I am trying to understand Japanese punitive expeditions in China such as the Three Alls Campaign and retaliation for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. In each case, the Japanese largely retaliated against Chinese civilians. In order to understand these actions, I need to understand the nature of the Japanese occupation of China better than I do. Specifically, I have come up with three different occupation models, and I need to know which one(s) best describes what the Japanese were actually doing in China.

1) Japan nominally occupied and ruled large chunks of China, but with numerous "leaks." The above provocations and retaliations represented some of these "leaks" and attempts to plug them. The nearest equivalent might be German anti-Soviet partisan actions.

2) Japan's control of China was basically, limited to a few large cities, roads, and railways, but they had the ability to invade or roam the countryside when provoked. Although the punitive actions were brutal, they did not lead to a meaningful expansion of Japanese control of China over time, and were more "destructive" than "constructive" (conquering) actions.

3) The Japanese were engaged in a "creeping" takeover of China. The above provocations merely reprioritized conquests that the Japanese had planned to undertake anyway, perhaps somewhat later. Unlike the previous case, Japanese "raids" succeeded in not only taking, but holding large territories formerly under Chinese control.

What (if any) military reasons caused the Japanese to undertake punitive expeditions in China, and which of the above occupation models (or others I may have overlooked) best describes the context in which they occurred?

  • 4
    Note sure there is a huge difference between the three.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 14, 2017 at 18:44
  • 1
    Not quite sure what perspective you're asking from. Is it tactics or strategy? The China campaign started in 1931, so this is in the final stages, hence a bit difficult to breakout the strands and figure out how to answer this.
    – J Asia
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:08
  • @JAsia: added "later stages", meaning, say, 1941-1943 (before the 1944 offensive). And World War II excludes early action in say, Manchuria.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:18
  • @TomAu - Any particular operation/battle event (and onwards)?
    – J Asia
    Sep 14, 2017 at 19:23
  • Why not a bit of all three? I have to agree with other commenters, not sure what exactly you're trying to ask here. Sep 15, 2017 at 0:55

2 Answers 2


These 2 points should help clarify that it was your #3, a "creeping takeover": The Marco Polo Bridge Incident and China's appeal to the League of Nations in 1938 (pdf) - page 17 onwards. In any case, there was this question -- which is quite close to your current question.

I believe this topic, unfortunately, could be inflammatory for some (as these incidents are of fairly recent past). So, I would leave it at that.


There is a strategic vision for the Japanese behaviour in China. This strategic reason is based on a few political/ideological reasons:

  • Japan needs resources
  • Japan first invasion of Mandchoukouo and Korea gave him resources but not enough
  • The military incident at Marco Polo bridge was the breaking point of a strategy:

This strategy consisted in capturing the coast of China: thus, China would lost its capacity to get hardware from other countries and would be more vulnerable. Japan want to control large portions of China: for that it uses regular offensives to capture territories, especially cities and agricultural lands.

During the years 1937 to 1941, Japan achieved a lot of conquests, but the opposition from Chinese was strong enough to avoid collapse: the nationalist governement, from Tchoung Qing, still controlled an army and a state with which it could hamper the Japanese occupation of the coast.

Then, you should consider how the Japanese war went worldwide: to summarize, the blocus of USA about oil triggered a big war in Pacific. With that, Japanese had a little less logistical and air power to put in the balance in China. Still, with what it was left with in China, Japan could launch medium offensive to capture agriculture: this was the "rice offensives", and it could capture airstrips from which the Flying Tigers and Doolittle airplanes operated. On a map, this could look like little conquests compared to China's superficy, but considering ground difficulties and Chinese opposition (which was not zero), this was still good conquests.

To conclude: In the later stages of WWII, Japan was still conquering pieces of land for three objectives:

  • Capture rice for Japan
  • Prevent China to feed its population
  • Reduce the actions of partisans
  • Prevent air actions by capturing airstrips

Japanese land army was still able to perform well against Chinese soldiers or partisans. But a lot of soldiers were needed to hold the territories and defeat those soldiers and partisans: So Japan was stuck in China as much as Chinese forces were stuck in resisting to Japanese movements without offensive opportunities.

Side note: this perfect stalemate was a good thing for the Allies, who had to face Japanese land forces in Burma (helped as well with Chinese soldiers). However, on air and naval battlefields, China did not hamper Japanese capacities and the Allies defeated by themselves Japanese forces.

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