The faked railway explosion that led to war – the Manchurian or Mukden Incident China 18th September 1931

On the 18th September each year in some Chinese cities the air raid sirens are sounded at 10 a.m.

Japanese experts inspect the scene of the ‘railway sabotage’ after 18 September 1931 on the South Manchurian Railway, leading to the Mukden Incident and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Published in a Japanese newspaper Rekishi Syashin, September 1931 (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

Why sound the air raid sirens? It marks a strange railway related incident in 1931 that eventually led to war between China and Japan in 1937. It is also curiously relates to a Tintin comic book called The Blue Lotus.


On 18 September 1931, Imperial Japanese army troops faked a railway explosion to create a pretext to invade Manchuria in  Northeastern China.

This is another example of how railways have often been linked to war – this incident is perfect Sidetracked blog post material.

In the Mukden or Manchurian Incident, as it became known, dynamite was planted close to a ‘Japanese’ run and guarded railway line.

On 18 September 1931, Lieutenant Suemori Kawamoto of the Independent Garrison Unit  of the 29th Japanese  Infantry Regiment (which guarded the South Manchuria Railway) detonated a small quantity of dynamite close to a railway line owned and run by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway, near Mukden (now Shenyang) in China.

The explosion was so weak that it failed to destroy the track, and a train passed over it minutes later.

This weak explosion avoided complex rebuilding of vital railway bridges or tunnels that would have been a better and more obvious target for genuine sabotage.

Nevertheless, Japan accused Chinese dissidents of the act and responded with a full invasion which led to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931.

On the morning of 19 September 1931, two Japanese artillery pieces installed at the Mukden Officers’ Club opened fire on the Chinese garrison nearby, in response to the alleged Chinese attack on the railway.

Zhang Xueliang’s small Chinese air force was destroyed, and his soldiers fled their destroyed Beidaying barracks, as 500 Japanese troops attacked the Chinese garrison of around 7000 troops.

The Chinese troops were no match for the experienced Japanese troops. By the evening, the fighting was over, and the Japanese had occupied Mukden at the cost of five hundred Chinese lives and only two Japanese lives.

The faked attack on the railway or Japanese deception was exposed in 1932 and in 1933 Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

A South Manchurian Chinese Railway run by Japan?

Japanese railway guards were stationed within the railway zone to provide security for the trains and tracks; these were regular Japanese soldiers.

The main line from Changchun to Port Arthur, as Dalian was called under Russian rule, was built between 1898 and 1903 by the CER or Chinese Eastern Railway.

After Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5, this Railway  was taken over by Japan as the South Manchuria Railway or Mantetsu,  established in 1906 to operate the railways taken over from the Russians.

Russian Chinese conflict?

The 1929 Sino-Soviet War (July–November 1929) over the Chinese Eastern Railroad (CER)  increased tensions in the Northeast that would lead to the Mukden Incident.

White Russians and Chinese forces defeated by  the young Soviet Red Army? 

The Soviet Red Army victory over Chinese forces in 1929  reasserted Soviet control over the CER in Manchuria. It also revealed Chinese military weakness that Japanese Kwantung Army officers were quick to note. The Japanese Kwantung Army was an army group of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) based in the Manchuria railway area.

By 1930, the Japanese Kwantung Army realized they faced a Soviet Red Army that was only growing stronger and so Japanese plans to conquer the Northeast were brought forward.

In 1931 this led to the faked explosion on the railway at Mukden … the rest is controversial and confusing history! All new to me.


Each year at 10:00 am on 18 September, air-raid sirens sound for several minutes in numerous major cities across China.

A 9.18 Museum exists in Shenyung, formerly known as Mukden.


The Tintin Connection?

The Mukden or Manchurian Incident is depicted in The Adventures of Tintin comic The Blue Lotus. In  the book  the railway bombing takes place near Shanghai, performed by Japanese agents, and the Japanese exaggerate the incident.

Further links

This should not be confused with the first 1894 Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the First Sino-Japanese War).

This 1931 provocation or incident was remarkably similar to a 1933 Japanese  Attack on or Defence of the Great Wall of China (depending whose side you were on)

eventually by 1937 brought on the Marco Polo Bridge Incident

which led to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45)

A lot of conflict between Imperial and then Soviet Russia, China and Japan that I was not that aware of.

Gaming Scenarios 

I’m not sure how many historical gamers or figure ranges there are designed for recreating these Russo Japanese War, Sino Soviet and Interwar incidents, apart from the trusty old Airfix Japanese Infantry and Russian Infantry. The Baka Beyond type pulp figures that were popular in Miniature Wargames etc fifteen years ago might cover these areas.

Some of the atrocities against civilians that resulted from these conflicts make their recreation as a game a little unpleasant.

However the Tintin style retelling of this railway incident  however suggests that the scenarios could be used for sparking conflicts and border incidents and skirmishes between your own  fictional countries or Imagi-Nations. This may lead to invasions, campaigns etc.

N.B. note to self, must reread Tintin and The Blue Lotus, as I never picked this up first time. The 1930s depiction of the Japanese and Chinese characters by Herge has also attracted recent criticism from some as very dated.

Blogposted by Mark, Man of TIN on his occasional Sidetracked blog, 9.18 or 18th September 2018.