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Tianjin Incident

14 Jun 1939 - 20 Aug 1939


ww2dbaseBy mid-1939, Japan and China had already been engaged in full-scale war for nearly two years. The city of Tianjin had been captured by Japanese forces on 30 Jul 1937, but the Japanese Army had avoided the foreign concessions in order to prevent diplomatic complications. On 9 Apr 1939, a Chinese-national who was a manager and a customs official for the Japanese-controlled Federal Reserve Bank of North China, a man considered to be a collaborationist, was assassinated by Chinese resistance fighters at the Grand Theater. The Japanese soon named six Chinese men as the killers, and announced that they were hiding in the British concession. The Japanese Army demanded them to be handed over, and the British police complied, though asking the Japanese not to torture them and to return them in five days. Ignoring the first part of the agreement, the Japanese tortured the four men that the British police turned over, getting two of them to confess. Five days later, the Japanese returned the four men to the British concession as promised. Further negotiations between Jamieson, the administrator at the British concession, and the Japanese concluded that the British would turn over the four men to the Japanese once again since they were now considered guilty. Song Meiling, wife of the Chinese leader Chiang Kaishek, asked British ambassador Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr to not hand over these resistance fighters; Clark-Kerr relayed the message on to British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, who agreed. While the commander of the Japanese North China Army General Masaharu Homma seemed willing to negotiate with the British, his Chief of Staff General Tomoyuki Yamashita was more hostile. After securing permission from Tokyo, Yamashita ordered a blockade of the British concession in Tianjin, which was carried out beginning on 14 Jun 1939, preventing food and fuel from entering the British concession. The Japanese government soon issued additional demands. In addition to the four men, Japan would also require Britain to turn over all silver reserves belonging to the Chinese government within British banks, among other things. Further worsening the situation, Japanese soldiers treated those entering and exiting the British concession harshly, even strip-searching some of them in full view of the public, including British women. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, faced with tension in Europe and unwilling to move the British Royal Navy to China to break the blockade, attempted to secure American support but was unable to do so. With no other choices, he ordered the British Ambassador to Tokyo Sir Robert Craigie to de-escalate the situation, offering some concessions but not so much that British international prestige would be damaged. Craigie skillfully exploited the political tension between Japanese Prime Minister Kiichiro Hiranuma and the Japanese military, using the Royal Navy as a bluff (even though Chamberlain had made known to Craigie that the Royal Navy would remain in European waters), and ultimately was able to reach an agreement with Japanese Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita in mid-Aug 1939. Later known as the Craigie-Arita Formula, the agreement noted that Britain recognized that there was a state of war in China and Japan had the right to take certain actions in China to conduct the war; Britain also agreed to turn the four Chinese accused to Japanese authorities (all four would later be executed). Japan, on the other hand, only agreed to withdraw the demand for Chinese silver.

ww2dbaseThe Tianjin Incident demonstrated the wide foreign policy gap between the civilian government, which tried to de-escalate, and the Japanese Army, successfully doing the opposite as it continuously gained greater political influence. This agreement also negatively affected Chiang Kaishek's view toward Britain; Chiang considered the Craigie-Arita Formula a unforgivable betrayal by the British, which had mouthed opposition against the Japanese invasion of China but yet this agreement obviously showed a greater interest in safeguarding British Far Eastern territorial possessions rather than its interest in helping China maintain its sovereignty. Finally, the American refusal to be involved in the incident suggested to the Japanese leadership that the United States was unlikely to stand up for European powers in Asia.

ww2dbaseThis event was also known as the Tientsin Incident, with the city of Tianjin romanized using the Chinese Postal Map romanization system. In Japanese, this event was known as Tentsu Jiken.

Linda Kush, The Rice Paddy Navy

Last Major Update: Jul 2010

Tianjin Incident Timeline

14 Jun 1939 Japanese blockaded the British concession in Tianjin, China.
26 Jun 1939 The British Royal Navy and the British Foreign Office reported that Britain could only break the Japanese blockade on the British concession in Tianjin, China by deploying warships to the area. However, given the current tensions with Germany, such a deployment would not be advisable.
20 Aug 1939 The British turned over four Chinese nationals to the Japanese despite protest from the Chinese government. The four men had been accused of killing a pro-Japanese Chinese collaborationist. The four Chinese accused would soon be executed by the Japanese.

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