Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Modern Japan

By the year 1871 Japan had fully entered upon the march towards her goal, that of transforming her people into a modern nation, abreast of modern ideas, equipped with modern appliances, fit to take her place in the front rank of the Great Powers of the world. Her progress was marvellous and her success complete. She sent out bands of earnest students to other lands, bidding them perfect themselves in the secrets of government, of manufacture, of naval and military training, and then return to instruct their fellow-Japanese. She invited foreign experts to make their homes in Japan and teach her people. From the first the English-speaking peoples had been her model, and her ambition is to become the "Britain of the East," a great naval and trading Power.

In 1871 posts and telegraphs were introduced, and in 1872 railways, and then in poured a whole flood of Western institutions and ways of government. In fact, the pace became too swift for many Japanese of the old school and, strangely enough, the Satsuma clan, which had done so much to open the land, was the first to cry halt! In 1877 they rose against the Government and decided for a return to the old feudal ways, and their chief led a powerful army of well-trained Samurai upon the capital. The war which followed was notable as giving the first hint of the power which slumbered among the common people of Japan. The Government army was composed of levies drawn from the people, and these matched themselves against the Samurai and won the day. The Satsuma rebellion was crushed, and it was seen that the farmer and the coolie could fight as well as the military men who had ruled them.

In 1884 English was introduced into the schools, and in 1889 the absolute rule of the Emperor was given up and a Constitution was granted, by means of which the people could take a share in the government. Houses of Parliament were set up, the people elected members to represent them, and laws, instead of being made at the will of the Emperor, had to be passed through Parliament.

Turn of Century Japan


In 1894 war broke out between Japan and China. All the world looked on to see what the Japanese army would do. A great deal had been heard of the brave and well-drilled Japanese soldiery, and now here was a chance to see what they were worth. But they were not severely tried, for the Chinese as a rule made haste to run away. Within a short time China was soundly beaten, and was forced to yield a large province and pay a heavy sum of money. But Japan was robbed of the fruits of her victory. Russia, Germany, and France stepped in and forbade the taking over of the Chinese province, and Japan had to be content with the island of Formosa.

The Japanese felt very angry about this, but they were not strong enough to stand against these three Great Powers, so they bided their time and kept on working. Day by day they trained their soldiers and sailors for a great struggle which they could see looming ahead, a struggle which would either destroy them or give them the place for which they longed, the position of the Great Power of the East. They had marked Russia as their most dangerous foe, and Japan rose as one man when war was declared with Russia.

The whole land flung itself into the fray, and the old Samurai spirit was shown by every class, high and low. Those who went to the front were the envy of every man left in Japan; those who were left at home worked—men, women, and children—for the national cause. Russia entered into the strife rather with a feeling of contempt, as if it were beneath the dignity of her vast empire to struggle with the little group of islands near her eastern coasts. But in a short time the Giant of the North was reeling under the crushing blows dealt by the brave islanders. By land and sea Russia was smitten in a terrible fashion. Her armies were dashed to pieces, and her ships were captured or sunk beneath the waves. Two chief events stand out before all others in this great war: the capture of Port Arthur and the naval battle in the Korean Strait.

Port Arthur is a seaport in that province of China which Japan was not allowed to take after the war of 1894. It had fallen into the hands of Russia, and the Japanese were doubly angry to see it in the hands of the nation which had chiefly prevented them from seizing it. So that when war broke out, the Japanese attacked the Russian garrison in Port Arthur with the utmost fury. The fighting before Port Arthur showed how Yamato Damashii, the Spirit of Old Japan, still filled the heart of the nation. The Russians fought splendidly, but the heroic islanders were not to be denied. They stormed the trenches and filled them with their dead, in order that the rear ranks might climb over their comrades' bodies to reach the parapets. Regiments were ordered on forlorn hopes where not a man could escape, and they went joyfully, counting it an honour to die for their Emperor. It was hopeless to contend with such burning valour, and Port Arthur fell on January 1, 1905.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


In May of the same year came the mighty naval victory which raised Japan to the pinnacle she longed to gain, that of a great sea Power. For many months the Japanese fleet had been waiting for the Russian fleet, which had set out from Cronstadt in October 1904. The Russian fleet was unlucky from the beginning. It had scarcely left Russia when it was seized with panic and committed a terrible blunder. When crossing the North Sea it actually thought that some English fishing-boats, quietly at work on the Dogger Bank, were Japanese torpedo-boats, and fired upon them, sinking a vessel and killing or wounding several English fishermen. There was an inquiry, and the Russians were compelled to apologise and pay compensation. But this fleet proved to be in no hurry to face the Japanese warships. It dawdled very slowly along, staying for weeks at a time here and there in friendly waters, and did not gain the Sea of Japan until May 1905. Here Admiral Togo pounced upon it and almost utterly destroyed it. Well might he be called the Nelson of Japan. He had been trained in an English school, and most of his ships had been built in British yards, and his sailors fought like British tars. At a blow Russia was stripped of her fleet and was helpless on the sea.

At this point the American President, Mr. Roosevelt, stepped in, and, through his good offices, peace was made. Japan took Port Arthur for her own, freed Korea from Russian influence, and gained the southern half of the large island of Saghalien. The latter territory had formerly belonged to Japan, but had been held by Russia after 1878.

Since the war Korea has fallen entirely into the hands of the Japanese, and Japan has stepped into the foremost rank of the Great Powers. She has entered into an alliance with Great Britain, but this alliance has no menace for any other country: it simply means that the two island kingdoms stand shoulder to shoulder in the interests of the world's peace, for without peace trade and commerce cannot flourish, and they are the life-blood of these allied nations.