The historic Marco Polo Bridge crosses the Yongding River, about 10 miles southwest of Beijing. For centuries, this bridge has stood strong and has welcomed many travelers, including the Venetian Marco Polo, who praised its beauty in his book Travels of Marco Polo.

Centuries later, the bridge became the site of another historic moment, the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, or World War II in East Asia. By the 1930s a strategic railway link at the junction town of Wanping had been constructed adjacent to the bridge. Whoever controlled Wanping would have greater access to most of the railroad lines in resource-rich northern China.

For decades China endured the presence of military troops on her soil in accordance with the provisions of Article IX of the Boxer Protocol of 1901 allowing military guards to be posted and military maneuvers to be conducted at 12 specific points along this rail line. Chinese authorities were not required to be notified when such maneuvers took place. However, in the summer of 1937 Japan’s military presence had grown exceedingly large, causing alarm by the Chinese government.

On the night of July 7, 1937, the Japanese Guandong Army, stationed on China’s South Manchurian Railroad, staged military night maneuvers. After several months of witnessing the growing presence of Japanese soldiers in the area (upward of 5,000), Chinese troops feared an attack was under way. Both sides fired blank shots at each other, and when the fighting stopped, a Japanese soldier was feared missing. In response, the Japanese commander ordered an attack on Wanping the next day. The Chinese were able to win this battle, but it is considered the beginning of World War II in East Asia.

Although the two sides negotiated a cease-fire, both nations violated it and continued to send more troops into the area. Japanese Prince Konoe insisted at a press conference that “the incident was entirely the result of an anti-Japanese military action on the part of China and that Chinese authorities must apologize to us for the illegal anti-Japanese actions,” while Chiang Kai-shek announced, “If we allow one more inch of our territory to be lost, we shall be guilty of an unpardonable crime against our race.”1

With this impasse, other nations took notice and communicated accordingly. two memos between the Japanese ambassador to the United states, Saito, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull illustrate the increasing concern in the international community:

Memorandum by the Secretary of State Regarding a Conversation with the Japanese Ambassador Saito, Washington D.C.

July 12, 1937.

The [Japanese] Ambassador . . . handed me a manuscript containing six paragraphs or points relative to the Japanese-Chinese military trouble which commenced on July 7th. . . .

At the conclusion of the reading, I specially emphasized with approval the remarks of the Ambassador about the efforts of his government to work out a friendly settlement without war.

I elaborated upon the futility of any other course and the awful consequences of war. I said that a great civilized first-class power like Japan not only could afford to exercise general self-restraint in such circumstances but that in the long run it was far better that this should characterize the attitude and policy of his government; that no two great countries have rarely had such an opportunity in these respects as seems to be ahead for our two countries and that of course it means everything from this viewpoint, as well as others, that serious military operations should not be allowed to get under way; . . . that of course this country is greatly interested and greatly concerned in conditions of peace in every part of the world, and that I would welcome anything further in the way of information from time to time, and would be glad to treat in very strictest confidence any confidential information he might care to give me on the subject. I again emphasized the great injury to the victor as well as the vanquished in case of any important war in this day and time, of the great concern of this government for peace everywhere...2

Two weeks later another exchange followed between the two officials:

The Ambassador of Japan called this morning at my request. After brief preliminaries, I very seriously addressed the Ambassador and said that, of course, he must be fully aware that when two nations comprising 500 million people are engaged in a controversy in which danger of general hostilities appear imminent, this country cannot help but be greatly interested and concerned;  that it is in the light of this situation and of the intense desire of this country for peace everywhere that I have been undertaking  to confer with the ambassadors from both Japan and China from time to time regarding developments, present and prospective, in the danger zone; that I have approached each government, in a spirit of genuine friendliness and impartiality in an earnest effort to contribute something to the cause of peace and to the avoidance of hostilities in the Far East that, . . . a war would result in irreparable harm to all governments involved and would prove utterly disastrous, in the present chaotic state of world affairs, to all phases of human welfare and human progress...3

Despite the diplomatic pressure and intervention, on August 9, 1937, a Japanese Lieutenant by the name of Oyama Isao was shot in Shanghai by a member of the Chinese Peace Preservation Corps.4 Whether the incident was staged by forces aligned with Mao Zedong and the Communists as a way to undermine Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists is still debated by historians today. Nevertheless, this final clash escalated tensions further, with the Japanese demanding the final withdrawal of the Peace Preservation Corps surrounding the city. The Japanese Imperial forces also made clear it believed the shooting of a Japanese soldier was considered an act of humiliation that necessitated a response. More Japanese Imperial troops and Chinese Nationalist troops were deployed to Shanghai. War in China was imminent.

The escalation of tensions occurred outside of diplomatic relations as well. Ienaga Saburo, one of Japan’s most prominent historians of the twentieth century, recalls how the climate in Japan during this time impacted his life:

I graduated [University] in March 1937, shortly before the out- break of the Marco Polo bridge incident that became the beginning of the all-out war between Japan and China. One of the constant topics [among my classmates] was how to avoid military service. The weaklings like me who could predict that they would be classified as 4-F listened almost as bystanders to the anguish of friends who had no hope of avoiding 1-A. Once one of us egged them on: “Is being conscripted as horrible as all that?” They responded with real anger: “You don’t have to worry. Try putting yourselves in our shoes.”

I was classified 4-F.5But as the war got fiercer, those subject to conscription were called to periodic musters [periodic gather- ing of troops], and to prepare for those, we had to take part in Reservists’ Association training. With illness as my excuse, I sought to avoid this training as much as I could, but even I couldn’t get by without ever showing my face. The following incident took place while I was employed at Niigata Higher School. . . . It was the night before muster, and drill went on until about 10:30. One person couldn’t take it any longer. He went to the section chief and asked: ‘Tomorrow’s muster is a formal affair. I want to take a bath and be clean for muster, so please can’t we call it quits for tonight?’ It was a really brave speech. But there was one scatterbrained fellow, and he raised his voice: ‘Right on!’ Immediately, the top brass of the branch association shouted, ‘This is the army! What’s this ‘Right On’ stuff? Fall Out!’ They dragged the fellow out and punched and kicked him for a long time. It was so brutal that finally the branch chief shouted, ‘Enough!’ I felt I was getting a peek at life in an army unit.6

By the outbreak of World War II, Japanese soldiers were sometimes referred to as “Issen Gorin,” loosely translated as a penny postcard. Because Japanese soldiers received notice of their draft status vis-à-vis a penny postcard, for some the term became associated with the value placed upon Japanese draftees.



  • 1 : James Crowley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930–1938 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 331, 335, quoted in Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), 445.
  • 2 : US Department of State, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing office, 1943), 367-68, accessed June 11, 2014.
  • 3 : 67 Ibid., 367-368.
  • 4 : The Chinese Peace Preservation Corps was established as part of the cease-fire following the occupation of Manchuria by Japanese imperial forces. The corps would maintain public order within the confines of an established demilitarized zone that buffered the occupation zone around Manchukuo.
  • 5 : The use of “4-F” is most likely a mistake in translation as this refers to a US military classification for being unfit to serve.
  • 6 : Japan’s Past, Japan’s Future (Lanham: Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 101–02.

Connection Questions


  • 1 : Email correspondence with the author, January 24, 2014.

  1. How would you explain why the conflict between China and Japan escalated into a war? What did Japan hope to gain? What were China’s goals?

  2. Historian Ienaga Saburō’s account of his experiences in the military offer one window into the culture, climate and attitudes of some young Japanese men at the time. What insights does he offer on life in his unit on the eve of the war?

  3. In the Foreword to The Nanjing Atrocities resource Ben Ferencz stated, “law is always better than war.” Reflect upon the title of this reading, “Road to War.” What role did the law play in Japan’s preparation for war with China?

  4. There are many different names given to the historical period from 1937-1945 depending upon nationality and political affiliations. Professor Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi explained the varying references in the following way:

    Generally speaking a) Chinese call [this period] “the War of Resistance to Japan’s Invasion,” b) Taiwan historians date its beginning in July 1937 because that way it plays up the Nationalists’ contributions in conventional warfare c) PRC (People’s Republic of China) [China from 1949- ] historians date the beginning in 1931 to play up the Communists’ irregular warfare, d) liberal Japanese historians identify a single war from 1931-1945, “the Fifteen-Year War,” the “Asia-Pacific War” or the “Fifteen-Year Asia- Pacific War,” e) conservative Japanese historians divided the war into a “China War” from 1937 or 1941 or 1945, and a “Pacific-War” from 1941 to 1945. These postwar Japanese terms replaced the older “China Incident” (1937-1941) and “Greater East Asia War” (1941-1945 - which were actually used at the time.)1

    What do the numerous terms for the same historical period indicate about the way different people have seen this history? Can you think of other historical events that have so many different names? What are some possible reasons for this range and variety?

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