Useful Notes: Second Sino-Japanese War

aka: Second Sino-Japanese War
Japanese soldiers in Shanghai, 1937

"Future historians will, I believe, regard our War of Resistance as the most significant event in this period of world history, since by our enormous sacrifices we are contributing not only to the good of the Chinese nation but also to the welfare of all mankind. From now on, however, we must struggle even harder and must be ready for even greater sacrifices, in order that justice may be accomplished. The aims of our struggle are simple and clear. If we succeed we shall not only be able to build a new China but we shall also contribute immeasurably to the peace of the world."
Chiang Kai-Shek, Address to the nation on the 27th anniversary of the Republic of China, 10/10/1938

The Second Sino-Japanese War was, right behind the Soviet-German War, the biggest and most costly war in human history. It was fought by Imperial Japan against China, beginning in the summer of 1937note  and ending in the summer of 1945. The conflict was eventually eclipsed by WWII in 1939 and became part of the wider war in 1941, with China and Japan respectively joining the Allies and Axis, and ended with the complete surrender of Japan to the Allied powers. It was also the largest war ever fought in Asia, leaving at least 15 million Chinese military and civilian dead note  — and just short of half a million Japanese military dead.

The war is still within living memory, and what successive generations have been taught about it is the subject of (fierce) controversy in East Asia. Generally speaking, nations best deal with shared negative experiences like war and imperialism when they treat the whole thing fairly impersonally, reach broad agreements on the rough facts of the matter without trying to demonize anyone, and do their best to move on. For example, Germany and Poland: whilst many Poles still don't forgive aspects of the conduct of Nazi Germany, most of today's Germans are sorry about what happened, and the great majority of Poles and Germans mutually regret the whole business and don't want that sort of thing to happen ever again between anyone, and like to leave it at that. That's probably not going to happen any time soon with this.

In 1940, after three years of Civil War, the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-Shek lost its last major holdouts on the mainland and was reduced to just Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang, Qinghai, etc) and the isles of Hainan and Taiwan. Their foe, the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong, proclaimed the establishment of a People's Republic of China on the First of October that year. The People's Republic soon reached a level of cultural understanding and reconciliation with Japan despite the differences in their ideologiesnote  and economic systems.

Throughout the '50s and '60s, both countries blamed a small clique of Japanese militarist leaders — thereby leaving out the uncomfortable issue of the behaviour of Japanese troops and Chinese Communist guerrillas — and the Americans and British for The War. Communist China emphasized its own grass-roots patriotism and independence from the Soviets, also seeking to play up the — actually very marginal — actions of Maoists during the war and to portray the Guomindang as hopeless corrupt, immoral, un-patriotic, traitorous and a puppet of the Americans.

This broad agreement on the "facts" of the matter changed in the '70s, when Japan became the world's no.2 economy and China — which had broken rather messily with the Soviets — normalised diplomatic and later economic and cultural relations with America. Japanese public opinion began dodging the uncomfortable aspects of the past by fudging some details and missing others, whilst playing up the suffering of the Japanese people as a result of the American fire-bombings, atomic bombings and ensuing occupation.

At roughly the same time, the Chinese Communists suddenly started to play up the foreign invasion angle of the war, demonising not just the Japanese military junta, but Japanese troops and the Japanese people generally. They also stopped portraying the Guomindang as American puppets (though they continued to assert that they were American puppets at-present), but continued to neglect their foes' critical contribution to the war effort whilst playing up their own part in resisting the "savage dwarf-pirates" — to use a traditional racial slur.

This is more or less the status quo today, with the uncomfortable details of the war being glossed over or neglected entirely in Japan in favor of a victim narrative. As an example, in Hiroshima the Peace Memorial Museum's historical account begins with something like, "In the springtime of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched a campaign of firebombing against major cities in Japan..." with no mention of what might have happened beforehand or why. The museum attached to the Yasukuni Shrine (controversial in its own right due to the interning of war criminals there) explicitly lays out the "ABCD Theory" - that the Americans, British, Chinese and Dutch "forced" Japan into a war by monopolizing all the resources which Japan needed, and Japan would have starved if they didn't fight for what was "rightfully theirs."

The governments of the respective countries are not the only forces at work, however. Beginning in the late '70s and blossoming in the late '90s, neo-conservative nationalist groups in Japan have tried to emphasise the importance of giving the Japanese nation a positive, forward-looking outlook under the leadership of a strong centralised state. Of course, there is little room in this forward-looking narrative for dwelling on the past, especially the bad bits of it, and these groups think of the Second Sino-Japanese War as a war of Pan-Asian liberation from Western Imperialism. Likewise, they are quick to claim that Japanese atrocities have been massively exaggerated, and are based mostly on hearsay from anti-Japanese sources or fabricated wholesale, all in the name of shaming the Japanese people into being hesitant to form a strong state or military; with which, the foreigners fear, they might protect their own interests rather than remaining at the mercy of the foreign powers like America and China. Several textbooks have been written along just these lines, and are often singled out for criticism.

There are also differences in how history is taught in both nations. Japanese schools have a choice of around thirty to fifty textbooks, produced by various private companies, although subject to some editing and license requirements by the department of education. As one would expect, they vary in their portrayal of events; some are fairly objective, and others are ideologically charged. But when taken as a whole they have a readily apparent bias towards sanitising history, (quite a bit) more so than in contemporary Anglo-European textbooks. Schools in the People's Republic of China, on the other hand, use precisely one periodically-updated textbook written by the Department of Education itself. The Department of Education is not particularly bothered by historical 'objectivism', which they are quick to dismiss as an unattainable and self-contradictory British academic fad. The German-Polish approach is held up as the standard to aspire to with regards to uncomfortable history as the text seeks to inform and explore the issues at work in order to promote some measure of understanding and reconciliation.

The war is still a very polarising event, and is certainly not a topic for polite conversation.

The Manchurian Incident:
On September 18, 1931, near the city Mukden in Manchuria (today Shenyang), a railroad owned by Japan's South Manchuria Railway was blown up (which was totally not a false flag operation). The Japanese military generals accused Chinese terrorists of this act, and used it as an excuse for the full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The civilian government in Tokyo was not consulted at all in this matter, but Emperor Hirohito quickly gave up on the idea of punishing the offenders, since at this point the civilian government was just a puppet of the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Japanese generals then decided to set up a puppet government in the occupied north, called Manchukuo ("the Manchu State") and placed the last emperor Pu Yi back on the throne. They weren't fooling anyone. The American media sarcastically called the new colony "Japanchukuo".

The League of Nations demanded that Japan withdraw its armies from Manchuria, but the Japanese public fully supported a war of expansionism in Asia. So the Japanese gave the international community the middle finger by withdrawing from the Security Council. This set the stage for an inevitable war, even though the Sino-Japanese War did not break out until 1937.

United Front:
By 1936, Chiang Kai-Shek (a.k.a. Jiang Jieshi) leader of the Chinese Guomindang (GMD or 'National[ist] Party'), had (relatively) firm control over all the territory a hundred miles to either side of the Yangzi river. This was more (economically important) territory than any one Chinese warlord or government had controlled since President-for-life Yuan Shikai died in 1916.

In the years since the "Northern March" of 1927, wherein the Guomindang had taken control of the mid-lower Yangzi (chiefly Shanghai, Nanjing, and Wuhan) and established a base of power for itself, Chiang had done a lot to consolidate the party's hold on the country. He had managed this by fighting communism, "fighting" communism, and fighting "communism" — by taking over communist base areas in Jiangxi and Henan and Hunan provinces, by using the fight to unify the country and eliminate communism to smooth over political and ideological tensions within the party, and by using the pretext of eliminating communism to take over the rest of Hunan and Sichuan province. In 1936 Chiang was determined to eliminate the Communist Soviet in Yan'an province. Stationing so many troops in the area (for the offensive to crush the Soviet) meant he was able to find a use for and curb the influence of the wily and backstabbing Warlord Yan Xishan (who was based out of neighbouring Shanxi province) and other, smaller warlords. With troops in their backyard, he was able to bully them into contributing to the campaign. Moreover, when the Guomindang won (as it almost certainly would, in retrospect), it would give Chiang a good position from which he could eliminate them in the (near) future.

However, Chiang's chosen the Operations-Commander for the campaign — Zhang Xueliang — had an axe to grind. Manchuria and Japan's other client states in northern China had all been carved out of his territory. Zhang's father Zhang Zuolin had once ruled all the territory between Bejing and Harbin and had fought the Guomindang for control of the country; now, all he had were some troops and a few scattered figures (like Yan Xishan) who owed him their allegiance or shared his views. Zhang tried unsuccessfully to convince Chiang to join forces with the Dirty Communists against Japan but the Generalissimo would have none of it, not least because Chiang believed (rightly) that A: The Guomindang could not win an open fight with Japan and B: that the Japanese wanted to disengage from China given the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Despite having sworn allegiance to Chiang, Zhang eventually came to the conclusion that he had to (as he put it) "keep China strong for the war with Japan".

Consequently, when Chiang turned up at Xi'an to observe Zhang's offensive, Zhang got his troops to slaughter Chiang's guards, kidnap him, and force him to negotiate with the communists at gunpoint. The Chinese Communist Party was contacted in secret and asked for a delegation to decide on the next step. After some deliberation, Chiang agreed to call off the offensive to crush the Yan'an Soviet and to establish a "united front" against Japan. Since Chiang was agreed to be the only man who could lead China in such a war, not at all coincidentally, the man himself was released.

Chiang kept his word and forged the United Front. Zhang Xueliang was gaoled for life, but he became a national hero almost overnight as the urban Chinese publicnote  was just itching for a war with Japan

A Game of Marco Polo:
Though Japan was still a jingoistic military dictatorship, saner heads had just begun to prevail in the year of 1937. Unfortunately, neither they nor Chiang could control the troops involved along their mutual border around Beijing; though they had control of the city itself, the Guomindang's control of the surrounding countryside was contested by Yan Xishan and other warlords, and Japan's Kwantung (Guandong) Army was notoriously independent-minded (they were the ones who arranged the "Manchurian Incident").

During the night of July 7, a Japanese soldier went missing during night-exercises near the Marco Polo Bridge on the Manchukuo-China border (named so after the traditional belief that Marco Polo crossed it on his way into Beijing). When he still hadn't turned up in the morning, the Japanese forces demanded the right to search the city. The Guomindang commander refused to let them in and warned them off with shots, which turned into a firefight, which culminated in a full-scale battle with tanks and artillery.

Both Chiang and Tokyo quickly exchanged apologies for the incident and tried to avoid antagonising each other, but then other firefights broke out all along the border and before long the two states were at an undeclared, de facto state of war.

The Battle of Shanghai:
The warlords of Shandong province soon gave up without a fight, and Yan Xishan's forces were unable to offer effective resistance either. Chiang sent some of his own troops to shore them up, but it was soon clear that the North China plain would probably be lost if the Japanese fueled their offensive "push" with fresh men redeployed from their border with the Soviets. Thus, Chiang decided to take the Japanese concession in Shanghai to open a "Second Front" that would slow Japan's southwards offensive and let him fight the Japanese on the closest thing he could get to an even footing — though the Japanese would have overwhelming supremacy in airpower and naval and land-based artillery, fighting within the city would hopefully negate these advantages enough for the Guomindang to win an important victory there.

It didn't work out. After a three-month battle involving a million men the Guomindang had lost some 300,000 casualties, lost half the literate and academy-trained officer corps, and the city... and Nanjing, the Capital, would have to be abandoned too as it was totally indefensible. Most of Chiang Kai-Shek's half-million elite German-trained and equipped troops, the veterans of a decade of warfare, are dead — in combat, or of their wounds, or of disease — or captured. The battle also took a terrible toll on the Guomindang's tiny and outdated air forces, which were practically irreplaceable since China produced no planes of her own.

The only positive things about this crushing defeat were that it gave the Guomindang time to move most of the lower Yangzi delta's factories and plants upstream to the mid- and upper-Yangzi, where they would be safe (albeit under-supplied with raw materials) and raised foreign sympathy for China, especially from the USA. The Japanese forces involved at Shanghai were traumatised, furious, and hell-bent on vengeance after so much cheeky, insubordinate, and unforgiveable resistance by their racial inferiors.

The Rape of Nanking:
Nanjing, China's "Southern Capital", was the Guomindang's centre of administration, and by extension the Capital City of China. Once word spread that Shanghai was lost, the GMD government fled from the city — it was clear to everyone that Nanjing was a sitting duck. As the Japanese ground forces made their way to Nanjing, their air force began bombing the capital. Nanjing's defenses had several weaknesses, due to the breakdown of morale among the retreating soldiers from the battle outside the city walls. Nanjing fell on December 13th, and opened its gates for the Japanese expeditionary force. Someone — either the forces' commander, Crown Prince Asaka or one of his aides — issued an order: "KILL ALL CAPTIVES." And so the Nanjing Massacre... occurred. It's also been given the cheerful moniker the Rape of Nanking... because of the mass-rapes, you see. The official Japanese death toll was about 2000, but we're pretty sure that 200,000 civilians and a few PO Ws were killed during the course of it. Given that there were only a hundred thousand or so Japanese soldiers in and around the city at the time, this disproves the notion that each one massacred a small mountain of innocent civilians by themselves. The participation of most soldiers in the event was restricted to looting, or wisecracking as your mates tortured someone to death or shot some random people in the street on a whim, and finding someone to rape with thirty of your best friends. Now we know what you're thinking: "being raped by thirty-plus people, even if it does happen every day for a week, doesn't kill you!" That's true. But unfortunately, most Japanese soldiers "forgot" to feed the civilians they restrained for such purposes... and they had a nasty of habit of killing their play-things when they were bored with them.

The IJA's Military Police were solely concerned with rooting out Socialism and internal dissent, and so didn't even try to restrain the rank-and-file as they basically did whatever they wanted. There was a little bit of official involvement in the whole thing, of course, (apart from the "Kill all captives" and "let's all look the other way" things) when it came to killing all the PO Ws captured in the battles for Shanghai and Nanjing and in supervising the creation of Army Brothels using conscripts as unpaid prostitutes, aside from feeding them. There weren't that many of them, though, just a few thousand "employees" at a time (though the turnover was high due to suicide and other cheery things). While the looting was fairly harmless, as we mentioned before, not as many livelihoods as you might expect were destroyed by it — while not all of the former owners were dead, of course, many if not most were. The complete break-down of law-and-order continued for about six weeks, when it just sort of petered out what with the place being a Ghost-City and barely any live females left outside the army-brothels.

These atrocities are still denied by certain Japanese ultra-nationalists, to the understandable anger of... well, pretty much anyone with a heart, but especially ethnic-Chinese folk. This is despite the mountains of sickening images, newspaper articles, and letters homenote  from the perpetrators themselves.

The Massacre caused a rare Crowning Moment of Awesome for a citizen of Nazi Germany — John Rabe, a businessman and diplomat, opened the German embassy (which as German soil was in theory sacrosanct to Japanese incursion) to tens of thousands of refugees who were sheltered inside. For this he's acquired the moniker 'The Good Nazi', a title he shares with Oskar Schindler. His is the only German name most Chinese schoolchildren know (apart from/including Hitler).

The Flood:
Despite an impassioned but poorly-coordinated defense by Guomindang and Guangxi-Clique troops around Zhengzhou - where the Beijing-Nanjing railroad met the line coming from Shandong - the North China Plain was lost in its entirety. Yan Xishan fled into the hills of Shanxi province but maintained close ties with a collaborationist regime in the city of Taiyuan, and The Guomindang set up numerous partisan units and guerilla lines to operate behind Japanese lines. However, the speed of the Japanese advance was disastrous. With Guomindang-Guangxi Clique forces in full retreat and Japanese forces threatening to link up with forces advancing northward from Nanjing to encircle and capture most if not all of them (and certainly losing all their literally irreplaceable heavy equipment and weapons), Chiang took the decision to blow the dykes of the Yellow River and flood the North China Plain.

It worked, but cost up to 2 million people their lives - mostly from water-borne diseases like dysentry (one of the many pleasant things you get when you drink water that has dead things/shit in it), starvation-related diseases in the months that followed when they starved because their crops were washed away or rotted because they were immersed in water or withered and died from lack of water. Some have blamed the Guomindang for not providing humanitarian aid to the victims, and that this treatment was especially cold given that it was their fault it happened in the first place, but Chiang's choice was simple: help them and invalidate the reason he'd done it in the first place (as well as encouraging Imperial Japan to do this kind of thing themselves in future so Chiang's regime would exhaust itself trying to save everyone), or keep going and try to drag out the war. One might well ask why Japan did nothing to help the victims either, given how they were always talking about how they were in China for the Chinese people's own good. Anyhow, the whole 'artificial flood' thing turned a panicked rout into an orderly retreat (for lack of a Japanese pursuit) and slowed the Japanese advance for as much as six months as they first scrambled to recover their pursuit forces before they starved to death/died of dysentry and then had to find enough pack animals to replace all the ones they had lost in the flooding as well as repair all the railway and telegraph lines.

Chiang relocated the capital first to Wuhan on the mid-Yangzi, where he called a conference with all the Guomindang leaders and Warlords (who nominally overlapped) of China. In it, against the wishes of Wang Jingwei and others who thought that further war was pointless and would result in even greater suffering, he persuaded them that fighting the war to the end was not only the only politically-acceptable course of action but also the only morally justifiable one. Chiang then publicly that China would keep fighting until Japan was defeated (with the unlikely entry of the USSR/USA into the war) or (inevitable without foreign intervention, though this went unsaid) the Guomindang was totally destroyed. Chongqing in the upper Yangzi basin, and continued the war of resistance from there. With casualties rapidly increasing on the Japanese side, their air force concentrated on carpet bombing of major cities to break Chinese morale. Chongqing still holds the sad distinction of being the most heavily bombed city in the world (if only because, unlike Hamburg or Nagoya, it wasn't destroyed in a single night of intense bombing but instead whittled away steadily over the course of seven years).

Missing Years:
Much as with the second half of the Soviet-German War (1942-45), the major combat operations of 1938-1941 (including the 1938 Battle of Wuhan and at least two of the five battles of Changsha) are usually 'lost' to common knowledge. These are glossed over for three reasons: 1) the Chinese Communist Party played no role in them, 2) nobody cares what the Guomindang/Taiwan have to say about them, and 3) Japan likes to pretend they didn't happen. Suffice it to say that although Wuhan was captured, Changsha wasn't. The campaigns did however help bleed the Guomindang dry and very nearly cut their rail-links with the Guangxi Clique (at Changsha). China also saw her Darkest Hour upon the withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1940 (done as the Soviet armament drive began in earnest).

Competing Strategies:
China had one basic advantage — it's an enormous country, with the world's largest population. During this time, Mao Zedong and the CCP kept their truce with Chiang to... do nothing. The CCP did everything in its power to avoid antagonising Japan or her puppet regimes and did its best to undermine Guomindang and other independent guerilla groups behind Japanese lines, using their network of spies and sympathisers to tell the occupation forces who they where and where to find them (while maintaining plausible deniability and avoiding looking like they were directly fighting non-CCP Chinese resistance groups). Only recently has the People's Republic of China begun to admit that The Guomindang actually did anything at all to fight the Japanese, though it still maintains that the CCP did the brunt of the fighting when in fact they did none at allnote  except when Stalin bullied them into committing forces (in the shortl-lived 'hundred regiments offensive') to save the Guomindang's hide in 1940, when the latter was on the verge of collapse. The CCP's leader, Mao something, used this failure to further undermine the pro-Soviet faction within the CCP and assert his own independence from Moscow - resuming his truce with the Japanese to focus on turning the entire countryside under nominal Japanese occupation into one gigantic Communist Soviet so that either A) when the Guomindang was destroyed the CCP could eventually come to power by taking over Wang Jingwei's government (ideally Japan would be busy fighting someone else, e.g. The USSR, by then) or B) the CCP could beat a critically-weakened Guomindang in a continuation of The Civil War.

By the end of 1941, the Second Sino-Japanese War merged with World War II, with The Republic Of China joining the Allies. Japan now controlled the cities and railway lines in coastal China, but had no control over anything more than a day's march or so (c.30 km) from the nearest railway line, canal, or river.

Puppet States:
As in Manchuria, the Japanese created puppet states in China to help facilitate and legitimize their rule. One was created soon after the Marco Polo Bridge attack, inside Inner Mongolia. A nationalist official-turned-collaborator, Wang Jingwei, agreed to help the Japanese set up a Chinese puppet state based in Nanjing. To put on an image of legitimacy, Wang's regime used the same flag and sun symbol as the old government. The Japanese also set up warlords to rule over the other parts of the huge country. Les Collaborateurs had little power, and though they were allowed to have their own troops, these were in turn commanded by Japanese overseers. Almost a million Chinese POW were forced to join the collaborator army (as garrison troops, as they were too unreliable to be used as cannon-fodder against the Guomindang).

For three years after the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Chinese managed to fight the Japanese into an exhausted stalemate. Japan's invasion had bogged down by 1938, and despite further major campaigns in 1939-40 they were unable to achieve a decisive victory despite dedicating the majority of their troops and resources to the China front.

In 1944, while the naval war raged across the Pacific, the Japanese commanders in China decided to launch Operation Ichigo ("number one"). The main objectives were to seize the southern provinces of Hunan and Guangxi, the centers of Chinese resistance. If the NRA could be finally defeated in the field, the Japanese could then advance upriver to the ROC capital at Chongqing, ending the war in China. The secondary objective of the offensive was to destroy the allied airbases in Hunan and Guangxi, which were being used by American planes to harass Japanese bombers and disrupt the IJA's overstretched supply lines. Ichigo was the largest Japanese ground offensive of the entire war, and involved over 500,000 Japanese and 400,000 Allied troops. The GMD was caught by surprise and the airfields were either captured or evacuated, but the NRA managed to hold out by virtue of American training and lend-lease equipment, which had by this time made good on the GMD's losses at Shanghai. Operation Ichigo was a mixed success, but the course of the war had already been decided by events elsewhere.

Ichigo was the last successful Japanese offensive. Even as it drew to a close, Japanese cities were being fire-bombed by the US Air Force. Even the lowest Japanese grunt knew the war was lost, but surrender was unthinkable. Three generals launched one last, desperate offensive into Sichuan, but were beaten back. The Allied leaders then issued a final ultimatum that demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan on threat of "utter destruction". Given the numbers of Japanese civilian dead and the way the Third Reich had just gone down, High Command didn't expect for a moment this would actually work and had been planning an amphibious invasion of the Japanese Home Islands — Operation Downfall — which was set to begin in October. Naturally, Japan refused to surrender. The USAF then dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Soviet Union entered the war the same week and in just two weeks captured the whole of Manchuria and more than a million IJA troops, breaking the back of the Japanese Army. Meanwhile, the Guangxi Clique had managed to take back Guangxi and forward elements of their forces managed to make it to Guangzhou/Hong Kong - prompting The Commonwealth to send an emergency task-force from Australia to take it from the token Japanese force that held it before the GMD got there - and the Guomindang as a whole were preparing for an all-out offensive down the Yangzi to prevent the Soviets from getting there first... when to everyone's astonishment, Japan surrendered.

Works set in this period:

  • Lust, Caution, about a plot to assassinate a pro-Japanese collaborator in occupied Shanghai.
  • The Girl Who Played Go is about a relationship between a Chinese girl and a Japanese officer in the early stages of the war.
  • City of Life and Death, a drama film set during the Nanking Massacre.
  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (and the movie based on it) is about the author's childhood inside a Japanese prison camp for Western civilians.
  • Tintin's adventure The Blue Lotus depicts the Japanese encroachment on China in the 1930s.
  • Men Behind the Sun, a Chinese documentary about the Unit 731 human experiments made according with recovered Japanese lab notes that looks like an exploitation film.
  • Flying Tigers, a 1942 war film starring John Wayne.
  • The manga Kuni ga Moeru, about a bureaucrat in Imperial Japan during the war. The first (and only) Japanese manga to depict the Rape of Nanking in graphic detail, it kicked off a massive controversy.
  • Osamu Tezuka's manga Phoenix is about Japanese soldiers during this war, searching for the eponymous magic bird in China (while presumably committing war crimes on the way). Sadly, it was never finished due to Author Existence Failure.
  • The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, which popularized the term. Provides much historical information about this event. Unfortunately, she committed suicide a few years after writing it.
  • The Battle of China is a 1944 propaganda documentary by Frank Capra with first-rate footage of the war.
  • Several of the early adventures of Buck Danny are set in wartime China.
  • Seven Man Army (八道樓子) is a 1976 Hong Kong film about the defense of the Great Wall in the early stages of the war.
  • Zhang Yimou's directorial debut, Red Sorghum, is set at a sorghum-liquor distillery in the middle of the war. His epic To Live touches on it briefly, but focuses more on the Chinese Civil War and what came afterward.
  • Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War a.k.a. Nanjing Heroes, set during the Rape of Nanking. Christian Bale plays an American mortician who helps to protect a group of Catholic schoolgirls and an equal number of Chinese prostitutes from the invading Japanese army.
  • Chen Kaige's own directorial debut, Yellow Earth, is set in a remote rural region in 1939.
  • Jiang Wen's Devils on the Doorstep (鬼子来了) takes place in northern China in the last phase of the war.
  • Black Sun: Nanking is a torture-porn film about, well, the Rape of Nanking.
  • The Children of Huang Shi deals with the evacuation to safety of orphaned Chinese children by two Westerners during the war.
  • Dragon Seed by Pearl Buck.
  • Terry and the Pirates
  • Purple Sunset is about a Chinese man and a Russian woman taking revenge on the Japanese.
  • The manga Ron by Motoka Murakami, author of Jin.
  • The anime Senko No Night Raid is about a group of Japanese spies in China, 1931, and its plot involves the events leading up to the war, from the Mukden Incident to the creation of the Manchukuo puppet government.
  • Philosophy of a Knife is a Russian horror film about Unit 731, with real interviews mixed in.
  • Shanghai Girls starts out in this period. It is about wealthy sisters Pearl and May Chin who find out that their father lost all of their money and they are forced to move to America.
  • Ip Man is a martial arts film Very Loosely Based on a True Story about Ip Man (Bruce Lee's teacher) and his experiences during the Japanese occupation of China.
  • Most of Zipang does not take place in China, but events in China form a critical background to its plot (much more important in the manga version than the incomplete anime version.)
  • The Good, the Bad, the Weird is focused on Korean exiles in Manchuria during the war (no later than 1941).
  • The Italian comic book Comic Book/Lilith has its titular time travel visit the Rape of Nanjing in one volume.

The Second Sino-Japanese War provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Armies Are Evil: While there were a hell of a lot more specks of light than you'd think of given the intensity of most reactions' to it, none of the major armies involved in the Chinese land war acquitted themselves overly well.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: One of the explanations that's sometimes tossed about for why the Japanese soldiers behaved the way they did.... the IJA was not a fun place to be, and relied on conscription... primarily criminals (e.g. "10 years in prison or 5 years of military service").
  • Body-Count Competition: The war became infamous for this practice. Two Japanese officers had a contest, over which would be the first to slay a hundred Chinese captives. With their katana swords. En route to Nanjing, both of them surpassed their goal (so they decided to aim for 150 kills instead). The whole head-chopping contest was treated like a sport; it was covered by reporters and published in the daily newspaper Tokyo Nichi Shimbun so that people at home could follow the scores.
  • Cherry Blossoms: The Japanese liked to plant cherry trees on conquered territory, since sakura marked it as Japanese space.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Chinese collaborators, obviously. However, their army had terrible morale and most of them deserted at the first chance they got. Subverted trope: Some of these collaborators were, in fact, collaborating with the Chinese. Some generals were under orders to stage defection if their situation became untenable (cut off from the main force). These newly-turned units would often lurk as "collaborators" for several months or even years, until it became convenient for them to defect back.
  • Communists Win the War: One common instance of historical revision is to play up the small contribution of Communist forces and guerrillas and downplay the contributions of the Nationalist army and foreign allies in the defeat of Japan. See Fanon Discontinuity below for more details.
  • Cool Plane: The Mitsubishi Zero.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Due to the generally poor quality of both officers and armaments in China, many a battle turned into this.
  • Eagle Squadron: The US formed the American Volunteer Group (a squadron of mercenary pilots) for service in China, after Chiang's own air force had collapsed when faced with Japanese air power. Known as the "Flying Tigers", the AVG managed to hold their own against overwhelming odds and inflict disproportionate casualties on the Japanese, with arguably inferior aircraft as well. Every single American pilot and groundcrewman was a mercenary, although the Americans were in the USAAF before coming to China. They resigned their commissions to be legally employed by the Chinese. It was all a ruse by FDR to get around neutrality. After Pearl Harbor, the Flying Tigers became a part of the regular US forces. Operation Zet, which was a Soviet volunteer air force, also helped out.
    • Robert Mc Cawley Short is a Boeing contractor in Shanghai in 1932, his mission is to sell the new P-12 fighters to the Chinese government. He become the first American to participate in the war when he brought his own Super Prototype demonstrator plane into a fight; sadly, he is killed in his second flight.
  • The Empire: Imperial Japan, which ruled most of the Asia-Pacific at the height of the war.
  • Enemy Mine: The Nationalists and Communists agreed on a truce to focusing on fighting the Japanese... then resumed the Chinese Civil War shortly after their common enemy had been defeated.
  • The Enemy Weapons Are Better: Japanese guns, while pretty awful compared to American or European gear, were still miles ahead of homespun Chinese weaponry (Japanese guns are at least consistent in their awfulness, which means you can work around the deficiencies with a bit of practice). In fact, there is a popular folk song extolling to virtues of fighting a rich enemy because of all the awesome guns you can steal from them.
  • Evil Genius: General Shiro Ishii, the head of the Japanese biological warfare research Unit 731. This site has some additional information. Pathogen experiments were among the kindest tests done by Unit 731. Here's a little taster:
    "To determine the treatment of frostbite, prisoners were taken outside in freezing weather and left with exposed arms, periodically drenched with water until frozen solid. The arm was later amputated; the doctor would repeat the process on the victim’s upper arm to the shoulder. After both arms were gone, the doctors moved on to the legs until only a head and torso remained. The victim was then used for plague and pathogen experiments."
    • See the documentary movie Man Behind The Sun for graphic reference, wich is made with recovered Japanese experiment notes. NSFW.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: China under Chiang's "government". Only the provinces along the coast and Yangtze River answered to him, even after a decade of campaigning to consolidate his power. Unfortunately, said regions were all too vulnerable to the warships and marines of the Imperial Navy.
  • Fanon Discontinuity: This war is probably historical revisionism's number one minefield. For example, the Chinese Communist Party guerrillas (there were only official CCP guerrillas, at that) fought Japan to a standstill on their own. Mao Zedong was always the leader of the CCP, he didn't have his rivals murdered and didn't leave them to die or only emerge as undisputed leader during the war with Japan. The revolutionary will of the people of China, and not the sale of opium, provided the funds for black market weaponry during the war. Dedication to party ideals and good-old tenacity kept the CCP's regular forces in the fight, not any lack of effort or interest on the Japanese side because there were far more important fish to fry. Also, there was a war in Asia when Japan tried to share her technology and prosperity with the people there, but the West didn't like that and Japan had to fight them. Some bad things happened, but these things happen in war and it's not Japan's fault and it couldn't be helped. Most of those people who make wild claims about Japan doing bad things are grossly exaggerating, if not making it up entirely — people do things like that, it can't be helped. Then, the Americans firebombed every city in Japan and dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and Japan had to surrender.
  • Foreshadowing: Of Stalingrad, at Shanghai. Although five years apart, they took place around the same time. Unlike Stalingrad, the Japanese won.
  • General Ripper: Chiang Kai-Shek and probably the entire Japanese high command. The General Staff of the Kwangtung Army is worth special mention; they were the ones who seized Manchuria and capitalised on the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. They wanted a war but though taking Soviet-held Siberia would be too difficult and decided that a war to conquer China was in Japan's interests.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: The Republic of China vs. the Empire of Japan. However, the Republic was in practice a military dictatorship with more autonomous elements than not. Where Chiang had loyal troops, he could collect taxes and administrate. Where he didn't, he couldn't, and they did their own thing under someone else's command. In theory, the plan was to rule China as a single-party state until it was stable (understandable, since China is the largest country in the world) and establish a real democracy later. In practice, the Republic was a hopelessly corrupt dictatorship.
  • Hollywood History: The Flying Tigers didn't fly their first operational mission until December 11, 1941, three days after the Pearl Harbor attack. (Pearl Harbor day was December 8 in China due to the international date line). They weren't actually integrated in the U.S. Army Air Force until late 1942. That's not how people remember it though, due to the movie God Is My Copilot.
  • Home by Christmas: It was half-hoped the nationalists would let the Marco Polo bridge incident slide and sign away the Beijing region rather than risk an all-out war. The attack on the Japanese concession in Shanghai and the 'three day' counter-attack which took over three hellish months made it clear that this "China incident" was different; there would be no more compromises, for China was now at war.

  • Honor Before Reason: The Nationalists had trouble sticking together because of faction honor problems.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: There are records that some Japanese soldiers ate people. For fun.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: The Japanese were big believers in this. The swords they carried were usually mass-produced katanas called shin gunto. These low-quality blades weren't used much in battle, but frequently used to behead prisoners of war or even used them to finish off rape victims by impaling them through their privates.
    • The Chinese matched the Japanese Katana-love with the Dadao. Made from destroyed Railway tracks, at the start of the war entire regiments were equipped with these and it was said to be highly effective in combat. A patriotic march celebrating the Dadao's ability to easily sever heads was also written.
  • Mad Scientist: Unit 731 performed horrendous experiments on countless prisoners of all ages and genders. Yet the Americans exchanged this data for the freedom of the doctors who practiced their gruesome "art" with pleasure, ostensibly due to the oncoming Cold War. No sense in pissing off a potential ally on the opposite side of the USSR, after all.
  • Mêlée à Trois: The war was supposed to be "everyone in China v.s. Japan", but instead ended up as this. The Nationalists, Communists, and various warlords would alternately be fighting Japan (and getting slaughtered), fighting each other, doing nothing and hoping their enemies got taken out first, and siding with Japan.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Feeling cynical by this point? There's hope as there are soldiers who regretted taking part in the Nanjing Massacre.
    • Iwane Matsui lamented his soldiers' actions as they have ruined the image of Japan in front of the world. He later retired and built a statue of Kanon, Buddhist Goddess of mercy, in his hometown.
    • Shiro Azuma was involved with the massacre and has fought to make his story considered an accurate account of the incident:
      I am 86 years old now, but I will fight to death like a young man. This time not for the Emperor, but for justice and history. If the matter is allowed to rest, then obviously the massacre will be treated as fiction and the Japanese people will ignore this piece of history.
  • Nightmare Fuel
    • Unit 731, also known as "the Asian Auschwitz."
    • The Nanking Massacre. It's rare to find that kind of brutality and horror in even the darkest of fiction.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: More than enough of them.
  • Occupiers out of Our Country
    • The Chinese, obviously.
    • The Japanese followed a twisted form of this as they claimed that they were driving Western imperialists out of Asia.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Which still exists to this day in the form of Misplaced Nationalism.
  • Politically Correct History: On the Japanese side, there are some who deny that the worst atrocities of the war ever happened as well as those who wish to have them omitted from history textbooks. On the Chinese side, the Communist government tends to play up the relatively small part that Communist guerrillas played in the war while downplaying the contributions of the Nationalists.
  • Putting on the Reich: Chiang Wei Kuo, Chiang's adopted son and a Panzer Corps Lieutenant, and General von Falkenhausen, who continued to serve as a General in the NRA until he was recalled by the Wehrmacht under threat of harm to his family. Pulled off by the Nationalists at large, not that it had any bad connotations back then. There was a Sino-German alliance of sorts that only (in)formally ended in 1940 when the Axis was formed — the exchange of Chiang and von Falkenhausen, among others, was part of that informal alliance. The core of the NRA was equipped with surplus German equipment, including the famous grey Stahlhelms, the eponymous Karbiner 98k and Mauser C96 — which was produced as the standard NRA Officer Corps side-arm under licence. The NRA's fringe troops were generally equipped with variable (generally low) quality copycats of German weapons and equipment, though the more powerful warlords issued their troops with markedly different weapons produced from their own arsenals. Since the Germans also licensed the Japanese these helmets, and the strong influence of the Prussian military on the Imperial Japanese one, China was the only front of World War II where both sides were Putting on the Reich. The resemblance faded as the new core of the NRA was issued American weapons and equipment, including the eponymous M1 helmet.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The Yellow River Delta campaign, which involved the capture of Shanghai and Nanjing. The Japanese had captured the Nationalist heartland, but the war was far from won and the IJA's atrocities had cost them all vestiges of sympathy abroad.
  • The Quisling: Wang Jingwei was the former premier of China before he turned over to the Japanese to head their puppet state.
  • Rape as Drama: Many if not most Chinese females encountered by the Imperial Japanese Army. Mass rape was taken to new heights. The young, the pregnant, the old — none were spared. Some, usually the better-looking ones, were conscripted into so-called "comfort battallions" — basically, army brothels — alongside many Korean women and later (which is how the matter first came to popular light) European women. Rape of men and boys was also pretty common, though it wasn't a "spectator/team-sport" as was the rape of women.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Standard IJA policy, though often not stated as such. For the benefit of the foreign press, the "China Incident" was portrayed as quite a civilised affair. After Nanjing, they were fooling no-one.
  • Red Shirt Army: China's armies were quite small for its population of about 500 million, with about 4 million soldiers of all factions. About a million of these formed the loyal core of the Nationalists' army with standardised weapons and equipment and basic training. Another two million troops formed the NRA's fringe troops, whose real loyalties lay with regional warlords and local authority figures. The NRA had precisely one mixed mechanized division which was wiped out at Shanghai, then rebuilt by the Americans five years later. But Chiang's real pride and joy was about a quarter to half of the "core" army, which used German weapons and equipment and had decent training from German advisers and a competent Officer corps minted by ROC Military Academies. These core units were able to fight effectively at the start, but Chiang's gamble at Shanghai backfired as much of the core army was lost and disproportionate numbers of Academy-trained officers were killed. The GMD's reliable troops simply numbered too few for them to risk any offensive action for years afterwards. Amusingly, when the actual Red Army intervened, they were just the opposite.
  • La Résistance: The Chinese guerrilla warfare. Mao Zedong was quite good at this (he was a much better at war than at politics).
  • Schizo Tech: Both sides, but especially the Chinese. They went up against Japanese mortars and machine guns with cattleman revolvers, WWI rifles, swords, homemade grenades, single and double-barreled flint guns, and other outdated equipment, and next to no anti-tank weapons, tanks, or aircraft. They did have some modern equipment though, most of it coming from Germany and, later, the United States and Soviet Union (all of it from both powers going to the Guomindang, much to the Communists' irritation).

    When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, the KMT army was still being trained by German advisers, using German equipment, who were also helping Chiang devise military strategies against the Japanese. Between 1938 and 1941, KMT received large military aid from the Soviet Union (while CCP got virtually nothing at this time), which in turn was replaced by even larger aid from United States after 1941. So, a KMT soldier in 1942, say, could be wearing a German stahlhelm, flying a Soviet I-16 fighter plane, or driving an American GMC truck.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: The Japanese committed horrifying atrocities, well akin to the Crusades or the Mongol Horde. The cruelty showed by Japan was incredible, but it wasn't always like this. A few decades earlier, their troops were led by gentleman officers and treated prisoners even better than many Westerners did. But in the 1930s, Japanese society was seized by a militaristic mass frenzy when the country was taken over by a military dictatorship. As they made plans for massive expansion into China, they tripled the size of the Imperial Japanese Army in order to win the war. This massively bloated army, half its conscripts only teenage boys, was kept in line with torture. When these abused youths were unleashed on Chinese civilians, encouraged by their officers, a disaster was inevitable.
  • Torture Technician: The Japanese were quite good at this.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Lin Biao, an incredibly skillful and succesful Communist Chinese general who beat Nationalist forces at 2-1 odds twice during the civil war, was inactive for most of WW2 because, after being presented with a Japanese Officer's uniform and Katana by defecting Japanese communist soldiers, he elected to wear them while riding through Nationalist territory and was promptly shot through the head by a Chinese sniper. The bullet left a visible dent in his skull, but regardless of the fact that his chances of survival were less than 1 in 10, he survived.
  • Underestimating Badassery: The Japanese severely underestimated the Chinese' resolve to fight, resulting in an eight-year meat grinder despite numerous crushing Japanese victories. In the early stages of the war, they also got into a scrap with Communist Mongolia whilst trying to pacify Chinese Mongolian warlords (the border gets a bit fuzzy out there and many Mongols were still nomadic back then). The well-equipped Soviets, organised and lead by Georgy Zhukov, soon caused them to limit their desert operations and later sign a Non-Aggression Pact with the USSR.
  • Understatement: While the Japanese were losing the war, some of Emperor Hirohito's comments were hilarious in their psychotic understatement. See the quotes page. He was more referring to the campaign against the United States, mind.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The Battle of Shanghai. Shanghai was chosen by the Nationalists in part because the presence of the foreign concessions there meant the Japanese would have to watch their fire and be careful in their use of naval artillery and air support. To begin with this led to bizarre scenes of foreigners frequenting cafes and restaurants with good views of the action with their newspapers and binoculars. The novelty faded as the battle drew on and the dangers soon became apparent.
  • Urban Warfare: Shanghai would be Ur Example, also Hong Kong — which may or may not have been allowed by the GMD to fall as payback for not doing anything about the "China incident" — and many, many other towns and cities.
  • Uriah Gambit: Both the Nationalists and Communists were hoping that the other would come off worse against the Japanese, making the inevitable continuation of the civil war that much easier to win. The Nationalists hoped that the hatred and contempt the ideologically-similar Japanese regime held for Socialism would lead to them concentrating on exterminating the Communists, but Japanese High Command acted out of pragmatism; it was the Nationalists who held all the land of strategic value and had to defend it accordingly. The Communists fought two pitched battles against Japanese-allied troops in '44; the Nationalists fought over thirty battles from Shanghai to the end of Ichigo. The Communists often hid and took potshots while the Nationalists actually fought Japan. Post-war, the Communist Chinese government rewrote history to make it seem like it was the other way around.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Nationalists and Communists, despite putting their differences aside for a while to fight the Japanese, resumed their civil war as soon as the threat posed by Japan was ended. The fighting would continue for four more years until the Communists won and drove the Guomindang to exile in Taiwan. Unfortunately, they involved themselves into a lot of infighting often ignoring that they are suppose to be in a truce.
  • Written by the Winners
    • Written by The Chinese Communist Party, and the occasional right-wing-nationalist group which has branched out into publishing. Okay, we exaggerated with that second point. But the fact that such textbooks are available at all — even if most schools don't want to use them because they're controversial, not to mention wrong — doesn't reflect well upon the Japanese people's grip of historical reality. Much like, say, the existence of Conspiracy Theorists in the contemporary USA.
    • In the Japanese case the same happens, with opinions slanted in the other direction. Cue . Which is ironic when considering Japan was the country that lost the war.

Alternative Title(s):

Second Sino Japanese War