lightning speed just when the outlook in Europe was darkest. And it was clearly the British intention, in the event of war, to withdraw all troops from the indefensible International Settlement at Shanghai and from the British Concession at Tientsin, concentrating all available forces for a stand at Hong Kong.

The defenses of the Colony had been unobtrusively strengthened with underground hangars, new gun emplacements, a line of pillboxes along the frontier on the mainland. Volunteers for antiaircraft work were in demand. Faces in Hong Kong were as grave and anxious as in any European capital during the fateful days of late September.

But I am inclined to doubt whether Japan would have taken a European war as the signal for a rush on Hong Kong. This would have meant the automatic cessation of all trade between Japan and the British Empire, and quite probably with the United States as well. For it is unlikely that the United States would have continued to supply Japan with the financial sinews for a drive against Great Britain that would certainly, in the long run, not spare other Western interests and possessions in the Far East.

I do not share the view that Japan could be ‘brought to its knees’ by economic sanctions within six months (a favorite term of armchair economic strategists) or within any definitely predictable period of time. History shows too many examples (Germany in the World War and the American South are good cases in point) when war continued long after one side, by all orthodox rules, was both bankrupt and exhausted in material resources.

Japanese business sentiment and moderate political opinion would certainly have been solidly against such a leap into the unknown as a stoppage of the greater part of the country’s foreign trade. Even the army and navy would not have welcomed a cutting off of such military necessities as oil, copper, and scrap iron. To some extent, barring prompt and effective Anglo-American naval action, these deficiencies could be made good by raids on the Philippines, the Netherlands Indies, and Malaya. But this would be the strategy of desperate emergency, rather than of conscious desire and design. Japan has quite enough on its hands in China without seeking new problems by disrupting normal trade contacts.

The chances are that Japan would have stood aloof from a European war, at least in its first stages. It would have pressed on its campaign of conquest in China. It would have driven as hard a bargain as possible with Great Britain and France for nonintervention. But I do not believe it would have taken the risk of a direct plunge into the European conflict unless the course of hostilities had clearly designated Germany and Italy as the winning side.

Now the imminent threat of war has given way to what Lord Halifax calls armed peace in Europe. At the same time, the capture of Hankow and Canton represents an important milestone in the Sino-Japanese war. The first phase of the Japanese offensive in China, the occupation of the ports, the largest cities, and the railways, has been virtually completed. While Chiang Kai-shek is apparently determined to continue resistance and unquestionably possesses the material means to carry on warfare for some time, the character of the struggle seems certain to change. There will be fewer big campaigns and battles, with large cities as goals. Operations will be more mobile and on a smaller scale. More importance will be attached to Chinese proficiency, or lack of proficiency, in guerrilla fighting. The record on this score thus far is rather mixed. In mountainous Shansi Province, in the Northwest, and in some adjacent regions, the Chinese Communists, who possess a decade of experience in partisan warfare, have incessantly harassed the Japanese lines of communication. On the other hand, the showing of the Chinese guerrillas in other regions, notably in Central China and in Shantung, has been feeble, causing little damage to the Japanese and merely adding a new element of banditry on the countryside.


Unquestionably Japan looks forward to further success in its policy of fishing in European troubled waters. The capture of Canton and Hankow was quickly followed by the publication of a government statement defining Japan’s war aim as ‘ the establishment of a new order which will ensure the permanent stability of East Asia.’ This order, it is stated, is to be based on ‘a tripartite relationship of mutual aid and coördination between Japan, Manchukuo, and China.’

It is a Tokyo joke of the 1937 vintage that a foreign visitor, annoyed by repeated questions as to whether Japan’s ‘real intentions’ were properly understood abroad, finally resorted to the crisp retort: ‘I’m afraid they are.’

Certainly there is little excuse for misunderstanding these intentions now, when the Japanese flag is flying from the Great Wall to Canton, when Japanese armies have advanced into the interior of China beyond Hankow, when Japan has acquired almost complete control of China’s railways and sea outlets. This is not a mere punitive expedition, designed to force from China some concession, to slice off a bit of territory or take over a strategic port. It is nothing short of an effort to establish Japanese hegemony, Manchukuo style, over a large part of China. This is, in essence, the ‘new order’ which Japan envisages in East Asia, an order as divergent from the régime established by the Washington Treaties of 1922 as the maps of Europe to-day and to-morrow differ from those which were traced after the World War. Indeed, Japanese often recognize a parallel between the crumbling of the Versailles structure in Europe and the breakdown of the Washington arrangements for the Far East.

For the Nine-Power Treaty Japan proposes to substitute a three-power pact, in which its voice will be that of its junior partners, Manchukuo and those parts of China which are under Japanese control. As for the ‘open door,’ if Japanese plans are realized, it will be open just as far as and no farther than Japanese political, military, and economic exigencies permit. It is the contention, no doubt sincere, of Japanese spokesmen that foreign powers will make more money out of trade with a Japan-controlled China than by dealing with an independent China. But this is a purely incidental consideration. Japan sees in the present world situation an opportunity to carve out a vast continental empire with a minimum of political risk, and is making the most of this opportunity.

Just as Kipling’s phrase, the ‘white man’s burden,’ furnished the moral apologia for the Western imperialism of the generations before the war, so the doctrine of Pan-Asianism throws a convenient cloak over the naked contours of conquest for Japan. The war in China is represented as a crusade to save Asia from the domination of the white race. As Mr. Tatsuo Kawai, official spokesman of the Foreign Office, recently wrote: ‘What Europe and America expected of Asia was that it should forever remain a colony or semi-colony of theirs. That Asia should be kept in such a state is quite intolerable to all Asiatics, whether they be Japanese or Chinese or members of other nationalities.’

Here is an idea that is practically more subversive of Western colonial interests than the agitation of the Communist International. Should Mr. Kawai’s theory be taken literally (and many army and navy officers do take it literally), Japan would enjoy a moral roving commission to terminate this ‘intolerable situation’ by ‘liberating’ the colonies of Western powers in Asia. This is not, to be sure, an immediate issue, for Japan is too deeply involved in China to look further afield.

What are the prospects of this modern attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Mongols and Manchus who conquered China in the Middle Ages? The thing that saved China from reduction to colonial status in the last century was not its own military strength. China’s unwillingness or inability to emulate Japan in learning what the West had to teach in industry and armaments left it helpless against the military and naval attacks of comparatively small foreign forces. China’s effective defenses were its size, its remoteness from the expanding European powers of that time, and the rivalries of these powers. No single country was strong enough to swallow China whole.

Has the situation now altered so that Japan can reasonably aspire to the creation of what will be a vast continental empire, regardless of the name that may be applied to it? The element of distance is not among Japan’s handicaps. In this respect Japan as a conqueror in China enjoys an immense advantage over any European or American power. China’s size, of course, remains a formidable obstacle, although this is somewhat diminished, especially in the regions within a few hundred miles of the coast, by the railways and roads which have been built during the last two or three decades.

Prophets of disaster for Japan have sometimes compared the Japanese position with that of Napoleon in Moscow. This analogy is, I think, misleading for several reasons. Napoleon lacked even a mile of railway and had no large river as a means of bringing up supplies. The Japanese, on the contrary, are able to camp down indefinitely in the large towns which they have occupied, using railways and waterways to bring up such supplies as they cannot obtain on the spot. Moreover, the Japanese technical military superiority to the Chinese today is far greater than was that of the French in relation to the Russians of 1812. There has been no battle in the present war in which the Chinese made a showing comparable with that of the Russians at Borodino.

Is Japan strong enough to brush aside its international rivals, to drive the white race, politically at least, out of the Far East? Four major powers, Great Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union have been adversely affected by the forward march of the Japanese legions and have made no secret of their resentment. Great Britain so far has been much the heaviest sufferer, because it possessed the largest vested interests in China. But the United States is indignant over the closing of the open door. Japan in South China is a nightmare to the French colonial authorities in IndoChina. The Soviet Union knows that its hold on Eastern Siberia becomes more precarious as the Japanese flank an increasingly large part of Siberia by their westward push in North China.

Taken together, these four powers command military, naval, and economic resources far in excess of those of Japan. Does this mean that Japan is riding for a fall in provoking their displeasure? Only time can give a definite answer to this question; but the members of the anonymous corporative group of military leaders who are wielding decisive influence on the shaping of Japan’s policy are confident that it will be in the negative — that Japan is on the highroad to empire, not to downfall. They regard the formation of a hostile Washington-LondonParis-Moscow bloc as a paper fantasy which will never materialize.

Take first the Soviet Union, the sole power that is in a geographical position to fight a land war against Japan in China. Japan has watched with keen interest the growth of the Soviet military establishment in Eastern Siberia, the rising line of forts on the Soviet bank of the Amur River, the emergence of new airdromes and submarine bases. It has made corresponding upward adjustments in its own troop concentrations and military defenses in Manchukuo.

Yet, rightly or wrongly, the consensus of Japanese military opinion is inclined to write off the Soviet Union as a serious factor in the politics of East Asia. The continual purges which have gone on for more than two years without showing any signs of coming to an end, the latest victim being Marshal Vassily Bluecher, Commander in Chief of the Soviet Far Eastern Army, have been largely instrumental in removing Japanese apprehension of the Soviet capacity to wage an offensive war.

Judgments in Tokyo, as elsewhere, are divided as to the credibility of the trials, open and secret, which have accompanied the execution and ‘ disappearance ’ of so many Soviet generals, admirals, diplomats, captains of state industry, and veteran revolutionaries. But the Japanese feel that no interpretation which can be placed on the trials is flattering to Soviet political and military strength. Whether the Soviet system, two decades after the Revolution, is actually as honeycombed with treason and sabotage as the amazing allegations at the trials would indicate, or whether Stalin is cynically employing false or exaggerated accusations in order to rid himself of all potential rivals, is hard to determine. At the moment the Japanese fear little from a régime lacking in elementary loyalty, as in qualities of efficiency and coördination. What has made an especially strong impression on the Japanese military mind is the setting of commissar spies to watch every high officer in the Red Army. This system is regarded as quite incompatible with the successful conduct of operations which require quick decision and initiative.

The ‘little war’ around the border height of Changkufeng has not enhanced Japanese respect for Soviet fighting capacity. The versions of this fighting circulated from Tokyo and from Moscow are so divergent that a neutral observer is well advised to reserve judgment on many points. But it is the general Japanese impression that the Soviet tanks gave a poor exhibition and that the Soviet infantry showed little stomach for the hand-to-hand fighting which Japanese officers regard as the supremo test of an army’s morale. One thing, at least, is certain. If the Changkufeng conflict was designed to retard the Japanese advance in China, it conspicuously failed to achieve its purpose.

The likelihood that Great Britain and France will exert naval pressure in the Orient is not taken seriously in Tokyo. Both countries are regarded as too deeply immersed in Europe’s troubled waters, with French internal dissension as a further weakening factor.

There remains America, most disengaged and potentially strongest of the large powers. America bulks larger than Great Britain, France, or the Soviet Union in Japan’s reckoning of conquest. It is significant in this connection that the tirades of wrath which are periodically unloosed in the Japanese press against Great Britain and France are never directed against America. The press in Japan is not so completely an organ of the state as it is in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. But it is highly amenable to official suggestion; and the Japanese authorities have shown a desire to reduce the risk of incidents affecting Americans by damping down polemics against America, even when American criticism of Japan has been most bitter. There has also been a little more effort to offer compensation for injuries to life and property when the case has involved Americans.

But Japan is convinced, for several reasons, that America will not fight for an open door that is fast becoming an historical memory. There is, first, the supposed reluctance of Washington to take a position in advance of that of other countries with Far Eastern interests. And since Great Britain and France, under the shadow of Hitler, are considered incapable of strong action, it is assumed that America will not go beyond scoring legal points in diplomatic notes and perhaps inflicting pinprick economic reprisals. It is remarkable how often the European situation crops up as an indirect determining factor in shaping Japanese policies and actions.

Frequent expressions of isolationist and pacifist sentiment and the division of opinion over the New Deal are considered additional indications that America will not resort to arms. Another consideration is the relatively small stake represented by American trade and investments in China. (The total value of American investments in China is about $200,000,000, approximately one sixth of Great Britain’s total. America’s export trade to China in the three years preceding the war averaged about one quarter of America’s sales to Japan and was about 1.5 per cent of America’s total export trade.)

It may be that Japan’s analysis of the American attitude leaves out of account some intangible emotional factors. Clearly it is founded on the assumption that there will be no second Panay incident. But it will require more than diplomatic notes, however stiffly worded, to convince Japan that America is in earnest about the Far East.


Japan believes that possession is nine parts of victory; that foreign governments, however much they may protest at first, will finally accept the hard fact that Japanese locks have been placed on practically all of China’s doors. Hitler’s demonstration of the possibility of getting what one wants by giving a convincing exhibition of willingness to fight for it has not been lost on Japan. This is also true as regards the crumbling of paper schemes for a coalition of powers much stronger than Nazi Germany.

Apart from foreign opposition there remains the question of Chinese resistance. Indeed, there is a close relationship between these two stumblingblocks in Japan’s path of empire. Foreign indirect aid to China in the form of action calculated to harass Japan is likely to rise and fall in pretty direct ratio to the proved ability of China to defend itself. Japan has won battles and taken China’s seven largest cities (Peiping, Tientsin, Shanghai, Hankow, Canton, Tsingtao, and Nanking). But it cannot reasonably regard the war as finished until the nationalist régime is definitely overthrown.

Were such an overthrow to occur, with Chiang Kai-shek a fugitive and some of his associates making terms with the Japanese, the ground would be pretty well cut from under foreign protests against anything Japan might choose to undertake in China. The fait accompli of Abyssinia and of Austria would have been repeated on a larger scale. On the other hand, any conspicuous Chinese success would strengthen the groups in foreign countries which favor a vigorous anti-Japanese policy.

So the next months, quite possibly the next years, will see Japan engaged in a twofold struggle, on the military front against Chiang Kai-shek, and on a front that is as yet only diplomatic against the powers with political and economic interests in China. The stakes in the struggle are high. For Japan the alternative is world power or downfall. For China the question is whether its development is or is not to proceed under Japanese hegemony. For the Soviet Union the issue is the security of its eastern marches; for the Western powers, the maintenance of old vested interests and of new opportunities for development in the Far East.

  1. Mr. Shiratori was one of the early sponsors and advocates of the Pact. — AUTHOR