The Causes of the Russo-Japanese War: From Imperialism to War


By: Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The Japanese attack on the Russian Empire’s forces at Port Arthur marked the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, which ended with Japan emerging victorious. This war was one of the turning points in modern history, and in the history of a modernizing Japan, although it has been overshadowed by the First and Second World wars. The process of modernization, actually, played a large part in forming the roots of the war. 

Japanese flag waving in front of the background of a clear sky
The opening of the Japanese economy to the rest of the world opened it to the threat of Western annexation, but the Russo-Japanese war helped to establish it as one of the strong imperialist powers.
(Image: ymcgraphic/Shutterstock)

There are three main reasons as to why the Russo-Japanese war was a turning point in history. 

The Importance of the Japanese-Russo War

The first reason for the importance of the war was that it started the process of global decolonization, which would last for the entirety of the 20th century as countries taken over by imperialist powers, inspired by Japan’s victory, fought to gain sovereignty and independence. 

Further, since it was fought with new weaponry, it demonstrated the destructiveness of modern industrial war. 

Finally, the war set the stage for the First World War and Second World War, while also paving the way for the collapse of the Russian state and the establishment of an unprecedented communist government. Its influence was such that many historians refer to it as World War Zero, a predecessor of the two World Wars.

The Opium Wars in China had ushered in the period of worldwide European imperialism which, by the first World War in 1914, had spread to three-quarters of the world. While many non-Western civilizations resisted fiercely, Japan was by far the most successful in fending off the imperial power of the West. 

Learn more about the Dutch East India Company.

Closed Doors of Japan

After 1638, Japan had closed itself off to outside influence, trade, and ideas, although not completely, as some severely limited trade with the merchants of the Dutch East India Company was still allowed at the port of Nagasaki. 

Japanese leaders tended to be horrified at the happenings in the rest of Asia. They were shaken by the British Opium Wars against China, and saw European powers to be hypocritically against the very ideas of national sovereignty and equality.

Attack on First Bar Battery, 19th century print with digital color, depicting the British Opium War against China.
It was the British Opium War against China that allowed Japan to see the threat of imperialist annexation, and opened debates on how to avoid becoming victims of imperialism.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

While still debating how to avoid becoming victims of imperialism, Japan’s leaders were hushed when American ships suddenly appeared off their coast in 1853. These were steam vessels built for war, in which the American Naval Force, led by Commodore Perry, opened Japan to the outside world after 200 years of isolation. While the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa gave them trade concessions, a regime of unfair treaties, such as those made in China, were made to humiliate Japan. 

It was at this point that a group of reformers took decisive action. 

The Coup of 1868

In 1868, Japanese reformers undertook a coup against the shogun, the true-power wielding warlord who had been sidelining the emperor for centuries. 

This coup began to be celebrated as the Meiji Restoration, meiji meaning ‘enlightened rule’, in which the young Japanese rallied to the 15-year-old Emperor Mutsuhito to symbolize national undertaking and resist outside pressure by adapting Western successes.

The reformers collectively created an extensive blending of traditional Japanese culture with Western technology and ideas, to reach for Great Power status from the new capital city of Tokyo. Schools were established using French models. The army was built up on the German model. The navy was built up on the famed British model. The traditional warrior samurai were assimilated into the officer class, and Bushido, their ethos, was popularized as general Japanese patriotism.

It was not surprising, then, that the new generation of Japan was proud of Japanese modernity, which was not simply a wholesale adoption of the West. Their program was summed up in the slogan fukoku-kyōhei: “rich country, strong army”.

The point of this movement was ultimately to ensure Japanese survival in the imperialist age, by themselves becoming an imperialist power. 
The movement borrowed, among other selective ideologies, social Darwinism from the West, which was demonstrated first in Japan’s war against China in 1894, which Japan won with astonishing speed. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Imperialist Expansion Leading the Way to War

Japan, in seeking its own imperial expansion, encountered its first European rival, Russia, which had expanded eastwards into the Asia-Pacific, unlike Britain and France. The Russian Tsar founded Vladivostok, literally meaning “ Ruler of the East” in 1860, and soon thereafter began a clash of Russia’s interests with Japan’s in northeast Asia, especially in Manchuria.

Russia was by then the most conservative and autocratic of European empires, only having abolished serfdom in 1861, but saw its superiority over non-westerners as evident, and meant to expand into Asia.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad stands testament to this desire. This line was meant to secure continental dominion, as well as to be a competitor to the trade routes running through the Suez Canal. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad surged from 1890 onwards, linking Vladivostok to Moscow and European Russia over 6000 Miles. It was largely finished by 1904, but its single track made it quite slow. 

Trans-Siberian Railroad map showing its route before and after 1930, as well as until 1916.
Continually expanding its route for a number of years after its completion, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was an ambitious project that stood testament to the Russian desire to annex the East, especially in areas where Japan also had its interest.
(Image: OpenStreetMap/CC 1.0/Public domain)

As Japan won against China in 1895, Russia worked to rob them of this victory.

Japan had forced a large indemnity payment on China, along with the cession of the island of Taiwan and the Liaotung Peninsula in Manchuria. Now, Russia, along with France and Germany, pressured Japan into giving up that Manchurian holding.

Not being treated as an equal imperialist competition infuriated the Japanese, a feeling that was exacerbated when Russia later pressured China into giving Russia a 25-year lease on that same Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur (today Lüshun) as an ice-free naval base for Russia. This turned Southern Manchuria into a Russian colony, and Japan began fearing for Korea, which could be the next Russian target.

Russian diplomats continually declined Japanese suggestions of politically recognizing each other’s geographical claims, so Japan allied with Britain in 1902 and prepared for war. The impending war was clearly a strange one. It would be fought with modern armies and industrial weapons, but not in Japan or Russia, but rather in northern China and Korea.

Learn more about the Opium War in China.

Preparations for War

Given the size of the two territories, the Japanese were not overconfident in going to war. Their army estimated a fifty percent chance of success, while the navy planned on losing half its fleet in the war. To improve their chances, they planned the start of the war for winter, knowing that winter was when bringing in Russian reinforcements by the Trans-Siberian Railroad would be the hardest. 

The war began with a surprise attack on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur on February 8, 1904, when Japan’s Admiral Tōgō shocked his foes, and Japanese torpedoes hit two battleships, while the Russian defenders pulled back.

On the same day, another Japanese naval force also attacked Russian positions at the Korean port of Chemulpo (now Inch’ŏn). They sank two battleships and landed a Japanese army.  Two days later, after the dual surprise attacks, Japan declared war on Russia.

Commonly Asked Questions About The Causes of the Russo-Japanese War

Q: How did the Coup of 1868 contribute to Japanese modernity?

During the Coup of 1868, reformers formed a coup against the Shogun, the true power-wielding warlord of Japan. They began to collectively create an idea of Japanese modernity through the blending of traditional Japanese culture with Western technology,

Q: How did Japan come into conflict with Russia?

Japan’s conflict with Russia began after Japan won against China in 1895, Russia tried to rob them of this victory. Exerting its influence, along with France and Germany, Russia tried to force Japan out of the indemnity China owed them. As tensions escalated, Japan allied with Britain and prepared for war.

Q: What did the Trans-Siberian railroad signify for Russia?

The Trans-Siberian Railroad was a testament to the Russian empire’s desire to gain control over Asia, especially in areas where its interests clashed with those of Japan‘s. The Railroad was meant to secure continental dominion, as well as to be a competitor to the trade routes running through the Suez Canal. The construction of the Trans-Siberian surged from 1890 onwards, linking Vladivostok in the East to Moscow and European Russia over 6000 Miles.

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