The Russo-Japanese War is one of the most important wars not only in Japanese history but world history. It was a true David vs Goliath type tale of tiny little Japan, who had just recently ended its policy of isolation and the colossus of the Russian Empire! This was one of the first wars of the 1900’s and was a major precursor to World War I. It also set the stage for the rest of the 20th century and marked the beginning of the end for one of these two great empires.
After a period of intense civil wars, Tokugawa Ieyasu finally united the entire country under one rule. Fearing the influence of western countries, which were going into other Asian countries and tearing them apart, the Shogunate decided to close Japan entirely. Japan would execute anyone trying to enter or leave Japan. This would go on until the mid 1800’s when America would force Japan to open up again.
After opening up again to the West, Japan would take to modernization like a fish to water. If Japan is a master of anything it is taking non-Japanese ideas, adapting them and improving them. In the space of only 50 years, Japan would modernize to the point of rivaling western powers. But there was one major problem: Japan is a tiny island nation with few natural resources. Japan looked around at what all the other major powers were doing during that time; colonization! So Japan decided to hop on the bandwagon. In 1895, Japan fought against China in the First Sino-Japanese war, in which they gained effective control of Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria. But this victory against the sick and dying dragon, would bring in the vicious bear!
Russia at this time was in some trouble. Many Russians were not too happy with the current system. The Russian Czar was facing many problems on multiple fronts. He was facing uprisings often, he was struggling with trying to modernize his empire, and he needed a port for his navy that wouldn’t freeze during the winter. Czar Nicholas II saw the solutions to all of his problems just south of Russia. Port Arthur was a warm water port just East of Korea and was now under the control of Japan. Nicholas II figured he could bully Japan into handing the port over, and they would do it. He would then expand Russian power there and slowly take all of Japan’s hard fought gains from them. He figured that they wouldn’t put up too much of a fight…Boy, was he wrong.
Russia pressured Japan over the port, and fearing going to war with the largest land power in the world, Japan gave them the port. Russia was building a massive railroad, the trains-Siberian, and they expanded it so that it would reach Port Arthur. During the Boxer Rebellion, Russia increased their military presence in the area with the understanding that after the unpleasantness they would return to normalcy. But once the Boxers were subdued, Russia did not decrease the number of troops. Instead, they actually sent in more.
Japan was obviously upset, but they really didn’t want to go to war. The British had approached Japan, because they wanted to check the power of Russia in Asia, and offered them aid, giving them military weapons and warships. Japan opened negotiations with Russia and tried, in good faith, to find a peaceful solution to the problem. Russia was not so interested.
Czar Nicholas II was excited at the prospect of crushing the “little yellow monkeys”. He figured that Japan would back down again, just like they did with Port Arthur, and even if they didn’t he figured his army could crush the Japanese soldiers with very little effort. His reasoning was without a doubt, blatant racism. Nicholas II believed that his soldiers were better than the Japanese soldiers because the Russians were better humans than the Japanese were. So the Russian government did not take the negotiations seriously at all, continuing to push Japan.
Eventually Japan snapped.
In the winter of 1903, Japan realized that Russia wanted war, so they acquiesced. On February 8th 1904 Japan launched a sneak attack on Port Arthur. They attacked with mini-subs and seriously damaged Russia’s greatest ships. Three hours later, Japan would officially declare war on Russia. The Czar was shocked. He did not believe that the Japanese would attack without prior notice. There would be various battles over Port Arthur, and nearly all of the ships stationed there would be sunk, and eventually Japan would take the port back.
Japan would launch a ground attack through Korea, and would attack Russian troops throughout Manchuria. Because of the racism of Russian generals, they consistently underestimated the strength and skills of Japanese armies. They pushed the Russians back and battered them from pillar to post. Japan’s military had modernized to the level of the many of the European powers, but Russia was still very backward and depended mostly on pure manpower as opposed to military efficiency.
As Port Arthur was being shelled, Russia sent its western fleet to reinforce the eastern one, but they had to take the longer route around the Horn of Africa because the British did not let them go through the middle eastern route. This gave the Japanese more than enough time to set up a trap. Japan’s military intelligence was incredible. They were able to successfully track the Russian fleet and knew exactly where they would be and when. Japan moved its fleet to the Yellow Sea and waited for their guests. The Russian fleet stumbled straight into the trap. They had been traveling in single file, while the Japanese fleet were lined up. Imagine a capital “T”. The vertical line being the Russian fleet, and the horizontal line being the Japanese. This allowed all of the Japanese ships to fire on the front ship of the Russians, and the Russians could only fire one at a time. This was an absolute disaster for the Russians. They had lost to a much smaller fleet.
Czar Nicholas II was not the brightest crayon in the box, but he realized that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Furthermore, the war had the exact opposite result of what he had hoped. Instead of uniting the unhappy peasants against a foreign enemy, it spurred only more violent outbursts against the regime. It was eating up the lives of his soldiers, and his coffers. So he jumped at the chance when American President Teddy Roosevelt offered to mediate peace talks.
While the peace talks would end the war, it would sow the seed for both the First and Second World Wars. The czar would solidify his ties with France because there was evidence that the Germans had aided Japan. During the peace talks, America joined with Russia in refuting in Japan’s insistence that Russia should pay indemnities. America worried about Japan’s rising power and this tension would continue to build until the outbreak of World War II.
The Russo-Japanese war showed the rest of the world that Japan was a great power, and the main power in the east. It was an incredible boost for Japanese morale. It was the first time in modern history that a major European power had been defeated by an Asian one in a major war. It marked the beginning of the end for Russia, which in just over 10 years would collapse. Japan would solidify its hold over Korea and Manchuria, and give the Japanese government the confidence it needed to continue its imperial goals.