Tensions in Shanghai had begun after Japanese residents took umbrage at a Chinese newspaper article, on January 9, decrying the failure of the assassination attempt on the Shôwa emperor. Nine days later army Maj. Tanaka Ryûkichi, hoping to divert foreign attention from the army’s operations in northern Manchuria, instigated an attack by a Chinese mob on a group of Japanese Nichiren priests. The Imperial Navy found this incident a tempting chance to demonstrate its prowess to the army. The Shanghai fleet was quickly reinforced and on January 28, 1932, marines under Rear Adm. Shiozawa Kôichi went ashore and that night challenged China’s Nineteenth Route Army–a 33,500-man force stationed in the vicinity of the International Settlement, which ran along the waterfront. In the ensuing battle the Chinese gave the Japanese marines a good thrashing. Unable to retrieve the situation despite reinforcements from the fleet, the navy had to call on the army for help. But the Chinese army still held firm and again inflicted heavy losses. The high command in Tokyo then organized a full-fledged Shanghai Expeditionary Force under General Shirakawa and reinforced it with two full divisions. Intense fighting ensued; the Chinese finally fell back, and Japan was able to announce a face-saving cease-fire, followed by an armistice, negotiated with British participation on May 5, 1932, which also ended the Chinese boycott.
The Shanghai Incident should have awakened Hirohito to the recklessness and aggressiveness of his senior admirals–the very officers he and the court group regarded as sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of the world. Driven by service rivalry, they had deliberately sought a confrontation with Chinese forces in the heartland of China, knowing that problems with the United States and Britain were sure to result. Equally important, this incident was an unlearned lesson for both military services. Neither army nor navy drew any new conclusions from the heavy losses they incurred in this first large battle with a modern Chinese army. They continued as before–utterly contemptuous of the Chinese military and people, whom they saw as a rabble of ignorant, hungry peasants, lacking racial or national consciousness, that could easily be vanquished by one really hard blow. Hirohito himself may have held that view privately. But the emperor was more aware than his commanders of Japan’s vulnerability to economic blockade. Going out of his way, he told Shirakawa to settle the Shanghai fighting quickly and return to Japan. At Shanghai, Hirohito acted decisively to control events; in rural Manchuria, on the other hand, he was pleased to watch passively as his empire expanded.
At Shanghai, both during and after the fighting, Japanese officers and enlisted men alike exemplified the pathological effects of the post-1905 battlefield doctrine of never surrendering. Captured by the Chinese in February 1932, Capt. Kuga Noboru was returned to Japan in a prisoner exchange; he committed suicide to atone for his capture. Praised for his martial spirit by Army Minister Araki, Kuga was later enshrined at Yasukuni. From this time on, officers who survived were openly pressured to commit suicide. A plethora of books, movies, and stage dramas glorified the “human bombs” and “human bullets” who fave their lives on the Shanghai front. These tales heightened the popularity of the army at home, while also reinforcing its mystique abroad. [Bix later (p. 346) notes that Japanese combat casualties numbered, on average, twice as many dead as wounded during the China war.]
So much for the conventional wisdom that the Imperial Japanese Navy was much less inclined toward war than the Imperial Japanese Army.