Between 1894 and 1895, Imperial Japan and Qing Dynasty China fought supremacy over Korea. It would be called the First Sino-Japanese War, a bloody conflict from which Japan emerged triumphantly. China was forced to cede the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu Islands to Japan after its loss in 1895. It was also compelled to acknowledge Japan’s supremacy in Korea. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time period.
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Japan During the Meiji Restoration
Japan was able to turn itself from a feudal society into a modern and wealthy state during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Starting in the late 1870s, the emperor and his ministers toyed with the idea of transforming the government into a more Westernized one. In 1879 and thereafter, the Japanese people were allowed to elect prefectural, town, and local representatives. By 1889, a constitution had been promulgated. This was soon followed with the election of a prime minister.
Japan learned from the humiliations it suffered during the 1850s, so it quickly transformed its military to become the strongest in Asia during the late 19th century. The army structure and discipline was copied after the Germans, while the navy was modeled after the British. The troops were made up by young men conscripted from all classes, while the military’s arsenal was among the most modern at that time. All these were implemented to counter the threats (whether real or perceived) posed by China and Russia.
It was also during this time that Japan started to dream about territorial expansion. It tightened its hold on Hokkaido, and tried to occupy the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands but was deterred by Russian presence there. It annexed the distant yet crucial Bonin and Ryukyu Islands. The Ryukyus, long a tributary of the Qing Dynasty, were taken from China.
It was not long before Japan’s ministers set their sights on Korea, the Hermit Kingdom. Korea, although long isolated from the outside world, still maintained contact with and paid tribute to Qing China. The Joseon Dynasty which ruled it since the 14th century had become weak and the kingdom itself remained backward. Western powers were already making moves to lift Korea’s veil of isolation and establish trade with the kingdom. Japan was quick to recognize this, so during the 1870s, its ministers sent envoys to Korea to establish relations with it and encourage it to become independent from China’s suzerainty.
Korea’s response to Japan’s overtures was eerily similar to the latter’s response to the West in 1853. Although the Koreans resisted at first, they were finally strong-armed into signing the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876. The treaty guaranteed Korean independence (from China only) and granted exclusive trade privileges to Japan. Japanese citizens were also allowed to reside in Korea. Taking a page from the Western playbook, Japan then demanded extraterritoriality from the host country.
China, naturally, refused to acknowledge the existence of the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876. King Gojong’s court became divided between the conservative pro-China faction and the group which supported a progressive and pro-Japan stance. Relations between Japan and China became frosty as the years passed.
The Gapsin Coup further damaged the relations between China and Japan. A group of reformers supported by Japan attempted to oust the pro-China administration in Korea in 1884. The coup, however, was unsuccessful. Riots flared up in Seoul, and a mob burned down the Japanese legation. When the furor died down, Korea was forced to grant trade and diplomatic privileges with Japan. It was also compelled to pay an indemnity for the damage the rioters had caused to the Japanese legation. Japan and China stationed troops in Korea in the same year but agreed to withdraw them after signing the Sino-Japanese Convention of Tientsin in 1885.
Korea was engulfed in rebellions between the late 1880s and the early 1890s. Despite the truce China and Japan both signed, the Nagasaki Incident of 1886 and murder of the revolutionary Kim Ok-gyun in 1894 only added fuel to the fire. The situation finally worsened when King Gojong asked Chinese authorities to send reinforcements to help him suppress the Donghak Rebellion (1894).
2,000 Chinese troops were sent to Korea in response to King Gojong request. Japan, however, felt that this was a direct violation of the Convention of Tientsin. To counter Chinese presence in the peninsula and to protect their interests there, the Japanese authorities also sent their own troops. The hostilities became full-scale war when the Chinese and Japanese troops faced each other in combat in July 1894. The Japanese troops, however, managed to rout the Chinese in the Battle of Seonghwan (July 28-29, 1894) and Battle of Pyongyang (September 15, 1894).
The Japanese navy made quick work of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet in the Battle of the Yalu River two days later. Japanese troops then crossed the Yalu River into Manchuria and massacred Chinese soldiers and civilians alike. This gave them a foothold not only in Korea but also within the Qing Dynasty’s homeland itself. The invasion of Manchuria was quickly followed by the occupation of the distant Pescadores (Penghu Islands).
China was forced to sue for peace after the devastating defeats she suffered during the war. Representatives of both nations signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki (April 17, 1895) to end the hostilities. In this treaty, China was required to pay 200 million taels to Japan as indemnity. Japan also annexed Taiwan, the Pescadores, the Liaodong Peninsula, and Korea. France, Germany, and Russia later intervened and forced Japan to give up its claim to the Liaodong Peninsula. In exchange, China would pay Japan an additional indemnity of 30 million taels. The presence of Russian reinforcements in eastern Siberia forced Japan to abandon its claim to the Liaodong Peninsula. It was, however, free to occupy Taiwan, Korea, and the Pescadores. Japan perceived the Triple Intervention as another humiliation, and its relations with France, Germany, and Russia became frosty soon after.
Picture: Public Domain, Link
Meyer, Milton Walter. Japan: A Concise History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012.
Nish, Ian H. A Short History of Japan. New York: Praeger, 1968.
Perez, Louis G. A History of Japan. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
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