Your RDA of Irony

But What If David Is Meaner Than Goliath?

February 8, 1904:  Remember Port Arthur!

In Japan today, there probably are a half-dozen or so 125 year-olds celebrating this anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War. It is unlikely that there are similar commemorations in Russia. First, you don’t celebrate a defeat. More importantly, Russia had trouble keeping its troops alive in 1904; so the odds of anyone surviving another century of Tsarist incompetence, Soviet brutality, and the damn Russian climate would be very unlikely.

The Russo-Japanese War could be described as a fight between two vultures. The decaying corpse happened to be Korea. However, Japan was the more popular vulture. The American and British publics were rooting for it; my grandmother remembered pep songs for the Japanese. Japan’s imperialism was not necessarily more endearing than Russia’s, but the Little Bully seemed preferable to the Big Bully. For 90 years, ever since Waterloo finally pacified the French, the chief aim of British foreign policy was to contain Russian expansion.

The British and Russians were fighting proxy wars in Afghanistan, Persia, and the Balkans. They fought a real one in the Crimea. And to frustrate Russian expansion in the Pacific, Britain formed an alliance with that up-and-coming little power Japan. Of course, the British lent their unmatched expertise in training the Japanese navy. Furthermore, the British assistance was not merely academic. How do you think that the Japanese knew the exact movements of the Russian fleets?

On this day in 1904, Japan started the war with a surprise attack on the Russian base at Pearl…Port Arthur in Korea. The Japanese army soon overran all of Korea and then proceeded to bash the Russians in Manchuria. The war lasted 19 months; the Russians did not win a single battle. Worse, the disastrous incompetence of the Tsarist government led to rioting in Russian cities, mutinies in the armed forces and demands for reform that would drag Russia at least into the 18th century.

But even Japan was suffering from the cost of war–literally. For all its victories, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Modern war is expensive, and British assistance had not included blank checks. So both countries were ready for peace: Russia was tired of losing, and Japan was just tired. Despite the fact that Teddy Roosevelt looked somewhat Japanese, he was the accepted mediator for the peace negotiations which occurred at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The ensuing treaty established Japan’s hegemony over Korea; no, the Koreans were not at the conference.

Russia was so thoroughly humiliated that Britain finally felt that it could stop worrying about the Tsarist Empire. Indeed, Whitehall was finally noticing just how obnoxious Kaiser Wilhelm was. For its part, Russia considered the need for long-overdue reforms but decided to blame the Jews instead. The same Tsarist incompetence would soon commit Russia to the defense of Serbia; but that eventually would cure Tsarist incompetence. As for Japan, it had Korea and a little bit of Manchuria. What more could it possibly want?

  1. Rothgar says:

    That would be Uncle Willy to some amongst the British Royal?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Not Uncle Willy. He was grandson Willy to the only one who liked him, nephew Willy to his exasperated Uncle Bertie, and cousin Willy to the rest of the family.

      Indeed, it seems that Herr Hitler had more fans in the royal family than cousin Willy.


  2. rio imamura says:

    Thank you for reminding me of the day. However, Feb 8 doesn’t mean anything anymore to the Japanese. No papers reminded the date. 400,000 Japanese soldiers fought and more than 20% died.
    2 Million Russians mobilized and more than 6% died. Figures are from the website. I’m not sure of these numbers. My grandfather did not go to the war but told me about the battle sacrifice at the Port Arthur.

    Instead the Japan sea battle has been well remembered from the battle heroes as below:

    “Cloud Over the Hill”,written by Shiba Ryotaro from 1968 to 1972, is a non-fiction novel about three individuals who lived during the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) and contributed to Japan’s efforts in building a modern nation from a pre-modern decentralized group of villages. Japan had closed its country from foreign countries for the three centuries before the Meiji era. Japan’s ascend as a modern power started in the Meiji and managed to catch up with other powers (described as “cloud” that you can see after climbing the hill) in a few decades, culminating her victory of the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05) which shocked western powers. Since November 2009, a Japanese broadcasting organization, NHK, has started a series of TV drama based on the novel.

    Author Shiba fought in the Nomonhan battles against Russians. He didn’t write on that miserable losing battles.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you, Rio. I was hoping that you would provide us with your perspective.

      The story of Japan’s transformation–adapting three centuries of development in just 50 years–is remarkable and unparalleled. I probably would have been rooting for the Japanese in 1904 as well, even though I had a great-uncle in the Russian army. Actually, he probably would have been rooting for you; the Mikado was less of an Anti-Semite than the Tsar.

      Thanks again.


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