Jeffrey Hays



     Maps:      The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia / 1995

     Images:      Visualizing Culture, MIT Education       





In 1904-1905, Japan defeated Russia in Russo-Japanese War, showing that the world that Japan was major world power and that Czarist Russia was on its last legs. The Japanese attacked the Russians in Korea and Manchuria and won the war by unexpectedly crushing Russia's Baltic fleet at the Battle Tsushima. The Japanese lost 60,000 men and the Russians, 30,000. One general described the war as a “mountain of corpses.”

At the beginning of the war Russia was considered one of the world's super powers and the Japanese army was still regarded as second rate. Most people thought that Russia would easily win. Some saw the conflict as the first modern war. It at least was the first modern naval war in which ironclad navies with long-range guns faced one another. But it was also a war of old-style military maneuvers such as a Cossack charges, the scaling of ancient city walls and elaborate courtesies between commanders.

Japanese propaganda poster from Russo-Japanese War

The origin of the war dated back to the end of the war against China in 1885 when Russia, Germany and France asked Japan to leave Port Arthur (Dalian) and the Liaotung Peninsula in northeast China. Japan gave into the demands. In 1886, Russia seized the territory for itself and then occupied Manchuria.

In 1875, Russia and Japan agreed on how to divide the islands east of Russia. Russia got Sakhalin Island and the Japanese got the Kuril Islands. Disagreement arose on "spheres of influence" in which Russia wanted Manchuria and Japan wanted Korea. Poor diplomacy was based on starting the war.

Japan prepared for war by strengthening its navy and forming an alliance with Britain, the world' leading trade and naval power. In 1904, Japan broke diplomatic relations with Russia.



Early Fighting in the Russo-Japanese War


After the Russians refused to leave Manchuria and a timber concession in Korea, the Japanese launched a Pearl Harbor-like, pre-emptive surprise attack against the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur, Russia's only ice-free port on the Pacific, and then conducted a successful blockade of the Russian fleet in Port Arthur. Between August 1904 to January 1905, the Japanese proceed to lay waste to Russia’s Pacific fleet and captured Port Arthur on January 2, 1905. During the siege, 56,000 Japanese died.

With its fleet destroyed trapped in Port Arthur, the Russians tried to win the war on land but were stopped by a highly motivated Japanese troops, who poured onto the Liaotung Peninsula in large numbers. The pivotal Battle of Sha Ho ended in a stalemate and both sides dug into trenches World-War-I-style behind barbed wire lines and remained in their positions for months.
Russia had difficulty supplying it forces. The source of men and supplies were thousands of miles away. With Port Arthur cut off, the only way to bring supplies was on the single-track Trans Siberian Railroad, which had not yet been completed. In 1904, rails were laid down on the three foot ice of Lake Baikal to bring goods east. The first train plunged through the ice and left behind a 15-miles long hole. The Russian didn't give up. A new track was laid and men and horses were used successfully to pull the rail cars across the ice rather than heavy locomotives.

There was a great deal of fighting on land, One press release describing the attack on “Hill of 203 meters” from 1904 went: The Japanese “made many charges before four o’clock in the afternoon, but were driven back by the desperate Russians. At five o’ clock the Japanese troops advanced against the south-eastern portion of the hill, charged valiantly and reached within thirty yards of the summit. At seven o’clock, reinforced, they charged again and captured the hill. At eight o’clock the entire summit was in the possession of the besieging army. The Russians left vast heaps of dead on the fields.”


Most engagement resulted in Japanese victories that drove the Russians back. The most crushing Russian defeats occurred at Liaoyang in 1904 and Mukden in 1905. Making matters worse for Russia were revolts at home.





Japanese Soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War


The Russo-Japanese War also saw the rise of samurai virtues on the international scene. Japanese soldiers were taught that to die in battle was noble and anything less was a humiliation. Many of these soldiers, who referred to themselves as the Emperor's human bullets, formed human waves that were mowed down by Russian machine guns during attacks on fortifications that surrounded Port Arthur, the main Japanese objective.


Russo-Japanese War: trench warafre

The Japanese generally fought the war in a humane way. Captured Russian soldiers were treated well and let go after they had been neutralized militarily. POWs were taken to a camp in Masuyama in first-class train coaches, allowed to learn to read and write Japanese and could walk freely around the city. But there were ugly signs of things to come: at Mukden Japanese came upon thousands of drunk Russian soldiers and instead of capturing them they were bludgeoned and disemboweled with bayonets. There was also the execution of 130 captures Russian soldiers on Sakhalin island.

The Japanese forces were led by General Maresukae Nogi and Admiral Togo. Nogi perhaps is best known for marking the death of Emperor Meiji by committing suicide with his wife in 1912. Gen. Nogi committed ritual suicide (seppaku). His wife, apparently willingly, plunged a dagger into her heart. In 1877 Nogi had asked the Emperor for permission to commit seppaku following his regiment’s defeat in the Satsuma Rebellion and the loss of the Emperor’s banner to the enemy. He was crushed when his request was turned down, expressing his feelings a poem that went: “My self is nothing but a person scared of death.” He made the request for seppaku again in 1905 after losing two sons in the war and again was turned down. The state propaganda machine seized up his successful suicide as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for the emperor and was used for propaganda purposes to aid the rise of the military. A number of writers wrote about the event.







Russia's Baltic Fleet Sails to the Pacific

The war was popular and widely supported in Japan but unpopular and seen as remote in Russia. The Russian forces were largely illiterate and often drunk. They lacked motivation and a desire to fight.

Many of the Russians actions and inactions proved to disastrous on a grand scale. On October 9, 1904, Czar Nicholas II ordered his "invincible" 42-ship Baltic fleet to sail 18,000 miles around the world to waters off of China. In the North Sea, the Russians sunk one Japanese "torpedo boat" and damaged several others. These boats ended up being British trawlers.
The Russian fleet sailed around Africa to the Indian Ocean and picked up 10 more ships, mostly antiques, in Vietnam. As the fleet entered waters off China, Russian admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski decided to head straight to Vladivostok, the only Russian port left in Asia, through the narrow Tsushima Strait, which separates Japan and Korea.




Battle of Tsushima

Admiral Heihachiro Togo guessed of the Russian plan and waited with the entire Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Strait. The Russians sailed into the trap on May 27, 1905.

Togo was able to maneuver the faster, better-built Japanese ships on the sides of the advancing Russian ships and blast away at them. The Russian flag ship was one of eh first to go down. It was followed by three more battleships. The pride of the Russian navy, the Borodino, sank in seconds after a single Japanese shell land in its ammunition magazine.
The 12 surviving Russian ships were pursued and encircled by Japanese torpedo ships. The Russian ships surrendered. Of the 52 ships in the Russian fleet only three made it to Vladivostok. More than 10,000 Russians were injured or captured and 4,830 were killed. By contrast the Japanese only lost three small torpedo ships, and 1,000 Japanese sailors were wounded and 117 were killed.

Togo was heralded as the great hero of the Russo-Japanese war. He was honored not only in Japan but around the globe. In the Netherlands and Finland there are beers named after him. In Istanbul you can find Togo Avenue. One of his greatest admirers was Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet in World War II. Nimitz attended Togo's funeral, donated royalties from a book to a Togo shrine.


End of the Russo-Japanese War

Russia surrendered and signed a peace treaty on September 5, 1905 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the United States. The Japanese asked U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt to mediate the settlement. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to get the two nations to sign the treaty. This was the first Nobel prize to go to an American.

The peace agreement was largely seen as a compromise and in the eyes of the Japanese a capitalization. Even though Japan’s victory at sea was decisive its army could not prevail over the Russian army on land. Even after the war was over the armies of the two nations faced down each other in Manchuria and it often seemed there was a risk that a new conflict would erupt any time.


Treaty of Portsmouth meeting

Russian war bonds sold well. Japanese ones did not. Among those who bought large amounts of Japanese one was Lehman Brothers brokerage.


Results and Impact of the Wars with China and Russia


As a result of the war Russia was forced to cede Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula and southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan, to evacuate Manchuria, to recognize Korea as a Japanese protectorate and grant Japanese fishing rights north of Vladivostok. Russia obtained a lease for the southern tip of the Liaotung peninsula, where Port Arthur (present-day Lushan and Dalien) are located. The Japanese kept troops on the Liaotung Peninsula and used it as a foothold into Manchuria. Germany, France and Russia objected to Japan's claims in China.

To many outsiders the outcome was seen more as a Russian defeat than a Japanese victory. It was seen as sign of Russian weakness, which paved the way for the Russian Revolution and events in World War I. The shortness and the decisiveness of the war gave Japanese confidence and did not deplete its resources to a degree that would have made the Japanese think twice about entering conflicts in the future.

The Russo-Japanese War was the first major war of the 20th century. The use of barbed wire, trenches and land mines gave a hint of things to come in World War I. There were also major anti-war protests. The Bloody Sunday incident in which Russian demonstrators were killed in January 1905 made it difficult for Russia to continue the war against Japan. In Tokyo, people rioted to protest the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth and size of the compensation paid to Russia. Even before the Russo-Japanese War, an astute Polish banker named Jan Block predicted future wars would be long wars of attrition that would kill many people and destroy economies. He warned Russia in particular to be careful because such a war could lead to an overthrow of the government by revolution.

The Russo-Japanese was perhaps the first war in which radio communications played a major role in the outcome of the conflict, The Japanese received radio reports of the state of the Russian Baltic fleet before it arrived in Japanese waters. It also marked the beginning of the involvement of the United States in international affair as it took a major role in the peace settlement.


Legacy of the Wars with China and Russia

The Russo-Japanese war halted European expansion into East Asia and provided an international structure for East Asia that brought some degree of stability to the region. It also changed the world from a European-centered world to one in which a new pole was emerging in Asia. After the defeat of Russia, a Persian newspaper wrote: “Although the European politicians and philosophers have said that Asia is not qualified to reach the levels of Western civilization, this was proven to be false.”
The Russo-Japanese War brought Japan to the attention of the world as a power to be reckoned with and the uncontested leader of Asia. The defeat of Russia was seen as a slap in the face for all of Europe. It was the first defeat of a major European power since the Mongols. But not everyone saw it such grim terms. Many, especially the British, cheered Japan’s success. Some conservatives in Britain applauded “brave little Japan.”



from Britain's Punch magazine


The victories over Russia and China, established Japan as the first great, modern, non-Western power in Asia. The Japanese leaders felt it was their duty to avenge the humiliation inflicted on Asia during the colonial period after the Opium War in 1842.
By defeating Russia, Japan knocked out its only naval rival in the eastern Pacific. Japan also took over Russia's concessions in China and annexed half of Sakhalin island, which later was used as a stepping stone to Manchuria and Korea. The failure to seize significant territory in Russia and China was considered a setback not because it was threat to Japan's military an economic interests but because considered a sign of weakness that ran contrary to the "stud duck in the pond" image that Japan was trying to project.


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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays


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