Russo-Japanese War

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A woodblock print triptych by Kobayashi Kiyochika depicting a scene from the Russo-Japanese War
  • Period: 1904-1905
  • Japanese: 日露戦争 (Nichi-ro sensou)

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 brought Japan even further onto the world stage, becoming the second non-Western power to defeat a Western power in war[1], and expanding its colonial empire to now include Korea, which became a Japanese protectorate as a result of this war.


The war, which began with the Japanese naval attack on Port Arthur (on the Liaodong Peninsula), had its roots in the simultaneous determination of both Japan and Russia to develop 'spheres of influence' in the Far East, mainly at the expense of China. Japan fought a very successful war against the Chinese Empire in 1894-95 and imposed severe treaty conditions. Japan demanded from China a heavy war indemnity, the island of Taiwan, and the Liaodong Peninsula. France, Russia, and Germany, which had their own ambitions in that part of the world, engaged in a so-called Triple Intervention, forcing the return of Liaodong to China, and back into play, so to speak. Two years later, Tsar Nicholas II forced the Chinese into leasing Port Arthur and the entire Liaodong Peninsula to Russia. For Russia this meant the acquisition of an ice-free naval base in the Far East to supplement Vladivostok. For Japan it was a case of adding insult to injury.

The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 saw the chief European powers and Japan sending troops to China to aid in the suppression of the rebellion. When the fighting was over, Russian troops were occupying Manchuria. Russia promised to withdraw these forces by 1903, but failed to do so, wishing to hold Manchuria as a springboard for further expansion of her interest in the Far East. Meanwhile Japan was heavily engaged in Korea, successfully increasing her influence in that country. Russia also had interest in Korea, and although at first Russians and Japanese managed to peacefully coexist, it was not long before tensions on both sides led to hostilities. Negotiations between the two nations began in 1901 but made little headway. Japan then strengthened her position by forming an alliance with Britain in 1902. The terms stated that the United Kingdom would come to the aid of Japan should war break out in East Asia.

During her negotiations with Japan, Russia did not expect the Japanese to go to war. After all, Japan was a newly emergent country, whose naval officers might have been trained in Britain and her army officers in Germany, but several of those officers had begun their careers wearing armor and brandishing swords. The Russian army, by contrast, saw itself as among the world's most powerful. But as it turned out, while the Japanese may have been incapable of sustaining a lengthy, drawn-out war, they were able to achieve victory in a shorter, more locally contained conflict.

Having successfully financed roughly half of the costs of the Sino-Japanese War with war bonds, and having received indemnities from China which covered the full cost of the war and then half over again, many in the Japanese government and big business felt a war with Russia could be relatively easily financed as well. Even if the war were to cost as much as 300-400 million yen - twice as much as that with China - it was believed the economic growth of the intervening years would be sufficient to allow the private sector (e.g. people & corporations buying war bonds) to help cover the costs of the war. However, as early as April 1904, with the war already underway, the government anticipated an annual military budget of 580 million yen.[2]


The war was fought both on land (chiefly in Manchuria) and at sea. The Japanese won early victories on land, pushing back the Russians during heavy fighting, and managed, over the course of two battles, to destroy nearly the entirety of the Russian naval fleet. This was accomplished in large part by attacking the Russian Navy in port at Port Arthur prior to the official declaration of war; England's chief contribution to the war, as Japan's ally, was to then deny Russia access to the Suez Canal, forcing those portions of the Russian Navy based in Europe to take the lengthy journey around Africa in order to join the conflict. This Baltic Fleet completed the majority of its 18,000 mile journey before the fighting was over, before meeting defeat at the hands of the Japanese navy in the Straits of Tsushima. Of the 35 ships in the Baltic Fleet, only four successfully reached Vladivostok.


The signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth as depicted in a wall mural at the American Museum of Natural History

The war ended in Japanese victory, but also in extensive costs for the Japanese in lives, equipment, and supplies, as well as financially; the Russians managed to reject suggestions they pay any indemnity, leaving the Japanese government with considerable expenses. The Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the war was brokered by US President Theodore Roosevelt (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) and was signed at the Portsmouth Naval Yard, in the US state of Maine. In the Treaty, Russia agreed to cede southern Sakhalin Island and all of its direct interests in Manchuria (i.e. namely railways and leaseholds on the Liaodong Peninsula), and to formally recognize Japan's control of Korea. Japanese demands for the cession of all of Sakhalin, and for monetary reparations were rejected.

The people of Tokyo, upset at the peace conditions, rioted in protest. In what was likely the first major urban riot of the Meiji period, citizens set fire to the prime minister's residence, electric streetcars, and police boxes.[3]

Japan soon afterwards headquartered an army group in Port Arthur which came to be called the Guandong (or Kwantung) Army, as well as the South Manchurian Railway Company, both of which would play key roles in initiating the outbreak of hostilities in the 1930s which then expanded into the full-on Fifteen-Years War (also known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese/continental portion of the Pacific War).



2/8-5/2 Battle of Port Arthur

2/9 Battle of Chemulpo Bay

4/30-5/1 Battle of Yalu River

5/25-5/26 Battle of Nanshan

6/14-6/15 Battle of Te-li-Ssu

7/17 Battle of Motien Pass

7/24-7/25 Battle of Tashihchiao

7/31-8/1 Battle of Hsimucheng

8/10 Battle of the Yellow Sea

8/14 Battle of Ulsan

8/20 Battle of Korsakov

8/24-9/4 Battle of Liaoyang

8/19-1905,1/1 Siege of Port Arthur

10/9-10/20 Battle of Shaho


1/25-1/29 Battle of Sandepu

2/21-3/10 Battle of Mukden

5/27-5/28 Battle of Tsushima

7/7-7/31 Battle of Karafuto

9/5 Portsmouth Treaty


  • Asakawa, K. The Russo-Japanese Conflict Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1904
  • Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 197-200.
  1. Ethiopia defeated Italy in 1896.
  2. Peter Duus, "Economic Dimensions of Meiji Imperialism," in Peattie and Myers (eds.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984), 143-146.
  3. Anne Walthall, "Nishimiya Hide: Turning Palace Arts into Marketable Skills," in Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan," Scholarly Resources, Inc. (2002), 59.