“The first battle near Manturia (i.e., Manchuria). The Japanese soldiers defeated the enemy’s cavalry.” Lithographic print, Tokyo, Shobido & Co., (c. 1919). Sovereignty over Manchuria had been contested for decades before the Manchurian Incident took place. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

In an attempt to bring China into a confrontation with Japan over control of Manchuria, Japanese troops used explosives to destroy a segment of the Manchurian railway. This bombing became known as the Manchurian Incident, and the events that followed positioned Japan for its attempt at Asian and Pacific conquest during World War II.

The Manchurian Incident (also called the “Mukden Incident,” the “September 18 Incident,” or the “Liutiaoguo [ditch worker] incident”) occurred on 18 September 1931 when explosives destroyed a section of the South Manchurian railway near the city of Mukden (Shenyang) in Liaoning Province. Japanese troops stationed near the railroad were responsible for the bombing, which was intended to draw China into a confrontation with Japan over control of Manchuria. Although the Chinese government did not respond to the provocation by declaring war, Japan mobilized troops, occupied the region, and established the puppet state of Manchuguo.


The Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the First Sino-Japanese war of 1894–1895 originally ceded Formosa (Taiwan), the Pescadores, and Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. France, Germany, and in particular Russia objected to Japanese control of Liaodong and pressured Japan to return the territory in exchange for an increased indemnity of 30 million taels (currency based on the weight of silver). Almost immediately Russia began construction of a new South Manchurian railway, linking Harbin (a major city on the East Manchurian railway) with Port Arthur (Lushan) on the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula. These two rail lines, bisecting Manchuria and protected by 175,000 czarist troops, effectively brought the region under Russian control. The Japanese considered Russian aggrandizement in Manchuria a direct threat not only to their national security via a possible attack through Korea but also to their own imperialist ambitions in East Asia. The inevitable confrontation between the two began on 8 February 1904 when the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur. Japan’s capture of Port Arthur in January 1905 and the destruction of the Baltic fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 forced Russia to sue for peace. The Treaty of Portsmouth (5 September 1905) ending this conflict stipulated that Japan would assume Russian leases on the Liaodong Peninsula as well as control of the South Manchurian Railway. Both nations agreed to withdraw from Manchuria and to recognize China’s sovereignty over the region.

The collapse of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) led to the rise of warlords in China. By the early 1920s one of the most powerful of these was Zhang Zuolin, who controlled all of Manchuria through his Fengtian Army, a well-equipped fighting force of 100,000 troops. At this time approximately ten thousand Japanese soldiers of the Guandong Army were also stationed in Manchuria to protect the railroad. Many young officers in this army were eager to spark a war with China in order to annex Manchuria as Japan had done to Korea in 1910. As Zhang was returning to Shenyang from Beijing on the morning of 4 June 1928, a bomb planted by one of these young officers exploded near his private train, killing him instantly. Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the newly formed Nationalist government in Nanjing, cautioned against reprisals. Zhang’s son, Zhang Xueliang (known as the “Young Marshall”) took over his father’s position as warlord of Manchuria and agreed to follow Chiang’s directives. War was averted, although the situation remained tense and uncertain.

The Incident

In December 1928 Zhang Xueliang pledged his loyalty to the Nanjing government and much to Tokyo’s disappointment brought the three provinces of Manchuria back under China’s nominal control. He maintained a hard line in negotiations with the Japanese, refusing to approve any new concessions and seeking to recover those already granted. Meanwhile he continued to strengthen his armed forces, which increased to nearly 250,000 troops. Responding to critical economic issues at home, military and civilian officials in Tokyo were preparing to issue directives prohibiting deliberate provocation by Japanese troops in Manchuria. As the window of opportunity began to close, young Japanese officers again took matters into their own hands. On 18 September 1931 they detonated explosives along the South Manchurian Railway on the outskirts of Mukden near the largest Chinese garrison in the region. Chinese soldiers investigating the explosion were fired upon by Japanese troops, who pursued them back to their barracks and attacked the garrison.

As news spread of the alleged Chinese attack, Tokyo cautioned restraint, but the military responded aggressively. The commander of Japanese forces in Korea dispatched troops across the border into southern Manchuria. The Guandong Army was quickly mobilized, fanning out to occupy Mukden and other major cities. Surprisingly the army met with only sporadic resistance. Under orders from Chiang Kai-shek, Zhang’s troops had been forbidden to engage the Japanese in battle. Moreover, within three months all of Zhang’s forces had been redeployed south of the Great Wall, leaving Manchuria completely in the hands of the Japanese.


The abandonment of Manchuria sparked massive protests in China. A virulent anti-Japanese boycott spread throughout China, raising fears in Shanghai’s foreign settlements of violent reprisals. In late January Japanese marines who had been landed in the city to protect its businesses and citizens clashed with Chinese troops. In retaliation the Japanese bombed Zhabei, a residential and industrial suburb of Shanghai, and invaded the city. After fierce fighting an armistice was signed in May 1932.

By that time two other major events related to the Manchurian Incident had transpired. In the first event, just days after the first shots were fired, the Japanese had already approached the last Qing emperor, Puyi, about the possibility of his restoration as head of a new Manchu state. In November he left Tianjin for Changchun and in March 1932 was installed as chief executive of the new state of Manchuguo. The second event was China’s appeal to the League of Nations demanding Japan’s withdrawal from Manchuria. In November the league sent a delegation to Manchuria headed by Lord Lytton of Great Britain to investigate the situation. Lytton’s report concluded that the Manchurian Incident was a Japanese fabrication and that Manchuguo was not a sovereign nation but rather a puppet state of the Japanese military. The League of Nations voted to uphold the findings of this report, and Japan responded by withdrawing from the organization.

Now firmly entrenched in Manchuria and isolated from the international community, Japan was poised to embark on its imperialist conquest of Asia and the Pacific during World War II.

Further Reading

Anti-Japanese economic disruption movement in Shanghai: After the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident. (1932). Tokyo: League of Nations Association of Japan.

Borg, D. (1964). The United States and the Far Easter
n crisis, 1933–38.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doenecke, J. (1984). When the wicked rise: American opinion-makers and the Manchurian crisis of 1931–33. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Guo Yingjie. (2004). Cultural nationalism in contemporary China: The search for national identity under reform. New York: Routledge.

He Baogang & Guo Yingjie. (2000). Nationalism, national identity, and democratization in China. New York: Ashgate.

Koo, V. K. Wellington. (1933). The Manchurian question: China’s case against Japan. Beijing: Northeastern Affairs Research Institute.

Morely, J. (1984). Japan erupts: The London Naval Accords and the Manchurian Incident. New York: Columbia University Press.

Moses, D. (1982). The role of the League of Nations in the Manchurian crisis, 1931–1933. Rexburg, ID: D. J. Moses.

Wilson, S. (2002). The Manchurian crisis and Japanese society, 1931–33. New York: Routledge.

Source: Meissner, Daniel J.. (2009). Manchurian Incident. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1382–1384. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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