Between 1904 and 1905, Russian and Japanese forces fought in the destructive Russo-Japanese War. The conflict started when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Russian Pacific Fleet on February 8, 1904. By the end of the war in 1905, Japan was the undisputed power in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Fight for Supremacy in Asia
Despite its victory in the Sino-Japanese War and its annexation of Korea, Taiwan, and the Penghu Islands, Japan’s ministers still considered the Treaty of Shimonoseki a failure. The country tried to claim the Liaodong Peninsula, but Russia, Germany, and France (Triple Intervention) forced it to give up its claim. The presence of Russian troops in eastern Siberia definitely “helped” Japan in its decision to abandon the peninsula. Russia later forced China to lease Port Arthur which finally gave it a warm-water port in the Pacific. This move, however, only rubbed salt to Japan’s wounded pride.
When the Boxer Rebellion exploded in 1900, Russia and Japan both joined the Western coalition in response to the foreign community’s pleas for help. The Russian officials, however, refused to evacuate their troops from northern China even after the rebellion was quelled. Instead, it took advantage of the situation to establish a foothold in Korea and northern China. A fuming Japan appealed to the international community, but its ministers’ requests only fell on deaf ears.
Japan never forgot this humiliation. Over the years, the government poured resources to strengthen its army and navy. The government invested in heavy industries such as steelworks, railway networks, and shipbuilding. By the early 1900s, it was one of the wealthiest industrialized nations in Asia. Its military’s morale was also at an all-time high.
Britain and Japan became allies in 1894 to counter Russian presence in eastern Siberia. The alliance was solidified further in 1902. Discussions continued between the representatives of Japan and Russia, but Russia’s obstinacy only led to the breakdown of the negotiations in 1904. Japan was at the end of its rope.
The Russo-Japanese War
On the evening of February 8, 1904, the Japanese warships attacked the Russian fleet anchored at the harbor of Port Arthur. The torpedoes were able hit two battleships (the Tsarevich and the Retvizan) and a cruiser (the Pallada) until all three vessels sank. Japanese warships then blockaded the port, while the Russian crew scrambled to the mainland.
News of Japan’s unannounced attack on the Russian naval base shocked the international community. Russia scrambled to send reinforcements to Manchuria, but they were mostly defeated by the more mobile and adequately supplied Japanese troops. While Russian troops were engaged in combat on land, the naval fleet led by Admiral Rozhestvensky was on its way from its base in the Baltic to Asia. Passing through the Suez Canal was out of the question as it was held by Britain, so the fleet was forced to sail south to the Cape of Good Hope and enter the Indian Ocean there. The Russian navy, however, ran into trouble as most of the coaling and repair stations from Africa to China were held by the British.
Loss and Compromise
Despite this spectacular victory, the Japan knew that the country could not go on a war of attrition against Russia. They had lost thousands of soldiers already and could not afford to lose more. After eighteen months of war, Japan’s ministers requested that President Theodore Roosevelt mediate between them and Russia. Russia, in the midst of a revolution itself, welcomed this reprieve and accepted the offer. On August 10, 1905, representatives of the United States, Russia, and Japan gathered in New Hampshire. Nervous of Japan’s newfound power and eager to contain it, President Roosevelt pressured Japan’s representatives to take whatever Russia proffered during the negotiations. The negotiations lasted until the end of August, and the treaty was signed on the September 5, 1905.
The terms included the annexation of Liaoning and Korea to Japan, as well as the promise that Russia would not attempt to interfere in Korean internal affairs. Japan also took the Russian South Manchuria Railway, and took over the lease of Port Arthur. Russia agreed to let go of the southern portion of the Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in favor of Japan. Russian representatives, however, frustrated the Japanese negotiators when they stubbornly insisted that they would not pay an indemnity. The Japanese won the war, but the Russians were able to rout them in the negotiations.
The Japanese people, unaware of the cost of the war and the fact that the government could not afford to prolong the hostilities, felt that the Treaty of Portsmouth was another blow to their national pride. Protests and riots soon broke out when news of Japanese representatives’ compromise reached the people. The Japanese public heaped the blame on America when the reviled representatives informed their government of the events in Portsmouth and how President Roosevelt pressured them agreeing to the compromise.
Despite the existence of the Treaty of Portsmouth, peace remained elusive for both countries. Russia’s loss at the Battle of Tsushima fueled the 1905 Revolution and weakened the Romanov Dynasty. On the other hand, the humiliation brought by the treaty would lead to Japanese jingoism in the succeeding years.
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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