Japan’s imperial ambitions on mainland Asia, driven in part by shortages of industrial raw materials, exploded onto the global scene in September 1931. Chinese hostility to Japanese economic policies had led to boycotts, reducing Japan's export sales to China by 60 percent in nine months.

After deceptively staging an attack it blamed on Chinese dissidents, the Japanese army invaded China’s northeastern region, Manchuria, which was rich in coal and iron ore. The invasion was in defiance of orders from Tokyo. In January 1932, as the occupation intensified, military leaders sought additional gains, almost 700 miles south, at Shanghai. (For related film clips, click here.)

Shanghai was a key economic portal for foreign shipments to China, as European powers had established "settlements" there beginning in the mid-19th century. Japanese entrepreneurs and immigrants made up some 80 percent of the area’s non-Chinese population by the 1920s, making the city a prime target for imperial aggression. A Jan. 18, 1932, clash between fiercely nationalistic Japanese monks and an angry Chinese crowd, in which one monk died, triggered a sharp reprisal by “forty members of a Japanese patriotic young men’s association,” as the New York Times put it, who burnt down two factories and battled police, with three fatalities.

Helpfully, Japanese warships were already standing by, "preparing for emergencies."

Demanding an end to the boycotts and an apology, Japan dispatched to Shanghai "two cruisers, an aircraft carrier and a number of destroyers, carrying a large landing party,” to arrive Jan. 23. The U.K. suspected that the admirals, like the generals in Manchuria, were acting on their own account, but the British mainly undertook to protect their own subjects in the settlement.

At midnight on Jan. 28, Japanese marines landed and attacked the Zhabei district near the main railway station. Warships began shelling Chinese forts below the city. At 4:25 a.m., aircraft commenced bombing railways in and near Shanghai, setting off "destructive fires."

China's government appealed immediately to the League of Nations, and on Jan. 30, army reinforcements arrived from Nanking, creating a stalemate and a truce. It would last just two days, however.

Focusing on material interests, the Economist magazine inquired grumpily on Jan. 30: “Are the Western Powers going to stand by passively at Shanghai … and see their cherished property burnt to cinders in a dog-fight between two local nationalities?” Yes, actually, they were.

The U.S. government exercised care "to avoid involvement in the Far Eastern trouble." China’s foreign minister, Eugene Chen, warned: "Japan’s next war will be for mastery of the Pacific, which means war against America." Tokyo had been "systematically planning for war against the United States, just as she planned for war against China in 1894 and against Russia in 1904," he said, according to the New York Times.

In his view, Japan’s “ultimate aim is annexing Australia, which is the meaning of ‘mastery of the Pacific.’”

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors Professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net