“As for Japan, she has risen with simply marvelous rapidity, and she is as formidable from the industrial as from the military standpoint. She is a great civilized nation; though her civilization is in some important respects not like ours.”
President Theodore Roosevelt, Letter to Henry Cabot LodgeJune 16, 1905
President Roosevelt transcribed these words in a letter to Henry Cabot Lodge prior to convening the Treaty of Portsmouth in New Hampshire, 1905. The agreement between Japan and Russia, signed on September 5, brought a formal cessation of hostilities to the 1904-05 conflict and signaled the emergence of Japan as a world power. Roosevelt’s comments are an accurate summation of Japan’s transformation; in just over fifty years, the small island nation advanced from an isolated backwater to a major industrial, military, and imperial power.
By the early nineteen-twenties, Japan’s empire stretched from the island of Taiwan at its most southerly point, to the northern most of the Kuril Islands. The island nation also extended its influence over the Ryukyu Islands, Karafuto (located at the base of the Sakhalin island), and the Korean and Liaodong peninsulas. Barring its occupation of China in the nineteen-thirties and forties, this represented the apex of Japanese imperial expansion. This outward movement marked a drastic change to Japan’s traditional isolationism.
James McClain’s Japan: A Modern History chronicles the island country’s turbulant past. Prior to 1868, under Tokugawa leadership (and for most of its history), Japan remained isolated from the outside world. Its exclusionist system restricted foreign trade and exposure, sequestering commercial activities to the port city of Nagasaki and disallowing foreign embassies. Mounting Western pressure and prestige, however, forced Japan to question its reclusive foreign policy. The United States precipitated this pivot in 1853 with the Commodore Perry expedition. Perry’s ships sailed into Edo Bay, smoke plumbing, and awakened Japan and its people to the reality of modernization. Abe Masahiro, senior councilor to the shogunate, believing he had no other option, negotiated with the American envoy, giving in to many of Perry’s concessions. Signed in 1854, the Treaty of Peace and Amity gave the United States access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate, assurance of assistance for stranded sailors, and the establishment of an American consul at Shimoda. A few years later, the United States-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1858 further dismantled Japan’s isolation and established the right to foreign trade and opening of foreign diplomacy. The treaty also opened the ports of Edo, Kangawa, Osaka, Kobe, and Niigata to outside trade and extended the right of extraterritoriality. The U.S.-Japan Amity treaty paved the way for similar agreements with other European nations, each one containing the reviled ‘most-favored-nation’ clause.
After the Perry expedition, things moved quickly. Ferocious debate erupted over the future direction of the country. One common sentiment, sonnō jōi, illustrated by the intellectual Yoshida Shōin, called to “Revere the Heavenly Sovereign, Expel the Barbarians.” McClain reports the other, kaikoku advocated “to open up the country to foreign intercourse. Many of the daimyo shared the latter view. By adopting Western technologies while keeping Japanese morality, Japan could retain its cultural traditions while challenging Western hegemony. A strong contingent of young radicals known as shishi, however,rallied around sonnō jōi intent on preserving Japan’s cultural identity. The shishi engaged in acts of terror, assassinating more than seventy officials and firing on passing American, Dutch, and French ships.
McClain further explains that the overthrow of the Tokugawa in 1868, and the establishment of the Meiji government, represented a movement not of ideas, but an acknowledgement of an antiquated system of rule and a need for modernization inspired by a rejection of the country’s semi-colonial status. Michael Montgomery reports that the radicals of the Tokugawa coup intended to restore Japan’s dignity by “devoting itself fully to the welfare of the people and putting Japan on an equal footing with the other countries of the world.” Perry’s intrusion (and that of the West) into Japanese society saddled with it new economic and political stresses. The men of 1868 believed only a reorganization of Japan’s social and political order, coupled with the utilization of the innovative spirit of its people, could restore the once-proud nation to prominence. The determination of this cohort of “men of talent” to bring about the rise of Japan and its people represented a collective desire to gain the respect of the dominant Western nations. To do so, Japan set forth to liberate themselves from unequal treaties and the influence of foreign powers, unite the populous, and modernize its society to facilitate growth and stability; the Charter Oath, as a statement of national policy, symbolized this sentiment pledging democracy, unity, social mobility, modernization, and increased investment in education.
The pledges of the Charter Oath manifested themselves in a variety of ways. The first was the centralization of power. The men of the revolution revitalized the Dajōkan, or Grand Council of State, with administrative authorities and effectively used the organ to disseminate policy throughout the governmental structure. Next, they reorganized the daimyo system, implementing in its stead a body of prefectures under the control of the Dajōkan. This step, met with little opposition, brought the obstinate domains under control almost overnight cementing the government’s seizure of power.
Japan’s leaders could now focus on the task of highest importance. The prominent statesman Kido Takayoshi, as cited by Montgomery, declared:
If we wish the reforms of a new regime to be realized and the prestige of the Emperor to be elevated abroad, we must establish the basis of government by allotting three-fifths of expenditure for military purposes, one-fifth for the government and one-fifth for the relief of the people.
Clearly, the Meiji leaders viewed military might as the antidote to their second-class status. Western conventions forced this worldview onto them. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy instigated Japan into adopting similar tactics and using them to their own advantage.
In the West, the major powers weighed their strength by imperial possessions. As Japan strove for parity with its Western counterparts, its leaders began to reassess its Asian relations.
As imperialist fervor swept across Japanese society, it became imperative for Japan to establish definitive territorial borders and negotiate relations with its neighbors. This would be crucial in diplomatic discussion and conflict resolution. For Japan to become a player in the world polity, it needed to mark a place for itself on the map. The first question to settle was that over the island of Hokkaidō. In addition to Hokkaidō being economically beneficial, it also had strategic importance as a buffer to Russian expansionist ambitions. The Russo-Japanese Treaty of Amity of 1855, however, settled this question by ceding Hokkaidō and islands of the Kuril chain up to Etorofu to Japan. The Japanese quickly started encouraging settlement of the islands and the assimilation of its native peoples. The Meiji government established schools, taught Japanese language, and eventually displaced the native Ainu inhabitants, wiping the island of its native culture.
Next, as McClain asserts, the Japanese turned their focus on the Sakhalin and northern Kuril islands. Wanting to cushion their burgeoning empire further, Japan entered into negotiations with Russia over the co-inhabited islands. The Treaty of St. Petersburg brought the rest of the Kuril island chain under Japan’s control and yielded Sakhalin to Russia. Japan’s expansion up to this point had been peaceful and diplomatic, signaling its increased position in world affairs. Subsequent acquisitions would prove more troublesome.
The newly established Meiji leaders next absorbed Tsushima Island, located in the Tsushima Strait directly in-between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese mainland, back under its control. This, an attempt to reiterate Japan’s claim that their border lay between Korea and the small island, provoked tension between Japan and China. Korea traditionally regarded itself a tributary kingdom of China and enjoyed the protection resultant of that position. After repeated requests for Korea to recognize Japan’s autonomy under Meiji rule, Saigō Takamori, along with other officials in the Meiji court, advocated reprisals against the peninsula. Although nothing resulted from this fevered call to arms, Montgomery cites that the cause was taken up again in 1876 accompanied by the popular slogan “Punish Korea.” Japan-reminiscent of Perry’s expedition in 1853-sailed into Korean with an envoy of warships and forced Korea into the Treaty of Kanghwa in February of 1876. Japan gained access to three Korean ports, the establishment of Japanese consuls therein, and the privilege of extraterritoriality.
Japan’s expansion continued. A secret treaty assimilated the Ryūkyū Islands into the Kagoshima Prefecture upon the demolition of the domain system during the Meiji centralization of power. A fortuitous opportunity occurred, also, when an indigenous tribe of Taiwan slaughtered fifty-four Ryūkyū fishermen who had been shipwrecked there. This prompted Japan to send a punitive expedition to Taiwan which resulted in China’s acceptance of Japan’s actions and the cessation of Ryūkyūan tributary allegiance to China.
The fear of Western imperialism fueled Japan’s imperialist impulse to further buffer its position. It saw its Asian neighbors as liabilities, weak and vulnerable to Western ambitions. In order to be able to defend itself, Japan needed to be surrounded with stable allies. Rhetoric continually focused on the strategic and economic advantages of Korea. In 1884, these musings came to fruition. A young opposition party progressive, Kim Ok-kyun, staged a coup with the help of Japanese guard units and weapons smuggled in from Japan, seizing the Korean royal palace and King Kojong. Although unsuccessful, the incident provoked negotiations between Japan and China. Both aware of their respective vulnerable states, the two nations reached an agreement at the Tianjin Convention stipulating that both nations respect the sovereignty of Korea and refrain from stationing troops on the peninsula unless providing written confirmation first.
McClain illustrates Japanese aggression with the words of Major Klemens Meckel, a German army officer lecturing at the Army War College who described Korea as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” Many Japanese strategists shared this insight. Keenly aware of this geopolitical reality, Yamagata Aritomo feared Russian encroachment in Manchuria, China, and possibly Korea. Russia desired a warm water port capable of year-round operation. In an address to the National Diet in 1890, Yamagata declared that in order to “preserve our independence and enhance our national position…it is not enough to guard only the line of sovereignty, we must also defend the line of advantage. That line of advantage fell in Korea.
The crisis over Korea escalated early in 1894. Korean nationalists murdered Kim in exile in Shanghai in March. Later in the spring, as Tonghak followers protested the condition of Korea’s poor, vowing to overthrow the government, the Korean government called to China for help. As Chinese troops poured into Korea, in obvious violation of the Tianjian Convention, Japan, deciding it imperative for the defense of its borders, declared war on China in 1894.
The ensuing Japanese victory came as a complete shock to the foreign powers. According to McClain, the small island nation decisively overcame the Chinese troops on land and sea, forcing the colossus to the negotiating table. The subsequent Treaty of Shimonoseki marked a paradigm shift of power in the pacific. In it, the Japanese called for the “full and complete independence and autonomy of Korea”; relinquishment of the Manchurian province of Liaoning, Taiwain, and the Pescadores islands; war reparations payments; four new treaty ports; and the granting of commercial privileges on the Yangzi River and the establishment of manufacturing facilities around the treaty ports. Japan held China in a tight spot. Japan’s purchase over the negotiations was fractured when the Chinese emissary, Li Hongzhang, a highly respected official, was shot in the face by a Japanese extremist. Deeply ashamed, the Japanese delegate reduced his demands slightly; however, this agreement established Japan as the first non-Western imperial power.
As Japan’s status grew, other nations took notice. In 1894, the British entered into the Anglo-Japanese Commercial Treaty abrogating British extraterritoriality and exclusive settlements throughout Japanese cities. By 1897, all other Western powers signed similar arrangements.
McClain investigated the effects of Japan’s success. Japanese pride swelled with the victory over China and the abrogation of unequal treaties with the Western powers. Finally, the small island nation stood on equal footing with the imperial powers of the world. The adulation and good times did not last long. Just six days after the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Russia, France, and Britain suggested that Japan return the Liaodong Peninsula to China. After conferring with the U.S. and Britain, Japan announced it would return the peninsula to China. This was a slap in the face. Resentment pervaded Japanese society. At the same time, Russia moved toward Korea with an ambitious eye. Russian envoys won the favor of Queen Min and perpetuated anti-Japanese fervor. A botched kidnapping by Japanese guards left the Queen dead and the King running into Russia’s arms. International reaction decried the Japanese. The capital they thought they had earned from their victory over China now seemed worthless. All the gains the Western powers forced Japan to give now belonged to Russia.
This set the stage for conflict with Russia. Rallying around the slogan “shame of Liaodong,” Japan increased its military spending, doubled the size of the army, and acquired European warships. On the diplomatic front, because of its involvement with putting down the Boxer Rebellion, Japan earned a seat at the table for the first time. Although Japan’s military and diplomatic buildup seemed to suggest the inevitability of war, negotiations took place between Russia and Japan prior to hostilities in 1904. The talks produced little to nothing. Russia was intransigent on removing its troops from Manchuria and Japan insistent on Korea’s independence. Negotiations came to an impasse. Recent scholarship questions the feasibility of these talks and the underlying motivations of the Japanese to engage in them. The debate centered on determining whether Manchuria or Korea caused the war. The impetus, however, dealt with both territories.
Public sentiment in Japan increasingly turned pugnacious. Patriotic enthusiasm pushed for retribution against Russia. Cabinet members moved more cautiously. After agreeing that Russia remained a threat while in Manchuria, the czar remained obstinate to make concessions, and that war could propel Japan’s status on the world stage. Japan broke diplomatic ties with Russia on February 6, 1904.
Mark Bryant, author of “The Floating World at War” chronciled the follwing events: On the evening of February 8, 1904, the Russo-Japanese war began with a surprise attack by the Japanese on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur. Japanese torpedo boats stormed into port disabling two Russian battleships and a cruiser, effectively blockading the port. Eerily reminiscent of December 7th, 1941 this bold maneuver became known as the ‘First Pearl Harbor’; Japan only officially declared war on February 10. In response, Russia summoned its Baltic Fleet from northern Europe. The convoy traveled 18, 000 miles around the tip of Africa-the British had denied them passage through the Suez Canal-to try and link up with its sister fleet at Port Arthur. This protracted journey allowed the Japanese fleet to set up strategic positions in the Tsushima Strait. Waiting patiently, Japanese Admiral Tōgō executed a brilliant maneuver that maximized the effect of his cannons, knocking out thirty-five of the thirty-eight ships in the Russian convoy. Japan’s victory at sea was decisive, however, its army suffered heavy losses. One land force, commanded by General Nogi Maresuke, ascended on Port Arthur, the other came up the coast of the Korean peninsula. After Port Arthur fell, the two armies linked up and laid siege on the city of Mukden. The fighting became arduous. Both sides incurred heavy casualties and Japan could not deliver the knock out blow. The Japanese suffered over 100,000 dead and no one held confidence to go on.
The war came to a stalemate. The Japanese lost three ships compared to Russia’s forty-two out of commission. The Japanese army, though suffering huge losses, still occupied fair amounts of territory. Although not a decisive victory, the strong showing signaled the rise of Japan as a formidable military and industrial power, equal to the most capable in the West. As Roosevelt alluded to in his letter, the strides Japan made in such a short period of time were truly remarkable. As history shows, however, this is only a testament to the Japanese spirit-a country and people who have continually renewed and reinvented themselves over time.
Trani, Eugene P. The Treaty of Portsmouth: An Adventure in American Diplomacy (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1969), 79. quoted from: [Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Cabot Lodge, June 16, 1905, Henry Cabot Lodge MSS in the Massachusetts Historical Society.]
James L. McClain, Japan: A Modern History (New York, 2002): 137-142.
Michael Montgomery, Imperialist Japan (New York, 1987): 114.
Mark Bryant, “The Floating World at War,” History Today, 56.6 (June, 2006): 58(2).