In 1937, A Toilet Break Led to War Between China and Japan


Wars have been waged over the stupidest things, but in 1937, Japan took it a step further. That was the year that a minor incident led to the skirmish which caused the Second Sino-Japanese War, and later, the Pacific Theater of WWII. And what was this minor incident?

A full bladder.

Our story takes place at the Lugou (Lu Ditch) Bridge in Beijing’s Fengtai District. The original was built in 1189 by Emperor Shizong to extend the city’s reach. In the 13th century, Marco Polo visited China and waxed lyrical about that bridge, so Europeans renamed it after him.

Fast forward to 1868. Impressed with Europe, Japan launched the Meiji Restoration to modernize itself by copying all things western. And since Europe had carved up the world, Japan decided to do the same, starting with China.

The current Marco Polo Bridge Image Source: Fanghong CC BY-SA 3.0

The current Marco Polo Bridge. Photo Credit

Japan, therefore, invaded in 1894, launching the First Sino-Japanese War, which ended the following year to China’s loss. Japan then gobbled up more Chinese territories in the east, while European countries did the same in the west and south.

Japan and Russia eventually squabbled over the Manchukuo region, leading to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). To everyone’s surprise, Japan won and, as a result, was given a lease over the area. Instead of uniting the country, however, China continued to fragment as different factions vied for control over what was left.

At least till the Mukden Incident. On September 18th, 1931 the Japanese tried to blow up their own South Manchuria Railway near Mukden (today’s Shenyang). Fortunately, they did such a bad job of it that trains were able to use it mere minutes after the first explosions. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the point.

The Western Gate of the Wanping Fortress, as viewed from the entrance of the Marco Polo Bridge. The pillar on the turtle's back commemorates the rebuilding of the bridge in 1669. Image Source: Vmenkov CC BY-SA 3.0

The Western Gate of the Wanping Fortress, as viewed from the entrance of the Marco Polo Bridge. The pillar on the turtle’s back commemorates the rebuilding of the bridge in 1669. Photo Credit

Accusing the Chinese of sabotage, Japan expanded their occupation, consolidated their occupied territories, and created the puppet state of Manchukuo. It didn’t take long for the international community to realize what had happened, leading to Japan’s expulsion from the League of Nations in 1933.

Not that they gave up Manchukuo. Faced with a useless League and an invasive West, the warring Chinese factions finally put aside their differences. In December 1936, the Kuomintang (KMT) made peace with the Communist Party of China (CPC), resulting in the Xi’an Incident.

Called the United Front, this new alliance couldn’t deal with two enemies at once. So they focused on the Japanese, who were the immediate threat.

Manchukuo Image Source: Emok CC BY-SA 3.0

Manchukuo. Photo Credit

By 1937, Japanese troops were lodged in Fengtai – then a separate and heavily forested district to the southwest of Beijing. To protect the capital from attack, Fengtai used to be dotted with walled cities. Of these, Wanping protected the Marco Polo Bridge which led directly into Beijing.

To keep people on edge, Japanese troops would conduct military maneuvers throughout Fengtai. The Chinese government wasn’t too happy, but there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. They did ask the Japanese to give advanced notice of when such maneuvers would take place to calm the local residents.

The Japanese agreed, but had no intention of keeping their word. By July, more maneuvers continued near the bridge without advanced warning. At times, they performed exercises near the Chinese troops.

Japanese troops entering Mukden on September 18th, 1931 Image Source: Wikipedia

Japanese troops entering Mukden on September 18th, 1931

Chinese civilians and military personnel were very tense. The Japanese had a well-earned reputation for using any pretext as an excuse for further aggression, but it wasn’t easy. Travel between the towns throughout Fengtai was difficult because of the Japanese soldiers, and many felt uneasy about using the bridge for the same reason.

Things finally came to a head on July 7th, 1937. Sometime around 11 PM, the Japanese launched yet another of their unannounced training exercises around Wanping and the Marco Polo Bridge. The town’s troops were used to it, by then, but they remained tense as they watched the Japanese wheeling about outside.

Enter Private Shimura Kikujiro and his full bladder. Sometime during the maneuvers, he decided to go on an unscheduled bathroom break. Most of Fengtai didn’t have electricity until very recently, however, so toilets weren’t exactly plentiful back then. Not man-made ones, at any rate.