The Sino-Japanese conflict (1937-1939)


When the latent conflict between Japan and China erupted again, causing immense suffering among the civilian population, the ICRC was not allowed to visit most prisoners and its appeal to belligerents to spare civilians went unheard.

On 7 July 1937, Chinese and Japanese troops (the latter present in Manchuria since the early 1930s) confronted each other near the Marco Polo bridge in the suburbs of Peking.
This clash was the prelude to a war which would see the Japanese army occupy vast swathes of China, though it never succeeded in breaking the resistance of the Chinese nationalist and communist armies, despite massive, repeated and indiscriminate aerial bombardment.

ICRC action  

In August 1937, the ICRC offered its own services and those of sister Red Cross societies to the National Societies of the two belligerents. This offer was declined by the Japanese Red Cross. The International Committee decided to send a delegate, Charles de Watteville, to Shanghai. He was replaced in November 1937 by Dr Louis Calame, a Swiss doctor living in China.

Visits to hospitals and reception centres  

The ICRC made regular visits to civilian and military hospitals both in the main towns and behind the front lines. It also visited the refugee-reception centres and distribution centres run by the Chinese Red Cross and other aid organizations.

In the summer of 1938, Dr Calame visited the northern provinces of China on a fact-finding mission and to report on the damage caused by the massive floods along the Yellow River. With the exception of this journey of almost 10,000 kilometres and a visit to the island of Amoy (see below), the ICRC had no presence in the territories occupied by the Japanese army.

Action to help detainees and the civilian population  

As far as the protection of captives is concerned, virtually nothing came of the ICRC’s representations to the belligerents (one of which – Japan – had not ratified the Geneva Convention of 1929 on the treatment of prisoners of war ). The delegates were authorized to visit only about a hundred Chinese prisoners, civilian and military, held on the island of Amoy (today Xiamen), 32 other Chinese prisoners held in two Japanese camps and 21 Japanese prisoners. Similarly, there was no response from either government to the appeal issued by the ICRC in March 1938, calling on the belligerents to avoid any aerial bombardment of civilians behind the front lines and localities not constituting strictly military objectives.



Sino-Japanese War (1937-1938). Bombed railway station in Shanghai. 

Sino-Japanese War (1937-1938). Bombed railway station in Shanghai.
© ICRC / hist-03332-06.jpg

Sino-Japanese War (1937-1938). Victims in a Red Cross truck in Shanghai.  

Sino-Japanese War (1937-1938). Victims in a Red Cross truck in Shanghai.
© ICRC / hist-03505-25