Japan aligns itself with Germany and Italy in the Anti-Comintern Pact 1936

In 1936, Japan's imperial government viewed the Soviet Union (formerly Tsarist Russia, and now Russia) as the main threat to Japan's conquests on the mainland of Asia, and in particular, Japan's puppet state of Manchukuo. With further territorial expansion on the Asian mainland in mind, and with China the primary target, Japan began looking for allies who would be comfortable with military aggression and likely to support Japan in the event of a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler was pleased to accommodate Japan, and on 25 November 1936, Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact. The ostensible purpose of the Anti-Comintern Pact was to contain the spread of communism, but it contained a secret protocol which required both parties to consult with a view to safeguarding their common interests if either Germany or Japan was attacked by the Soviet Union. The Japanese viewed the pact as a safeguard of Manchukuo against the Soviet Union seeking to use Japan's puppet state as a means of access to an ice-free Pacific port. Fascist Italy joined the pact in 1937.

The Imperial Japanese Navy and Admiral Yamamoto

The Imperial Japanese Navy was more cautious about aggression towards Japan's neighbours in the western Pacific, especially if the aggression might bring about conflict with the powerful United States Navy.


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

A rising naval officer named Isoroku Yamamoto was one of the leaders of the Japanese Navy's Treaty Faction which supported the 5:5:3 ratio of naval tonnage for Great Britain, the United States and Japan respectively established in 1922 by the Washington Naval Conference. This tonnage ratio was confirmed by the London Naval Treaty in 1930 and extended to 1936.

During tours of duty in the United States, Yamamoto observed American demonstrations of the use of naval aircraft against warships and became convinced that aircraft carriers were more powerful weapons than battleships. Yamamoto would later play a key role in planning the carrier-based air attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, but he had travelled extensively in the United States, and was well aware of its enormous industrial strength. He believed that Japan could not win a drawn-out war against the United States, and supported the 5:5:3 naval ratio as the best way to avoid armed conflict between Japan and the United States.

Japan withdraws from the Naval Treaty

The Japanese Army never accepted the 5:5:3 naval ratio imposed by the Washington Naval Conference, believing that it symbolised Japan's humiliation by Great Britain and the United States. By the middle of the 1930s, the Army's hostility to the naval limitation treaty had been adopted by the majority of Japanese, and having acquired new allies in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Japan withdrew from the naval limitation treaty in 1937. Japan then began to expand its navy, with particular emphasis on building aircraft carriers and huge battleships, such as the Yamato and Musashi, which were twice the tonnage of the largest British and American battleships.

The huge Japanese battleship Yamato at 71,659 tons dwarfed all other warships of its time. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto directed the pivotal Battle of Midway aboard this extraordinary warship in June 1942.

Japan's undeclared war on China 1937-1945

In July 1937, tensions between Chinese troops and Japanese troops engaged in military exercises on occupied Chinese territory produced an exchange of firing near Peking (now Beijing). The Japanese used this incident as an excuse to wage all out war against China. Japanese armies invaded China's northern provinces and quickly captured the former Chinese capital Peking. Although poorly trained and equipped, the Chinese army and communist irregulars put up strong resistance to Japan's armies which enjoyed overwhelming superiority in numbers and weapons. The Japanese encountered particularly strong resistance in the north-western Shansi and Shensi provinces where the Chinese communists had established strongholds, and were able to employ guerrilla tactics successfully against the invaders of their country. At the end of 1941, the Japanese had still made no head-way at all in north-western China against the Chinese communist armies which were able to tie down large numbers of Japanese troops.

While fighting was continuing in northern China, the Japanese launched a second front at the city of Shanghai on the eastern coast of China. Despite determined resistance by Chinese nationalist troops, the Japanese captured Shanghai in November, 1937. The Japanese were then able to move up the Yangtse River and lay siege to the Nationalist capital Nanking (now Nanjing).

The Nanking (Nanjing) Massacre

The Japanese were infuriated by the strength of Chinese resistance to their invasion, and when China's Nationalist capital Nanking fell in December 1937, Japanese troops summarily executed thousands of Chinese soldiers who had surrendered to them. Japanese troops were then encouraged by their officers to loot the city and slaughter Chinese civilians.

Chinese civilians at Nanking are buried alive by Japanese troops.

Independent foreign observers of the Nanking (Nanjing) Massacre, including a German businessman and Nazi Party member named John Rabe, were appalled to see Chinese civilians, both men and women, elderly and children, put to death by Japanese troops with horrifying brutality. As if to make a point, foreigners were invited by Japanese troops to witness mass executions of Chinese prisoners of war on the city quay. Smiling Japanese soldiers appeared to be quite willing to be photographed with raised swords beside their intended victims.

It is not appropriate to describe here the full extent of the atrocities inflicted on Nanking's civilian population, but the impact of war on civilians is important, and historical researchers concerned to pursue this aspect of war may wish to examine the text and photographs at the web-site History Information of China at the entry "The Nanjing Massacre". It is necessary to warn that this web-site contains very disturbing photographs and text.

The atrocities committed by Japanese troops at Nanking were widely publicised by foreign observers, including newspaper correspondents. Despite the fact that young Australian soldiers on the harsh Kokoda Track (or Trail) were always heavily outnumbered by battle-hardened Japanese troops, and often poorly supplied with food and equipment, one can reasonably assume that horrific reports of the Nanking Massacre stiffened their determination to resist the progress of Japanese troops towards Australia.

China's Nationalist Government moves to Chungking

China's Nationalist government was forced to abandon China's major coastal cities to the Japanese invaders and withdraw to the city of Chungking in the undeveloped interior of China, where it continued to direct resistance to the Japanese invaders. The Nationalist government was followed by hundreds of thousands of Chinese, of all classes and occupations, on foot, by cart, and by boat, and carrying what possessions they could save from the Japanese. In the wartime capital at Chunking, the Chinese established factories, schools and universities, and prepared for stubborn resistance and a lengthy war. Japan's undeclared, but savage war against China was still in progress when World War II began in Europe with Hitler's invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939.

The war in China would provide many Japanese soldiers with combat training for Japan's further military aggression in the South-west Pacific. However, the stubbornness of Chinese resistance and the size of their conquered territory in China placed heavy demands on Japan's army. Of the fifty-one infantry divisions making up the Japanese Army in 1941, thirty-eight of them, comprising about 750,000 men, were stationed in China and Manchuria. The drain on Japanese manpower produced by the continuing war in China would play an important role in Japan's ultimate defeat in the South-West Pacific by reducing Japan's capacity to supply reinforcements for the New Guinea and Solomon Island campaigns when the tide turned against Japan in those areas.

Japanese Aggression against China sours Relations with the United States

The Japanese invasion of China, and the brutal treatment of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops, quickly led to a souring of relations between the United States and Japan. The Americans had substantial commercial interests in China which were affected significantly by the drawn-out war. The first major cause of friction occurred in December 1937 when Japanese aircraft attacked an American oil tanker convoy as it was being escorted up the Yangtse River by the American gunboat USS Panay. The Panay was sunk, and the Japanese aircraft then fired on the survivors. Although the Japanese government apologised for the incident and the American lives that were lost, relations between the United States and Japan were correct but never friendly afterwards.