An anti-Russian satirical map produced by a Japanese student at Keio University
during the Russo-Japanese War. It follows the design used for a similar map first published in 1877.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Meiji government endeavored to assimilate Western ideas, technological advances and ways of warfare. By the late 19th century, Japan had transformed itself into a modernized industrial state. The Japanese wanted to be recognized as equal with the Western powers. The Meiji Restoration had been intended to make Japan a modernized state, not a Westernized one, and Japan was an imperialist power, looking towards overseas expansionism. In the years 1869–73, the Seikanron ("Conquer Korea Argument") had bitterly divided the Japanese elite between one faction that wanted to conquer Korea immediately vs. another that wanted to wait until Japan was more modernized before embarking on a war to conquer Korea; significantly no-one in the Japanese elite ever accepted the idea that the Koreans had the right to be independent, with only the question of timing dividing the two factions. In much the same way that Europeans used the "backwardness" of African and Asian nations as a reason for why they had to conquer them, for the Japanese elite the "backwardness" of China and Korea was proof of the inferiority of those nations, thus giving the Japanese the "right" to conquer them. Inouye Kaoru, the Foreign Minister, gave a speech in 1887 saying "What we must do is to transform our empire and our people, make the empire like the countries of Europe and our people like the peoples of Europe", going to say that the Chinese and Koreans had essentially forfeited their right to be independent by not modernizing. Much of the pressure for an aggressive foreign policy in Japan came from below, with the advocates of "people's rights" movement calling for an elected parliament also favoring an ultra-nationalist line that took it for granted the Japanese had the "right" to annex Korea, as the "people's right" movement was led by those who favored invading Korea in the years 1869–73. As part of the modernization process in Japan, Social Darwinian ideas about the "survival of the fittest" were common in Japan from the 1880s onward and many ordinary Japanese resented the heavy taxes imposed by the government to modernize Japan, demanding something tangible like an overseas colony as a reward for their sacrifices. Furthermore, the educational system of Meiji Japan was meant to train the schoolboys to be soldiers when they grew up, and as such, Japanese schools indoctrinated their students into Bushidō ("the spirit of the warriors"), the fierce code of the samurai. Having indoctrinated the younger generations into Bushidō, the Meiji elite found themselves faced with a people who clamored for war, and regarded diplomacy as a weakness. The British Japanologist Richard Storry wrote the biggest misconception about Japan in the West was that the Japanese people were the "docile" instruments of the elite, when in fact much of the pressure for Japan's wars from 1894 to 1941 came from below, as ordinary people demanded a "tough" foreign policy, and tended to engage in riots and assassination when foreign policy was perceived to be pusillanimous. Though the Meiji oligarchy refused to allow democracy, they did seek to appropriate some of the demands of the "people's rights" movement by allowing an elected Diet in 1890 (with limited powers and an equally limited franchise) and by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy towards Korea.
In 1884, Japan had encouraged a coup in Korea by a pro-Japanese reformist faction, which led to the conservative government calling upon China for help, leading to a clash between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in Seoul. At the time, Tokyo did not feel ready to risk a war with China, and the crisis was ended by the Convention of Tientsin, which left Korea more strongly in the Chinese sphere of influence, though it did give the Japanese the right to intervene in Korea. All through the 1880s and early 1890s, the government in Tokyo was regularly criticized for not being aggressive enough in Korea, leading Japanese historian Masao Maruyama to write:
Just as Japan was subject to pressure from the Great Powers, so she would apply pressure to still weaker countries—a clear case of the transfer psychology. In this regard it is significant that ever since the Meiji period demands for a tough foreign policy have come from the common people, that is, from those who are at the receiving end of oppression at home.
Tsarist Russia, as a major imperial power, had ambitions in the East. By the 1890s it had extended its realm across Central Asia to Afghanistan, absorbing local states in the process. The Russian Empire stretched from Poland in the west to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east. With its construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway to the port of Vladivostok, Russia hoped to further consolidate its influence and presence in the region. In the Tsushima incident of 1861 Russia had directly assaulted Japanese territory.
Sino-Japanese War (1894–95)
Chinese generals in Pyongyang
surrender to the Japanese, October 1894.
Between the Meiji Restoration and its participation in World War I, the Empire of Japan fought in two significant wars. The first war Japan fought was the First Sino-Japanese War, fought in 1894 and 1895. The war revolved around the issue of control and influence over Korea under the rule of the Joseon dynasty. From the 1880s onward, there had been vigorous competition for influence in Korea between China and Japan. The Korean court was prone to factionalism, and was badly divided by a reformist faction that was pro-Japanese and a more conservative faction that was pro-Chinese. In 1884, a pro-Japanese coup attempt was put down by Chinese troops, and a "residency" under General Yuan Shikai was established in Seoul. A peasant rebellion led by the Tonghak religious movement led to a request by the Korean government for the Qing dynasty to send in troops to stabilize the country. The Empire of Japan responded by sending their own force to Korea to crush the Tonghak and installed a puppet government in Seoul. China objected and war ensued. Hostilities proved brief, with Japanese ground troops routing Chinese forces on the Liaodong Peninsula and nearly destroying the Chinese Beiyang Fleet in the Battle of the Yalu River. Japan and China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded the Liaodong Peninsula and the island of Taiwan to Japan. After the peace treaty, Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to withdraw from the Liaodong Peninsula. The leaders of Japan did not feel that they possessed the strength to resist the combined might of Russia, Germany and France, and so gave in to the ultimatum. At the same time, the Japanese did not abandon their attempts to force Korea into the Japanese sphere of influence. On 8 October 1895, Queen Min of Korea, the leader of the anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese faction at the Korean court was murdered by Japanese agents within the halls of the Gyeongbokgung palace, an act that backfired badly as it turned Korean public opinion against Japan. In early 1896, King Gojong of Korea fled to the Russian legation in Seoul under the grounds that his life was in danger from Japanese agents, and Russian influence in Korea started to predominate. In the aftermath of the flight of the king, a popular uprising overthrew the pro-Japanese government and several cabinet ministers were lynched on the streets.
In 1897, Russia occupied the Liaodong Peninsula, built the Port Arthur fortress, and based the Russian Pacific Fleet in the port. Russia's acquisition of Port Arthur was primarily an anti-British move to counter the British occupation of Wei-hai-Wei, but in Japan, this was perceived as an anti-Japanese move. Germany occupied Jiaozhou Bay, built the Tsingtao fortress, and based the German East Asia Squadron in this port. Between 1897 and 1903, the Russians built the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) in Manchuria. The Chinese Eastern Railroad was owned jointly by the Russian and Chinese governments, but the company's management was entirely Russian, the line was built to the Russian gauge and Russian troops were stationed in Manchuria to protect rail traffic on the CER from bandit attacks. The headquarters of the CER company was located in the new Russian-built city of Harbin, the "Moscow of the Orient". From 1897 onwards, Manchuria—while still nominally part of the "Great Qing Empire"—started to resemble more and more a Russian province.
In December 1897, a Russian fleet appeared off Port Arthur. After three months, in 1898, China and Russia negotiated a convention by which China leased (to Russia) Port Arthur, Talienwan and the surrounding waters. The two parties further agreed that the convention could be extended by mutual agreement. The Russians clearly expected such an extension, for they lost no time in occupying the territory and in fortifying Port Arthur, their sole warm-water port on the Pacific coast and of great strategic value. A year later, to consolidate their position, the Russians began to build a new railway from Harbin through Mukden to Port Arthur, the South Manchurian Railroad. The development of the railway became a contributory factor to the Boxer Rebellion, when Boxer forces burned the railway stations.
The Russians also began to make inroads into Korea. By 1898 they had acquired mining and forestry concessions near the Yalu and Tumen rivers, causing the Japanese much anxiety. Japan decided to attack before the Russians completed the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Troops of the Eight-Nation Alliance
in 1900. Left to right: Britain, United States, Australia, India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan.
The Russians and the Japanese both contributed troops to the eight-member international force sent in 1900 to quell the Boxer Rebellion and to relieve the international legations under siege in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Russia had already sent 177,000 soldiers to Manchuria, nominally to protect its railways under construction. The troops of the Qing Empire and the participants of the Boxer Rebellion could do nothing against such a massive army and were ejected from Manchuria. After the Boxer Rebellion, 100,000 Russian soldiers were stationed in Manchuria. The Russian troops settled in and despite assurances they would vacate the area after the crisis, by 1903 the Russians had not established a timetable for withdrawal and had actually strengthened their position in Manchuria.
The Japanese statesman Itō Hirobumi started to negotiate with the Russians. He regarded Japan as too weak to evict the Russians militarily, so he proposed giving Russia control over Manchuria in exchange for Japanese control of northern Korea. Of the five Genrō (elder statesmen) who made up the Meiji oligarchy, Itō Hirobumi and Count Inoue Kaoru were opposed to war against Russia on financial grounds while Katsura Tarō, Komura Jutarō and Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo favored war. Meanwhile, Japan and Britain had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, the British seeking to restrict naval competition by keeping the Russian Pacific seaports of Vladivostok and Port Arthur from their full use. The alliance with the British meant, in part, that if any nation allied itself with Russia during any war against Japan, then Britain would enter the war on Japan's side. Russia could no longer count on receiving help from either Germany or France without there being a danger of British involvement in the war. With such an alliance, Japan felt free to commence hostilities, if necessary.
The 1890s and 1900s marked the height of the "Yellow Peril" propaganda by the German government and the German Emperor Wilhelm II often wrote letters to his cousin Nicholas II of Russia, praising him as the "savior of the white race" and urging Russia forward in Asia. From November 1894 onward, Wilhelm had been writing letters praising Nicholas as Europe's defender from the "Yellow Peril", assuring the Tsar that God Himself had "chosen" Russia to defend Europe from the alleged Asian threat. On 1 November 1902, Wilhelm wrote to Nicholas that "certain symptoms in the East seem to show that Japan is becoming a rather restless customer" and "it is evident to every unbiased mind that Korea must and will be Russian". Wilhelm ended his letter with the warning that Japan and China would soon unite against Europe, writing: "Twenty to thirty million Chinese, supported by a half dozen Japanese divisions, led by competent, intrepid Japanese officers, full of hatred for Christianity—that is a vision of the future that cannot be contemplated without concern, and it is not impossible. On the contrary, it is the realisation of the yellow peril, which I described a few years ago and I was ridiculed by the majority of people for my graphic depiction of it ... Your devoted friend and cousin, Willy, Admiral of the Atlantic".
Wilhelm aggressively encouraged Russia's ambitions in Asia as France, Russia's ally since 1894, was less than supportive of Russian expansionism in Asia, and it was believed in Berlin that German support of Russia might break up the Franco-Russian alliance and lead to a new German–Russian alliance.
The French, who had been Russia's closest allies since 1894, made it clear that they disapproved of Nicholas's forward policy in Asia with the French Premier Maurice Rouvier publicly declaring that the Franco-Russian alliance applied only to Europe, not Asia, and that France would remain neutral if Japan attacked Russia. The American president Theodore Roosevelt, who was attempting to mediate the Russian–Japanese dispute, complained that Wilhelm's "Yellow Peril" propaganda, which strongly implied that Germany might go to war against Japan in support of Russia, encouraged Russian intransigence. On 24 July 1905, in a letter to the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, Roosevelt wrote that Wilhelm bore partial responsibility for the war as "he has done all he could to bring it about", charging that Wilhelm's constant warnings about the "Yellow Peril" had made the Russians uninterested in compromise as Nicholas believed that Germany would intervene if Japan attacked.
The implicit promise of German support suggested by Wilhelm's "Yellow Peril" speeches and letters to Nicholas led many decision-makers in St. Petersburg to believe that Russia's military weaknesses in the Far East like the uncompleted Trans-Siberian railroad line did not matter as it was assumed the Reich would come to Russia's assistance if war should come. In fact, neither Wilhelm nor his Chancellor Prince Bernhard von Bülow had much interest in East Asia, and Wilhelm's letters to Nicholas praising him as Europe's savior against the "Yellow Peril" were really meant to change the balance of power in Europe as Wilhelm believed that if Russia was embroiled with Japan, this would break up the Franco-Russian alliance and lead to Nicholas signing an alliance with Germany. This was especially the case as Germany had embarked upon the Tirpitz plan and a policy of Weltpolitik meant to challenge Britain's position as the world's leading power, and since Britain was allied to Japan, then if Russia and Japan could be manipulated into going to war with each other, that this in turn would lead to Russia turning towards Germany.
Furthermore, Wilhelm believed if a Russian–German alliance emerged, France would be compelled to join it and having Russia pursue an expansionist policy in Asia would keep Russia out of the Balkans, thus removing the main source of tension between Russia and Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. During the war, Nicholas who took at face value Wilhelm's "Yellow Peril" speeches, placed much hope in German intervention on his side, and more than once, Nicholas chose to continue the war out of the belief that the Kaiser would come to his aid.
By 8 April 1903, Russia was supposed to have completed its withdrawal of its forces in Manchuria that it had dispatched to crush the Boxer Rebellion, but that day passed with no reductions in Russian forces in Manchuria. In Japan, university students demonstrated against both Russia and their own government for not taking any action. On 28 July 1903, Kurino Shin'ichirō, the Japanese minister in St. Petersburg was instructed to present his country's view opposing Russia's consolidation plans in Manchuria. On 3 August, the Japanese minister handed in the following document to serve as the basis for further negotiations:
- Mutual engagement to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Chinese and Korean empires and to maintain the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations in those countries.
- Reciprocal recognition of Japan's preponderating interests in Korea and Russia's special interests in railway enterprises in Manchuria, and of the right of Japan to take in Korea and of Russia to take in Manchuria such measures as may be necessary for the protection of their respective interests as above defined, subject, however, to the provisions of article I of this agreement.
- Reciprocal undertaking on the part of Russia and Japan not to impede development of those industrial and commercial activities respectively of Japan in Korea and of Russia in Manchuria, which are not inconsistent with the stipulations of article I of this agreement. Additional engagement on the part of Russia not to impede the eventual extension of the Korean railway into southern Manchuria so as to connect with the East China and Shan-hai-kwan–Newchwang lines.
- Reciprocal engagement that in case it is found necessary to send troops by Japan to Korea, or by Russia to Manchuria, for the purpose either of protecting the interests mentioned in article II of this agreement, or of suppressing insurrection or disorder calculated to create international complications, the troops so sent are in no case to exceed the actual number required and are to be forthwith recalled as soon as their missions are accomplished.
- Recognition on the part of Russia of the exclusive right of Japan to give advice and assistance in the interest of reform and good government in Korea, including necessary military assistance.
- This agreement to supplant all previous arrangements between Japan and Russia respecting Korea.
On 3 October, the Russian minister to Japan, Roman Rosen, presented to the Japanese government the Russian counterproposal as the basis of negotiations, as follows:
- Mutual engagement to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Korean Empire.
- Recognition by Russia of Japan's preponderating interests in Korea and of the right of Japan to give advice and assistance to Korea tending to improve the civil administration of the empire without infringing the stipulations of article I.
- Engagement on the part of Russia not to impede the commercial and industrial undertakings of Japan in Korea, nor to oppose any measures taken for the purpose of protecting them so long as such measures do not infringe the stipulations of article I.
- Recognition of the right of Japan to send for the same purpose troops to Korea, with the knowledge of Russia, but their number not to exceed that actually required, and with the engagement on the part of Japan to recall such troops as soon as their mission is accomplished.
- Mutual engagement not to use any part of the territory of Korea for strategical purposes nor to undertake on the coasts of Korea any military works capable of menacing the freedom of navigation in the Straits of Korea.
- Mutual engagement to consider that part of the territory of Korea lying to the north of the 39th parallel as a neutral zone into which neither of the contracting parties shall introduce troops.
- Recognition by Japan of Manchuria and its littoral as in all respects outside her sphere of interest.
- This agreement to supplant all previous agreements between Russia and Japan respecting Korea.
During the Russian–Japanese talks, the Japanese historian Hirono Yoshihiko noted that "once negotiations commenced between Japan and Russia, Russia scaled back its demands and claims regarding Korea bit by bit, making a series of concessions that Japan regarded as serious compromises on Russia's part". The war might have been avoided had not the issues of Korea and Manchuria become linked. The Korean and Manchurian issues had become linked as the Prime Minister Katsura Tarō decided if war did come, that Japan was more likely to have the support of the United States and Great Britain if the war could be presented as a struggle for free trade against the highly protectionist Russian empire, in which case, Manchuria, which was the larger market than Korea, was more likely to engage Anglo-American sympathies. Throughout the war, a recurring theme of Japanese propaganda was Japan was a "civilized" power that supported free trade and would implicitly allow foreign businesses into the resource-rich region of Manchuria vs. Russia the "uncivilized" power that was protectionist and wanted to keep the riches of Manchuria all to itself.
Emperor Gojong of Korea came to believe that the issue dividing Japan and Russia was Manchuria, and chose to pursue a policy of neutrality as the best way of preserving Korean independence as the crisis mounted. Hu Weide, the Chinese minister in St. Petersburg in a series of reports to Beijing looked closely at whether a Russian or a Japanese victory would be favorable to China, and argued that the latter was more preferable, as he maintained a Japanese victory presented the better chance for China to regain sovereignty over Manchuria. In December 1903, China decided to remain neutral if war came, because though Japan was the only power capable of evicting Russia from Manchuria, the extent of Japanese ambitions in Manchuria was not clear in Beijing.
In the Russian–Japanese negotiations then followed, although by early January 1904, the Japanese government had realised that Russia was not interested in settling the Manchurian or Korean issues. Instead, Russia's goal was buying time – via diplomacy – to further build up militarily. In December 1903, Wilhelm wrote in a marginal note on a diplomatic dispatch about his role in inflaming Russo-Japanese relations:
Since 97—Kiaochow—we have never left Russia in any doubt that we would cover her back in Europe, in case she decided to pursue a bigger policy in the Far East that might lead to military complications (with the aim of relieving our eastern border from the fearful pressure and threat of the massive Russian army!). Whereupon, Russia took Port Arthur and trusting us, took her fleet out of the Baltic, thereby making herself vulnerable to us by sea. In Danzig 01 and Reval 02, the same assurance was given again, with result that entire Russian divisions from Poland and European Russia were and are being sent to the Far East. This would not had happened if our governments had not been in agreement!
A recurring theme of Wilhelm's letters to Nicholas was that "Holy Russia" had been "chosen" by God to save the "entire white race" from the "Yellow Peril", and that Russia was "entitled" to annex all of Korea, Manchuria, and northern China up to Beijing. Wilhelm went on to assure Nicholas that once Russia had defeated Japan that this would be a deadly blow to British diplomacy, and the two emperors, the self-proclaimed "Admiral of the Atlantic" and the "Admiral of the Pacific" would rule Eurasia together, making them able to challenge British sea power as the resources of Eurasia would make their empires immune to a British blockade, which would thus allow Germany and Russia to "divide up the best" of the British colonies in Asia between them.
Nicholas had been prepared to compromise with Japan, but after receiving a letter from Wilhelm attacking him as a coward for his willingness to compromise with the Japanese (whom Wilhelm never ceasing reminding Nicholas represented the "Yellow Peril") for the sake of peace, become more obstinate. Wilhelm had written to Nicholas stating that the question of Russian interests in Manchuria and Korea was beside the point, saying instead it was a matter of Russia
undertaking the protection and defense of the White Race, and with it, Christian civilization, against the Yellow Race. And whatever the Japs are determined to ensure the domination of the Yellow Race in East Asia, to put themselves at its head and organise and lead it into battle against the White Race. That is the kernel of the situation, and therefore there can be very little doubt about where the sympathies of all half-way intelligent Europeans should lie. England betrayed Europe's interests to America in a cowardly and shameful way over the Panama Canal question, so as to be left in 'peace' by the Yankees. Will the 'Tsar' likewise betray the interests of the White Race to the Yellow as to be 'left in peace' and not embarrass the Hague tribunal too much?.
When Nicholas replied that he still wanted peace, Wilhelm wrote back in a telegram "You innocent angel!", telling his advisors "This is the language of an innocent angel. But not that of a White Tsar!". Nevertheless, the belief in Tokyo was that Russia was not serious about seeking a peaceful solution to the dispute, on 13 January 1904, Japan proposed a formula by which Manchuria would be outside the Japanese sphere of influence and, reciprocally, Korea outside Russia's. On 21 December 1903, the Tarō cabinet voted to go to war against Russia.
By 4 February 1904, no formal reply had been received and on 6 February the Japanese minister to Russia, Kurino Shin'ichirō was recalled, and Japan severed diplomatic relations with Russia.
Potential diplomatic resolution of territorial concerns between Japan and Russia failed; historians have argued that this directly resulted from the actions of Tsar Nicholas II. One crucial error of Nicholas was his mismanagement of government. Although certain scholars contend the situation arose from the determination of Tsar Nicholas II to use the war against Japan to spark a revival in Russian patriotism, no historical evidence supports this claim. The Tsar's advisors did not support the war, foreseeing problems in transporting troops and supplies from European Russia to the East. Convinced that his rule was divinely ordained and that he held responsibility to God, Nicholas II held the ideals of preserving the autocracy and defending the dignity, honor, and worth of Russia. This attitude by the Tsar led to repeated delays in negotiations with the Japanese government. The Japanese understanding of this can be seen in a telegram from Japanese minister of foreign affairs, Komura, to the minister to Russia, in which he stated:
... the Japanese government have at all times during the progress of the negotiations made it a special point to give prompt answers to all propositions of the Russian government. The negotiations have now been pending for no less than four months, and they have not yet reached a stage where the final issue can with certainty be predicted. In these circumstances the Japanese government cannot but regard with grave concern the situation for which the delays in negotiations are largely responsible.
Errors by Nicholas II in managing the Russian government also led to his misinterpreting the type of situation in which Russia was to become involved with Japan. Some scholars have suggested that Tsar Nicholas II dragged Japan into war intentionally, in hopes of reviving Russian nationalism. This notion is disputed by a comment made by Nicholas to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, saying there would be no war because he "did not wish it".
This does not reject the claim that Russia played an aggressive role in the East, which it did; rather, it means that Russia unwisely calculated that Japan would not go to war against its far larger and seemingly superior navy and army. Nicholas held the Japanese in contempt as "yellow monkeys", and he took for granted that the Japanese would simply yield in the face of Russia's superior power, which thus explains his unwillingness to compromise. Evidence of Russia's false sense of security and superiority to Japan is seen by Russian reference to Japan choosing war as a big mistake.