A race to war: Japanese public intellectuals and racial explanations of the Russo-Japanese War


Völker Europas wahret eure heiligsten Guter (‘People of Europe, Protect Your Most Sacred Goods’ aka ‘The Yellow Peril’). Hermann Knackfuss, 1895. Represented as the defenders of Christendom are France, Germany, Russia, Austria, Italy, and Great Britain.

Abstract: Nominally fought over competing interests in Korea and Manchuria, the Russo-Japanese war had a significance that far outweighed its strategic reach. Central to its legacy was its outcome – the defeat of an old European Great Power by an aspiring non-European imperial state. This outcome inspired a great deal of racial and geostrategic introspection, whilst intensifying concerns in the West about ‘Yellow Peril’ that would one day overthrow European dominance. This article argues that the impact of the Russo-Japanese War on racial thinking in Japan was as significant as it was abroad, to the extent where the conflict was understood by key intellectuals as nothing short of a race war. These figures, including political philospher Kat? Hiroyuki, historians Taguchi Ukichi and Asakawa Kan’ichi, and biologist Oka Asajir?, identified the outcome of the conflict as evidence that the established Eurocentric hierarchy of races was wrong. Japan’s success, they argued, showed that the Japanese race (distinct, it should be noted, from other Asians) was at least on a par with their white rivals. Furthermore, some argued that it was in fact the Russians who should be excluded from the upper echelons of the racial hierarchy. Their work reveals the profound impact of the events of 1904-1905 on Japanese self-perception and confidence – and reveals the roots of racial attitudes that continue to bedevil the nation in the 21st century. 

Keywords: Race, social Darwinism, Russo-Japanese War, Russia, Japan, Meiji, biologism, racism. 

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was a conflict of firsts. At least a decade in the making, hostilities between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan commenced with a surprise Japanese attack on the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur in the 8th of February, 1904. In the following 18 months, the world witnessed the first use of wireless communications in a war, the first engagement between fleets of steel battleships on the high seas, the first extended period of trench warfare, and the first Japanese occupation of Seoul. By the end of the war, after bloody engagements at Port Arthur, Sandepu, Mukden, and Tsushima, observers were presented with yet another first: the defeat of a European colonial power by a non-European foe. It is the last of these ‘firsts’ that provides the central theme of this paper. The defeat of a white, European power by a non-white, Asian power had powerful resonances not only in Japan, but across the world. To a significant element within the Japanese intelligentsia – men with public and official influence – the Russo-Japanese war was, put simply, a race war.

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