Becoming an Honorary Civilized Nation: Remaking Japan's Military Image during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905

By Kowner, Rotem | The Historian, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Becoming an Honorary Civilized Nation: Remaking Japan's Military Image during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905


Kowner, Rotem, The Historian


The image of the Japanese military in the eyes of Western public opinion has changed dramatically since the forced opening of Japan by American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854. At first, the West ridiculed Japan's cultural backwardness, perceiving its people in general and soldiers in particular as weak, childish, and feminine. Yet, under the Meiji government, which succeeded the feudal regime of the shogunate in 1868, Japan embarked on a rapid campaign to transform itself into a modern industrial state. Studying abroad and assisted by foreign experts at home, the Japanese emulated Western technology, political institutions, and military science, and within a few decades reorganized their civil administration along Western lines and created a modern, efficient army and navy.

Western nations saw clearly the results of Japan's efforts to modernize during the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, in which Japan easily defeated China. Even earlier, some experts praised the training methods and battle performance of the Japanese artillery and the navy, but the war proved Japan's advances. Still, although German Kaiser Wilhelm II saw in the victory a rising "yellow peril," most experts believed the war with China to be a mere military promenade and that Japan would never be recognized until it "crossed swords with an European power." (1)

Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the war, Japan gained control of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria, between China and Korea, thus enabling Japan to control the gateway to north China and build a preliminary naval network in the Pacific (see map). Alarmed at Japan's rapidly expanding influence, Russia, France, and Germany took steps to contain Japanese expansion. Within a week of the treaty's signing, this so-called "Triple Intervention" forced Japan to cede control of Liaodong Peninsula to China. A year later Russia leased the peninsula and built up the fort at Port Arthur. Thereafter, Russia's growing involvement in Korea was a catalyst for anti-Japanese strife, and the subsequent escape of the Korean king to the Russian legation in Seoul brought Russian influence in the area to a new zenith.

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Nine years after the Triple Intervention, Japan was ready for a showdown against tsarist Russia. In broad perspective, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 can be viewed as an inevitable clash between two expanding nations in a zone where their prospective territories overlapped. Russian tsars had a long history of expansionism, but the costly construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, begun in 1891, was the ultimate demonstration of their earnest intentions in the region. Japan, on the other hand, expanded partly as a reaction to external threats and partly as a quest for recognition and status. As Japan moved toward its closest neighbor, Korea, Russia aimed at the same territory.

On the morning of 8 February 1904, Japan made a surprise attack on Port Arthur, where the Russian fleet was stationed. The Japanese acted without a prior declaration of war, which earned them further disapproval of Western nations. In the days following the attack, Japanese forces landed in Korea and attacked Russian positions in neighboring Manchuria in an effort to protect Japan's interests from Russian encroachment. The ensuing Russo-Japanese War, in which the little island nation trounced the Russian Empire, was fought for a year and a half with total personnel close to two million. (2)

The image of the Japanese, especially in the eyes of the tsar, Nicholas II, played an important role in the Russo-Japanese War. Influenced by what he had seen during his visit to Japan in 1891 and the prevailing stereotypes, Nicholas perceived the Japanese as feminine, weak, and racially inferior, a view that led him to underestimate the Japanese national character and military capability. As the war unfolded, this cognitive bias led him to erroneous strategic decisions that partly accounted for the Russian fiasco. …

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