Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 involved the clash of Imperial Russia and the rising (but capable) Japanese in the Far East. Although the war’s origins are diverse and complicated, the conflict primarily involved a clash in ambitions over both Manchuria and the Korean peninsula.
By the end of the war, the Russo-Japanese conflict resulted in the mobilization of several million troops, as well as a tremendous deployment of weapons, ships, and supplies. In a stunning conclusion that shocked world leaders, the Japanese emerged victorious over their Russian nemesis and forever altered the continuation of European dominance within the world at large.
As with any conflict, the Russo-Japanese War generates many obvious questions. What type of consequences did the Japanese victory over Russia produce? What were some of the implications and long-term effects of an Asian nation defeating a much larger, and respected country such as Russia? What effect did the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War have in regard to the world at large? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, were the effects positive or negative? These are just a few of the questions that face present-day historians in their historiographical analysis of the conflict. Taken together, these questions reflect a deep concern and interest by historians to examine the global ramifications of the Russo-Japanese War in its entirety.
Although prior historiographical research on the war has focused predominantly on the regional and immediate effects of the conflict, historian John Steinberg asserts that this sort of analysis greatly limits its true impact. By examining the conflict from a global perspective, the effects of the war are far greater than previously believed (Steinberg, xxiii).
To uncover the tremendous impact of the war, modern historians have predominantly focused their attention on the political, cultural, and military effects that the Russo-Japanese War produced. Each, in one form or another, helped to greatly undermine the long-held standards of European dominance that existed in years prior. Moreover, the outcome of the war helped set the stage for the massive conflicts that erupted throughout the world during the 20th Century.
Political and Cultural Impact
As with any war, there are certain awards and benefits that inevitably occur with victory. The Russo-Japanese War is no exception to this rule. In his article, “Becoming an Honorary Civilized Nation: Remaking Japan’s Military Image During the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905,” historian Rotem Kowner argues that perhaps the greatest impact of the Russo-Japanese War stems directly from the great political recognition and respect that Japan’s victory over the Russians generated.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Kowner asserts that Western leaders viewed Japan in both a racist and demeaning manner. Western countries viewed Japan as culturally backward, “weak, childish, and feminine” (Kowner, 19). Although Kowner points out that Japan’s victory over the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 helped to bolster their overall image to the West, he argues that world leaders continued to view the Japanese as “racially inferior” since their victory did not involve the defeat of a “European power” (Kowner, 19–20). Only through the defeat of the Russians did Japan finally garner the respect and admiration of the West that it desired. As Kowner asserts, this respect even reached as far as the Americas who began to view Japan “as a civilized nation equal in many aspects to the United States” (Kowner, 36). Thus, in this sense, Kowner observes that the Russo-Japanese War served as a great catapult in pushing the Japanese nation onto the world stage.
Aside from developing a newfound image of the Japanese throughout the world, the effects of the Russo-Japanese War also impacted political situations unfolding within Europe as well. As historian Richard Hall argues in his article “The Next War: The Influence of the Russo-Japanese War on Southeastern Europe and the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913,” the impact of the war greatly altered the military and political environment of Southeastern Europe in its aftermath.
As Hall states, the war-affected “the political, tactical, and figurative development of Southeastern Europe” since the countries of the Balkans could no longer be guaranteed “financial, material, and psychological support” from the Russians following their defeat (Hall, 563-564). For years, countries such as Bulgaria relied heavily on Russian support in regard to military and political issues. As Hall demonstrates, however, “the defeat of the Russians in 1905…brought into question many Russian practices” within the Balkans (Hall, 569). Because a small country like Japan managed to successfully defeat a far larger opponent such as the Russians, countries like Bulgaria began to “contemplate a successful war against their larger and more numerous Ottoman enemies” that dominated Southeastern Europe (Hall, 569). Thus, the Russo-Japanese War, according to Hall, served as a means of inspiring a newfound sense of hostility and morale within the Balkans that did not exist in years prior. The war, as a result, helped turn the Balkans into a hotbed of dissension and violence that lasted for many years.
In 2008, historian Rosamund Bartlett argued that the effects of the Russo-Japanese War completely transcended the boundaries of the political and military spectrum, and made a huge impact on the cultural realm as well. In his article, Bartlett states that the war helped to infuse Japanese culture into the Western world, particularly the Russian empire, on a scale never before seen. While he argues that Japonisme—the love and appreciation of Japanese art and culture—existed within Europe prior to the war, Bartlett states that these feelings were “intensified by military conflict with Japan (Bartlett, 33). As he demonstrates, the war provided many Europeans and Russians an opportunity to gain “cultural” awareness of Japanese society that, in turn, served as a great influence for European literature, drama, and art of the early 20th Century (Bartlett, 32). Such notions, as Bartlett claims, intensified as the war drew to a close and “a succession of Russian journalists, scholars, and curious travelers visited Japan” (Bartlett, 31). Through their visits to Japan, Bartlett argues that these individuals helped to greatly spread Japanese customs, traditions, and art within Russian society, and across Europe as well (Bartlett, 31).
Building upon Bartlett’s prior arguments, historian David Crowley also recognized the widespread cultural impact of the Russo-Japanese War. In a slight deviation from Bartlett, however, Crowley proclaims that the war greatly affected the art, literature, and “militancy” of the Polish people in its aftermath (Crowley, 51). As Crowley observes, Poland greatly desired “national independence from Russia” during the beginning of the 20th Century (Crowley, 50). Unsurprisingly, Crowley states that the “Poles came to imagine themselves as natural allies of Japan in their mutual struggle with Russia” once the war broke out (Crowley, 52). This mutual dissatisfaction with the Russians, he claims, greatly expanded as a result of the growing interest in Japanese art and culture that spread across Europe during the war.
By creating symbols and images that showcased cultural connections between Japan and Poland, Crowley asserts that Polish artists helped inspire rebelliousness and militancy within Polish society that offered a direct challenge against the authority of the Russian government. As a result, Crowley asserts that the war helped develop a greater sense of national identity amongst the Polish people which, in turn, sowed the seeds for future conflict with the Russian government.
In addition to its political and cultural effects, historian A.D. Harvey argues that the Russo-Japanese War also affected the world’s military sphere through its influence on future tactics and wars. Of particular interest, however, Harvey argues that the war directly affected the development and outcome of the First and Second World Wars. While Harvey agrees that the war served as a prelude to the First World War, he argues that its impact is perhaps most recognizable in World War II and the dramatic defeat of the Japanese.
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Following their stunning victory over the Russian empire in 1905, Harvey concludes that the Russo-Japanese war gave Japanese leaders a false sense of assurance in their dealings with Western powers. As he states, Japanese leaders felt “that in any future war the Westerners were likely to give up just at the point when Japan had come to the end of its own resources” (Harvey, 61). Because victory often clouds the judgment of the victor, however, Harvey states that “the errors of the Japanese” and “their profligate expenditure of human life in near-suicidal frontal attacks” went largely unnoticed within the Japanese leadership (Harvey, 61).
As a result of their failures to recognize the errors of this sort of strategy, Harvey asserts that the Japanese repeatedly implemented these same tactics on the battlefield through World War II. These same tactics later proved disastrous for the Japanese during the battles of “Guadalcanal and Myitkina” (Harvey, 61). Their defeat in WWII, therefore, directly resulted from the implementation of tactics first developed in the Russo-Japanese War.
Not only did the Russo-Japanese War influence Japanese strategy, but it also affected the development of western military forces as well. David Schimmelpenninck Van der Oye’s article, “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Perspective,” argues that the Japanese victory over the Russians in 1905 completely altered the military spectrum of global powers in a profound manner. Van der Oye argues that the unexpected loss by the Russians revealed numerous “shortcomings of the Romanov autocracy,” and led many Russians to press for political and military reforms (Van der Oye, 79).
Russian military observers, quick to note the shortcomings of their military strategies and tactics, quickly devised new procedures for placing artillery weapons and machine guns, and learned the importance of issuing “uniforms in less conspicuous colors” (Van der Oye, 83). Since the Japanese victory over the large Russian army made them a “worthy adversary” in the eyes of Western observers, Van der Oye also argues that Western countries, in general, started implementing more Japanese tactics in their overall battle plans as well (Van der Oye, 87). As many Western observers pointed out, “morale appeared to be the key to victory” for the Japanese (Van der Oye, 84). As a result, Van der Oye asserts that Western tactics started employing the use of massed assaults as a means to achieve victory on the battlefield (Van der Oye, 84). These same tactics, largely reflected in the First World War less than a decade later, proved disastrous as millions of troops charged to their deaths in mass-frontal assaults across Europe. As a result, Van der Oye concludes that the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War are intricately connected to one another, in regard to the military and tactical innovations the conflict inspired.
Building upon the work of Van der Oye, historian John Steinberg explored this connection between the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War in his article, “Was the Russo-Japanese War World War Zero?” In his article, Steinberg argues that the Russo-Japanese War clearly served as “a precursor to World War I” in both the tactics and policies undertaken to achieve victory (Steinberg, 2). Steinberg, however, takes this argument one step further by claiming that the Russo-Japanese War’s influence extended even further than 1914. Reflecting the arguments presented by A.D. Harvey only a few years before, Steinberg proclaims that the war served as “an early example of the types of conflicts that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century” (Steinberg, 2). In this manner, Steinberg claims that the effects of the Russo-Japanese War directly affected World War II as well. Due to this connection with both of the World Wars, Steinberg makes the bold claim that the Russo-Japanese War deserves to be grouped with these two great conflicts. Steinberg claims that the war not only preceded and influenced these two wars but also encompassed many of the same characteristics that the First and Second World Wars followed.
Steinberg proclaims that the conflict served as the first global war since a vast amount of countries “were implicated in one fashion or another” as a result of “treaty obligations to either Russia or Japan” (Steinberg, 5). As he demonstrates, both Russia and Japan reached out to third-party countries such as the French, British, or Americans as a means of financing their war (Steinberg, 5). Moreover, Steinberg argues that the final peace negotiations involved a third-party country as well. Taking place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, President Theodore Roosevelt personally helped lead negotiations between the Russian and Japanese governments. Because of this international involvement, Steinberg proclaims that the Russo-Japanese War deserves a far different title: “World War Zero” (Steinberg, 1).
Finally, in 2013, historian Tony Demchak greatly built upon the arguments presented by Van der Oye and Steinberg through his analysis of the Russo-Japanese War’s connection with World War I. In his article, “Rebuilding the Russian Fleet: The Duma and Naval Rearmament, 1907–1914,” Demchak asserts that the failures of the Russians in World War I are tied directly to the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. Using the Russian Navy as an example, Demchak argues that Tsar Nicholas II’s decision to construct a massive replacement fleet following the war with Japan proved “disastrous for the Russian Empire” (Demchak, 25).
During the Russo-Japanese War, Russia suffered two major naval defeats with the Japanese Navy. The battles of Port Arthur and Tsushima left the Russians with no navy, and deprived it of several important officers killed in battle: most notably, Admiral S.O. Makarov (Demchak, 26–27). As a result of this complete annihilation of their fleets, Demchak argues that the Russians faced the daunting task of rebuilding “the entire Imperial Russian Navy from the ground up” (Demchak, 25). How best to accomplish this matter, however, was a matter of great debate between the Tsar and the newly formed Russian Duma.
As Demchak describes, Nicholas II advocated the development of “a massive, state-of-the-art battle fleet to help restore Russia’s prestige as a Great Power” (Demchak, 28). The Duma, with enough clairvoyance to see into the distant future, however, quickly recognized that such plans to build “hundreds of ships” over a ten-year period involved great amounts of money, and was derived from the foolish assumption that the Russian Navy could eventually overtake the British or German navies (Demchak, 34).
Demchak asserts that the debate between the Duma and Tsar created “countless construction delays,” and by the outbreak of war in 1914, only a small number of ships were ready for action as a result (Demchak, 39). Because of the costs involved, and because the large sums of money used to construct these ships could have potentially been used on the Russian Army instead, Demchak makes the argument that the Russo-Japanese War and its destruction of the Russian Navy directly affected the outcome of the First World War (Demchak, 40). Because World War I brought about an end to Imperial Russia, Demchak also suggests that the Russo-Japanese War indirectly resulted in the collapse of tsarist control during the revolution of 1917.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that the Russo-Japanese War’s impact served as a great turning point in world history. Politically and militarily, the war resulted in a complete rearrangement of political policies and military tactics, while also altering the balance of power across the global stage. Even more importantly than this, however, the evidence suggests that a clear connection between the Russo-Japanese War and the World Wars existed in the strategies and tactics devised during both of these later conflicts.
Culturally speaking, however, the war also managed to alter the racist perceptions that dominated European mindsets during this time, and greatly encouraged more acceptance of non-white countries, such as Japan, into world affairs. Thus, as historian John Steinberg concludes: “the Russo-Japanese War was worldwide in its causes, course, and consequences” (Steinberg, xxiii).
Suggestions for Further Reading
Warner, Peggy. The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Bartlett, Rosamund. “Japonisme and Japanophobia: The Russo-Japanese War in Russian Cultural Consciousness,” Russian Review 67, no. 1 (2008): 8-33.
Crowley, David. “Seeing Japan, Imagining Poland: Polish Art and the Russo-Japanese War,” Russian Review 67, no. 1 (2008): 50-69.
Demchack, Tony. “Rebuilding the Russian Fleet: The Duma and Naval Rearmament, 1907- 1914,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 26, no. 1 (2013): 25-40.
Hall, Richard C. “The Next War: The Influence of the Russo-Japanese War on Southeastern Europe and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, no. 3 (2004): 563-577.
Harvey, A.D. “The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5: Curtain Raiser for the Twentieth Century World Wars,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies 148, no. 6 (2003): 58-61.
Kowner, Rotem. “Becoming an Honorary Civilized Nation: Remaking Japan’s Military Image During the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905,” Historian 64, no. 1 (2001): 19-38.
"Sequences from the Essay." Accessed March 03, 2017. https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/throwing_off_asia_03/toa_vis_04.html.
Steinberg, John W. The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero. Boston: Brill, 2005.
Steinberg, John W. “Was the Russo-Japanese War World War Zero?,” Russian Review 67, 1 (2008): 1-7.
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Quick Facts on the Russo-Japanese War." About.com Education. October 10, 2016. Accessed March 03, 2017. http://asianhistory.about.com/od/warsinasia/p/Russo-Japanese-War-Quick-Facts.htm.
Van der Oye, David Schimmelpenninck. “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Perspective,” Russian Review 67, no. 1 (2008): 78-87.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Larry Slawson
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