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The Xenophile Historian

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A Concise History of Korea and Japan

Chapter 3: Closed and Opened Societies

Korea from 1637 to 1910, Japan from 1603 to 1912

This chapter covers the following topics:
Japan: The Tokugawa Shogunate
Korea: The Hermit Kingdom
Perry Opens Japan
The Meiji Restoration
The First Sino-Japanese War
The Russo-Japanese War
The End of the Korean Empire
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The Tokugawa Shogunate

The regime of Tokugawa Ieyasu started out as a regency in the name of Hideyoshi's five-year-old son, whom Ieyasu later deposed. In an effort to control subversive elements, he ran a government that was a tightly-controlled version of previous feudal administrations. Following the example of the first shogun, he avoided the intrigues and soft life of Kyoto by setting up his headquarters elsewhere, in this case Edo.

Ieyasu was among the shrewdest, most patient, most ruthless, and most successful rulers in Japanese history. Reared amid the cruel uncertainties of the Age of War, he came to appreciate both wisdom and lack of principle. To obtain favor with Nobunaga, he murdered his own wife and compelled a son to commit suicide. He won many battles by treachery. Yet his personal philosophy extolled self-criticism, quiet patience, and humble bearing. Above all, he was characterized by an iron will and by a desire for political security for himself and his family.

Ieyasu's political structure was a model of efficient organization and stability, exploiting both feudal and imperial traditions. As in the past, the emperor symbolized national unity, while the shogun held the real power over the fiscal and military bureaucracies. The system worked, but it had a major weakness in its conservatism amid the burgeoning economic productivity and unheralded urban expansion which its stability encouraged.

At first Ieyasu tried to be more tolerant of Christianity than Hideyoshi was, since Portuguese and Spanish merchants went where the Catholic missionaries told them to go. Despite the arrogance of Spanish Franciscans, he tried to negotiate a commercial agreement with the Spaniards, but Spain refused to allow Japanese ships into Philippine or Mexican ports. Then he learned that Christians have more than one point of view. In 1600 a Dutch ship, the Liefde, dropped anchor at Kyushu. When the Jesuits at Nagasaki learned that Dutch heretics were only a few miles away, they urged the Japanese authorities to crucify the Protestants as pirates. The local daimyo was not in a crucifying mood; he gave the "Red Hairs" (Dutch) full hospitality, and Ieyasu invited the Liefde's pilot, an Englishman named Will Adams, to visit him. Adams gave Ieyasu the first Protestant account of the bloody religious wars in Europe and stressed the militant part played in them by the Jesuits. As more Dutch ships arrived each year (and English ships after 1613), Will Adams stayed on to be the shogun's advisor on Protestant affairs; no doubt he mentioned that in the event of a Christian uprising, the Jesuits were strong enough to hold part of Kyushu until Spanish ships and soldiers could be sent from Manila. Since the Buddhists had been making similar warnings, the missionaries were watched carefully, especially after a Spanish ship was caught mapping the east coast of Japan (remember the Spanish Armada).

Ieyasu chose to act when he learned enough about the Protestants to conclude that they would keep trading with Japan even if all Catholic missionaries were expelled. He used a direct approach; in 1612 he issued the first of a series of edicts prohibiting Christianity. All missionaries were ordered to leave the country, and all Japanese Christians were ordered to become Buddhists. The anti-Christian campaign was only enforced until the missionaries had departed or gone underground; Ieyasu considered that a satisfactory victory because foreign trade was unaffected; even the pious Portuguese kept on visiting. His son and successor, Hidetada, took a tougher stand. Suspected Christians were tested by being ordered to tread on a Christian symbol. Torture was also used to extract recantations. Any Christian who still refused to renounce his faith was then burned at the stake (an idea borrowed from the Inquisition!). Thousands of Japanese Christians suffered martyrdom as a result.

As Japanese visitors to Europe came back with more alarming news (especially during the Thirty Years War), it was decided to limit all contacts with the West. First Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad or build ships capable of ocean voyages; those who had lived abroad long enough to be corrupted by foreign ideas were forbidden to return on pain of death. The closing door was slammed after a bloody rebellion involving thousands of Christian peasants near Nagasaki in 1637. Because the Portuguese had openly supported the rebels, they were expelled and forbidden to come back. The Portuguese sent a ship carrying an embassy in the following year (1640); they got the massage when the envoys and most of the crew were executed. In 1641 all Europeans were expelled from the country, except for a handful of Dutch merchants confined to a small island in Nagasaki Harbor. One Dutch ship was allowed to come every year; this allowed Japanese scholars to keep themselves up to date with "Dutch studies" (mathematics, science, medicine, etc.), but was not enough to have any effect on Japanese society. For the next two centuries Japan lived in isolation from the rest of the world.(1)

The Tokugawa shoguns set up a rigid society where everyone was assigned a specific place, and upward mobility became nearly impossible, especially for peasants. The daimyo were watched the most; they required the shogun's permission to get married, choose a successor, or build/repair their castles. Daimyo were classified as "inner" or "outer" daimyo according to which side their clans supported at the battle of Sekigahara, and given different privileges or responsibilities accordingly. For example, outer daimyo were kept poor by assigning them expensive public works, like the building and repair or roads, temples or the shogun's castle. At least once every two years every daimyo had to visit Edo, and his family was kept there as hostages; it was forbidden for them to live anywhere else. This law caused Edo to grow rapidly, from a village to a city of 500,000 in a century, just to make room for the visiting daimyo along with their families and retainers. All roads to Edo had "sword and women" checkpoints, where guards watched for weapons being smuggled into the capital and relatives of the daimyo being smuggled out; either was considered an act of rebellion.

Despite all the shoguns could do, Japan refused to stagnate. Members of the samurai class were still honored as they rode around, but like the nobility of modern Europe, they were no longer a necessary part of society. Lacking real purpose or practical judgment and addicted to their own amusement, many became indebted to moneylenders and merchants, who profited from samurai misfortunes. Merchants also benefitted from the new roads and better communications, from a stabilized currency, and from the rising trade, spreading outward from former castle towns. Soon the new merchant class was having the same effect on feudalism that Italian merchants had in Renaissance Europe. The aristocracy continued to enjoy traditional forms of entertainment, while new forms were developed for the common people, like the Noh and Kabuki theaters. Merchants set up what they called amusement quarters--concentrations of restaurants, theaters, teahouses and bathhouses--in each city to entertain tired businessmen and other well-to-do patrons. These factors, coupled with a high literacy rate, prepared Japan for a wholehearted acceptance of Western products and ideas when they were allowed to enter the country again.(2)

Probably the most amazing example of how progress continued in Japan is the work of a surgeon named Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835). By reading Dutch medical texts, Hanaoka learned both Japanese and foreign surgical techniques. He also knew that Hua Tuo, a Chinese surgeon in the second century A.D., had invented a form of anesthesia by combining herbal medicines, but burned the recipe just before his death. Before the mid-nineteenth century, surgery was extremely risky; surgeons had not yet discovered how important it is to prevent infections during their procedures, and without anesthetics, it was literally torture for the patient. To minimize the pain and chance of infections, doctors were motivated to operate only when the patient had a life-threatening illness; when they did operate, they gave the patient either narcotic drugs or a blow to the head, and tried to get the operation over with as quickly as possible. Because haste makes waste, you can imagine those doctors made a number of mistakes, increasing the mortality rate even more. In those days, when a doctor was finished with you, there was a good chance he had finished you as well. Thus, the invention of anesthesia made surgery safer as well as painless.

From 1785 to 1804, Hanaoka experimented with herbs to duplicate Hua Tuo's formula, testing them on his wife until she went blind from the side effects (alas, Hanaoka may have been a great surgeon, but he wasn't a good husband). Eventually he came up with a concoction that could knock out a patient for 6-24 hours, and it worked so well that people who needed operations came from all over Japan to be his patients; he reportedly performed 156 breast cancer operations alone. Unfortunately none of the books Hanaoka wrote were ever published; what we have comes from the notes of his students, who wrote down what they learned from him. And because of the government's isolation policy, the outside world did not hear of Japan's temporary lead in medical science; they had to do without painless surgery until an American surgeon used ether in 1842, almost forty years after Hanaoka perfected his formula.

Also like the European Renaissance, Japanese culture in this period was marked by the combination of artistic sensibility and lusty vitality, as shown in explicit literature, massive architecture, and brilliant color. Another new feature was a form of baroque art called the Momoyama style, where the main emphasis was ostentation and flamboyance. It was most obvious in architecture, particularly in massive stone castles. Hideyoshi's famous fortress at Osaka, for example, had 48 towers; the base of the central tower was 75 feet high and the main structure rose another 102 feet. Within the castles, other arts were displayed in wild profusion, featuring wood-carving, sliding doors, folding screens, and brilliantly colored walls. Doors and screens contrasted their colors against gold leaf. Paintings were often grandiose, in keeping with the pretensions of the castle lords.

To this melange of traditional simplicity and showy elegance, Ieyasu revived Confucian philosophy at his court, which at the same time pacified the samurai and promoted their respect for authority. One by-product of this system was that the artisans and merchants were placed below the peasants on the social scale, despite their new wealth, a clear sign that the Tokugawa saw agriculture as more important than commerce. This stratified society may well have ensured the power of the Tokugawa, but over a period of two centuries it was tested by peasant uprisings in the countryside and discontent in the cities. The peasant rebellions could be put down by force, but in the cities there was remarkable economic growth accompanied by rapid urbanization. New social and political forces posed difficulties for the Tokugawa structure. The spread of education and the increase in wealth helped spur the growth of the new urban classes drawn from young, aggressive merchants and intellectuals. Thus, those at the bottom of the social scale became wealthier than many of the samurai. These changes could not be dealt with so easily by the Tokugawa governmental structure.

By the nineteenth century the shogunate had lost much of its force and authority. The once-efficient government had become lax, especially in tax collection. Changing conditions in the cities and the flow of Western information from Nagasaki worked to undermine the traditional system.

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Korea: The Hermit Kingdom

The seventeenth century saw new trends in the arts and letters. For the first time literature and art was created for the masses, rather than just for the enjoyment of the upper class. Poems, operas, and novels were not only written in the easy-to-read Hangul script, but also frankly expressed popular discontent. Popular art subjects included blacksmiths and farmers at work, wrestling matches, and landscape paintings. Pottery with a simple blue and white glaze was produced for mass consumption.

As time went on, submission to China gave Korea an isolationist outlook, until Chinese citizens were the only foreigners allowed in the country at all. For this reason the period of Korean history from 1637 to 1910 is called "the Hermit Kingdom." As long as foreigners were more interested in China or Japan, this policy worked, but eventually Westerners got into the country anyway. Roman Catholicism was brought to Korea from China by Silhak scholars in the 17th century(3), and a school teaching Christianity and Western science (called Sohak, meaning Western Learning) developed. In 1656 a Dutch ship was wrecked on Cheju island and the 36 survivors were brought to Seoul. They were forbidden to leave the country, but eight sailors escaped after 13 years; one of them, Hendrik Hamel, wrote a narrative that provided the West with an eyewitness account of a land most Europeans knew nothing about.

Catholicism spread from Seoul to the provinces slowly, because its disagreements with Confucianism were critical. The two creeds could not reach a compromise on the subject of ancestor worship, which Confucianism considers supremely important but Catholicism rejects as a form of idolatry. Gradually the government came to see Christianity as a subversive movement and launched periodic persecutions against it. In 1801, 1839 and 1866, Christian converts were either executed or forced to turn renegade, and foreign missionaries (who started coming into Korea at the end of the eighteenth century) were ferreted out and beheaded. But rank-and-file Christians remained faithful, and continued to grow in numbers to the point that the Vatican set up a Korean diocese in 1831.

Three French priests smuggled themselves into Korea in the 1830s, but they were soon killed. Then a new native religion called Donghak (Eastern Learning) was founded in 1860. Founded by Ch'oe Che-u, a fallen aristocrat-scholar, it combined traditional animism with sweeping social reform and won the support of the underprivileged and mistreated peasantry. As one might expect from its name, Donghak's followers viewed all aspects of Western learning, including Christianity, as the enemy.

King Gojong, the second-to-last Korean monarch, was only eleven years old when he came to the throne in 1864, so his father, Heungseon Daewongun, was appointed regent. Daewongun passed a number of bold reform measures, such as relaxing the rules for getting into the civil service and the abolition of many private Confucian academies, but he also vigorously enforced the policy of national isolation, without realizing that modernization and xenophobia tend to work against one another. When Western and Japanese ships came to offer trade and friendship, he refused them. Persecution of Christians and the 1866 destruction of a US merchant ship, the General Sherman, provoked a naval bombardment and a brief invasion of Ganghwa Island, by the French in 1866; the United States did likewise in 1871.(4)

Finally, Daewongun completely restored Gyeongbokgung palace, which had been burned down by the Japanese during their invasion in the 1590s; the Korean kings had lived in the lesser palaces of Seoul since then. In everything he did Daewongun was successful, but his projects drained the treasury so badly that he came under a barrage of criticism and was forced to step down in 1873. Relatives of Queen Min took over the helm of state and reversed most of Daewongun's policies; then King Gojong assumed power in the following year. Meanwhile, the Japanese military called for an invasion of Korea; in 1876 they sent a fleet which pressured Korea into signing a commercial treaty. When conservative soldiers tried to restore Taewon-gun, China intervened, forcing a new treaty which heavily favored Chinese merchants, and allowed the stationing of Chinese soldiers on Korean soil (a move meant to check the growing Japanese influence in Korea). In 1882 the "Hermit Kingdom" opened its doors to the Western nations, beginning with the United States.(5)

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Perry Opens Japan

In 1853 four steam-powered American warships, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, arrived in a bay near Edo. Ordered to leave at first, they refused to budge until a letter from the US president to the emperor was delivered; the letter requested "friendship, commerce, a supply of coal & provisions, and protection for our shipwrecked people." Then Perry left, promising to come back in a year for the reply. The officials nervously asked, "Will you be bringing as many ships?", and Perry answered, "Probably more"; that couldn't have made the officials feel better!

The Japanese did a lot of thinking during that year. Those ships belching black smoke reminded them of something out of Hell, and showed how far behind the rest of the world Japan was now lagging. That decided the answer when Perry returned, this time with seven ships. Both sides signed a trade agreement and a treaty after six weeks of negotiations. As soon as they heard the news, the British, Russians and Dutch came, demanding and receiving similar treaties. Thus, ending Japan's isolation proved to be easier than expected.

A strong handshake.

Meeting between Perry and the Japanese government.

An unknown Japanese artist painted several charming pictures of Commodore Perry's second visit. Remarkably, Japan sold the silken scroll containing these pictures to the British Museum in 2012. Here are two of the pictures. The first shows some American sailors meeting a sumo wrestler; the second shows one of the negotiating sessions between the American officers and Japanese lords.

The first trade agreements forced Japan to surrender control of its foreign trade and tariff policies, creating a trade imbalance that definitely favored the West. Also humiliating was the fact that foreigners could live in Japan with extraterritorial privileges that exempted them from Japanese laws. The Tokugawa Shogunate could not take the stress created by these problems; already an old-fashioned system of government when it was first set up, it was patently obsolete by this time, and not even popular. Some Japanese advocated modernization, using "Eastern ethics and Western science," while samurai showed their opposition to such ideas by attacking Westerners and pro-Western Japanese. Sensing weakness in the shogun, many daimyo disregarded the rules requiring residence in Edo, and in 1862 the emperor sided with them by abolishing the residency rules. When the daimyo of Satsuma killed an Englishman who got in his way, and the daimyo of Choshu fired cannon at Western ships as they passed his coast, the Western powers reacted. First the British came to Kagoshima, the Satsuma capital, in 1863, sinking all ships and silencing the shore batteries. One year later a four-nation task force (British, French, Dutch and American) did the same thing to Shimonoseki, Choshu's port.

After hostilities ended, the two defeated daimyo reversed their position and established cordial relations with the West. Satsuma built a modern navy, while Choshu trained a peasant army along Western lines and equipped it with surplus American Civil War weapons. This new army proved its effectiveness as early as 1866, when it fought to a standstill a far larger traditional army sent by the shogun to suppress the rebellious daimyo; the shogun himself was killed in that battle.

In 1867 the accession of a fifteen-year-old emperor, Mutsuhito, prompted four pro-modernization daimyo (including Satsuma & Choshu) to form an alliance against the new shogun. They demanded that he give up his office and retire to his sizeable estates north of Edo. The shogun resisted, and the armies of the daimyo occupied Kyoto. A key battle in the following year, decided by defections from the Tokugawa side, ended the struggle. The ex-shogun lost his job partially because he resigned, partially because he was expelled from office, but was allowed to keep his land. The emperor, guarded by a British infantry unit, moved into the shogun's castle at Edo, which was now renamed Tokyo. To an outside observer, it looked like power was being handed over to the emperor, but anyone who thought that didn't understand how the Japanese system worked. What really happened was that the daimyo set up an oligarchy of 100 samurai and a handful of other lords in Tokyo. This was in keeping with the Japanese tradition of figurehead rulers, backed by a military caste.

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The Meiji Restoration

Emperor Mutsuhito called his era by the name Meiji (enlightened rule), so his 45-year reign (1867-1912) is now called the Meiji Restoration. During this period Japan transformed herself from a feudal anachronism into a world power. This is still the most successful instance of modernization by a non-Western culture. Unlike the Chinese, who stubbornly clung to the belief of their own cultural superiority even when humiliated by the West, the Japanese welcomed Western ways with open arms.

Japan started by sending inquiring envoys and students abroad and by hiring foreign experts. Feudalism was abolished in 1871; all fiefs were declared the emperor's property, and the samurai were pensioned off; they were forbidden to carry swords or even to wear their traditional topknots. When the samurai rose in revolt, they were suppressed by new armies of conscripts trained by French advisors. With conscription came compulsory universal education, and new schools were built around the country to maintain the already high literacy rate. British shipyards produced modern Japanese warships, and the Royal Navy trained the future officers of those ships.

Everything from the West was experimented with, including Western fashions. The first gaslights appeared in Tokyo in 1874, and four years later came the first use of electricity. The Gregorian calendar was adopted and used alongside the traditional one, and decimal-based currency was introduced. New banks were created by the government to fund growing trade and to provide capital for industry. State-built railroads spread across the country, and the islands were connected by rapid steamships. Rice production increased, as new methods were introduced to raise the output, to feed the people of the growing cities.

Japan tried to renegotiate the treaties with the West, but the Western nations refused at first, stating that non-Japanese should not be subject to antiquated feudal law. The Japanese responded by hiring a Frenchman to help them draft a modern legal code of justice; then they produced a constitution in 1889. The Meiji lord in charge of the constitutional project went to Europe for guidance, but he spent less time in London than in the Germany of Bismarck. Consequently what he came up with could hardly be called democratic; the emperor, not the people, had the ultimate authority. Furthermore, it guaranteed a conservative regime by including high property qualifications; only about 5 percent of the adult male population had enough wealth to be allowed to vote, and the cabinet was controlled not by the new parliament (called the Diet, after its German model), but by the throne. In the cabinet, only the army and navy could appoint their own ministers; since no cabinet could be considered complete without a war minister, the armed forces could bring down the government simply by withdrawing the war minister; this meant the military would still be the most powerful faction in the government. Despite these limitations, the constitution got the intended result; Britain agreed to a new treaty in 1894, and soon other nations did the same.

Though Japan was the first Asian nation to modernize in the Western mode, it could be conservative at the same time (like nineteenth century Germany). For example, education remained the tool of the government, and one of its chief functions was to produce docile servants of the state. The press was tightly controlled, and the army instilled its conscripts with unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the emperor. Young soldiers were still taught that the noblest fate was death on the battlefield. There was also a revival of Shintoism at the expense of Buddhism and Christianity; not only was it a genuine Japanese religion, it called for submission to the living descendant of the Sun Goddess, the emperor. Unlike the Chinese, who revered the scholar most of all, the Japanese admired the soldier -- warfare was the supreme vocation. Before long they would show that they had learned another concept from the West: imperialism.(6)

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The First Sino-Japanese War

In the late 1880s-early 1890s the Korean government attempted to modernize the country, using Japan as its model, but its actions failed to keep the country from becoming a pawn in the struggle for dominance between China, Russia, and Japan. Everything the government did increased expenditures; to pay for this, taxes were raised. Before long corrupt officials fleeced and misruled the people to the point that they had made an art of the system, blackmailing every industry in which the people engaged. They restricted commerce by demanding part of the profit from almost every sale, and by planting spies everywhere. Farmers could not look forward to a good harvest with any pleasure, for they knew that any surplus beyond what their families needed would be taxed away.

To pay for their added tax burden, farmers borrowed money at usurious rates from Japanese rice dealers, until they were reduced to poverty. Then, seeing no hope of the king or the Chinese helping them out, the angry peasants turned to the Donghak Party. But Donghak-inspired demonstrations brought government persecution, so in early 1894, the Donghak decided to arm themselves and force the king to do away with the laws and taxes which oppressed the people. Soon they had a force of 30,000 armed members, used it to capture the central city of Chuncheon, and prepared to march on Seoul to demand reforms. In desperation the king turned to his most reliable source of help--the Chinese. China responded by landing 2,700 soldiers on the west coast of Korea, about a hundred miles south of Inchon, the port of Seoul.

The rebels laid down their arms when they realized their revolt had become an international crisis, and the Chinese troops withdrew, except for five hundred that stayed in Seoul to guard the king. Japan wouldn't have any of this, and called China's intervention a violation of the treaty Japan and China had signed in 1885. Because China now had soldiers in supposedly neutral Korea, Japan would send its soldiers to protect Japanese citizens in Seoul. Before the Chinese or Koreans knew what was happening, five thousand Japanese troops arrived in Korea; 1,500 landed at Busan and marched across the peninsula to Seoul, while 3,500 went around the peninsula to land at Inchon. With them came plenty of horses and cannon, which soldiers don't need on a peacekeeping mission, a sure sign the Japanese were planning to do much more than keep the peace.

Once the Japanese were in Seoul, they stormed the palace, seized the royal family, and installed a government run by pro-Japanese Koreans, which promptly voided all treaties between Korea and China. At this point, because the Donghak rebellion was over, the Japanese could have declared "Mission accomplished" and gone home, but in July 1894 they showed they wanted war with China by sinking a Chinese troopship on its way to Inchon; 900 of the 1,100 people onboard drowned. When war was formally declared on August 1, China did its part to bring it on by calling the Japanese "the dwarfs," showing it expected an easy victory, not to mention its contempt for the other side,

Despite their confidence, the Chinese did not want to make their stand in Seoul, so they pulled their troops back to Pyongyang, where they thought they had a stronger position. The Chinese Northern Fleet also got involved, sailing across the Yellow Sea from the port of Weihaiwei (on the Shandong peninsula) to provide covering fire for the troops on land. Nevertheless, the First Japanese Army attacked Pyongyang in mid-September, inflicted more than 6,000 casualties, and sent the rest of the Chinese fleeing demoralized. Two days later the Japanese and Chinese fleets fought a naval battle off the mouth of the Yalu River. The Chinese fleet was slightly larger, at two battleships and eight cruisers, but the eight Japanese cruisers were faster and had more accurate guns. Four Chinese ships were sunk and a fifth was set on fire; four Japanese ships were damaged, but the Japanese managed to repair them after the battle. Thus, the Japanese won on water as well as on land.

After that the will to fight had gone out of the Chinese. Japan mobilized a Second Army and landed it on the part of China nearest to Korea, Manchuria's Liaodong peninsula. In November the Second Army took the peninsula's main stronghold, Lüshunkou (called Port Arthur by the West). The combination of Port Arthur's natural and manmade defenses made it one of the best-protected places anywhere, but the Japanese captured it with minimal losses. Meanwhile, the First Army crossed the Yalu River into Manchuria, and the Chinese forces that were supposed to defend the homeland of their emperors simply ran away. For the first campaign of 1895, the Second Army was transported across the Yellow Sea to capture Weihaiwei, along with the remaining ships from the Chinese Northern Fleet (those ships had gone back to port and stayed there after their defeat in the battle of the Yalu River). Then the Second Army returned to Port Arthur, and plans were made for the two Japanese armies to march together on Beijing. Japan also assembled a Third Army with the ships it needed, for an invasion of Taiwan.

Before these operations got started, China gave up. The terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, were harsh--China had to cede Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands to Japan, recognize the complete independence of Korea from China, open four more ports to Japanese merchants, and pay a huge indemnity of $155 million. However, it could have been worse. During the negotiations, China leaked the terms, figuring (correctly) that the Western powers would not want to see Japan become the leading nation of northeast Asia this quickly. The treaty also called for the cession of Port Arthur to Japan, and European ambassadors pressured Japan to not annex any territory on the Chinese mainland, in return for $23 million added to the indemnity. Two years later, the Russians bullied China to give Port Arthur to them, so altogether the treaty made it a disappointing victory for Japan.

The Japanese engineered the assassination of Korea's Queen Min in October 1895, because she was pro-Russian in her sympathies, and the Japanese suspected she was leading the anti-Japanese faction in the Korean court. Fearing for his own life, King Gojong took refuge in the Russian legation, and granted mining and lumbering rights to the Russians. A year later a popular movement called the Independence Association appeared, which published a newspaper called The Independent and had as its goal the restoration of an independent, sovereign Korea. This group persuaded the king to return to his palace, proclaim himself an emperor, and declare Korea equal to other nations. Gojong did just that, so for the last thirteen years of the Joseon dynasty (1897-1910), Korea called itself an empire.

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The Russo-Japanese War

Japanese pride was hurt when Europeans took advantage of their victory. Japan had knocked the traditional Asian colossus (China) out of Korea, only to find a larger menace (Russia) behind the Chinese. Russia's new Tsar, Nicholas II, was working steadily to gain economic domination over Manchuria, A Russian-dominated Manchuria was a real threat to Korea, and the Japanese had no trouble understanding Russia's imperialist intentions; they were exactly the same as their own. In addition, the Russians had started building the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891. This would cut transportation time across Siberia from several months to eight days; for the first time in history, Russia would be able to deploy troops from the European end of their empire in the Far East, and brother, they had a lot of troops! Construction of the railroad would take a lot of time, money and labor (it was three times as long as the Union Pacific, the first railroad crossing the continental United States), but the Russians were showing determination to finish the project as quickly as possible. They got a major break in 1896, when China gave them permission to build the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), a track that would cut across Manchuria from east to west, going directly from the east Siberian city of Chita to Vladivostok. By having the track go through Manchuria instead of around Manchuria, 340 miles were cut off the length of it, and while another track was still being built around Manchuria, the Russians did not have to wait for its completion to use the railroad; the rest of the railway was finished in 1904. Finally, the Russians had wanted warm-water ports for a long time, and Port Arthur gave them one on the Pacific (Siberian ports like Vladivostok could only be used in the summer).

The clash of Russian and Japanese interests.
Here you can see how Russian and Japanese spheres of influence collided.

The Chinese had allowed the Russians into Manchuria precisely to keep the Japanese out, in the event of another war. In 1901 the Russians built another track in Manchuria, the South Manchuria Railway (SMR); this was a north-south track that started at Port Arthur and connected to the CER at the city of Harbin. This gave the Russians the infrastructure they needed to maintain an empire in Manchuria. Japan's response was to propose splitting their spheres of influence along current lines: Japan would stay out of Manchuria if the Russians would keep away from Korea. This sounds sensible enough, and Russia agreed to the deal at first, but then changed its mind and demanded that Korea north of the 39th parallel be made into a neutral zone, where both Russia and Japan would not be allowed to meddle. Realizing it would have to fight, the Japanese cabinet made an alliance with Great Britain, and then the navy prepared a sneak attack like the one it would make at Pearl Harbor thirty-seven years later. At dawn on February 6, 1904, Admiral Togo Heihachiro sent forth his superbly disciplined fleet with these words: "We sail this morning. Our enemy flies the Russian flag."

Japanese torpedo boats led the attack on the ships in Port Arthur. This was the first time that modern torpedoes were used in warfare; the weapons called "torpedoes" in the nineteenth century were really floating bombs, what we now call mines. Two battleships and one cruiser were damaged; not a critical disaster, but this scared the Russians so badly that they refused to come out of port and engage the Japanese. Two days later, Tokyo issued a formal declaration of war.

For the land campaign, at first the Japanese made the same movements as they had in the previous war. After knocking a Russian cruiser and gunboat out of the way (the battle of Chemulpo Bay), the Japanese landed their First Army at Inchon, and it marched up Korea to the Yalu River. On May 1, 1904, the First Army crossed the Yalu, successfully stormed the nearest Russian position, and entered Manchuria. Then the Japanese Second Army was landed directly on the Liaodong peninsula. But that wasn't all; since the Japanese expected the Russians to be a tougher opponent than the Chinese, Japan mobilized two more armies and sent them to Liaodong as well. By the end of May Port Arthur was isolated and the Third Army had it under siege, while the Second and Fourth Armies joined the First Army to strike the Russians at the southern Manchurian city of Liaoyang. There, in an eleven-day battle (August 25-September 5), the Japanese suffered their heaviest casualties yet, but still they drove back a Russian force twice the size of their own.

So far, so good for the Japanese. The only problem for them was that the Russians had not surrendered, but had retreated to Mukden (modern Shenyang), and long wars tend to favor the larger army. Now the Trans-Siberian Railway was finished, except for the part going around Manchuria (that would be finished in 1916). By linking up the Trans-Siberian with the Chinese Eastern Railway, the completed tracks could deliver enough troops to fill the ranks of a new army every three months. To beat the Russians again, the Japanese would have to call up the rest of their reserves. They did, and Port Arthur surrendered to them on January 1, so they had five armies available to go after the Russians in early 1905. Sure enough, the Battle of Mukden was the biggest battle of the war, pitting 281,000 Japanese against 343,000 Russians, and it lasted more than two weeks (February 20-March 10). Again the Japanese won a convincing victory, but the Tsar had one more card to play--the Baltic Fleet--and because he was desperate for a victory, he insisted on using it.

In a seven-month, 18,000-mile voyage that captured the world's imagination, Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky took the fleet from the Baltic Sea, leading it around Europe, Africa and Asia (he couldn't go through the Suez Canal because the British wouldn't let him). Originally the plan was to rescue Port Arthur with the fleet, but the Japanese took Port Arthur first, so Rozhestvensky set a new course, for Vladivostok.(7) Against this, Admiral Togo had a fleet that was faster and better organized, and he waited for the Russians in Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Japan. The battle of Tsushima (May 27-28, 1905) was the most important naval action since the battle of Trafalgar, a century earlier. By arranging his ships in a classic "crossing the T" formation, so that as many guns as possible could be trained on the Russians, Togo pulled off the most total victory in the history of naval warfare; twenty-one of the thirty-eight Russian ships were sunk, including six of the eight battleships.

Mutsuhito and Togo.
After the battle, Emperor Mutsuhito reviewed the fleet. Admiral Togo is standing on the right.

That did it for the Tsar, and because the Japanese were financially exhausted at this point, both sides agreed to negotiations, hosted by US President Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, NH. When the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in September 1905, Russia gave up Port Arthur and the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan, and agreed to evacuate the southern half of Manchuria, and recognize Korea's status as a Japanese puppet state. However, the Japanese also wanted an indemnity to recover the war's expenses, and the Tsar absolutely refused to pay anything. What made this worse was that the Americans had rooted for the Japanese during the fighting, seeing them as the plucky little newcomer, but now took the Russians' side during the negotiations. US-Japanese relations would hit one bump after another in the next generation; this was the first. Maybe the Americans felt that Japan had gone far enough, by stopping the Russians from taking any more land in the Far East. For Japan's militants, fighting the Russians now looked like fighting the Chinese; the treaties ending both conflicts had turned smashing victories into disappointments.

Click on the above thumbnail for a map showing details about the Russo-Japanese War (735 KB, opens in a separate window).

On the other hand, the Russo-Japanese War was a shocker for the rest of the world. First, it convinced everyone that Japan was now a first-rate power. Second, Russia's defeat sparked an unsuccessful revolution in St. Petersburg, marking the beginning of the end of the Russian monarchy. Finally, it showed the Third World that the white man could be beaten with his own technology; now oppressed peoples in colonies everywhere had a role model to follow. The Japanese victory led to new political movements among the inhabitants of diverse countries such as Turkey, Egypt, India and China. One could say that 1905 was also the year in which colonialism began to give the European powers more trouble than it was worth.

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The End of the Korean Empire

Now that the Russians no longer had any influence in Korea, the Japanese acted to make sure the peninsula only belonged to them. Two months after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed, they introduced the 1905 Protectorate Treaty, without Emperor Gojong's seal or authorization. This document declared Korea a protected state of Japan, every level of the Korean government now got Japanese advisors. The office of "Resident-General of Korea" was created for the leading advisor, and filled by a former Japanese prime minister, Ito Hirobumi; he effectively replaced the emperor as the most powerful individual in the Korean government. In response, various Korean intellectuals and scholars set up organizations and associations, with the goal of regaining independence, and soon guerrilla bands formed to launch armed resistance. At the beginning of 1907, Gojong sent secret envoys to the Second Hague Convention on the rules of war and war crimes, to protest the protectorate treaty. Japan found out about it, and forced Gojong to abdicate before the convention took place; his son and successor, Sunjong, would be an emperor in name only.

In 1909 a Korean independence activist assassinated Ito Hirobumi, while on a trip to meet Russian officials in the Manchurian city of Harbin. At that point, Japan dispensed with the game of pretending that Korea was still a sovereign state; it banned all political organizations and began the process of annexation. In August 1910 Japan put forth the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, which formally turned Korea into a Japanese province named Chosen, with a governor-general instead of an emperor.(8) Large numbers of Koreans emigrated to Manchuria, Shanghai, and Hawaii to escape their new rulers.

This is the End of Chapter 3.


1. One thing the shoguns could not keep out of Japan were natural disasters. As noted elsewhere in this work, Japan is notorious for earthquakes and tsunamis (see the painting below). The east coast of Honshu got hit by a tsunami on January 26, 1700, and scientists have traced it to a major tremor they call the Cascadia Earthquake. Measuring between 8.7 and 9.2 on the Richter scale, the epicenter of this earthquake was at 45o N., 125o W., putting it off the coast of Oregon. Nobody on the Pacific coast of North America could read or write at this time, but Native American legends report that an earthquake and great waves devasted their communities, from about Mendocino, California to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. This means the wave that struck Japan had to travel all the way across the northern Pacific to get there. For more information, read The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America, a book about the disaster published in 2005.

Hokusai painting of tsunami.
2. By 1859 more than 40 percent of all men and 15 percent of all women were literate; a far higher percentage than anywhere else in the non-Western world, and on a par with some fringe areas of the West, like the American South. At the same time Japan gradually became more secular; this insured that there would not be a strong religious-based resistance to change.

3. They were converted by Jesuit missionaries employed at the Chinese court as mathematicians, astronomers, etc.

4. This is the forgotten war of American history, not the Korean War of 1950-53, as the press has claimed. The American expeditionary force lost only three men when it captured Ganghwa Island and its fortress, while 243 Koreans were killed. From there the next logical step would have been to march on Seoul, but the Americans decided they didn't have enough men to take the capital, so they withdrew after spending one month on Korean soil. Thus, the Americans won the battle, but because the Koreans weren't persuaded to change their policies, they technically won the war. Koreans refer to the 1871 conflict as the Shinmiyangyo incident. A Korean flag captured by the Americans was displayed at the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, MD until 2007, when it was sent to Seoul on a "long-term loan."

5. In an 1884 coup a group of radicals seized power and drew up a bold plan for reform, but the Chinese troops overthrew their three-day-old regime. This led to a bloody confrontation between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in the palace, which the Chinese won. One year later China and Japan signed the Li-Ito Convention, which removed all Chinese and Japanese forces and made the peninsula neutral.

6. Before 1894, Japan was able to make limited territorial gains via treaty. Japan and Russia had staked claims to the islands between them, Sakhalin and the Kuriles, since the 18th century; this was adjusted in an 1875 agreement that gave all of the Kuriles to Japan, and all of Sakhalin to Russia. The Bonin & Volcano Islands, uninhabited flyspeck-sized islands in the northwest Pacific, were claimed by the United States (1823) and Britain (1825), but Japan annexed the islands in 1876. The Ryukyus, an arc of 143 islands running from Kyushu to Taiwan, had a population that was all Japanese in the northern third of the chain, and part Japanese in the rest. Nevertheless, for a long time they were far enough away to escape coming under direct Japanese rule. They were vassals of the Chinese in the 14th century, formed a unified kingdom in 1429, with its capital on Okinawa, and became a protectorate of the daimyo of Satsuma in 1609. Finally, Japan completed the annexation of the Ryukyus in 1879.

7. "One half have to be taught everything because they know nothing; the other half because they have forgotten everything; but if they do remember anything then it is obsolete."--An officer on the Russian flagship, the battleship Suvoroff, commenting on the quality of the crew.

8. Of course the Japanese asserted that the annexation treaty was completely legal, while Koreans refused to accept their argument. For one thing, the Koreans point out that the treaty was not signed properly; Emperor Sunjong only put his first name on it, and he was under pressure to sign it against his will. Like all previous treaties between Korea and Japan, it was voided in 1965.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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A Concise History of Korea and Japan


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