The Russo-Japanese War was a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against the Japanese Empire between February 10, 1904 to September 5, 1905. The impetus of the war was primarily based on territorial control of the Korean Peninsula and the area northwest of it, known as Manchuria.
While Japan had practiced the policy of isolationism for much of its history, by the late 1800s, the Meiji Restoration, an event which brought the Emperor of Japan back to power over the shogun warlords, brought Japan onto the world stage as a nation with imperial ambition.
Meanwhile, Tsarist Russia was facing an era of reorganization. It had succeeded in claiming the largest territorial mass in the world, but faced limitations on its military and navy due to the fact that most of its land was based near the Arctic and its ports were often frozen. The Russian Empire had little choice but to seek out new waterways as it attempted to expand its sphere of influence.
Conflict Over Korea
The foundations of the conflict were established during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Japan made an effort to keep the Korean Peninsula independent from China or other nations during the First Sino-Japanese War.
Although the nation secretly wanted control over Korea for itself, it was content with retaining it as simply a buffer zone between itself and other nations. Essentially, the region was engulfed in conflict, primarily focused around European powers and the United States. Into this inferno came the Russian fleet, docking in Port Arthur and teaming with Germany and France to limit the influence of Japan, particularly in the Liaodong Peninsula, on which Russia had set its sights.
Trans-Siberian Railway and the Boxer Rebellion
Beginning in the late 1800s, Russia began to unite its central regions near Europe with its territory in the East through the Trans-Siberian Railway, further threatening Japan. This occurred at the same time as the Boxer Rebellion, a failed effort by Chinese nationalists to oust foreign influence in their country. After the fall of the Boxers and the dismantling of the Qing Dynasty, Manchuria was left in the hands of the Russian Army. By 1903, Russia had consolidated its power in the region, threatening the so-called Japanese buffer zone.
Buildup to the Russo-Japanese War
Much like wars to come in the next few decades, the Russo-Japanese War was rooted in a series of complicated treaty obligations and alliances. While Russia had a mutual-defense pact with Germany and France, Japan had signed an agreement with Britain. This meant that if either country became engaged in war, the other powers would enter on its side.
However, the European countries also had treaty obligations with each other. This meant that, despite the agreements, Japan and Russia could fight each other without the threat of additional support. While this appeared to benefit both sides, Japan secretly felt it could not successfully defeat Russian interests without the help of Britain. Likewise, Russian advisors to Tsar Nicholas II pointed out that shipping troops and supplies to the remote area of Manchuria would be a challenge.
The Russo-Japanese War and the Treaty of Portsmouth
After a last-ditch effort for peace, Japan attacked Port Arthur and the Russian fleet. Over the next two years, Japan won the majority of naval and land-based battles, much to the consternation of international observers. The war ended in 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth, giving Japan control over Korea. Both sides suffered horrific losses, with a combined casualty number of 130,000 soldiers and 20,000 Chinese civilians.
Politically, this conflict established Japan as a major power on the world stage, promoting its territorial ambition that ultimately led to World War II expansionism. In addition, the losses suffered by Russia damaged the reputation of the Tsar, helping to lead to the Russian Revolution of 1905.