Home Samurai culture Relations between Russia and Japan at the beginning of the 20th century

Relations between Russia and Japan at the beginning of the 20th century


On November 4, 1890, Tsaravich Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, then 22, left the Russian port of Gatchina to embark on a year-long educational journey east. Among the countries he will visit are Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, China and finally Japan. Although the purpose of the future Tsar’s trip was diplomatic, aimed at preparing him for the intricacies of foreign politics and culture close to Russia, his last trip to Japan would prove to be a stark awakening to the realities of a world of more further modernized. So much so that the trip may have caused enough trauma and contempt to warrant a war that would eventually prove significant in the collapse of his dynasty.

Nicholas II was born in an increasingly turbulent time for European monarchies. Russia in particular had come under increased pressure to reform even as serfdom was abolished and political movements like anarchism and socialism gained influence within the Russian underground. This increase in political unrest is a central theme correctly predicted in Fydor Dostovesky’s 1872 novel Demons. With Nicholas’ grandfather, Alexander II, and his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, having been successfully murdered, Nicholas’ education was subsequently largely hidden from public view. Once the prince came of age, Nicholas’s father, Alexander III, thought it would be appropriate for him to embark on a journey to prepare him for stately affairs. He would go on a tour of the predominantly Eastern nations and end his journey in Vladivostok, where he would take part in the inaugural ceremonies of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The family of Tsar Alexander III|Creative Commons

Nicolas and his delegation first traveled by train from St. Petersburg to Vienna, where they traveled to Trieste, Italy. There they boarded the Pamiat Azova, a rugged Russian cruiser that would carry the delegation on their voyages to sea. They traveled to Greece where they were met by his uncle George I of Greece, whose son also called George would continue with Nicholas on the voyage. From there, Nicholas II and his entourage traveled to Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China and finally to Japan. During all these trips Nicholas was widely welcomed by the public, he received many gifts and the respect of the nations and kingdoms he visited. He visited iconic cultural sites such as the Giza pyramids and the Taj Mahal and during his visit to Japan it was noted that the Tsaravich had respected Japanese culture and craftsmanship, even going so far as to receive a tattoo. traditional dragon on his right hand. But that did not prevent the catastrophic end of his journey to the Empire of the Sun.

Nicholas displaying his Japanese tattoo, 1912|Creative Commons

Nicholas II and his delegation had spent Christian Holy Week in Japan. During their stay, they had visited Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Kobe and Kyoto. On May 11, a week before the Tsaravich’s 23rd birthday, he and his delegation traveled to Otsu, a resort town just outside Kyoto, while there Nicholas and George visited the resort, took a walk by boat on Lake Biwa and dined with the governor of the region. Once they finished lunch, Nicholas’ entourage rode in a rickshaw procession to catch their train back to Kyoto. Nicholas was near the front of the delegation, riding in an open rickshaw, with the governor and police officials behind, all in a group of about fifty rickshaws. The day was going to be planned and the Tsaravich would soon be in Kyoto, it seemed. But a gendarme who stood guard near the street had a different idea and planned to send the Tsaravich elsewhere that day.

A portrait of Tsuda Sanzō | Public domain

Tsuda Sanzō was a policeman born into a samurai family who had previously fought in the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt led by the influential samurai Saigō Takamori, against the Japanese Imperial dynasty. Sanzo had fought for the victorious Imperial side, but the event had thrown him off balance as he revered Takamori. His deep-rooted patriotism for Japan and distrust of the Russian Empire would set in motion a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy between the two nations.

That day, as Nicholas’ rickshaws turned down the narrow Shimo-Kogarasaki Street in the Kyomachi district, Tsuda Sanzo drew his sword, rushed forward, and swung his blade at the Tsaravich. He had aimed for his neck but the Tsaravich managed to duck and the blade struck his hat which choked the blow. The exact account of the event is uncertain because it happened so suddenly, but most accounts say Prince George parried the second blow or helped the other rickshaw drivers incapacitate Sanzo. Nicholas was rushed to a nearby store where the wound was dressed, then taken back on the train to Kyoto. He had a 9cm long scar on the back of his head, which would stay with him for the rest of his life. Once Emperor Meiji of Japan was informed of the incident, he boarded a train as quickly as he could from Tokyo to Kyoto. The Emperor visited the Tsaravich as he recovered on his Russian ship and expressed his dismay. The Tsaravich was said to be as happy as possible to recover from the incident, but that didn’t stop him from cutting short his trip to Japan.

Following the events, the governor of the attack region (Shiga prefecture) and the Japanese foreign minister resigned, it was forbidden to name a child Tsuda or Sanzo in the attacker’s home district. Sanzo was sentenced to life in prison as Japan did not have the death penalty, and he died in captivity in 1891, rumored to have starved himself. The rickshaw drivers who apprehended Sanzo were applauded and honoured, receiving a hefty monetary reward of 2,500 yen, although future hostilities between Japan and Russia would sour their reverence, and the rickshaw drivers would lose their pensions.

Nicholas II on a rickshaw in Nagasaki a few weeks before his attack | Public domain

Over the years, Nicholas’ wound never fully healed. He continued to suffer from headaches that would be attributed to the incident, just as tensions between the two nations would not subside.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan had quickly emerged as an emerging middle power on the world stage, and their aspirations for eastern supremacy became clear when they defeated China’s declining Qing dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War. . This put Japan in an increasingly confrontational position with the Russian Empire’s perceived authority over the Sea of ​​Japan. Vladivostok, the main city on the Sea of ​​Japan, was ceded from China to Russia in 1859 following China’s loss in the Second Opium War. The Russians named the city Vladivostok which translates to Lord of the East. The Russian aspirations were obvious and they wanted to secure an all-weather port to the East. Both countries feared that the other would hamper their own geostrategic interests in the region, and soon the inevitable happened and Japan declared war and attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria on February 9, 1904. Which result lasted a year and a half. the war throughout Manchuria and Korea resulting in great casualties on both sides.

Attack on Port Arthur as depicted in a Japanese print, 1904 | Creative Commons

Initially, the war met with a tolerable reception from the Russian population. They rallied against the Japanese attack on Port Arthur and this war indicated further Russian efforts to strengthen dominance. Nicolas was convinced that the Japanese were no match for the great European Empire. However, as the war progressed, it became increasingly difficult to maintain, and the war was far from most of Russia, requiring significant resources from the Empire. Russia has always been in the background.

Nicholas confided his faith in divine favor, the same divine favor he would thank for sparing him from assassination. He believed that God favored him and the Russian Empire, furthermore he viewed the Japanese Empire as simple and effeminate, calling them little lettered monkeys.

In response to the attack on Port Arthur, after much deliberation Nicholas ordered the Russian Baltic Fleet to mobilize in Japan. This was against the advice of several of his top advisers, including his Grand Admiral, and turned out to be a mistake. The decision would become emblematic of the disarray of the Russian empires as the paranoid Baltic Fleet opened fire on British fishing boats in the North Sea, mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats. The mistake, known as the Dogger Bank incident, resulted in death and damage to the British and Russian fleets involved, and increased tensions between England and Russia, beginning the development of a narrative of incompetence for the Russian Empire.

The Battle of Liaoyang, one of many decisive Japanese victories, 1904| Creative Commons

The Baltic Fleet would later be decisively defeated seven months later in its first significant conflict at the Battle of Tsushima, ending the Russo-Japanese War. It would be the first time in the modern era that an Eastern power has defeated a European power. The war marked important developments in military technology like rapid-fire artillery and foreshadowed the carnage of World War I.

Although it may be a coincidence, one cannot help but consider Nicholas II’s relationship with Japan as a catalyst for his downfall. Nicholas’ mindset regarding Japan was undoubtedly tainted by racial arrogance toward the once-imperialized Japanese, but could his unusually headstrong attitude toward the Russo-Japanese War be a show of revenge for the bombing? for his life? The extent to which the attempt on his life affected his attitude is still debated, but the events that followed have bled into modern history.

A political cartoon of the war found in an American newspaper, 1904 | Creative Commons

Japan established itself as the best composed and efficient power in Asia, largely freed from most of the shackles of imperialism that fettered other Asian powers, this efficiency and self-reliance would remain for years to come and would grow with the already present nationalism that would later morph into fascism and bring terror to neighboring countries for decades to come.

The Russian Revolution, 1917 | Creative Commons

The Russian Empire and Nicholas were also placed on a cursed trajectory, but this would end much sooner than that of the Japanese Empire. Following Russia’s humiliation and growing protests from the Russian population during and after the war, the Russian constitution was revised in 1906, but this resulted in a galvanization of competing political factions and diminished the power of Tsarism. It was during World War I that the Tsardom would collapse due to renewed societal discontent and Tsar Nikolai II and his regime would be overthrown by the new communist regime. And the rest is living history.