Russo-Japanese War Re-visited

I fortuitously caught the last twenty minutes or so of a panel discussion titled “The Meaning of the Russo-Japanese War Today” on NHK Kyoiku Television (channel 3 in Tokyo). This panel discussion inaugurated a three-day conference titled “East Asia and the World in the 20th Century and the Russo-Japanese War,” which was organized the Japanese Association of Modern East Asian History and held at Senshu University in Tokyo. The conference schedule is posted here in Japanese.

Discussants included:

  • Ikei Masaru (Keio Daigaku)
  • Matsumoto Ken’ichi (Reitaku Daigaku)
  • Oohama Tetsuya (Hokkai Gakuen Daigaku)
  • Narita Ryuichi (Nihon Joshi Daigaku)

The program squeezed a three-hour session into a 70-minute television slot, so I would imagine they had to leave out some of the discussion. Plus I was able to only catch the last twenty minutes, so most likely I missed much of it. But here are some of the points raised:

  • Narita noted that scholars need to be more critical of the idea that the Russo-Japanese war became a symbol of hope for anti-colonial movements around the world. I always thought that the war was celebrated because it was the first time that a “non-Western” nation defeated a “Western” country in a modern military conflict. Yet Narita’s injunction makes me question this very notion, and I now wonder if this widespread celebration over the Russo-Japanese War by anti-colonial movements is a myth concocted by Japanese militarists in the 1930s to legitimize Japan’s own imperialist project.
  • Matsumoto, after saying that “globalism” (which I took to mean “globalization”) is similar but perhaps more dangerous than was the idea of an “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” then joked that perhaps the best translation of “globalism” was “hakko ichiu,” a wartime slogan meaning roughly “eight corners of the world under one roof.” I thought that was clever but also a bit misleading.
  • There was a general discussion about the production of “national culture” (「国民文化」 was the word used) and whether it was a discursive object produced by the nation-state. I was not sure why this “invented tradition” issue was being debated at that point in the panel discussion, but it seemed to have to do with the general move away from interpreting the Russo-Japanese war as a “clash of civilization” and towards an interpretation that takes cognizance of the “cultural” aspects of the war. Unfortunately I probably missed too much to figure out what these “cultural” aspects were.

I wish I had caught the earlier half of the program. In particular I was interested in hearing about how the Russo-Japanese war is related to contemporary issues, such as the Yasukuni Shrine problem. I wonder if any readers of this blog caught the entire show, or perhaps even attended the conference.


  1. I found the question about the Russo-Japanese war to be interesting. I don’t know about Africa or Latin America, but according to our Ottomanist there was a lot of interest in the Japanese both before and after the war. The article cited below seems to be on a slightly different theme, but still related. There was a lot of interest in the Russo-Japanese war among Ottoman peoples in part because it was the Russians who were loosing. I assume in Africa the view would be different.

    Also, I remember reading somewhere that the Russo-Japanese war was the first real media war, and got a lot of attention for that reason. People all over the world were able to follow the war blow by blow in a way that was never possible before. Interest in the war might have to be separated from interest in Japan

    Japan’s Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900-1945. By: Esenbel, Selçuk. American Historical Review, Oct2004, Vol. 109 Issue 4, p1140-1170, 31p, 4bw;

  2. Thanks Alan, for the citation and your thoughts. The Ottoman Empire angle is definitely worth tracking down, and the article’s title is enticing.

    Your point about the Russo-Japanese War being the first media war: I faintly recall Paul Virilio, in his War and Cinema, mentioning the R-J War in the opening passages as the first war to use light to spot enemies in the dark. [I don’t have the book with me to check, so forgive me if I’m wrong!]

    So as you rightly suggest there probably is a world-historical significance to the R-J War that might be better understood by moving one’s perspective outside of Japan. Thanks for remind me of this.

  3. I just saw a reference for this. Looks more Russia than Japan, although there are some Japan people involved

    The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero (History of Warfare, Vol. 29) (History of Warfare) (Hardcover)
    by John W. Steinberg (Editor), Bruce W. Menning (Editor), David Schimmelpenninck Van Der Oye (Editor), David Wolff (Editor), Shinji Yokote (Editor)

    Brill 2005

  4. _The Tide at Sunrise_ by Warner & Warner makes a very good read about the Russo-Japanese war.

    Doc Rock

  5. If one looks at the beginning of Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in conjunction with the first
    attack of the Russo-Japanese War and the attack on Pearl Harbor, I think a pattern emerges of
    three sneak attacks, all successful in achieving their objectives in main, yet each, ultimately
    failing due to faulty planning with regard to final objectives, exit strategies, and support.

    Doc Rock

  6. Having read little about the causes of the R-J war, I cannot judge how good or bad a war it was, but I think I have read enough over the years to be left with the impression that Japanese behavior to prisoners was good and, behavior during a war is also a factor for judging whether it does honor to the country that fought it or not. I doubt the celebration over the Russo-Japanese War by anti-colonial movements was all myth even if Japanese militarists exploited it, and can say definitely that there were English writers shortly after the J-R war who tried to start a yellow-fear campaign which specifically argued that we (the white west) must stop these people of color who beat a fellow white power. Maybe i am naive, but while the latent colonialism of the Japanese visavis other asian countries was always (since the 15c or 16c?) there, if the English, who prior to the J-R War were pretty good with Japan, had let Japan participate more fully in the albeit unjust world order instead of clamping down on them and guaranteeing that the militarists took over in Japan, and at the same time did some unilateral decolonializing themselves, i cannot help thinkng that something better might have been possible . . . It is all just so sad. (I am no historian and marvel how historians can bear the agony of all the might have beens — i would sooner grow used to bodies and work in a funeral house than spend too much time with history — maybe that is partly because our future seems so bleak now that i know where it is heading …

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