THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR: Primary Causes of Japanese Success

By Koda, Yoji | Naval War College Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR: Primary Causes of Japanese Success


Koda, Yoji, Naval War College Review


The year 2005 is the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second World War. It also marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Russo-Japanese War. For Japan, and for Western powers as well, that war, fought in the Far East in 1904 and 1905, has significance in many respects.

Japan joined the international community in the mid-nineteenth century. That period of history is known as "the age of imperialism" and was characterized by the dominance of Western nations on the world scene. The Japanese, however, because of their eagerness to learn, capacity to adapt, discipline, and frugality, caught up with the West much more quickly than was expected.

As Japan expanded its contacts with foreign nations, however, many problems with those countries emerged. Japanese leaders, though they had little experience in handling diplomatic issues, dealt with these issues in ways that in most cases proved advantageous to Japan. Through the successful settlement of such issues, they raised the nation's stature in the international community. In the process, the Japanese government developed appropriate strategies for coping with diplomatic problems and showed excellent leadership, firmness, and coordination skills in the execution of those strategies. They also showed a sense of balance in estimating situations. Of all the episodes that vitally affected Japan in that era, the Russo-Japanese War (like the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95) most changed the future of the nation. This article will examine Japanese strategy and policy as well as leadership in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan's success in the Russo-Japanese War (in implicit contrast to its failure in World War II thirty-five years later) shows that its leaders at the turn of the twentieth century did a much better job than their successors with respect to management of public opinion, goals, alliances, risk assessment, intelligence, sabotage, interservice cooperation, and negotiated war termination.

THE EAST ASIAN SITUATION IN THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY: THE JAPANESE PERCEPTION

In 1639, Japan closed itself to all Western powers except the Netherlands. In 1854, following the visit of U.S. warships under Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853, Japan reopened its doors to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. The following year, France was included by the Treaty of Amity. Of these Western powers, Britain and Russia had the strongest impact on the national security policy of the Japanese government, which had just assumed power after the 250-year Tokugawa shogunate. Japanese leaders judged that the British intended to include Japan within their sphere of influence (see map 1).

Similarly, the Japanese leaders were in general unfavorable to Russian policy in the Far East. Russia, defeated in the Crimean War in 1856 by the United Kingdom and France, had lost an opportunity to expand into the Balkan states. In addition, and in spite of the Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish war, the chancellor of unified Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, had wisely and effectively stopped the southward momentum of Russia toward the Balkans, by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. As a result, Russia turned its foreign policy from southward to eastward, accelerating the speed of its expansion to the east. This switch inevitably generated friction with the British in Asia. The first incident was conflict between Great Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, which ended in political compromise. The compromise practically stopped the momentum of Russia's southern expansion, forcing even greater Russian emphasis on expansion toward the Far East.

Here, a review of the chronology of Russian eastward expansion is necessary. In 1847, Russia established a governor general for eastern Siberia, whose office at Petropavlovsk acted as headquarters for eastern and southern movement in the Far East. The Russians expanded their influence to the mouth of the Amur River, where they established a principal base, Nikolayevsk, substantially increasing their power in the region. …

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