Russia & Japan Part 1: Ordered Westwards

[The Russo-Japanese War – The End of The Cold War]

The War in Ukraine jolted the world to wake back up. The dream that future wars would only ever be fought in far-flung minor countries, far away from the chummy borders of North America, Europe and Australasia has crumbled. To respond to this rationally, rediscovering the hard-nosed realities of grand warfare, of Great Power politics is vital. Nowhere moreso is this true than with regards to Japan. A nation which has swung in the last century from swirling expansionism to shy pacificism. And yet now must face the reality that it, just as the nations of Europe, directly stares into the eyes of a resurgent Russia.

Moreover, such an analysis can be instructive globally. Western perspective on Russia is traditionally envisioned solely from one direction. With European Russia forming the core and Asian Russia an afterthought. Moscow sits in the Western half of the country, as do many of its other major cities, with the maw of Russia permanently opened over Eastern Europe. To understand the Japanese perspective we must flip Russia, and start at Siberia.

Directly bordering Mongolia, China and North Korea, with the Sea of Japan giving direct access to the Japanese islands the Tsars colonised the vast steppes of Siberia in a grueling 200-year campaign from 1580–1778. Always inhospitable and sparsely populated, what the region lacks in population, with a measure 33 million+ population, it more than makes up for in enormous natural resource reserves of petroleum, iron ore, coal diamonds and more.  

The Russian settling of Siberia coincided with the Japanese period of Sakoku (from 1633 – 1853) During this period Japan’s Shogun rulers shut itself off from the rest of the world, leading to extremely limited contact between the countries. Broken by the arrival of the American Commodore Perry, Russia and China would begin initial diplomatic links in the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda. This led to relatively cordial relations between the two nations, before competing ambitions in Korea and Manchuria eventually led to a fierce rivalry.  

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 marked an escalation into open war. Japan’s highly motivated military, forged by modernising reforms of the Meiji Restoration, proved decisive against the more lumbering Tsarist army. The robust defeat of the Russian forces, on land and at sea was seen contemporaneously as Japan’s ascension to the world stage. No longer a reluctant trading post to be prodded and harassed, but an assertive Great Power able and willing to engage and defeat European colonial powers. Korea was Japan’s and Manchuria lay wide open.

Yet Russia did not shrink from Japanese concerns after the war. Especially with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks morphed a relatively analogous fellow Empire into an utterly novel red workers-state. Japan sent troops to aid the Tsarist forces in the Russian Civil War, but similar to the other Western powers, met with limited success and no major gains as the Red Army eventually restored the boundaries of the Empire.

The bafflement and hostility at the existence of a communist country on the borders of the Japanese Empire led to a new sense of crusader zeal within the Imperial army. The Hokushin-ron (北進論) Strike North Group, doctrine encouraged the confrontation with the Soviet Union, to asset Japanese supremacy in Korea and Manchuria. While initially the favoured policy of the army, the border conflict which resulted with the USSR, from 1932 – 1939, ended with a Soviet victory. The Battles of Khalkhin-Go must surely rank as some of the most impactful, yet under-studied, engagements of the entire war. With Generals Grigoriy Shtern and Georgy Zhukov routing and destroying the Japanese Sixth Army in Mongolia. The defeat led to the signing of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Act and despite being members of opposing alliances, an uneasy peace fell between Japan and Russia.

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Map of Japanese Hokushin-ron plans for a potential attack on the Soviet Union. Dates indicate the year that Japan gained control of the territory. Attribution

This turn marked a watershed moment for Japan, with the struggle against the USSR put aside in favour of the alternative Nanshin-ron (南進) Southern Expansion Doctrine. This doctrine contrastingly aimed at confrontation with the United States of America over the Pacific and South-East Asia. Unlocking resources and territorial expansion from a multitude of European colonies in the region. It also shifted national priority from the land-based Army to the sea and marine capabilities of the Navy. This would be the war the Japanese Empire ended up actually fighting fully and to the death. With the attack on Pearl Harbor commencing on December 7th 1941, thereby the entire might of Japan turned to desperately struggle against the neigh-unlimited economic power of the United States.

On the 9th of August 1945, mere days before the Japanese surrender, with the Empire bloodied on the ropes across the Pacific, the Soviet Union rolled back into Manchuria and Korea. Adding further Communist countries to the Eastern Bloc, while also- along with the dropping of the US Atomic Bombs- sealing the final defeat for the Japanese Imperial Army.

Thus, the battle for supremacy in East Asia between Russia and Japan which began in 1905 came to a close. Japan was occupied, almost entirely by American troops (much to the annoyance of Stalin) and became a solid corner of the Asian-zone of the Western Bloc. Japanese society underwent a total transformation. With Article 9 of the Constitution revoking the nation’s “right of belligerency” in favour of American protection, and with the populace focusing their energies on internal economic and social development.

Yet the continued looming Soviet threat so close to Japan, and Communist adventurism in Asia, required Japan to conduct a careful balancing act. Giving deference to the United States as protector and political guide, and yet respecting the wishes of a Japanese population that had truly internalised the pacifist principles of the new Constitution. Japan acted as a staging ground for American troops during the Korean War, but played only an economic role itself, and likewise sent no troops to Vietnam. As the Cold War expanded into the 70s and 80s Japan continued to rebuild its indigenous defences and military capability- but always to be kept on a tight chain, entirely for territorial defence. Likewise, Japanese foreign policy became more assertive and loudly anti-Soviet, but remained pragmatic. Sanctioning the USSR for its invasion of Afghanistan, while focusing on trade, aid and investment to allied countries. The question of what role would Japan play in confronting Russia during the Cold War was answered very simply, a non-military economic one.

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Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982 to 1987) alongside Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Yet our puzzle is missing a number of pieces to make up a full picture: those being the Kuril Islands. Disputed and argued over since the first formal links between Russia and Japan, the controversy also contains the seeds of potential future conflict between the two. A full essay focusing on the controversy of the Islands will follow shortly. Along with an analysis of Japanese-Russian relations post-Cold War and into the Putin era.

Published by Sam L Barker

Curator and Writer of Far Side Virtual Freelance writer, editor and marketer

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