xxxxxIt was after the overthrow of the shogunate system of government, and the restoration of imperial power in 1868 (Vb), that Japan embarked upon a rapid programme of modernisation and industrialisation based on Western lines - the Meiji Restoration. In particular, the army and navy were trained in Western tactics and weaponry in order to support an aggressive foreign policy. The main aim was to secure Korea, a country which could pose a threat if occupied by a major world power, such as Russia. The country was a Chinese tributary state at the time, but by the Treaty of Ganghwa, forced upon the Koreans in 1876, the Japanese gained influence within the country. The opportunity to take over the peninsula came in 1894 with the Donghak Rebellion, a peasant uprising. Both Japan and China sent troops to quell the disturbance and fighting soon broke out between the two sides. The Chinese had a large army and navy, but they proved no match for the well trained and well equipped Japanese forces. They overran Korea following their victory at the Battle of Pyongyang and then, invading Manchuria, overwhelmed the Chinese at the decisive Battle of Weihaiwei. Meanwhile at sea the Chinese navy was virtually destroyed at the Battle of the Yalu River. In February 1895 the Chinese, completely outclassed, sued for peace. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki Japan gained virtual control over Korea and acquired both Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands. The war established Japan as a rising world power, a status confirmed ten years later with the Japanese defeat of the Russians in the Sino-Russian War of 1904-5. China, on the other hand, went further into decline. Their humiliating defeat only served to increase xenophobia within the country. As we shall see, this led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, further exploitation by the Western powers, and the eventual fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.


1894 - 1895  (Vc)


Map (Japan): from–universities. Pyongyang: woodblock print by the Japanese artist Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908). Map (Manchuria): licensed under Creative Commons – OpenCourseWare, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shimonoseki: date and artist unknown. Cartoon: by the English illustrator John Tenniel (1820-1914), published in the London satirical magazine Punch in September 1894.

xxxxxAs we have seen, it was in 1868 (Vb), that the shogunate system of government in Japan - based upon the rule of hereditary feudal lords - was finally overthrown and imperial power was restored. In the Boshin War of that year, the army of the last shogun, Yoshinobu (illustrated), proved no match for the Emperor’s forces, and the rule of the shoguns - dating from 1192 (R1) - was brought to an end. Power then resided in Emperor Mutsuhito, a boy of fifteen years. He took the title Meiji (meaning “enlightened government”) and, advised by court officials, embarked upon a rapid programme of modernisation aimed at combining “western advances” with “traditional eastern values”. Feudalism was abolished in a bid to make Japan a world power.

xxxxxUnder the so-called Meiji Restoration there was a measure of political reform. Political parties were permitted, and, based on the British model, a House of Representatives and a House of Lords were established in 1889, but the franchise was severely limited, and the emperor’s powers were stringently safeguarded. Sovereignty remained firmly in his hands. On the industrial front, however, there was no such limitation. After sending out delegates and students to learn from the Western nations, industrialisation developed at a formidable pace, feeding above all the needs of both the navy and the army. Nationwide conscription was introduced in 1872, and the armed forces were trained in Western tactics and weaponry.

xxxxxThis new-found strength enabled Japan to embark on an aggressive foreign policy, aimed at strengthening the nation’s defences. As early as 1879, for example, the Ryukyu Islands, lying to the south and under Japanese protection since 1609 - were officially taken over. Butxthe real threat to the country’s security lay to the west, where the peninsular of Korea - in the words of one military observer - was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”. For centuries Korea had been a member of the Chinese tributary system. In return for recognising the superiority of the Chinese emperor and giving regular gifts to the Chinese court, the country had enjoyed a large measure of independence. Having survived invasions by the Japanese at the end of the 16th century, and by Manchuria early in the next century, the country remained comparatively peaceful and isolated for some 250 years. Western visitors dubbed it “the hermit kingdom”. By the late 19th century, however, a number of countries were taking an interest in the peninsular, both for its strategic position and its mineral wealth. Japan feared that whoever took a firm control of the country would pose a serious threat to national security.

xxxxxIn this connection, the country most feared at this stage was Russia. China did have something of a hold on the country but, as we have seen, the Chinese Empire was in decline. The two Opium Wars of 1839 (Va) and 1856 (Va), had resulted in the establishment of foreign enclaves in all the country’s major ports, and a string of “unequal treaties” which had given Western powers political as well as commercial rights. An attempt was made to learn from the (Western) “barbarians” in order to take control of them - the so-called “Self-Strengthening Movement”, initiated in 1861 - but due to divisions at Court it proved totally inadequate. Given the inherent weakness of the Chinese Empire, Japan saw the need to seize control of Korea before it fell into the hands of Russia or, indeed, one of the other Western powers.

xxxxxThexfirst step was taken in February 1876 when, employing gun boat diplomacy, Japan forced the Treaty of Ganghwa upon Korea. By this so-called “Treaty of Friendship”, three Korean ports were opened to Japanese trade, and Japanese merchants - subject only to Japanese law - were granted unrestricted freedom throughout the country. Korea was declared a free nation - a measure which ostensibly freed it from its tributary relationship with China - but Japan clearly gained a large measure of influence within the country, paving the way for further penetration. Not surprisingly, the terms of the treaty only served to embitter relations between China and Japan, and in 1884 there was a clash of arms in the capital Seoul during which a Japanese attempt to take over the government was overthrown by the arrival of a large Chinese force. This incident led to the Sino-Japanese Convention of Tientsin of April 1885 by which both powers agreed to withdraw their troops from Korea.

xxxxxThexfinal showdown came in 1894 with the Donghak Rebellion, a peasant uprising aimed at the overthrow of the Korean government and the expulsion of foreigners. It was the opportunity Japan had been waiting for. Under the Tientsin agreement both countries sent troops, but the Japanese contingent, some 8,000 strong, seized the emperor, occupied the royal palace in Seoul, and set about expelling the Chinese troops. The war between Qing China and Meiji Japan, long in the making, was finally under way.  

xxxxxThe conflict was brief and decisive. On paper the Chinese had a large army, and its navy - which included two ironclad battleships and four armoured cruisers - was regarded as the most powerful in Asia. However, there was a great deal of corruption within the armed forces, morale was low, and equipment was poorly maintained. On the other hand, via the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese army and navy had been modernised on Western lines and were fully prepared for combat. Asxa result, in July China’s Beiyang Army was defeated at the minor Battle of Seonghwan, near the port city of Asan, and then, despite an advantage in numbers, overpowered at the Battle of Pyongyang (illustrated) in the September. Japanese imperial troops, advanced on the city of Pyongyang from several directions and, breaking through the defences, inflicted heavy casualties. Following this defeat, the Chinese abandoned northern Korea and took up defensive positions along the Yalu River, close to Jiuliancheng on the Manchurian border. Japanese troops followed in pursuit and reached the area towards the end of October.

xxxxxMeanwhile, in the largest encounter at sea, - the Battle of the Yalu River in September 1894 - the Chinese navy fared no better than their ground forces. Regarded as one of the first naval battles of modern times, involving as it did ironclads, rapid firing guns and the use of torpedoes, the Japanese imperial navy, modelled on the British Royal Navy, faced no serious opposition. In a day-long battle fought off the mouth of the river, it sank five Chinese warships and badly damaged three others, including the two ironclad battleships. Four Japanese ships were seriously damaged but none was sunk. What remained of the Chinese fleet made for the safety of Port Arthur, and then retreated to the naval base of Weihaiwei across the Bohai Strait.

xxxxxThe Manchurian campaign again showed the superiority of the Japanese land forces. Having reached the Yalu River at the end of October, a crossing was made by the building of a pontoon bridge, and, following the capture of Jiuliancheng, the Chinese forces were put to flight. The Japanese then advanced on two fronts (see map). The First army made for the city of Mukden whilst the Second army moved westward along the Liaodong Peninsular, capturing a number of towns including the walled-town of Hai Cheng. Inxthe meanwhile a Japanese force was landed on the southern coast of the peninsula and advanced towards Port Arthur. Having seized the city on the 21st November, the Japanese then launched an attack upon Weihaiwei. The siege of this naval base lasted 23 days and proved the decisive battle of the war. Fought in severe winter conditions over January and February of 1895, the Japanese eventually captured the well-fortified town in a nine-hour battle. A few days later the Japanese navy, made up of 25 warships and 16 torpedo boats, attacked the Chinese fleet of 15 warships - including the two ironclad warships that had survived the Battle of the Yalu River - and 13 torpedo boats. A series of day and night attacks were made over a period of five days, by the end of which the entire Chinese fleet had been destroyed or captured. Such was the scale of the Japanese victory that, following the formal surrender, the commander and deputy commander of the Chinese fleet, and the general in charge of the coastal forts committed suicide.

xxxxxAfter the fall of Weihaiwei, Japanese forces advanced further into southern Manchuria. Having repulsed a Chinese attempt to recapture Hai Cheng, they attacked the port of Yingkou (also known as Newchwang) and, having taken the city after fierce street fighting, bombarded the Town of Tianzhuangtai on the other side of the Liao River, razing it to the ground. By then, however, the war was coming to an end. The Japanese were preparing for a two-pronged attack upon the capital of Beijing, and the Chinese were ready to sue for peace. With this in mind, towards the end of March the Japanese Imperial Guard seized the Pescadores Islands off the west coast of Taiwan. After a naval bombardment of the Chinese forts, the troops landed and, meeting little resistance, had secured the islands within three days.

xxxxxThe Treaty of Shimonoseki (illustrated), signed in April 1895, recognised the “full and complete” independence of Korea (though it now came firmly under Japanese control), and ceded to the Japanese the Island of Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands. In addition, China was obliged to pay a large indemnity, recognise Japan as its most favoured trading nation, and open up the ports of Shashi, Chungking, Suchow and Hangchow to Japanese trade. Initially, Japan was also awarded the Liaodong Peninsular in southern Manchuria, but after the signing of the treaty three nations - Russia, France and Germany - united to oppose this settlement and forced Japan to accept an additional indemnity instead. As was to be expected, shortly afterwards Russia occupied Liaodong Peninsula, including the ice-free port of Port Arthur, and in 1897, following the murder of two German missionaries, German troops seized Kiaochow Bay - an inlet of the Yellow Sea in Shantung province - and eventually gained a 99 year lease of the area. France and Great Britain were not far behind. France acquired Kwang-Chou Wan, an enclave on the southern coast of China, in May 1898, and in the same year Great Britain set up a naval station at Weihaiwei as a counterbalance to the Russian presence at Port Arthur. It was the fear of such intervention by the Western powers that had prompted Japan to pick a war with China and seize control of Korea.

xxxxxThe decisive victory achieved by the Japanese - based upon their rapid programme of modernisation and industrialisation - established Japan as a rising world power, a status fully confirmed some ten years later following the country’s remarkable victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, fought over Russia’s occupation of Manchuria and threat towards Korea. Meanwhile, the humiliating defeat suffered by the Chinese, following on from their failure in the Sino-French War of 1884-5, only served to increase xenophobia within the country. As we shall see, this led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, further exploitation by the Western powers, and the eventual fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

xxxxxIncidentally, when the Japanese seized the city of Port Arthur in November 1894 they claimed to have found the mutilated remains of Japanese prisoners. As a reprisal there followed what has come to be known as the Port Arthur Massacre during which almost the entire Chinese population of the city was slaughtered. This was a ruthless conflict throughout. Most prisoners were publicly executed, and atrocities were committed by both sides. ……

xxxxx…… It is estimated that the number of Japanese killed during the war varied from 800 to 14,000, and that more were killed by cholera than in battle. Chinese losses are put at 35,000 killed or wounded. ……

xxxxx…… The Treaty of Ganghwa of 1876 by which the Japanese forced Korea to open up a number of ports for trade, was very reminiscent of the Treaty of Kanagawa twenty-two years earlier when, as we have seen, a fleet of ships led by the American Commodore Matthew Perry forced the shogunate to accept a similar trade agreement - the first of a number of “unequal treaties”. ……

xxxxx…… The Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and ended in 1945 with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War.



The Treaty of Shimonoseki