The Impacts of the Russo-Japanese War on the World Wars and History


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

The Russo-Japanese War was one of the major turning points in the history of the world, not only because of the direct impact it had on the participating countries, but because of its pivotal place in media, in the two World Wars, and in solidifying Japan’s position as a Great Power. 

World War 2 US fighter plane shooting down Japanese torpedo bomber
While Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war was lauded by its observers, the bloodshed and destruction that it caused went unrecognized as an intimation of what was to come in the ensuing World Wars. (Image: Keith Tarrier/Shutterstock)

The Process of Decolonization

There were certain major impacts of the Russo-Japanese war that defined it as a true historical turning point. 

One of the primary effects of the war was that it jump-started the long-term process of decolonization. This was a serious blow to the authority afforded by imperialism in the past. As the first Asian victory against a great European power, it had a tremendous psychological impact in encouraging decolonization worldwide. 

This was one of the most actively observed wars in modern history, taking the shape of documentaries with real footage as well as reenacted films, both inside and outside of Japan. Thomas Edison’s studios in 1904 produced a film reenactment of the naval combat at Chemulpo Bay.

A lot of the especially engaged observers were subject peoples under foreign rule, many of whom later led independence movements in their own countries.

Learn more about the Russo-Japanese war.

Inspiration From the Victory

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India.
Amongst other Asian leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru claimed to have been inspired by the ideals heralded by Japan’s victory in the war. (Image: AFP staff/Public domain)

The Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, who later became the president of China, once expressed his joy at Japan’s victory while traveling. Around the same time, Jawaharlal Nehru, later Prime Minister of independent India, recalled his interest at these events in his boyhood, which “lessened the feeling of inferiority, from which most of us suffered” he said. Gandhi, at this point living in South Africa, was also excited and declared, “The people of the East seem to be waking up from their lethargy”. The victory inspired Indonesian, Vietnamese, and Iranian nationalists, while Finns and Poles within Russia admired the example of Japan. 

Japan’s victory broke racial stereotypes and challenged Western superiority. While some Western missionaries heralded this as the emergence of a new world and some welcomed Japan to the family of imperialist powers, others were concerned about the “yellow peril”, a resurgent Asia, perhaps led by Japan, challenging Western dominance. 

This equality of Japan to the Great Imperialist Powers, was ironic, however. While Japan defeated an imperialist power and sparked a decolonization movement, its real aim was to claim empire for itself. The first victims of this were Korea and China, as Japan annexed Korea in 1910, split Manchuria from China in 1931, and then invaded China in 1937. The great Pacific War of 1937 to 1945 that ensued had another series of powerful impacts that are felt to date in the region. 

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

Taking Lessons From the War

A second historical impact from the war came in the form of military lessons learnt from it. 

During the war, military observers were sent in massive numbers by neutral countries to witness the impacts of modern industrial war. Among these was Douglas MacArthur, little guessing that he would later direct troops in the same places decades later.

Many European officers sent as observers, too, would shortly be fighting on opposite sides in World War I. A lot of the same elements were present in both places: machine guns, trenches, barbed wire, massive firepower, and camouflage uniforms for soldiers.

Despite the harsh realities of the war, observers only saw what they wanted to see. The ferocity and spirit of Japanese frontal attacks was deeply admired, even as the so-called ‘human bullets’ were pitted against enemy defenses, even against machine guns. 

Despite the observers’ focus on Japan’s victory, the costs of this war were immense, with Japan losing over 100,000 men. A French observer recorded how Japanese officers jumped forward, swords flashing, and entire units of men went into a merciless hail of bullets. Even as entire units were shot to pieces, others followed in a human wave desperate for a victory. 

This Japanese method was the then-recent ‘cult of the offensive’, which argued that not weapons or firepower or equipment was decisive, but willpower and morale and fighting spirit. This approach was also tried out on the western front of the First World War in 1914, but direct attacks, even by motivated troops, only produced senseless deaths. 

To a great extent, the war created an invincible image of the army and the navy for the Japanese, as a result of which the anniversary of Mukden was celebrated as Army Day and the anniversary of Tsushima was Navy Day till the end of World War II. Shrines dedicated to General Nogi and Admiral Tōgō were built and, as a result, the military’s influence in politics led to more imperialism, more war, and then the gamble of Pearl Harbor.

In a very related manner, the Russo-Japanese war set the stage for the even more destructive World Wars. 

Learn more about Western imperialism.

Instigating the Two World Wars

Akagi, Japanese Aircraft carrier used in the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War 2
The Japanese tried to use some of the same methods that had worked for them in the Russo-Japanese war in the World Wars, and the Akagi used at Pearl Harbor even flew Admiral Tōgō’s old battle flag. Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Russia’s defeat ended up turning it westwards again, towards the Balkans, which is where the First World War would erupt. 

Japan was set on carving out an empire in East Asia. As a result of its victory at Port Arthur, Japan was motivated to strike a decisive knockout blow to win the war in a single stroke. 

The same method was used by Japan against Pearl Harbor in 1941, where their commanding vessel , Akagi, actually flew Admiral Tōgō’s old battle flag from the attack on Port Arthur. This gamble, compensating for the lack of economic resources and firepower with willpower, backfired disastrously. 

On Russia’s front, defeat in 1905 was a bad omen; it had completely destroyed the trust of the subjects on the government and the army. 

With the First World War in 1914, the Russian Empire soon collapsed and Lenin and his Bolsheviks established a state following the paradigm of the French Revolution. The aim of their state was to establish similar states everywhere else in the name of a world revolution, setting a violent trajectory for the rest of the century. 

In this manner, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 set the stage for the enormous devastation and chaos of the two World Wars, and a violent century going forward, the combination of all of which changed the world as it was. 

Commonly Asked Questions About the Impact of the Russo-Japanese War on the World Wars and on World History

Q: How did the Russo-Japanese war inspire decolonization?

Being the first Asian victory against a great European power, the Russo-Japanese war gave a strong impetus long-term process of decolonization, causing a serious dent in the pre-existing authority of imperialist powers. As one of the most observed wars of all time, this victory motivated wars against imperialist powers elsewhere also.

Q: What were some military changes observed during the war?

The Russo-Japanese war provided a lot of military insights to observers, many of whom went to lead troops in the World Wars.
Observers witnessed the use of machine guns, trenches, barbed wire, massive firepower, and camouflage uniforms for soldiers in this war. However, while observers noticed the victory of the Japanese, the massive bloodshed caused in the war went largely unnoticed at the time.

Q: How did the Russo-Japanese war instigate the World Wars?

The Russo-Japanese war worked to provide impetus to the World wars from both sides. For Japan, the victory at Port Arthur motivated them to try another single knockout blow, which, as we know now, was a strategy which backfired disastrously at Pearl Harbor. For Russia on the other hand, defeat and revolution set in to motion the communism machine, beginning from Lenin and the Bolshevik faction, and ending up as a violent, blood soaked century.

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