On the 100th Anniversary of the Japanese Attack on Russia, Japan Still Wondering If War Was Defensible

Roundup: Talking About History

Hiroyuki Fuse Yomiuri Shimbun, writing in the Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo) (Jan. 29, 2004):

Through a break in rain clouds, mountains on the Korean Peninsula emerged on the shore. Through my binoculars, I saw a flapping flag placed above the foremast of a large vessel that is sailing along the coast.

Located in the northwest of the Tsushima islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, Mt. Eboshi faces the Korea Strait. From the top of the mountain to the South Korean city of Pusan is only 49.5 kilometers as the crow flies.

Hiroo Takesue, a 59-year-old local historian in Nagasaki Prefecture, said, "I've heard that during the Korean War, the sounds of gunfire could be heard here."

North Korea's nuclear threat increases in realness.

Tsushima, which used to be called Sakimori no Shima (Coast Guards' Island), has had strong links with Russia.

In 1861, shortly before Japan opened to the world, Russian vessels approached Japan demanding territory. A century ago, the Tsushima Strait, located south off the island, became a stage of the decisive Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

Sandwiched between the Tsushima Strait and Korea Strait, the location of the Tsushima islands played an important role that Takesue called "a strategic point to protect the nation from foreign enemies coming from the continent."

Julian Corbett (1854-1922), a British naval historian and military theorist in the early 20th century, likened the geopolitical situation in which Japan faced off against the Korean Peninsula to that between Britain on the one hand and the Netherlands and Belgium on the other.

The linkage was mentioned in 1914 in a report that analyzed maritime operations used in the Russo-Japanese War. But the report was publicly unknown until it was published recently in the United States because the British maritime intelligence authorities had treated it as a confidential document.

Corbett said Japan's policy on the Korean Peninsula was similar to British concerns of "securing the control of those intervening waters and particularly with efforts to prevent any great continental power from obtaining a footing on the Dutch or Flemish coasts."

For Japan at that time, "continental power" primarily referred to Russia, Corbett said, describing the war as a battle between Japan, an island nation, and Russia, a continental power.

Corbett also pointed out that "the Korean Peninsula, in the very jaws of the Straits," was difficult to attack with continental operations but easy to defend by maritime action.

An island nation was therefore "an area into which an insular and naval power could expand without...losing the advantages of our insular position," he added.

Further, Corbett argued Japan's advance into the Korean Peninsula was inevitable.

The war was triggered by a struggle for leadership over Korea and Manchuria (presently a northeastern part of China).

Japan feared Russia's southward advance and possible control over the peninsula would threaten its national security.

When Russia launched a forest project on the Yalujiang River, the Japanese government took the initiative in negotiating with the country a year before the outbreak of the war.

Yet Japan opted to wage war as negotiations with Russia came to a deadlock.

Corbett's analysis of the war does not just show that Britain, a partner in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (signed in 1902), had a good understanding of Japan's standpoint. The analysis indicates that geopolitical thinking in which the geographical situation of a nation is linked with security policies was widely accepted among officials of European powers.

Similar thinking was seen among Japanese political leadership.

Shinichi Yamamuro, a professor at Kyoto University, said such a geopolitical idea was presented in a well-known opinion paper --"Gaiko Seinryaku Ron" (A Theory on Diplomatic and Political Tactics) --written in 1890 by Aritomo Yamagata (1838-1922), a statesman and founder of the modern Japanese army. Yamagata is known to have called on Japan to protect not only its sovereignty but also its interests in a bid to assure national security.

According to Yamamuro, the person who first introduced geopolitics systematically to Japan is Manjiro Inagaki, a diplomat who served as an envoy to Spain after studying in Britain.

In his book, "Tohosaku" (Eastern Policy), which was published in about the same period as Yamagata's proposal, Inagaki envisioned for the first time how Japan should develop as a maritime nation and argued the importance of sea lanes connecting north and south, located adjacent to railheads of a rail networt running east and west.

In step with remarkable developments in such areas as transportation, communications, navigation and arms technology, national defense theories were created between the late 19th century and the 20th century. Japanese politicians and military officials held ideas similar to Corbett's maritime strategy and a philosophy of geopolitics derived from the viewpoint of U.S. naval historian Alfred Mahan (1840-1914).

There has been endless dispute over the Russo-Japanese War as some people call it an imperialist war, while others assert it was a defensive war for the homeland.

This year marks the centennial of the outbreak of the war. Taking such an occasion, some people have tried to link the war to the subsequent Pacific War by emphasizing the negative side of Japan's ambition to expand its power into the continent.

But it is rather natural for an island nation like Japan in the early 20th century to have taken a strong interest in securing its national security by expanding its power beyond the straits, fearing the possible influence of a continental power.

The report by Corbett, which was not available to the public for nearly a century, suggests the real picture of the world when such geopolitical thinking was common sense.

To understand how people in Meiji era (1868-1912) overcame national hardship, namely the war with Russia, we have to go back to the spirit of the times.


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