This year marks the 80th anniversary of the “918 Event” that marked the invasion of China by Japan on September 18, 1931 and triggered the 14-year (1931-1945) War of Resistance by China against the Japanese occupation of China. Many people also consider this date to be the beginning of WWII even though China did not officially declare war on Japan until many years later. The 14-year War of Resistance resulted in the killing of over 20 million Chinese and the additional wounding of over 10 million Chinese, and the many kinds of atrocities that Japan inflicted on China and many other countries in Southeast Asia. Since Japan has yet to acknowledge, apologize, and compensate to the victims of these atrocities, it is critically important for the world to remember this 918 date and incident so that this type of history will not be repeated in the future.
To understand the “918 Incident” that took place in the city of Mukden, Manchuria, China (currently known as the city of Shenyang, in Liaoning Province in northeast China), one needs to review the history of that part of the world from the 19th century and earlier. Dating back to several hundred years ago, historically Manchuria was the homeland of several nomadic tribes. In 1644, the dominant tribe at that time (the Jurchens) seized control of Beijing and overthrew the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Since the Manchus (as the people of Manchuria were called) had greatly acculturated the dominant Chinese (Han) culture and language, the Manchus and the Chinese were easily integrated. This gave rise to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). However, with a weakening Qing Dynasty, China was forced to cede to Russia part of Manchuria, north of the Amur River (or Heilong River, 黑龍江) and east of the Ussuri River, as the result of the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking. Thus, Manchuria was divided into a Russian half known as “Outer Manchuria,” and a remaining Chinese half known as “Inner Manchuria.” In modern usage, Manchuria is usually referred to the “Inner Manchuria” or the Chinese half, and China usually refers to this region as China’s Northeast Region, or the Northeast Provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang (東北三省).
For about two centuries until 1853, Japan adopted a foreign policy of Sakoku (or “locked country,” 鎖國) when except under certain allowed situations, no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death. This policy ended when the American Commodore Matthew Perry and the American navy arrived in Japan in 1853 and forced the opening of Japan. This opened Japan’s eyes and made them realize that in many ways they were behind the West. This led to the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) in 1868 which restored the emperor system and also opened the gate for all kinds of Japanese to go abroad to learn from the West, especially the West’s science and technology and to modernize and strengthen Japan into a modern industrial state. With the opening of the country, Japan, being a small country with few natural resources, greedily lust over the territory and natural resources of its neighboring countries, especially Korea, China, and Russia. Thus, Japan also adopted the West’s expansion and imperialistic attitude.
The First Sino-Japanese War
The first country of Japan’s expansion was its closest neighbor Korea, which traditionally had been a tributary state to China, and with large coal and iron ore deposits. Japan wanted to annex Korea, or at least make it an independent state with a pro-Japanese government. A series of conflicts, too long to be described in this article, led to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) between China and Japan. This war was fought in Korea, Manchuria, and the Penghu Islands near the western coast of Taiwan. Japan won the war. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed on 17 April 1895. As the loser, China (1) had to recognize the independence of Korea, (2) had to cede the Liaodong Peninsula (遼東半島) to Japan, (3) had to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan, and (4) had to pay Japan 200 million Kuping taels of silver (or almost four times the Japanese government revenue), (5) had to sign a commercial treaty permitting Japanese ships to operate on the Yangtze River, to operate manufacturing factories in treaty ports and to open four more ports to foreign trade.
However, the ceding of Liaodong Peninsula that includes the ice-free Port Arthur was immediately objected to by Russia, France, and Germany (known as The Triple Intervention) because these foreign powers had their own ambitions to carve up part of China. Facing such strong oppositions, Japan, being a relatively new emerging strong nation, agreed to give up the Liaodong Peninsula in exchange for another 30 million Kuping taels of silver that China had to pay Japan.
The Russo-Japanese War
With its victory over China on the First Sino-Japanese War and the establishment of a pro-Japan government in Korea, Japan had its eyes on expanding further north and west into Manchuria. Russia already controlled Outer Manchuria and would love to own the ice-free port of Port Arthur in Inner Manchuria beyond leasing it from China. The port of Port Arthur, unlike the port of Vladivostok, can be used year round even during the winter months. That was precisely the reason for the Triple Intervention mentioned in the previous paragraph, to keep Russia from gaining this strategic military strength. This mutual imperial interest in Manchuria, was part of the conflict between Russia and Japan. Russia was an established imperial power, while Japan was just an emerging power. Since the British imperial power also wanted to keep Russia from competing with them as a naval power in the Pacific, Britain was willing to side with Japan, which appeared to be a weaker power. So in 1902 Britain and Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. This alliance meant that if any nation allied itself with Russia during any war with Japan, then Britain would enter the war on Japan’s side. This also meant that Russia could no longer count on receiving help from either Germany or France in a war with Japan, because of the danger of British involvement in the war. With such an alliance, Japan felt bold enough to commence hostilities with Russia even when the two countries were negotiating a treaty to try to recognize and protect Japan’s primary interests in Korea and Russia’s primary interest in Manchuria. Japan declared war on Russia on February 8, 1904. Even before the war declaration was received by the Russian Government, the Imperial Japanese Navy already attacked the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur.
To the surprise of Russia and everyone else, Japan easily won this war, defeating both the Russian navy and army. This greatly diminished Russia’s prestige, and greatly elevated Japan’s statue as a modern power, and fanned its appetite for more imperialistic expansions. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905. Among other things, Russia recognized Korea as part of the Japanese sphere of influence , and agreed to evacuate Manchuria and to sign over to Japan its 25-year leasehold rights to Port Arthur, including the naval base and the peninsula around it. 
With two major military victories (first against China in 1895 and then against Russia in 1905) in a short span of only 10 years, Japan became even more aggressive and hungrily eyed all of China and other countries in Asia. In the absence of Russian competition and with European nations occupied with World War I, combined with the Great Depression which followed, the Japanese military set about to dominate China and the rest of Asia, thus eventually leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
Germany’s Sphere of Influence in Shandong Province and Japan’s Twenty One Demands
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Qing Dynasty was incompetent and weak. Almost all of the world powers carved out many kinds of concessions and spheres of influence over various parts of China. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War between Great Britain and China was one of many unequal treaties that China was forced to sign. For this treaty, among other concessions, China ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain as a crown colony. In the case of Germany, the concession was in the Shandong Province , in particular in 1898 the Jiaozhou Bay (膠州灣) near the port city of Qingdao was transferred to Germany on a 99-year lease, and Qingdao became a German colony, and it was the base for the Imperial German Navy’s Far East Squadron. During WWI, Japan joined forces with Great Britain and attacked this German colony. After a month-long seige, Qingdao fell in late 1914 and was occupied by Japanese and British forces.
China declared war on Germany on 14 August 1917. As an ally of the victors, China expected that the former German colony would be returned to China. However, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the main treaty from the Paris Peace Conference ending WWI, assigned all confiscated German Pacific territories and islands north of the equator to Japan, including Jiaozhou Bay. This resulted in major China-wide protests known as the May Fourth Movement, initially organized by students and quickly spread to all segments of the Chinese population. As a result, the Chinese government refused to sign the Treaty, and the “Shandong Problem” was not resolved until February 1922 when its sovereignty returned to China.
Also during the time of WWI, in January 1915 Japan issued to China the infamous “21 Demands” which among other concessions:
- Confirm Japan’s recent acquisition and expanded Japan’s sphere of influence over the whole Shandong Province
- Extend to Japan into the 21st century the original Russian 25-year lease over parts of Manchuria, and expand it to include Japan’s South Manchuria Railway Zone, and expanding Japan”s sphere of influence in southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia
- Bar China from giving any further coastal or island concessions to foreign powers except for Japan
- Give to Japan the right to appoint foreign advisers to the Chinese central government and to administer the Chinese police force
The Chinese population strongly objected to these demands, but on May 25, 1915 the Chinese government agreed to a reduced set of demands with the removal of the last item that severely intrudes on Chinese sovereignty. This shameful act was agreed to by General Yuan Shikai who was the head of the Chinese government at that time, because he wanted to become an emperor and was willing to pay the price in exchange for Japan to recognize him as the emperor of China. However, during the May 4 Movement of 1919, the Chinese population did not forget this ugly part of history, because one of the main slogans of this movement was “externally resist foreign powers, and internally rid traitors.”
918 Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War
It is clear from the above review of the history of China and Japan from around the middle of the 19th century to the 1920’s that Japan adopted a foreign policy of imperialistic expansion, and its main target was China. After annexing Korea, its next target was Manchuria to pave the way to all of China. As a matter of fact, a Japanese slogan of that time was “to conquer the world, you must first conquer China, and to conquer China, you must first conquer Manchuria.”
As discussed earlier in this article, Japan in the 1920’s already had control of some parts of Manchuria, e.g., the area around Port Arthur and South Manchuria Railway Zone. But that was just like an appetizer. Japan wanted more, much more. Japan wanted all of Manchuria, and then all of China and beyond. Since there were other foreign powers who also had concessions and spheres of influence in China, Japan did not want their imperialistic actions to immediately raise the eyebrows of the other foreign powers, so they made it appear as though China started some incident, and they had no other choice but to respond to it.
On the evening of September 18, 1931, an explosion occurred close to a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway in the Liutiaohu (柳條湖) village in the city of Mukden, now known as Shenyang (瀋陽) in Liaoning Province, Manchuria. This was not a huge explosion, and the railroad was not destroyed. However, accusing the Chinese of the act, the Japanese Imperial Army launched a full invasion that led to the occupation of all of Manchuria. Shortly after that, Japan established a puppet state Manchukuo, headed in name only by Puyi, the last Qing emperor. Manchuria became the launching ground for Japan’s invasion of the rest of China. Thus the Chinese consider September 18, 1931 as the beginning of the 14-Year War of Resistance against Japan, and also essentially as the beginning of WWII, even though China did not formally declare war on Japan until December 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor.
China lodged a protest to the League of Nations on this Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Japan said that it was an act of self defense. The League of Nations did not accept Japan’s explanation and concluded that there was not sufficient reason to support Japan’s actions. Japan did not agree and decided to leave the League of Nations.
Even if it were the Chinese who were responsible for the explosion in Mukden, did it warrant an immediate full-scale invasion of another country? Another theory said that the Mukden Incident was planned and executed by lower-level Japanese officers and did not have the approval of the Japanese high command. If that were the case, why didn’t Japan launch an investigation of the incident, instead of launching a full-scale attack on another country? Furthermore, even if it was started by lower-level Japanese officers, the Japanese high command did not reverse course but proceeded to take advantage of it. I think it is very clear that the only possible explanation is that the 918 Incident was part of a plan by the Japanese government to provide an excuse for their invasion and occupation of Manchuria and then the rest of China. That is why all peace loving people of the world should not forget the 918 Incident.
918 Eighty Anniversary Commemorative Event
NJ-ALPHA (New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia), the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) of New York, and about 20 other community organizations will sponsor a “918 Eighty Anniversary Commemorative Event” in New York City on September 17-18, 2011, at the CCBA building at 62 Mott Street, New York City. The two-day event will include a 200+ photo exhibit, a brief memorial ceremony, favorite WWII songs by well-known singers, talks by two invited speakers (one from Taiwan and one from Mainland China), and several excellent films about the 14-Year War of Resistance. The program is in Chinese and is free, and everyone is invited. To see more information about the program, click here.
 A few years later in 1910, Japan annexed Korea.
 American President Theodore Roosevelt mediated this treaty. Because the U.S. didn’t want Japan to become too strong and compete with the U.S.’s interests in the Pacific region, Japan did not get as much as normally expected with such a clear victory. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of dissatisfaction in Japan, including riots in major cities, that Japan did not receive more, such as financial compensation. It is clear that Japan got much less from the Russo-Japanese War than from the First Sino-Japanese War. In spite of the fact that Roosevelt was essentially just trying to protect America’s imperialist interests in the Pacific, nevertheless, for his mediation role, Roosevelt was awarded the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.