In East Asia, the thing we call “World War II” began three times with three surprise Japanese attacks, in three broad and bloody phases, each nastier and more intense — and shorter — than the prior one, all of them unprovoked and voluntarily started by Japan due to domestic politics.
I would not trace the concept of “World War II” back to the Boshin War (1868-1869), nor to the treaty that Tokyo forced upon Seoul in 1876, nor to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), nor to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), nor to Korea being formally changed from an occupied territory to a colony (1910), nor to the expansion of Japanese industry and military in Manchuria and Mainland China (1920s). Though all of those marked the Rise of Japan, and though all were unprovoked and aggressive, they were either separate wars, different from what we call “World War II”, or else they were colonial in nature, as opposed to being war-like in nature.
This thing we call “World War II” only began in East Asia in September 1931. That’s the point from which we can see direct links — step-by-step choices made by, mostly, the elite in Tokyo and the emperor himself, though there were other actors — that lead to August 1945.
They are as follows.
A. Mukden Unprovoked Surprise Attack (Sept. 1931) →
Invasion & occupation of Manchuria (1931-1945)
–Japan takes over a lot of Siberian/ Goguryeo wilderness, builds a lot of train tracks, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo, et cetera, ship all the natural resources back to the Home Islands along train tracks that cross Joseon Korea. The Lytton Report comes out in October 1932. In early 1933, the report is passed 42–1 in the League of Nations General Assembly. Only Japan votes against it (!). Japan withdraws from the League of Nations (Feb. 24, 1933).
B. Marco Polo Bridge Unprovoked Surprise Attack (July 1937) →
Second-Sino Japanese War (1937-1945)
–Japan brings its war up against the KMT & Chiang KaiShek. The soldiers in Manchuria were thumping their chests, champing at the bit, slavering for war. Male concepts of “valor” or “honor” start wars and lead to death and destruction. After the Eastern Front (USSR-Nazi), this was the bloodiest and most expensive (money, human lives) theater of “World War II”.
C. Pearl Harbor Unprovoked Surprise Attack (Dec. 1941) →
Pacific War (1941-1945)
–Japan brings its war up against the U.S. and some European colonies. The soldiers claimed they needed Southeast Asian oil, tin and palm oil. U.S. steel blockade was hurting Japanese industry. The soldiers thought they could knock out the U.S. and its industry just long enough to get strong themselves so as to better negotiate as equals.
–A note about natural resources: in the Guadalcanal Campaign (Aug. 1942 to Feb. 1943), the average Japanese soldier in the field was receiving around 1’100 calories per day, mostly just rice, and they were expected to scavenge off the land. The average U.S. soldier in the field was receiving 4’000+ calories per day, with canned meals and a range of menu items. If you want to win a war, make sure to have Canadian wheat and Australian beef on your side.
Each Japanese war was a cascading side theater of the prior war that ended up consuming its progenitor. After Tokyo won the Boshin War (1868-1869), it simply carried on expanding. Next came the colony of Joseon Korea (1876-1945), of utmost importance in Tokyo’s eyes. This was the core colony, the dagger pointed at the heart of the Home Islands. So it was achieved through the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), fought in Joseon Korea. That also led to the Taiwan colony (1895-1945) and the Dalian/ Port Arthur/ Liaodong Peninsula colony (1905-1945). By 1931, Tokyo had been at it for 63 years and had perfected its invasion/ occupation technique, all sections of Japanese society (corporations, education, industry, housewives, etc.) moving together like the well-organized devouring beast that it was. Each of these wars was “total war”, with all parts of society working together toward a militaristic, ever-expanding goal, all organized by government working in tandem with industry. Now, finally, came the jewel in the chrysanthemum crown, Manchuria (1931-1945). Japan was going to do this one right!
Those cascading side theater wars — Edo to Choshu & Satsuma, Choshu & Satsuma to Joseon Korea, Joseon Korea to Dalian & Taiwan, Dalian & Taiwan to Manchuria, Manchuria to the Mainland, the Mainland to Pearl Harbor — for a period of 77 years from 1868 to 1945 led to war after war, and all due to domestic Tokyo politics. The second-to-last and most bloody of these wars was against the KMT & Chiang KaiShek, the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). That just about extinguished the Rise of Japan, but the “plucky little Nip”, as he was called in English at the time, had enough chutzpah in him for one more blow, a final suicidal Götterdämmerung. So war cascaded once again, and finally, into a side theater with the Pacific War against the U.S. (1941-1945). That was the final high water mark of the Japanese tide, only to recede after August 1945, back to the Home Islands, laying bare all across East Asia and the western Pacific the dead bodies, shelled buildings, burnt fields, pilfered national banks, and general death and destruction that Johnny Nip had wrought upon the world.
Japan did not surrender until it ran out of natural resources. Human life simply did not matter to the elite in Tokyo nor to the emperor himself. The complete removal of natural resources from the Home Islands, however, was finally a reality as USSR troops, hardened on the Eastern Front and no longer neutral, poured into Manchuria onboard a million BT-5 fast tanks to grab what they could.* The elite in Tokyo and the emperor himself saw what would soon happen, and so to ensure their own survival, they reasonably and rationally begged a hasty retreat and fled into the welcoming arms of MacArthur’s approaching U.S. forces. Using the white-man-in-Asia’s own conceit against him, Tokyo let MacArthur play god, just as his father and he had both done before in the Philippines. Japan was able to politely and gently parry all responsibility for the wars it started from 1868 to 1945, hiding its smirking visage behind the silken kimono veil of atomic bomb victimhood, and it was able to keep all the ill-gotten wealth it had pilfered from across East Asia, saying sorry only to the white American.
*[Germany surrendered in May 1945. The USSR invaded Manchuria on Aug. 9, 1945. Japan surrendered to the U.S. on Aug. 15, 1945. Note that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, respectively, but the elite in Tokyo and the emperor himself, based on letters and interviews from the time, seem to have been mostly nonplussed. I suppose that after the firebombings of Tokyo and after being at war since 1868, everything else is just a little numbed.]
Now… while Tokyo was running amok across East Asia (1868-1945) — raping, pillaging, plundering — Mainland China was undergoing two major civil wars, both happening between the two same sides. This was the Han Chinese’s response to modernity, and these two phases of a grander civil war worked to ring-fence China’s response to the Rise of the West (and to the much smaller, but much more violent, Rise of Japan).
The First Chinese Civil War (1927-1936) was the KMT & Chiang KaiShek versus the CCP & Mao TseTung. The future-Taiwanese were winning, but they had to stop fighting because they were suddenly confronted by Japanese troops that were no longer content with staying solely in Manchuria. The CCP & Mao TseTung were more or less done at that point, anyway (the Long March was Oct. 1934 to Oct. 1935). Thus began the Second-Sino Japanese War (1937-1945), between KMT & Chiang KaiShek and Japan, the true heart of “World War II” in East Asia.
That ended when Japan chose to surrender to the U.S. in order to keep its throne intact and in order to keep its ill-gotten wealth. With all the Japanese soldiers returning to the Home Islands, the Chinese civil war was able to reignite: the Second Chinese Civil War (1946-1950). The CCP & Mao TseTung had rebuilt their strength while the KMT & Chiang KaiShek were being whittled away by Japan. This second phase of the civil war ended with a CCP & Mao TseTung victory in August 1950… right about the time that Stalin was beginning to allow Kim IlSeong to march southward toward Seoul in June 1950.
So, in East Asia, this thing called “World War II” began three times, in September 1931, July 1937 and December 1941, and it all lasted until August 1945 when all three conflagrations came to a fiery end in one fell swoop.