Across a waterfront park in the Shirahama district of Yokosuka, beyond a bronze statue of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, the 15,000-ton Mikasa, his flagship in the Battle of Tsushima (1905), is anchored in concrete — its chrysanthemum figurehead golden in the winter light, the Rising Sun snapping at the stern.
Less than a nautical mile off the Mikasa’s port beam is where the USS Kitty Hawk Strike Group now moors. The venerable battlewagon and the state-of-the-art strike group, part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, are linked by a chain of events that took place in the first half of the 20th century.
Japan, despite having crushed Russia on land and at sea, was as eager to face peace as its adversary, having spilled more blood and spent more cash than it could afford. Following the Battle of Tsushima on May 28, 1905, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation of the terms of peace was welcome.
The resulting Treaty of Portsmouth recognized Japanese suzerainty over Korea and gave Japan the southern half of Sakhalin Island, concession rights at Port Arthur (Lushun) and Dalian, and control of the Southern Manchurian Railway.
But the Japanese people, heavily taxed to fund the war, felt cheated by the treaty, which did not require Russia to pay reparations. Heikichi Ogawa and other rightwing figures organized a protest rally in Hibiya Park on Sept. 5, the day on which the treaty was to be signed. The rally turned ugly and rioting spread throughout Tokyo. When the last blazes were extinguished, at least 17 people were dead and 1,000 injured, with 70 percent of the city’s police boxes left as smoldering ruins.
Japan had gone to war with Russia to prevent Czar Nicholas II from extending his hegemony to the Korean Peninsula — poised, like a dagger, at Japan. Victory had cemented the status quo on the peninsula in favor of Japan. Japanese jingoists had long believed Korea was destined to benefit from Japanese protection.
More significantly, the war had given Japan an interest in Manchuria.
Manchuria was an interest of a different order. A mineral-rich territory of 1,536,000 sq. km, it could absorb the overflow of Japan’s burgeoning population.
Prime Minister Taro Katsura, Chief of Staff Aritomo Yamagata and other rightist politicians equated national identity with military power and territorial expansion. So by 1915, Yamagata was declaring “Manchuria is Japan’s lifeline.” A decade later, orator and publicist Yusuke Tsurumi was telling American audiences “Manchuria is watered by the blood of Japanese patriots; their graves and battle monuments dot the landscape from Port Arthur to Mukden. The land may belong to China, but it is hallowed soil for the sons of Nippon.”
The retrospective shift in the focus of the war from Korea to Manchuria was abetted by the absence of a truly free Japanese press. (And in considering how a nation could accept a shift in the rationale for something as momentous as war, one needs only consider the American public’s swallowing of Washington’s reconfigured casus belli for the invasion of Iraq.)
Neither the press nor any other institution challenged the myth that the “Japanese spirit” vanquished the Russians. The Czar did command numerically superior forces; however, the bulk of his army remained in Europe, so Russians only slightly outnumbered Japanese in the field.
The pivotal role of the Japanese spirit was popularized by “Human Bullets: A Soldier’s Story of the Russo-Japanese War,” a memoir from the pen of Lt. Tadayoshi Sakurai. The Port Arthur veteran’s vivid reminiscence sold 40,000 copies in Japanese within a year of publication in 1906.
Later, in translation, the English-speaking reader learned that the lieutenant averred, “the spirit of Yamato [Japan], as firm as the iron of a hundred times beating and as beautiful as the cherries blooming on a thousand boughs — that Tamashii [spirit] proved too powerful for the completest of mechanical defence.”
The reality was different. “Morale among Japanese soldiers during the siege of Port Arthur was low,” says Sandra Wilson in 1999’s “Russo-Japanese War in Cultural Perspective, 1904-05.” “Some soldiers had actually to be forced on to the battlefield.”
Japan’s victory over Russia, the triumph of an Eastern nation over a Western power, sparked nationalist movements in Asian territories under foreign domination. Chinese students, inspired by the Japanese victory and angered by American discrimination against Chinese immigrants, organized an anti-U.S. boycott in 1905. This, suggests the historian Warren I. Cohen, in 2000’s “East Asia at the Center,” was “arguably the first sustained nationalist movement in Chinese history.”
Over the following decades, the Chinese nationalist movement gained momentum under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Among the nationalists’ goals was the liberation of Manchuria from Japanese control. But by 1930, when Japan was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, Manchuria’s value as a “lifeline” soared.
Japan’s Kwantung Army, guardian of the Southern Manchurian Railway, could no longer tolerate what it regarded as a spineless foreign policy that denied Japan parity with the great Western powers. Its response to Chinese nationalism was to bomb the railway near Mukden on Sept. 18, 1931, and blame the Chinese. The army then used the incident as a pretext to conquer Manchuria. “The age of Japanese militarism had dawned,” says Cohen. The so-called Manchurian Incident led to the army’s establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo there in February 1932.
A mob had attacked the U.S. Embassy during the rioting sparked by the anti-treaty rally in Hibiya Park in 1905. This unprecedented act of violence proved to be an omen of a changing U.S.-Japanese relationship.
In 1906, the U.S. Navy began drawing up contingency plans for war with Japan. By 1907, Japanese naval strategists, according to Cohen, were representing the United States as a possible enemy. Points of friction were American mistreatment of Japanese immigrants and the two countries’ competition for Chinese markets. U.S. plans to dilute Japanese influence in Manchuria further intensified Japanese fear of America. The U.S. and Japan were the ascendant naval powers in the Pacific: A collision was perhaps inevitable.
It took another three decades for the decisive act to occur, however, and when it came, the aggressor was Japan. Believing its oil lifeline to be at risk, Japan struck at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Vice Adm. Nagumo, commander of the task force steaming toward Oahu, Hawaii, hoisted the “DG” signal flag on the mast of his flagship, which he had let it be known among his fleet meant exactly the same as Admiral Togo’s “Z” signal, flown from the Mikasa’s mast 36 years earlier: “The fate of the Empire depends on this battle. Let every man do his utmost.”
The Pearl Harbor attack was a brilliant tactic, but part of a strategy based on the belief that a spirit as firm as iron and as beautiful as cherry blossoms could overcome the materially wealthy United States. That strategy was flawed, and Japan’s total defeat would follow.
Following World War II, the Mikasa — preserved as a memorial in 1926 — was pillaged by local Japanese, stripped down in accordance with Japan’s demilitarization, and forgotten. It was restored, with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, and reopened to the public on May 27, 1961, the 56th anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima.
Although the Mikasa memorializes Japanese heroism and victory, to the student of history it helps explain why a U.S. Navy battle group is deployed in nearby Japanese waters.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.