Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1931, the Japanese military invaded Manchuria. By 1932, it had installed a puppet regime there, as well as a subservient civilian government at home. The League of Nations commissioned an investigation of the seizure of Manchuria, and when the investigation concluded with a report condemning the invasion, Japan formally withdrew from the League, destabilizing its diplomatic relations with most of the world powers.

Summary of Event

On February 24, 1933, Yōsuke Matsuoka, the chief Japanese delegate to the League of Nations, read a long and impassioned plea to the General Assembly in Geneva. He implored the League not to give sanction to its own Lytton Commission Lytton Commission report, which criticized Japan’s actions in the so-called Mukden incident Mukden incident of 1931 and its subsequent actions in relation to the establishment of the Japanese puppet regime in Manchukuo in 1932. When the League ignored his plea and voted to sustain the report, Matsuoka turned on his heel, summoned his Japanese colleagues to follow, and stalked dramatically out of the meeting hall. In so doing, he visibly dramatized Japan’s eventual official withdrawal from the League and, some historians have argued, the beginning of World War II. [kw]Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations (Feb. 24, 1933) [kw]League of Nations, Japan Withdraws from the (Feb. 24, 1933) League of Nations;Japan’s withdrawal[Japans withdrawal] [g]Switzerland;Feb. 24, 1933: Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations[08260] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 24, 1933: Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations[08260] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 24, 1933: Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations[08260] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Feb. 24, 1933: Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations[08260] Chiang Kai-shek Matsuoka, Yōsuke Inukai Tsuyoshi Lytton, second earl of (Victor Bulwer-Lytton) Puyi

Japanese diplomats gather their belongings as they leave their posts at the League of Nations.

(NARA)

Without doubt, Japan’s decision to withdraw from the League of Nations was a watershed event in Sino-Japanese relations and in the history of human rights in Manchuria as well. It was also an event that contributed to the destruction of civilian democratic government in Japan and drew a suffocating pall over the possibilities for democracy in China. Japan’s withdrawal from the League can be traced directly to the Mukden incident, which occurred on the evening of September 18, 1931. In that incident, the Japanese Kwangtung Army stationed in Manchuria feigned a Chinese attack on the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railroad as part of a strategy to overrun all of Manchuria and parts of northeast China.

The antecedents of the 1933 withdrawal can also be traced to Japanese attempts to win supremacy in Manchuria as early as the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[First Sinojapanese War] For the next thirty years, Japan attempted to wrest control of that mineral-rich area from China. By the time the Japanese Kwangtung Army precipitated the Mukden incident, Japan had come to believe that it possessed “special interests” and rights in the region. In fact, only three years before, the army had attempted to create cause for military intervention by assassinating its own military protégé, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin.

In the Mukden incident, when the Japanese army “responded” to the fabricated Chinese attack on the railroad, it was the culmination of a longstanding wish to separate Manchuria from China. Before the Japanese government could reestablish control over its own troops, the Kwangtung Army had driven before it most of the Chinese troops in the area as a “protective reaction.” A week after the beginning of the incident, most of Manchuria and parts of North China were firmly in the possession of the Kwangtung Army. The army had in effect conducted its own foreign policy and now dared the Japanese civilian government to negate a victory for which the Japanese people showed great support and enthusiasm.

The government was confronted with a nearly impossible situation. On one hand, it faced a military that was split internally on many issues (including army versus navy and “old” army versus Young Officer Movement) but solidly united against the idea of returning Manchuria to a corrupt Chinese government. On the other hand, Japan’s government was assailed by opposition parties that wished to use the crisis to further their own political objectives. Criticism of the government’s weak foreign policies had been the time-tested weapon for opposition parties in Japan for half a century. To its credit, the government tried to manage the crisis by attempting to reach a compromise with Chinese military leader Chiang Kai-shek. The Kwangtung Army, however, continued to make matters worse. The army leadership recognized that if something were not done to destroy the chances for an agreement between the Chinese and Japanese governments, all their hard-won territory might be returned to Chinese sovereignty. Despite explicit government orders not to precipitate more problems, the army began to manuever to create a separate Manchurian regime that it could control.

China, like Japan, was a member of the League of Nations and therefore appealed to the League for redress. The League agreed to investigate the matter, and after nearly a year of preparation it appointed an investigatory commission led by its British delegate, the second earl of Lytton. Before the Lytton Commission could accomplish its tasks, however, in mid-December, 1931, the Japanese government collapsed. It was replaced by one led by Inukai Tsuyoshi, who five months later was gunned down by militarists in May, 1932, ushering in what one historian has called “government by assassination.”

As busy as the military was coercing political change by threat and intimidation in Japan, its branch in Manchuria was equally intent on extending its power and control there as well. In a series of rapid strikes, it secured the strategic strongholds of the area. In March, 1932, it engineered a Kwangtung Army-inspired “spontaneous” native Manchu revolution and declared an independent state of Manchukuo. Manchukuo, creation The army installed Puyi, the “last emperor” of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, as the “emperor of Manchukuo.” Puyi had ruled as a child emperor from 1908-1912 and had then been made a mere figurehead, retaining only the title of emperor until 1924. His prior twelve years as a powerless ruler made him seem the perfect candidate to act as Japan’s puppet. Inukai was assassinated in part because he refused to recognize this travesty of a government under Puyi. His successor extended full diplomatic recognition to Manchukuo in September, 1932, almost exactly one year after the Mukden incident.

As for the political and human rights of the Manchurians, the Japanese military already had an imperialist blueprint for the treatment of subjugated people. Like the Taiwanese in 1895 and the Koreans in 1910, Manchurians in 1931 became second-class citizens in their own homeland. The heretofore untapped major mineral and commercial sectors of their economy were controlled outright by the Japanese, and nearly all forms of political expression were brutally suppressed. Manchuria had been controlled previously by a mixture of feudal warlords, former members of the Chinese Imperial government, and members of the landed elite. Most of this leadership had fled with the retreating Chinese army in September, 1931. Those who had not were closely watched, imprisoned, or both. The Manchurian government, which mirrored Japan’s own, was in fact totally controlled by Japanese “advisers,” and all decisions were made by the commander of the Kwangtung Army. A few Manchurian collaborators were used as puppets, but the Manchurians were in the main relegated to subservient positions.

A second year went by as the Lytton Commission went about its task. Japan attempted to coerce the Chinese government into recognizing Manchukuo, but China preferred to await the final League disposition of the case. Finally, in late September, 1932, the Lytton Commission reported that “without any declaration of war, a large part of Chinese territory has been forcibly seized and occupied by Japanese troops.” It recommended that the Kwangtung Army return to its position and function as of September 17, 1931, and that all actions taken subsequent to that date not be recognized or sanctioned by the League.

Japan’s chief delegate to the League, Matsuoka, scrambled to try to have the report tabled pending a trilateral agreement between Japan, China, and Manchukuo (which he knew to be unlikely if not impossible). The League, after some deliberation, decided to vote on whether to accept the Lytton Commission’s report. At this point, Matsuoka made a quixotic and impassioned speech to the General Assembly in which he implored it not to accept the report “for the sake of peace in the Far East and for the sake of peace in the world.” Unconvinced, the General Assembly voted to accept the report by an overwhelming majority (forty-six to one, with Siam abstaining). Matsuoka and the Japanese delegation then made their dramatic and symbolic exit.

One month later, on March 27, 1933, the Japanese government officially notified the League of its intention to withdraw from that body. Manchukuo remained a nation in name only, with only Japan, Italy, Germany, and a few other nations extending it diplomatic recognition. It became part of Japan’s wartime Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere and was returned to Chinese control with the defeat of the Japanese Empire in August, 1945.

Significance

Once it had seized Manchuria, Japan began a concerted effort to colonize the country with nearly one-half million Japanese immigrants, who found ready employment as managers in companies “jointly owned” by Japanese financial interests and the government of Manchukuo. All political parties, with the exception of the Hsieh Ho Hui (Concordia Association), were outlawed. All other forms of political expression, including the few remaining Manchu-language newspapers, were tightly controlled or completely stifled.

By 1937, the country had become part of Japan’s fancifully named Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere. A corporation was established in October, 1937, to help supply Japan with war materials. The corporation, like the government of Manchukuo, was under the complete control of the Kwangtung Army. The bulk of Manchuria’s natural resources were exported to Japan for the war effort.

The government of Manchukuo was modeled on that of Japan, but in reality the organs of government were firmly in the hands of the Japanese. In fact, virtually every aspect of Manchurian society was controlled by the Kwangtung Army. “Emperor” Puyi was never allowed even the semblance of power. The thirty million Manchurian people were limited to working for Japanese-owned and -controlled companies, their every political, civil, and human right suppressed by the brutal military government. Hundreds of thousands of them were imprisoned or forced to work as slave laborers during the war. Estimates of Manchurian deaths by starvation, torture, malnutrition, and execution ranged between 80,000 and 100,000.

Between 1931 and 1945, Manchurians were denied the rights to own property, to assemble and speak freely, to vote, to a fair trial, to sue, to emigrate, and even to divorce their spouses. In short, Manchurians were denied virtually every conceivable human and civil right by their Japanese masters. At home, the Japanese military continued to threaten and assassinate its civilian and even its own military leaders. In mid-1937, a military-controlled Japan began another war with China, a conflict that would last until Japan’s defeat in August, 1945.

Japan’s political party system, which had been the first in East Asia and had showed promise, was dismantled. All political parties were coerced into “cooperating” with the military during the war. They disbanded and joined the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (Taisei Yokusankai), which acquiesced in Japan’s eventual extension of the war with China to include the United States, Great Britain, and the other Allies. Thousands of Japanese dissidents were rounded up and imprisoned without trial, and hundreds more simply disappeared, probably assassinated by the secret police forces of the army. Opposition newspapers were closed down and their editors imprisoned, political rallies of all sorts were outlawed, and legal and civil rights were suspended for the duration of the war.

It may be fairly said then that the Mukden incident of September 18, 1931, led directly to the establishment of Manchukuo. Both, in turn, contributed to withdrawal of Japan from the League of Nations. The incidents foisted on a hapless Japanese civilian government by the Kwangtung Army and its supporters in Japan helped to discredit, destabilize, and ultimately destroy the political party-style democratic government in Japan. League of Nations;Japan’s withdrawal[Japans withdrawal]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borg, Dorothy. The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Concerned primarily with the effects of the crisis on American foreign policy. Excellent analysis and masterful integration of both Japanese as well as American sources. Valuable bibliography, especially for access to the Tokyo war crimes trial documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Byas, Hugh. Government by Assassination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942. Although suffering from a dearth of Japanese sources and a lack of objectivity (written by a journalist-turned-historian in the middle of the war), it is still valuable for the description of Japanese domestic politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowley, James B. Japan’s Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy 1930-1938. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A superb work that integrates the crises into the greater history of Japan’s foreign policy. Chapter 3, “Withdrawal from the League,” is truly masterful. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Francis C. Manchuria Since 1931. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1949. The best study of the effects of the crises on Manchuria. Excellent chapters on “Japanese Immigration and Settlement” and on “Treatment of Racial Minorities.” Extensive charts, maps, and statistical tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">League of Nations. Official Journal, 1931-1933. Geneva: Author, 1933. Contains official proceedings, deliberations, speeches, and the extensive Lytton Commission report. Wordy and difficult to use, but invaluable for particulars as well as detailed maps. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ogata, Sadako N. Defiance in Manchuria: The Making of Japanese Foreign Policy, 1931-1932. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Valuable for its time, but superseded two years later by Crowley’s work. Good use of Japanese documents. Valuable bibliography, well indexed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Sara. The Manchurian Crisis, 1931-1932: A Tragedy in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948. Dated, but still valuable as an example of the argument that the crisis exposed the League’s weaknesses and led Mussolini and Hitler into their own foreign adventures. Uses no Japanese sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorne, Christopher. The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931-1933. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. Perhaps the definitive monograph of the subject from the Euro-American perspective. Relies heavily on the translated works of Japanese historians. Excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Sandra. The Manchurian Crisis and Japanese Society, 1931-1933. New York: Routledge, 2002. Study of the crisis, not from the point of view of international relations, but rather from the point of view of its domestic causes and effects. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yoshihaski, Takehiko. Conspiracy at Mukden: The Rise of the Japanese Military. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Concerned with the crisis up to the fall of the Japanese government in December, 1931. Uses the crisis as a case study for the rise of militarism in Japan. Handy chronology, good bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Louise. Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Study of the Japanese expansionist military regime, its annexation of Manchuria, and its participation in World War II. Bibliographic references and index.

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