[In Our Time] The Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War

01/04/2021 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podcastaddict.com/episode/121199017

Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p09cgzlq.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the conflict between Russia and Japan from February 1904 to September 1905, which gripped the world and had a profound impact on both countries. Wary of Russian domination of Korea, Japan attacked the Russian Fleet at Port Arthur and the ensuing war gave Russia a series of shocks, including the loss of their Baltic Fleet after a seven month voyage, which reverberated in the 1905 Revolution. Meanwhile Japan, victorious, advanced its goal of making Europe and America more wary in East Asia, combining rapid military modernisation and Samurai traditions when training its new peasant conscripts. The US-brokered peace failed to require Russia to make reparations, which became a cause of Japanese resentment towards the US. With Simon Dixon The Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History at University College London Naoko Shimazu Professor of Humanities at Yale NUS College, Singapore And Oleg Benesch Reader in Modern History at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2020-05-03


  • The most interesting thing about the war itself was learning that Russia panicked, sent its Baltic Sea fleet all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to the Pacific theatre, only for them to be destroyed by the Japanese as soon as they reached. And furthermore, that the fleet itself panicked in the North Sea, and fired at English fishing trawlers worried that they were Japanese torpedo boats.
  • Also interesting: the UK and Japan were in an alliance at the time, and the UK and Russia were not (because this was also the time when the UK was worried about Russia trying to invade India). So the UK used to sell Japan Welsh coal, while the Russians had to use their own dirty coal. The Japanese ships gave off very little smoke and could sneak up on the Russians – who were giving off so much black smoke that they were advertising their presence.
  • Also interesting: the army and the political leadership was talking up the joy of gloriously dying in battle. The privates were sending letters home worried about who would handle the family farm if they came back crippled or not at all.
  • Interesting points in the episode not really related to the war but to the larger context: I had seen some Twitter threads talking about the ‘invention’ of Japanese nationalism and religion, but this episode made it a little concrete – talking about how conscripts going down the spine of Japan by railroad would be seeing Japan for the first time and then seeing themselves as Japanese rather than belonging to their village. And also how bushido was only talked up and popularised at the end of the nineteenth century – and a whole bunch of peasant conscripts was told for the first time in history that they had inherited the legacy of the samurai. Smirk emoji.
  • Also interesting context: Japan, China, and Russia were in a great game for ‘strategic depth’ in Korea the way the British Empire and the Russian Empire were in Central Asia. Book I read a long time ago and enjoyed about The Great Game: Tournament of Shadows. To begin with, Japan didn’t even want Korea as much as it didn’t want China or Russia to be in Korea and in a position to attack Japan. Which is very reminiscent of the bit in Jingo! about sending an army to pacify the frontier of Klatch, but then you had to collect taxes and pacify a new frontier.
  • Interesting context which I’d love a separate episode on: the Meiji Reformation and Japan Westernising and modernising in two generations.
  • And in similar manoeuvering, the Liberal party had come to power in Britain at this time on a platform of not getting involved in costly Afghan wars, so they were happy to see the Russians tied up elsewhere. And even Kaiser Wilhelm had been encouraging the Russians to go east so that they wouldn’t be bothered to keep troops in the west.
  • Apparently two rival Polish leaders (socialist and nationalist) both landed up in Tokyo to ask the Japanese to support revolution in Russian occupied Poland, and only ended up badmouthing each other to the Japanese and fighting in the street. Kaamedy.
  • Russian POWs in Japan were allowed to get their wives and families over and live outside prison (just the officers). Whatay.
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s brokering of peace won him a Nobel peace prize but also left the Japanese resentful of the Americans for having destroyed their chances at capturing Russian territory. And then thirty seven years later…

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