First Sino-Japanese War

Japanese History: First Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895

First Sino-Japanese War

The First Sino-Japanese War from August 1894 to April 1895 is one of the most important wars in Japanese history in that it heralded Japan's appearance on the world stage as a serious player.

Korea had traditionally been a protectorate, or tributary state, of China. However, there was domestic tension in Korea between reformists, who wished to strengthen ties with Japan, the force for modernization in Asia, and traditionalists who orientated towards China, the traditional "landlord". Furthermore, Japan, in the throes of modernization during the Meiji Period, was acutely in need of secure access to natural resources, many of which it lacked. Korea was a potential source of such resources that Japan at least wanted access to unhampered by Chinese interference and, ideally, wished to control.

Sino-Japanese War.
Japanese troops in action during the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895
Sino-Japanese War.
Wood block print of the Sino-Japanese War

1884 Gapsin Coup d'etat

In 1884, pro-Japanese, modernist Korean radicals staged a coup d'etat, the Gapsin Coup, against the traditionally pro-Chinese Korean government. The insurgents were crushed three days later in a counter-coup with help from Chinese troops, destroying the Japanese legation in the process, with the death of several Japanese.

This caused a row between China and Japan which officially ended in 1884 with the signing of the Convention of Tientsin, avoiding outright war. China in effect agreed to Korea becoming a co-protectorate under itself and Japan. Among other things, the Convention stated that neither side would send troops into Korea without first notifying the other side. Nevertheless, China left its "Resident" in Korea, and maintained an active role in that country's affairs, at the expense of Japan's interests wherever possible.

On top of this, several incidents in the following years kept relations between China and Japan icy. For example, there was the Nagasaki Incident of 1886 when China (which had apparent naval superiority) refused to apologize for deaths of Japanese policemen in Nagasaki caused by widespread rioting by Chinese sailors throughout the city on two occasions. China further humiliated Japan by insisting that Chinese sailors not be prohibited from wielding swords in Japan.

Eight years later, in 1894, Japan's pride suffered a further indignity by China's taking upon itself to return to Korea of the body of a pro-Japanese Korean activist, Kim Ok-gyun, instrumental in the Gapsin Coup, who had been assassinated by reactionaries while under Japanese auspices.

Then in 1894 there was a revolt by Korean peasants against an exploitative and corrupt Korean magistrate in the town of Gobu. The peasants fought under the flag of the Donghak movement, which had originated in 1860 as a modernizing movement, albeit based on an appeal to old Confucian principles, with the aim of doing what the Japanese were doing: protecting their country from Western aggression by adopting Western-style institutions and values (democracy, human rights, nationalism) and thus acquire power to resist the West.

This Donghak Peasant Rebellion was successful, spreading to other areas, and forcing the Korean government to come to terms with it. Powerless against it, the government therefore requested assistance from China to crush it, and China sent 2,700 troops. Although not actually required in the end, the Chinese troops entered Korea without Japan having been informed in advance (according to Japan, but which China denied). In response, Japan sent 4,500 troops to Korea. With the Donghak rebellion over, China stated its intention to withdraw from Korea, but appointed a resident there in order to reassert Korea's tributary status. On the other hand, Japan tried to force the Korean government to make modernizing reforms which would work counter to Chinese interests, which Korea refused to do. Less than a month later, on July 23, 1894, Japanese troops deposed the Korean king, annulled Korean-Chinese treaties, and proceeded to try and expel the Chinese from Korea. War was declared on August 1.

Sino-Japanese War.
Ito Sukeyuki was the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet during the Sino-Japanese War
Sino-Japanese War.
The Matsushima, flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Sino-Japanese War


The Japanese beat the Chinese navy, in spite of China's greater tonnage, thanks mainly to better Japanese organization on the one hand, and the inefficiency and corruption of the Chinese on the other - corruption, unhalted even during war, that drained the Chinese navy of needed resources. Chinese ground forces, too, were no match for the Japanese. By the end of October, not only had Japan expelled the Chinese from Korea, but had entered China itself. Japan succeeded in establishing control over the whole of the Yellow Sea by going north through Manchuria (i.e. north-east China, right above Korea) to take the Liaodong Peninsula, west to Beijing, capturing Weihaiwei on the tip of the peninsula across from the Liaodong Peninsula, as well as Taiwan.

Treaty of Shimonoseki

On April 17, 1895, China and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, whereby China recognized Japan's possession of the Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan and the Penghu Islands. Japan was soon after forced by Russia, with Germany and France in tow, to give up Liaodong, but in return for additional (and stupendously massive) indemnities from China.

Japan was now the kingpin not only in Korea, but in the whole of Asia, and had finally humiliated the East's traditional overlord, China. Korea was transformed, with its old social order abolished and Western-style reforms introduced. Japan's new rival in Asia was Russia, who would experience a similar (unexpectedly hard) kick in the pants from Japan fifteen years later.

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