In the first half of the 19th century, Japan was an agrarian country of tens of millions of rice farmers, a small minority of merchants, who benefited from their hard work, and the elite class of samurai, who, as peace continued, exchanged their swords for calligraphy brushes, working in a variety of administrative positions. Both the farmers and the samurai were indebted to the merchants and this, coupled with increasing peasant unrest and foreign interventions, threatened to destroy the status quo of the Tokugawa Shogunate. And yet, almost four decades later, the Japanese Empire established itself as a regional power in the Far East, going so far as to defeat the Russian behemoth. How did Japan achieve this? How did it undergo such a transformation from a poor isolationist state into a modern military powerhouse? Today, we are going to answer all these questions and talk about the Meiji restoration and the Russo-Japanese War.
As we stated before, it was a small minority composed of merchants and artisans that was fundamental in the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th Century. This minority was despised by the Japanese class system that followed the precepts of Neo-Confucianism, as they sold rice and cash crops in commercial centers, and lent great sums of money to samurai and daimyos. For the Shogunate, taxation of commerce was inconceivable because it would give prestige to the merchants and would lower the status of the government. This state of affairs often left the treasury empty and forced the Shoguns to debase the coinage to pay debts, thus causing inflation; and as the impoverishment of the samurai put their loyalty in question, the government risked a fully armed insurrection.
But it wasn’t just the class system that brought the collapse of the Japanese state; an increase in foreign intervention contributed harshly as well. Since the year 1633, the Shogunate had strictly regulated commerce with foreign countries, especially European ones, issuing their Sakoku isolationist policy. But at the start of the 19th Century, Russian explorers arrived in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, foreign whalers started to navigate Japan’s waters and a British gunboat even threatened to attack Nagasaki. In response to these persistent visits, the Shogunate issued in 1825 an order to expel by force any foreign ship in Japanese waters; a policy that was supported by the Japanese population, experiencing a general sense of distrust and paranoia towards Western powers after their actions in the Opium Wars.
Meanwhile, the United States was expanding its presence in the Pacific, sending the Shogunate a number of proposals to establish diplomatic and commercial relations. Because the Japanese refused each time, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 to enforce trade with the United States. The Japanese population was alarmed and the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi, knowing that war was futile, sought a compromise. The Americans succeeded in opening trade with the Japanese, and soon, the Western powers pressed their advantage in a series of unequal treaties that further opened commerce in the region. This left Japan in a semi-colonial status, politically and economically subordinate to foreign governments making the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate inevitable. As anti-Western sentiment throughout the country began to rally around the Sonnō jōi movement, which translates as “Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”, a series of incidents involving attacks on foreign shipping and the assassination of Westerners occurred. In response, the Western powers retaliated with the bombardment of Kagoshima and the occupation of Shimonoseki in 1863, but these actions only strengthened the resolve of the rebels. In the end, the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had no other choice but to approve the restoration of Imperial power in Japan.
Yet some dissatisfied and rebellious daimyos, aided by the Sonnō jōi movement, got ahead of Yoshinobu and seized the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, thus announcing their own Imperial Restoration in 1868. The Tokugawa loyalists fought against these rebels in the Boshin War, but in the end, they were defeated, resulting in the ascension of Emperor Meiji to the throne. Meiji would quickly go on to issue a series of reforms, increasing the opportunities of commoners, abolishing the class system, transforming the feudal domains into prefectures, renaming the capital at Edo to Tokyo, and centralizing the government into an oligarchy. The new Imperial government would also shift towards a more progressive policy in regards to foreign powers, continuing the modernization of the country, renegotiating some of the unequal treaties, and embarking on a series of military reforms that sparked a variety of samurai insurrections.
The new Imperial Japanese Army, trained in Western tactics and weapons, easily defeated these rebellions and prompted the end of the samurai class, while the new Imperial Japanese Navy consolidated and modernized thanks to foreign support. The modernized Japanese military saw its first opportunity at being deployed after the Mudan Incident. In response to the murder of 54 Ryukyuan sailors at the hands of Taiwanese natives, a punitive expedition was launched in 1874, resulting in the temporary occupation of Taiwan and the official annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom. A year later, Japan signed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg with Russia, in which the Japanese ceded South Sakhalin in exchange for the Kuril Islands that Russia controlled. The Japanese would also go on to colonize the Ogasawara Islands in 1875, the Volcano Islands, including Iwo Jima, in 1889, and the Minami-Tori-shima island in 1898.
By the 1890s, the IJA had grown to become the most modern army in Asia, while the IJN had expanded with the acquisition of French and British ships. Tensions with the Qing Dynasty had also risen after Japan returned Taiwan to them, but the Japanese successfully pursued their interests in Korea even despite the Chinese opposition. Yet Korea remained inside the Chinese sphere of influence during this time, helped by the Qing Dynasty to crush rebellions in the country. All of this, however, would change in the early months of 1894, when the Donghak Rebellion broke out in southern Korea and spread across the country. The Chinese intervened again to defend the Korean government, but the Japanese also did so on the side of the rebel army. Soon, Japanese forces occupied Seoul and established a pro-Japanese government that broke their ties with China. The first Sino-Japanese War had thus begun.
For their strategy, the Japanese planned to defeat the modernized Beiyang Fleet early on in the war so that they could gain command of the sea and land the 5th Division to push the Chinese out of Korea. While the IJA consolidated its position on the Korean Peninsula and advanced towards Pyongyang, the IJN set out to lure the Beiyang Fleet to engage it in a decisive battle. On September 17, as the Japanese soldiers were occupying Pyongyang, the Beiyang Fleet was decimated in the Battle of the Yalu River, and the remains of the Chinese navy would be destroyed later on at Weihaiwei. Having control of the seas, the Japanese invaded the Liaodong and Shandong Peninsulas, where they managed to occupy Dairen, Lüshun and Weihaiwei, leaving the way to Beijing open and forcing the Chinese to surrender at last.
With the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the Japanese Empire annexed the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan and the Senkaku and Penghu Islands, and the Chinese acknowledged the total independence of Korea, leaving it inside Japan’s sphere of influence. The war had been a great success for the Japanese, yet their gains would face staunch opposition: a rebellion in Taiwan established the independent Republic of Formosa, and the intrusion of Russia, France and Germany in the Triple Intervention ousted the pro-Japanese government in Korea and forced the Japanese to relinquish the Liaodong Peninsula. Although Taiwan would be finally reconquered after a Japanese invasion in 1895, the Russian Empire soon occupied the Liaodong Peninsula and pressured the Qing Dynasty to lease them this territory, as Tsar Nicholas I desired an ice-free natural harbor in the Pacific. The Russians would then go on to build a railway in the region and to rename the city of Lüshun to Port Arthur, leaving the rest of Manchuria inside their sphere of influence. But the Russian show of force had an unexpected consequence: the Japanese Empire felt cheated by the Triple Intervention and saw the intrusion of the Russians into what they considered their own sphere of influence as a humiliation. In result, military and expansionist factions inside Japan were strengthened, forcing the Imperial government to heavily industrialize and to build up its naval strength for future conflicts. Japanese diplomacy also sought to avoid another coalition of Western powers against them, leading directly to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 that protected Japan from the interference of foreign powers, and from Russia in particular.
Furthermore, since the Boxer Rebellion, most of Manchuria had been occupied by Russian forces that refused to leave the region; yet the Russian position in the Far East was actually very weak, as the Trans-Siberian Railway was still incomplete, the Russians didn’t really know the region, and there was social unrest in Manchuria. The Japanese also had spies all across the region, so they knew the way around these lands and estimated in 1903 that Japan’s forces outnumbered the Russians in the Far East. This information prompted Meiji to approve preparations for war against Russia, and after the Russian refusal to leave occupied Manchuria, Japan declared war on February 8, 1904. Led by legendary Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, the IJN managed to keep the Russian Pacific Fleet at bay while the IJA landed at Chemulpo and quickly occupied Korea, then crossing the Yalu River to start the siege of Port Arthur.
Meanwhile, the Russians sent a second squadron from the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets to reinforce the defenders at Port Arthur, but the long journey across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans caused them to arrive too late, as in January 2, 1905, Port Arthur surrendered after most of the Pacific Fleet was destroyed by an inland bombardment. Not only did the 2nd Pacific Squadron arrive late, but they also arrived in a very poor condition due to the necessity to get to the Pacific as quickly as possible. At the same time, the IJA advanced through the rest of the Liaodong Peninsula, occupying the cities of Liaoyong and Mukden, and essentially expelling the Russian Manchurian Army from the region.
On May 27, the 2nd Pacific Squadron attempted to cross the Tsushima Strait towards Vladivostok, but the Russian reinforcements were quickly engaged by Admiral Tōgō in a decisive battle. The Japanese were spectacularly victorious, practically annihilating the Russian fleet and shocking the Western world with their naval prowess. If you want a more in-depth look at this naval conflict, don’t forget to check out our video on the Russo-Japanese War and the Battle of Tsushima; you won’t be disappointed. Defeated, Tsar Nicholas continued the war to preserve the dignity of his Empire, but the disaster at Tsushima was a heavy blow to the prestige of the Romanov Dynasty, eventually leading to the Russian Revolution and the fall of Imperial rule. In the last months of the war, Japanese forces also invaded the island of Sakhalin and managed to occupy it with few losses.
Nicholas would finally have to concede defeat in August, signing the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 5, which forced the Russians out of Manchuria, left Korea inside the Japanese sphere of influence, and ceded South Sakhalin and the Chinese leases of Port Arthur and Talien to Japan. Although Russian losses had been low, Japan’s victory solidified its position as a regional power in the Far East and proved that the Japanese could successfully fight against any Western power. The newfound military superiority of the Japanese Empire also allowed them to establish economic and military dominance over Korea, becoming a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and being outright annexed in 1910. Born from the engulfing flames of Russian battleships, the Japanese Empire would continue to expand through the 20th Century, becoming a dangerous threat to Western rule in the East. Next week, we’re going to cover how the First World War affected the Eastern world and how Japan initiated its road towards the Pacific War.