In America, when we think about World War II and our engagement with Japan, we think of a three-and-a-half year war, from December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945. And that is indeed correct from the American vantage point. What we often overlook is that Japan was continuously at war from the time of their invasion of Manchuria on September 18, 1931. From their perspective, their war lasted 14 years.
Most of that time their focus was centered on lands in China. I knew that the tracts of conquered territory were vast and that the great bulk of their Army and Air Force were anchored in that quagmire but I had never appreciated how many Japanese civilians were involved as well. Nearly 1.5% of Japan's civilian population were relocated to China.
Still, China and its largest trade partner, the United States, weren't having it. When both nations (along with Britain) complained about the Manchurian occupation to the League of Nations, Japan responded by withdrawing from the League. Adding a semantic twist to the discussion, the Japanese continued to deny they were making war on the Chinese, referring to their invasion as an "incident" instead of an official act of war. The League did little to object.
Over the next six years — and employing similarly flimsy rationales — Japan gobbled up many of China's major cities and seaports, moving one million Japanese citizens and three hundred thousand soldiers into Japanese-occupied China. By 1937, Peking, Tientsin, and the seaports of Tsingtao, Amoy, and Swatow were under Japanese control, as was much of central China's "Iron Ricebowl," as its fertile Yellow River Valley is known.