At the start of the 20th century, Japanese leaders pondered over a key decision to make. Between Russia and Britain, who could be chosen as an ally or alternatively, who could be least offended? On one hand, Russia was the dominant force in northern China, while Britain was the key player in the trade and investment activities in the rest of China.

The answer became clearer after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 when Russia started to station permanent troops in Manchuria, on the pretext of protecting its railway installations there. To the Japanese, this meant that the Russians were intent on a permanent occupation of Northern China, which might one day even include Japan's colony of Korea. Such a development would be a serious security risk to Japan itself. Hence, in order to deal with the Russians, it would be necessary for Japan to secure Britain's support. Moreover, not only would an alliance with Britain would send a warning to Russia, it would also provide Japan with access to Britain's financial capital and resource from the latter's colonies in the East. 

With these considerations, Japan proceeded to negotiate and conclude an Anglo-Japanese Alliance in January 1902. Japan was now able to focus its efforts to settling its territorial disputes with Russia in northern China. Many Japanese military officers were also supportive of the focus on Russia, as this would be an opportunity to exact revenge for the latter's occupation of Port Arthur. 

Anglo-Japanese Alliance

Anglo-Japanese AllianceCredit:

For Japan, Korea was its first line of defence, as well as a source of natural resources and markets for the products from the home islands. For this reason, Japan adopted a policy of developing the colony to facilitate its economic integration with Japan. However, the presence of Russian troops in Manchuria posed an ever-present threat not only to Japan's interests in Korea, but also its desire for future expansion into the Asian mainland.

Nonetheless, as an acknowledgement of Russia's numerical strength, Japan initially chose the path of diplomacy. Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro proposed seeking an agreement with Russia in which both sides would observe the territorial integrity of their respective spheres of influence, recognise each other's rights in Manchuria and Korea respectively. However, when these proposals were put to Russia, the latter rejected them.

By the end of 1903, with no signs of a diplomatic resolution, the Japanese concluded that war with Russia was now inevitable. Initially, there were even plans for Japan to ally with China to fight the war with Russia, though this idea was later dropped out of fear of inciting European fears of the "Yellow Peril". In the course of the year, the war aims were identified and preparations for war begun in earnest.

  • Maintain the independence of Korea and the territorial integrity of Manchuria for the sake of Japan's defence and security. (In reality, this meant that Korea had to be fully brought into Japan's sphere of influence.)
  • Secure Japan's interests in Korea, Manchuria and other parts of northern China.
  • Lay the foundations for protecting Japan's national interests in the likely event of a collapse of the Qing regime in China.

Japan's control of Korea

Japan's control of KoreaCredit:

The Japanese leaders were fully aware that only a decisive victory over Russia could bring about the fulfilment of these war objectives. Once it became clear that the Russians had no intention for a diplomatic resolution, the Japanese decided to go to war. Hoping to achieve a initial tactical advantage, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russians at Port Arthur on 8 February 1904. Over the course of the following 19 months, the Japanese were able to achieve decisive victories on land and at sea, though they also suffered numerous casualties in the process.

By early 1905, the Japanese military was warning the government that it could no longer sustain the rate of casualties for long. Faced with mounting international debt too, Japan decided to accept the U.S. offer of mediation in April 1905. As Japan's representative at the negotiating table, Foreign Minister Komura adopted an aggressive approach, though Japan did not get all its demands. In return for waiving the financial indemnity, Japan only secured the southern half of Sakhalin Island, instead of the whole island. Faced with increasing Russian intransigence and their own awareness of the situation at home, the Japanese concluded the Treaty of Portsmouth on 5 September 1905, notwithstanding that they did not find the treaty terms entirely satisfactory.

On the domestic front, the key military leaders returned home as heroes. General Nogi, who was responsible for the victories at Port Arthur and Mukden, was appointed by the Meiji Emperor as a count. Nogi was also appointed to supervise the education of the Emperor's grandson, Prince Hirohito.  Admiral Togo, whose victory at the Naval Battle of Tsushima established Japanese naval superiority in Northeast Asia, was made a baron by Emperor Meiji. His naval exploits were also recognised by other countries with award decorations. He was also termed by Western journalists as "the Nelson of the East". Although Togo retired from active duty at the end of the war, he remained as military advisor to the emperor and was promoted to fleet admiral in 1913.

On the whole, Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War left it in a strong position on the adjacent Asian mainland. Korea was now entirely occupied by the Japanese, who had also been able to extend their reach into Manchuria. However, the war had also taken a heavy financial toll on Japan. Despite a sharp rise in domestic taxation, the Japanese government had to take massive foreign loans to pay for the war. By the end of 1905, Japan's foreign debt had risen to 1.142 billion yen, compared to 98 million yen in end 1903. Much of this capital had been raised in London and New York, which meant that Japan's future policies in mainland Asia would be tacitly influenced by Britain and the United States. 

Nonetheless, for now, Japan had tasted the fruits of its hard-won victory. As the de facto leading power in Asia, it would now continue its imperialist policies, seeking new conquests that would eventually lead to its participation in the two World Wars.

Japan's victoryCredit: