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A cartoon showing two Muslim figures leaning over Europe excitedly watching the Russian bear capitulate to a Japanese soldier. By L. Brunet, 1905. Colored. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Russo-Japanese War and its impact on Anti-Colonial Nationalists

Since the rise of the Japanese, the Caucasians dare not look down upon other Asiatic peoples. Thus the power of Japan not only enables the Japanese to enjoy the privileges of a first class nation, but enhances the international position of other Asiatic peoples — Sun Yat-sen

On the morning of February 6th 1904, Japan broke off relations with Russia. The Japanese Combined Fleet guided by Admiral Togo Heihachiro then set sail for the Korean Peninsula. The fleet was split in two with a small force under the command of Rear Admiral Uryu Sotokichi remaining to support the infantry as they landed in Korea, and the rest heading to Port Arthur. On February 8th, Japanese destroyers came upon the Russian Pacific Fleet anchored in the outer harbor at the dead of night. They opened fire with their torpedoes decimating the slumbering Russian warships. Only a few torpedoes would hit their mark but they were high value targets. The Retvizan and the Tsesarevich battleships and the Pallada an armored cruiser.[1] Japan had seized the initiative in a conflict which would have widespread ramifications.

The Japanese also took control of Seoul that day, Korea’s capital, and on the 10th Japan formally declared war on Russia. Whilst the Russians complained that the Japanese moves breached international law, Japan said it was “reluctantly compelled” by a Russia unwilling to negotiate with and recognize the interests of an Asiatic power in China and Korea, whom Tsar Nicholas II himself would often describe as “Asian small yellow monkeys.”[2] The Times in London however celebrated the move writing “The Japanese Navy has opened the war by an act of daring which is destined to take a place of honour in naval annals.”[3]

The American public was similar enthused “that ‘Gallant little Japan’ was standing up to the ferocious Russian bear” writes historian Sean Cashman.[4] A Letter to the Editor at the New York Times even complained about this widespread anti-Russian sentiment reminding Americans of “Russia’s Friendship in Civil War” when Europe sided with the Confederacy. American President Roosevelt held a similar view, unhappy about Russia’s occupation of Manchuria in China where Japan had interests. He also said the Japanese “have the kind of fighting stock I like”. But it was an agreement with the British that the gave Japan the guarantees needed as well as the impetus to carry out its campaign in the Far East against Russia. Since concluding an agreement with Japan in 1902 the Brits were convinced that Japan was a “force of the future, probably a coming great power and a friend” as journalist Sir Edwin Arnold would describe them.[5]

The sympathy of the Brits shouldn’t come as a surprise given their alliance and that Japan’s six main battleships, Fuji, Yashima, Hatsuse, Shikishima, Asahi and Mikasa were all British built.[6] Just 50 years before writes Conte-Helm,

“Japan had been brought to heel by western nations seeking access to her shores. In 1895, she was defenseless and without an ally when confronted with the combined weight of Russia, France and Germany. By 1904, however, Japan could turn a different fact to the West. Allied to Britain, with a major programme of military expenditure behind her, Japan stood squarely on her feet before the Russians and earned the admiration of the western world for her daring.”[7]

Japan decimated the Russian navy, and routed them in the east where Russian troops were poorly mobilized, and were even weaker at sea. The war ended at the Treaty of Portsmouth sponsored by President Roosevelt in autumn 1905 following a Japanese request in New Hampshire. The peace was bitterly negotiated, with the Russians ceding control of parts of Manchuria, Sakhalin Island and recognizing Japanese supremacy in Korea but refusing to pay an indemnity for the war to Japanese dismay.

The victory had an impact on the views of Westerners of Japan. H.W Wilson, a British journalist would write that “when tried by the sternest of all tests, the Asiatic is not inferior to the Caucasian.” “The era of inequality between the races is over” he would continue, “henceforth white and yellow man must meet on an equal footing.” The Spectator said “that a new and immense Power has established its claim to a new and heavy vote in the international Council of mankind.” The Times wrote that Japan had proved herself equal to Europe, “judged by every standard of modern civilization.”[8]

Not all westerners were so celebratory however. Harry Johnston recognized the subversive potential of the victory, alarmed at the fact that it sent an “electric shock to the colored peoples of the world.” In the preceding half century Europe’s industry, military and cultural power expanded beyond imagination with much of the world falling to Europe without much difficultly, watching helplessly in awe. “It was the first set-back of the Caucasian since the Neolithic period; of the Christian since the relief of Vienna” Johnston wrote.[9] Lord Curzon, another British colonial officer based at the time in India got a more first-hand view of the impact of the Japanese victory. The “reverberations of that victory” he said “have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East.”[10]

Indians, T.R Sareen writes, “looked at the war as a struggle ‘between Europe and Asia’ and the latter’s victory demonstrated that European superiority was a myth.” An Englishman in India also noticed the excitement caused by the victory, writing that “even in the remote villages people talked about the victories of Japan, as they sat in their circle and passed around the huqqa at night.”[11] Jawaharal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, then a young student in Harrow, remembered rushing down to read the papers during the war saying he felt “rather lost” in it.[12]

Pandit Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharal Nehru, president of the Calcutta Congress, began calling for an Asiatic Federation in late 1928 passing a resolution to that effect. Sundara Sastri Satyamurti, the Congress leader who introduced the resolution specifically mentioned Japan in his speech, and though he said it was “tainted with imperialism”, Japan was a global power which during the Russo-Japanese War demonstrated Asians could overcome Europe.[13] Even Gandhi, despite his commitment to non-violence, couldn’t hold back his admiration for the Japanese. Writing in Indian Opinion he said, “Japan has been able to take the fort of Port Arthur only because she has been fighting with fervor. Fervor is as necessary in other tasks as it is in war, and it is a positive virtue.” When thinking about the success of the Japanese, Gandhi encouraged his readers imbibe some of the qualities displayed by the Japanese in a passage worthy of being quoted at length:

“What, then, is the secret of this epic heroism? We have repeatedly to ask ourselves this question and find an answer for it. The answer is: unity, patriotism and the resolve to do or die. All the Japanese are animated by the same spirit …. They think of nothing else but service to the nation. They have so identified themselves with their motherland that they consider themselves prosperous [only] if they bring prosperity to the country in which they are born …. This unity and patriotic spirit together with a heroic indifference to life [or death] have created an atmosphere in Japan the like of which is nowhere else to be found in the world. Of death, they do not entertain any fear. To die in the service of their country, they have always regarded as wholly good. If, after all, one has to die some day, what does it matter if one dies on the battle-field? … But how will these thoughts avail us? What have we to learn from them? We do not find the requisite unity even in the minor struggle we are carrying on in South Africa; splits occur every day. Instead of patriotism, we see more of selfishness everywhere …. Our life is so dear to us that we pass away while we are still fondling it …. This is the condition most of us are in. Our reading of the account of the Japanese War will have been fruitful only if we emulate to some extent at least the example of Japan”[14]

In India’s northern neighbor ChinaAsia’s other sleeping giantmany of China’s post-imperial leaders admired and spent time studying in Japan. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China memorized a Japanese song taught to him by a teacher who studied in Japan:

“The sparrow sings, the nightingale dances, And the green fields are lovely in the spring. The pomegranate flowers crimson, the willows green-leafed, And there is a new picture”[15]

Recalling the song much later when Japan was threatening China, Mao would reflect that he “knew and felt the beauty of Japan, and felt something of her pride and might in this song of her victory over Russia.”[16] A Chinese historian writing close to a decade after the war would describe it as “The turning point in the world’s history”, asking

“What may not China accomplish with her greater population, territory and resources, if only she follows in the footsteps of Japan? What will be her fate if she continues in her old ways? How can she face both Russia and Japan in Manchuria, if one of them has already proved to be more than a match for her? These are a few of the questions that suggested themselves to the mind of all thoughtful Chinese at the close of the Russo-Japanese War. Time and again has China been told what she should do; and now she knows what she can do as well as what she must do.”[17]

Sun Yat-sen, the first leader of the Republic of Chinanot to be confused with the People’s Republic of Chinaafter the Qing Dynasty was overthrown viewed the victory of Japan primarily as a victory for all Asian peoples, and demonstrated the importance of morale over numbers despite Japan’s imperial designs on Chinese territory.[18]

Further south in Singapore, the editors of al-Imam, a reform orientated Islamic journal, also took interest in the Russo-Japanese War. Michael Laffan notes at least three reasons why: the Japanese had defeated the empire that had done more to weaken the Ottomans than any other, it was also a victory of an eastern state of a western empire, and finally they also paradoxically viewed it as a victory for national independence over colonial ambition.[19] When the Japanese were also considering a possible future national religion, al-Imam argued that among the major world faiths only Muslims would accept the Japanese as true equals as they could join their other East Asian Muslim brothers from China to Malaysia.[20] al-Munir, a west Sumatran journal remarked that “the land of the rising sun had opened the eyes of many,” complaining afterwards that its own people should have a greater sense of “unity and purpose”.[21] Raden Soetomo, a prominent figure in Indonesia’s nationalist movement similarly admired Japan and its potential to mobilize and inspire Asia to achieve independence:

“It may be that in later days, the flow of children of Indonesia who journey to Japan will increase to the point that Japan becomes a “Second Mecca.” I hope that this may be the case as it has been in the holy land, the land of our great and holy prophet Mohammad. Is it not so that among the Asian races who journey there, it is Indonesians who are the most numerous?!”[22]

And to an extent Japan did become something of a “Second Mecca”. “In the early years of the twentieth century,” writes Pankaj Mishra, “Tokyo became a Mecca for nationalists from all over Asia, the center of an expanded Asian public sphere — a process quickened by Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905.”[23] Young Muslims rushed to Japan to study also where they developed international networks and links with other Muslims from around the world. The Japanese government deliberately cultivated contacts with Muslims as part of its policy of Pan-Asianism, to mobilize Muslims against France, the United Kingdom, Holland, Russia and its other imperial competitors. Influential activists like the Egyptian Ahmad Fadzli Beg, Maulvi Barakatullah and Abdurreshid Ibrahim settled in Japan, writing and advocating for Islamic-Japanese cooperation, with their Japanese Pan-Asianist intellectual contemporaries. Professor Selçuk Esenbel explains this confluence of interests:

“Like Japanese Asianists who were profoundly critical of the imitation of European culture for its own sake, many nineteenth century Muslim intellectuals, especially Pan-Islamists, were critical of the extreme Europeanization of Muslim societies, and Japan’s reforms looked like a suitable model of modernity for the Islamic world because the Japanese seemed able to manage Westernization without giving up their traditions or converting wholesale to Christianity”[24]

The impact of the Russo-Japanese War was felt particularly strongly across many other parts of the Muslim world, not least because of the growing links between the Ottoman Empire and Japan. In 1887 Prince Komatsu and his wife visited Sultan Abdulhamid II at Yildiz Palace, a visit during which the Sultan presented the prince with Ottoman medals. The gesture was returned when the prince sent back “The Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum”, a suit of armor and the highest award the Japanese Imperial government can offer. Two years later Sultan Abdulhamid II would send the Ertuğrul Frigate to Japan which though it sank in a typhoon killing hundreds, actually cemented relations between the countries. Sinan Levent, an Assistant Professor at Ankara University said “The Ottoman delegation’s visit consisted of the first organized visit to Japan from the Islamic world at the time and the first diplomatic relations between the Muslim world and Japan.”[25]

Russia was also the primary antagonist for the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Sunni Caliph of Islam. A journalist from the era called Ibrahim Halil, enthusiastically declaring his support for Japan during the war wrote that people “had asked the Japanese why there were no prayers in their temples for victory in the war; it was reported that they answered that the prayers of the Turks would be enough for them.”[26]

Japan was also viewed as a lodestar for those nations wanting to create a hybrid modernity, which both protects values & culture, whilst also becoming organized and rational. Abdulhamid II kept close tabs on the Japanese modernization process, praising Japan for its industriousness in his official mouthpiece Malumat, sending Ottoman students to Japan to study as well. Ahmed Riza, an Ottoman intellectual, would write that the “splendid victory of the Japanese has proved the Christian world arrogant; that it is not indispensable for a people to embrace Christianity in order to acquire morality, civilization, and an aptitude for progress.”[27]

If superiority wasn’t due to religious culture, some parts of the Turkish intelligentsia were also not prepared to accept that it was racial either and the Japanese victory was an indisputable example of that for them. A Young Turk magazine called Şura-yı Ümmet in late 1904 argued the Japanese had directly challenged notions of racial hierarchy “with their cannons and rifles in Manchuria.”[28] The Young Turks would go onto congratulate the Japanese for their seizure of Port Arthur.

Japan’s success in the conflict against Russia both deepened Ottoman affection for Japan and further inspired the belief among many members of the Ottoman intelligentsia that the empire could be strengthened and modernized and be done with the moniker “Sick Man of Europe”. Abdullah Cevdet, a Young Turk leader who described Japan as the “carrier of the torch” in his journal İctihâd wrote,

Japan has become more and more conscious of its high civilizing mission in Asia. Not only does it know to take some fortresses and conquer some regions, it also knows to open some new horizons, a radiant horizon for the minds of Asians bruised by infamous despots and their loathsome obscurity.”[29]

Mustafa Kemal, modern Turkey’s founding father was an avid consumer of Cevdet’s journal, and also an admirer of Japan’s modernization and military prowess. He would describe Japan as “a warrior nation” whilst he was training at the Ottoman Empire’s War College.[30] A contemporary of Mustafa Kemal, Halide Edip, famous author and feminist would name her son ‘Hasan Hikmetullah Togo,’ in honour of Admiral Togo Heihachiro who led the attack on Port Arthur.[31] Musa Kâzım Karabekir, a leader in Turkey’s War of Independence, a general and Speaker of the Grand National Assembly also identified greatly with the Japanese during the conflict when he was a student at his military academy. “We were seeing the achievements of the Japanese as our own” he wrote in his memoir, “we were hooraying ‘Long live Admiral Togo,’ the man who destroyed the Baltic fleet.”[32]

Many who would go from the Young Turk movement, to go on to take part in the founding of the Republic of Turkey however didn’t think the Japanese success pointed to alternative forms of modernization. Zia Gokalp understood the prevalent mood among his contemporaries when he said “there is only one road to salvation… to adapt ourselves to Western civilization completely!”[33]

The impact went beyond the Anatolian and Balkans territories of the Ottoman realm having a huge impression on the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire too. Sati al-Husri, a prominent Ottoman intellectual, and later Arab nationalist equally hypnotized by Japan’s victory over Russia, visited the Japanese embassy in Berlin when in Europe in 1910. He would return to Istanbul with ideas to share following his meeting and said,

“For nations that have remained very much behind on the road to progress, like us, and who are now obliged to advance with great rapidity, the Japanese are among the examples that must be examined with the greatest care.”[34]

He would go onto scold the Ottomans for failing to learn quicker given the empire’s proximity to Europe unlike Japan which was in the Far East:

“it is as though there has come to be a virtual wall of China or a great ocean between us and the Europeans who used to stand so close, among us even, so that for centuries, we passed the time unaware, without gaining a share of the intellectual, industrial, political, and social advancements and revolutions which occurred in the civilized world”[35]

He would optimistically conclude that through hard work and earnestness any nation could make up for lost time as the Japanese had demonstrated. Mustafa Kamil Pasha, an Egyptian writer and leading nationalist explained why he didn’t like Russia and looked favorably upon Japan. Russia had a long and hostile relationship with the Ottoman Empire, whereas Japan had done nothing to harm Muslim interests and even dealt a blow to European imperialism in Asia.[36] His paper al-Liwa, would often frame the Russo-Japanese War in the wider terms of a conflict between East and West. He recognized that his agitation against British rule in Egypt would be complicated by support for Britain’s ally in the Far East, but prioritized the racial dynamics of the war, writing “a victory for Japan is a victory for the Yellow Race”. Other members of the “Yellow Race” included Muslims across Asia from China, to Afghanistan and Persia who would be inspired by Japan’s success and also eventually challenge European hegemony.[37] He would also author The Rising Sun (al-Shams al-Mushriqa) in 1904 just before the war in which he celebrated the achievements of Japan.

Rashid Rida, an influential Islamic thinker during that era, believed the Japanese should be converted to Islam, for religious and not political reasons, differing in this respect with his contemporary Mustafa Kamil. As late as 1911 Rida would maintain this hope, as Japan could then be a boon for the Islamic faith and bulwark against European imperialism.[38] Elsewhere in Cairo, daily newspaper al-Ahram, explained that Japan “in a short time it hit the apex of civilization, refinement, prosperity, might, glory and political power. It seems to me that now it has become a missionary to nations of the East and a preacher to us.”[39]

The impact of the Japanese victory also had a big impact on African Americans in the United States. Whilst their attitudes were roughly akin to those of other Americans during the conflict, African Americans viewed Japan primarily in racial terms, and therefore as ally against White Supremacy. An editorial published by Voice of the Negro celebrated “the fact that arrogant Europe has been taught a lesson about the ‘inferior races.’ ’’[40] Booker T. Washington, a hugely influential African American leader and educator told a Japanese editor that the “progress of the Japanese and their sudden rise to the position of one of the great nations of the world has nowhere been studied with greater interest or enthusiasm than by the Negroes of America.’’[41]

W.E.B Du Bois, an African American sociologist, Pan-Africanist and civil rights activist would write “the awakening of the yellow races is certain… the awakening of the brown and black races will follow in time.”[42] In a seminal essay titled ‘The African Roots of War’ he would question the reasons for subjugated peoples fighting on behalf of their imperial oppressors, encouraging them to liberate themselves and take from the Japanese example. Du Bois regularly made excuses for Japanese aggression, as Japan would lead the colored peoples in a revolt against a world rule by white men.[43] It was not without reason, Du Bois wrote elsewhere, that the Japanese victory would give “rise to a fear of colored revolt against white exploitation.”[45] Whilst the “African American embrace of Japan, generally speaking, had developed independent of any direct efforts on the part of the Japanese themselves”, the Japanese had eventually become aware of the interest.[46] Retired Japanese Army General Kojiro would write a novel titled Japanese-America War Fantasy, in which a Japanese attack on America was supported by Marcus Garvey who led 10 million African Americans in support of the Japanese goal.[47]

Overall the Japanese triumph was, as Du Bois described it, a long awaited event for the subjugated peoples of the world to express ‘colored pride’. The victory was an atonement and redemption. Japan’s victory wasn’t viewed however in primarily military terms but more widely as a model to be imitated for how a non-white nation could modernize, become civilized whilst remaining authentic to itself, and stand-up to a European power. Whilst we have to be careful, not to exaggerate its impact, the leaders of the world which was being born during that period were greatly impacted by it.

Reference

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[20] Laffan, M. (2007). Tokyo as a shared Mecca of modernity: War echoes in the colonial Malay world. In: Kowner, R The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War. Oxon: Routledge. p228–229

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[22] Laffan, M. (2007). Tokyo as a shared Mecca of modernity: War echoes in the colonial Malay world. In: Kowner, R The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War. Oxon: Routledge. p234

[23] Mishra, P. (2012). From the ruins of empire: The revolt against the West and the remaking of Asia. London, Allen Lane. p166

[24] Esenbel, S. (2004). Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900–1945. The American Historical Review. 109 (4), p1146

[25] Daily Sabah. 2019. Ertuğrul: A Tragedy That Boosted The Bonds Between Turkey And Japan. [online] Available at: <https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2019/09/16/ertugrul-a-tragedy-that-boosted-the-bonds-between-turkey-and-japan> [Accessed 22 August 2020].

[26] Esenbel, S (2011). Japan, Turkey and the World of Islam: The Writings of Selçuk Esenbel. Kent: Global Oriental. p148

[27] Aydin, C. (2007). A Global Anti-Western Moment? The Russo-Japanese War, Decolonization, and Asian Modernity. In: Conrad, S and Sachsenmaier, D Competing Visions of World Order: Global Moments and Movements, 1880s-1930s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p218

[28] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p136

[29] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p155

[30] Gawrych, G (2015). The Young Ataturk: From Ottoman Soldier to Statesman of Turkey. London: I.B Tauris & Co. p14

[31] Kaya, M. (2014). Western Interventions and Formation of the Young Turks’ Siege Mentality. Middle East Critique. 23 (2), p133

[32] Kaya, M. (2014). Western Interventions and Formation of the Young Turks’ Siege Mentality. Middle East Critique. 23 (2), p133

[33] Kaya, M. (2014). Western Interventions and Formation of the Young Turks’ Siege Mentality. Middle East Critique. 23 (2), p133

[34] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p209

[35] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p211

[36] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p59

[37] Worringer, R (2014). Ottomans Imagining Japan: East, Middle East, and Non-Western Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p227

[38] Laffan, M. (2007). Tokyo as a shared Mecca of modernity: War echoes in the colonial Malay world. In: Kowner, R The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War. Oxon: Routledge. p230

[39] Worringer, R. (2004). “Sick Man of Europe” or “Japan of the near East”?: Constructing Ottoman Modernity in the Hamidian and Young Turk Eras. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 36 (2), p220

[40] Gallicchio, M (2000). The African American Encounter with Japan & China: Black Internationalism in Asia. USA: University of North Carolina Press. p15

[41] Gallicchio, M (2000). The African American Encounter with Japan & China: Black Internationalism in Asia. USA: University of North Carolina Press. p15

[42] Elnaiem, M., 2018. Black Radicalism’S Complex Relationship With Japanese Empire. [online] JSTOR Daily. Available at: <https://daily.jstor.org/black-radicalisms-complex-relationship-with-japanese-empire/> [Accessed 22 August 2020].

[43] Kearney, R. (1995). The Pro-Japanese Utterances of W.E.B. Du Bois. Contributions in Black Studies. 13 (7), p203

[45] Ernest Allen, J. (1994). When Japan Was “Champion of the Darker Races”: Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism. The Black Scholar. 24 (1), p28

[46] Ernest Allen, J. (1994). When Japan Was “Champion of the Darker Races”: Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism. The Black Scholar. 24 (1), p29

[47] Ernest Allen, J. (1994). When Japan Was “Champion of the Darker Races”: Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism. The Black Scholar. 24 (1), p29

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