Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

War with China

It was twenty-six years since 1868, when Japan's leading samurai had formed the plan to introduce reforms which would enable the Tennô's realm to hold its own among the civilized nations of the earth. Had success crowned their efforts? Was this country indeed able to brave any of the powers that had humiliated it at Kagoshima and Shimonoseki? Had the longed-for time at last arrived when deeply resented insults could be wiped out and old scores paid off?

You have seen how the refusal of Korea to receive the Tennô's ambassador had been resented by the more impatient samurai, and how the unwillingness of the government to take speedy revenge had led to serious revolts. A few years later, another effort had been made to enter into communication with the king of Korea, and again an insult had been offered. These slights, apparently passed over, had not been forgotten; and when, in 1876, the Japanese had the opportunity to dispatch an armed force without alarming either Russia or England, they compelled the Koreans to enter into a treaty of friendship and commerce, and obtained the right to reside and trade in three seaports and in the capital, Soül

In the opinion of the Japanese samurai, Korea was a dependency of Japan, owing to the conquest first under Empress Jingu and afterwards under the regent Hideyoshi; and it was therefore no wonder that the Japanese minister in Korea used his utmost endeavors to bring that peninsula under the rule of the Tennô. Serious disturbances took place twice, and the cause was easily traceable to Japanese intrigues. It was to counteract them that Li Hung Chang, the great Chinese statesman, advised the Korean king to enter into treaties with other nations; so that in 1882 Commodore Shufeldt signed a treaty on behalf of the United States, and since that time Americans may reside and trade in that unhappy Land of the Morning Calm. England, France, Germany, and Russia made treaties similar to that with the United States.

In 1884 a serious disturbance took place. The Japanese had made an agreement with a high Korean official, Kim ok Kyun (kyoon), to capture and carry off the king; but the plot failed, and both the Japanese minister and the Korean, with his fellow-conspirators, fled to Japan. After that Kim ok Kyun lived in Japan, where he was supported for ten years by the Japanese. In March, 1894, he was induced to come to Shanghai, where he was murdered by a Korean. The honor paid by China and Korea to the murderer made the Japanese furious.

It must be stated here that there is no country on earth, not even China, that is so wretchedly governed as Korea. The officers seem to be appointed for the sole purpose of robbing and stealing. A Korean farmer, when his crop of rice is very bountiful, will harvest only enough to support him and his family until the next season, and to have sufficient for seed. "Why should I harvest more?" a Korean will say, "that the mandarins (officers) may come and rob me of it? If they want that rice, let them go and cut it themselves."

There had been a failure of the crop in a southern province of Korea, and several people, dissatisfied with the officers, had begun a small rebellion. These people called themselves reformers, and they robbed and plundered until the king sent some soldiers against them. But these soldiers accomplished nothing, and the rebels did as they pleased.

The foreign ministers in Korea, with the exception of Mr. J. N. B. Sill, minister of the United States, Otori, minister of Japan, and Yuan (yoo-ahn), minister of China, were all absent on their vacation, when Yuan insisted that the king should ask the emperor of China for help to subdue the rebels. The king resisted for three weeks, but when the queen and her cousin Min, the prime minister, also begged him to do so, he submitted, and the request was sent. The Japanese kept themselves well informed, and the fact was soon known to the Tokyo government.

Japan had entered into a treaty with China, by which each agreed to send no troops into Korea without notifying the other power; and when Japan knew that China was preparing to dispatch a force, it was decided that now or never was the time to try the efficiency of army and navy, and at the same time to satisfy the war party of the samurai, and incidentally to settle old scores with Korea. No better time could have been chosen. Neither Europe nor America expected any disturbance, and no single power was prepared to interfere, while jealousy prevented the great powers of Europe from acting together. When at last China was ready to send troops, and notified Japan, the Japanese minister in Peking made a similar communication to the Chinese government. And so much dispatch had been used by the Japanese authorities that Otori (oh'-toh-ree)  could boast that the Japanese troops had landed at the port of Soul one hour before the first Chinese soldiers came ashore.

And now the Japanese government, knowing that the die was cast, continued its preparations steadily, but as secretly as possible. The reserves of the army were called out, and the navy left for Korea, every man determined to do his duty. The Japanese then gave notice to the Chinese government not to send any more troops; declaring that if it did so, the government would consider it an unfriendly act, in other words, it would mean war.

The Chinese government had engaged several English vessels to transport Chinese soldiers, and one of these, an English ship, the Kowshing, was overtaken by a Japanese man-of-war, and ordered to follow her. The captain signaled that the Chinese prevented him from obeying, whereupon he was advised to jump over-board. The Japanese now fired upon the transport, and sunk her.

This happened in July, 1894. The Japanese, in the meanwhile, had continued sending troops to Korea, until there were about three thousand men in Soül, while the Chinese had fortified themselves at Asan (ah-sahn), a port on the western coast of Korea. It was decided to drive out the Chinese troops, and Otori demanded of the king that he should order them to leave. The king replied mildly that he could not very well do so, since they had been sent at his request. But Otori knew how the Koreans detested the Japanese, so he decided to capture the king and keep him as a hostage, while the Japanese army left for the south.

Japanese landing troops


At four o'clock of the morning of July 23, 1894, the Japanese minister took the necessary measures. The city walls, near the palace, were occupied by his troops, and a detachment marched to the principal gate of the palace. They first attempted to burn the gate, but when this failed, they scaled the wall with a ladder and opened the gate from the inside. They then entered the grounds and marched upon the palace. Here was the frightened Korean guard, and a shot was fired. Who fired it will probably never be known, but an engagement followed in which one Japanese and seventeen Koreans were killed, and several of each party were hurt. The Japanese occupied the palace and kept the king a prisoner in it.

They were now ready to march upon Asan, and lost no time in doing so. Have you, my young friends, any idea of what a Chinese army is? Try, if you can, to imagine soldiers going to war with umbrellas, to keep from getting wet if it should rain! And think of officers who have studied tactics that say: "When you are in the presence of the enemy, put on hideous masks, and make horrible noises, so that they may be frightened." I have seen Chinese soldiers going to fight the Japanese, armed with bamboo poles, sharpened with tenpenny nails at the top. And I have seen others who when ready to fire off their guns, would close their eyes, and pull the trigger. These men were not regular soldiers at all; they were coolies, hired for this war. Most of them were stalwart enough, and with plenty of drill, they could have been trained as soldiers; untrained as they were, and led by cowardly and ignorant officers, what chance had they against the well-disciplined, drilled, and splendidly commanded troops of Japan—a nation naturally warlike?

The Japanese troops had come to fight, and went into battle willing to die for their Tennô and their country. The Chinese had been promised fifty taels (about $37.50) for every Japanese head they brought to their general. So they wanted to cut off heads, but did not care about losing their own. In the battle near Asan, on July 29, 1894, the Japanese utterly routed the enemy. The Chinese dispersed; the officers and generals disguised themselves as coolies, and made their way north.

Chinese soldiers


China had sent reënforcements, and its troops then occupied a very strong position at Ping-yang, on the Tatung River. August passed by without further fighting, although war had been regularly declared on the first of that month. On the 14th of September, the Japanese army, in command of Field Marshal Yamagata (yah-mahng'-ah-tah), was opposite the enemy, and on the 15th and 16th a battle took place. The Manchurian cavalry, a body of five hundred men, made a charge, but that was all the fighting, so far as the Chinese were concerned. The Japanese took a steep hill at the point of the bayonet, and easily dislodged the Chinese. Ping-yang was taken, and Yamagata began his march north to the Yalu (yah-loo)  River, which forms the boundary between China and Korea.

This part of China is called Manchuria, and is the cradle of the present house of Chinese emperors. They were very sorry to see this province invaded, and prepared to send strong reënforcements to arrest the Japanese march. This led to the first and only naval battle of the war. While the Japanese fleet was scouring the Yellow Sea to intercept the enemy's transports, smoke was seen in the distance to the north. Steaming in that direction, Admiral Ito, in command of the Japanese fleet, discovered that it was the famous North China fleet, and that it had been conveying transports.

The eager Japanese at once prepared for battle, and since their fleet hemmed the enemy in on the sea side, the Chinese were compelled to engage in a fight for which they had but little taste. They had, in reality, a stronger force than the Japanese, and their two battle-ships alone, the Ting-yuen (teng-yoon)  and the Chengyuen (cheng-yoon), ought to have defeated the less powerful Japanese fleet. But the weakness of the Tennô's vessels was more than counterbalanced by the patriotism, courage, and seamanship of the officers and crew. Every man, from admiral to powder monkey, was eager for the fight, and firmly resolved to do his duty. The result was easy to foretell. The Chinese lost several vessels, and it was with difficulty that the pride of China's navy, the two battleships from which such great things had been expected, made their way back to Wei-hai-wei (way-hi-way). This battle made the Japanese masters of the Yellow Sea, and the great Chinese empire could send no more troops by water.

Yamagata had little difficulty in forcing his way across the Yalu River, and started upon his long march to Peking. At this time, that is, in the beginning of November, a second army had left Japan, and, without meeting any obstruction, had landed at Ta-lien-wan (tah-lyen-wahng), a sheltered bay on the southeast coast of the Liao-tung (lee-ah-oh-tongue)  peninsula.

If you will take the map of Japan, and look at that large gulf called the Yellow Sea, you will see a smaller body of water, the Gulf of Pechili (pech-ee-lee), to the northwest of it. This is the key to Peking, the capital of China. On the north, this entrance was protected by the southern point of the Liao-tung peninsula, known as Port Arthur. The ablest engineers had constructed the walls and forts, and the natural position was so strong that foreign military men had pronounced it impregnable.

Right opposite the Liao-tung peninsula, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Pechili, is the Shan-tung (shahn-tongue)  peninsula. West of its northeastern extremity is a small natural harbor, defended by steep islands in front. Here, too, the hand of man has aided the forces of nature, and the result is a basin where, with the most ordinary precautions, a fleet may remain in complete security, and mock at the efforts of the boldest enemy.

[Illustration] from The Story of Japan by R. Van Bergen


Japan had firmly decided to march upon Peking and to dictate there the terms of peace to the "Solitary Man," as the Chinese call their emperor. But to prevent being attacked in the rear, she wanted to capture both Port Arthur and Wei-hai-wei. As she could not hope to be able to take Port Arthur by a front attack, she concluded to approach it from the land side, that is, from the rear. That is why Marshal Oyama (oh-yahmah)  had landed at Ta-lien-wan, and was now on the march against the strong fortress.

Escape by way of land was cut off to the Chinese braves (as the soldiers were called) defending the fortress, and the presence of the Japanese fleet prevented their escape by sea. Now, driven in a corner, even Chinese soldiers will fight. But what could they do against the well-drilled and disciplined troops of Japan? The officers commanding the Tennô's troops were old Satsuma or Choshiu samurai, who were now in their true element. Field Marshal Oyama was in supreme command, and General Yamaji (yah-mah-yee), the Blind Dragon, as he was affectionately called by his troops, because he had but one eye, commanded the attack. Yamaji gained much honor by his coolness and supreme indifference to danger. On November 21, the impregnable stronghold was captured, and the red sun on the white field floated over China's strongest fortress.

Up to this time the Japanese had conducted the war most humanely, and had earned the well-deserved admiration of the whole civilized world. The discipline had been perfect. No blood had been shed wantonly; peaceful inhabitants had been left undisturbed in life and property, and prisoners taken in battle had been kindly cared for. The wounded Chinese had received the same care and attention as was given to the wounded Japanese, and the severest critic could find no cause for reproach.

How differently had the Chinese acted! Wounded Japanese on a battlefield were eagerly sought, that they might be robbed of their clothing and valuables, and their heads were cut off for the sake of the promised reward. The cool and brave members of the Red Cross Society, when searching for the wounded, regardless whether they were friends or enemies, had been frequently attacked by these Chinese monsters, and when taken prisoners had been mutilated and put to death. A brave foreign naval officer, who was not in sympathy with Japan, told me that if American or European soldiers had conducted this war, they would have laid waste the territory through which they passed, to teach the Chinese the lesson that such barbarous cruelty can not remain unpunished.

When the Japanese entered Port Arthur and witnessed there the horrible outrages committed upon their countrymen, they were filled with rage, and determined to retaliate. The whole population was put to the sword, the innocent suffering with the guilty; but the Chinese for once received a much-needed lesson.

Through the inclement climate of Manchuria, in a desert of snow and ice, the first army corps continued slowly to advance. There was some doubt whether they would proceed to the northeast and capture Moukden (monk-den), the capital of Manchuria, or continue their way toward the Chinese capital.

It was in the latter part of January, 1895, that the third army, placed in command of Field Marshal Oyama, left for the Shan-tung peninsula to capture Wei-hai-wei in conjunction with the fleet. Again the army landed without difficulty, some distance east of the doomed stronghold, and, dividing into three corps, advanced by rapid marches. The Chinese had sunk several junks, and further strengthened the defenses of the entrance to the basin containing their crippled fleet, by a strong chain. But little did the bold Japanese care. Torpedo boats succeeded in effecting an entrance, and one of them rammed one of the great battleships so that she sunk at her moorings. Fleet and fortress surrendered, and the Chinese admiral, knowing that he would be held responsible for the loss of the fleet, committed suicide. At last Niuchwang (nee-oo-chwang)  was reached and taken May 4.



Meanwhile China had grown tired of the war. The Japanese had exposed the incapacity and corruption of the Chinese government, and no foreign power showed any desire to come to its rescue. The Japanese were, naturally enough, elated over their victories, and the native press began to suggest that it was time to establish a protectorate over the huge empire, and that the Japanese were the people to assume that duty. The Chinese began to express a wish to enter into negotiations for peace. But the Japanese declined receiving any one who was not provided with full authority to sign a treaty, and in the meanwhile continued their preparations to send a third army.

The emperor had established his headquarters at Hiroshima (hee-ro-shee-mah), and had called a session of the Diet, to vote the necessary money to carry on the war. There was, of course, no opposition. Every member, every samurai, would gladly have given his last penny and his life, had the glory of Japan demanded it. Even the people had taken the patriotic fever, and poor jinrikisha coolies would devote part of their scanty earnings to increase the war fund composed of voluntary contributions.

China's old statesman, Li Hung Chang, was now called to Peking, and ordered to proceed to Japan, to make peace. Before leaving, he called on the foreign ministers and probably satisfied himself as to how much the Japanese would be allowed to demand. Through the United States minister in Tokyo, the Japanese government was informed of Li's arrival, and Shimonoseki, Japan, was appointed as the place where the negotiations should be held. The Chinese government had engaged the services of Hon. John W. Foster of Washington, D.C., on account of his knowledge of international law.

Li Hung Chang arrived in Japan and met our old friend, Ito, the prime minister, who was appointed by the Tennô to represent Japan. One day, as the Chinese minister was returning from the meeting, a young Japanese fired a small revolver at him. The bullet penetrated above the eye. The murderer was taken prisoner, and upon examination it was found that he was not a samurai, but the son of a poor farmer, who had shown a worthless character from early youth. He had joined the soshi (soh-shee),—young vagabonds, too lazy to work, who openly sell their services to the highest bidder, to produce a riot, to commit murder, or any other lawless act. They are known to the government and to the police, and not only are they tolerated, but it seems they even receive support. The only explanation that can be given is that their leaders are samurai, which would fully account for their immunity. The murderer was arraigned in court, and condemned to imprisonment for life.

His victim recovered, and the peace negotiations were resumed. At last the two statesmen came to an agreement. By the terms of the treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895, the independence of Korea was to be acknowledged, China was to give to Japan the island of Formosa, the Liao-tung peninsula, and other territory, besides paying an indemnity of two hundred million taels (about one hundred and forty-eight million dollars); so you see that her incapacity and corruption cost her very dear. But now Russia, France, and Germany interfered. The ministers of those countries gave Japan the friendly advice not to take the Liao-tung peninsula, which meant the same thing as saying: "You shall not do it!" The Japanese government understood it in that way; and knowing that it could not hope to fight those three countries with any chance of success, it submitted, agreeing to accept, instead, an additional indemnity of thirty million taels.

You can easily understand how angry the Japanese, and especially the samurai, were when they heard of this interference. But they could do nothing but disguise their feelings, and continue their preparations until at last they might be able to retaliate on all the nations that had thwarted or insulted them.