• Kyodo News


Before starting the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the Japanese government ignored a tip that a Russian politician long considered a key war advocate was trying to avoid the conflict by proposing an alliance with Japan, according to papers uncovered by a University of Tokyo historian.

The finding could lead to a revision of the widely accepted view in Japan that it was goaded by Russia into starting the 1904-1905 war, which stemmed from the two countries’ rival imperial ambitions over Manchuria and Korea, experts say.

It may also attract attention in Japan because NHK in November began airing a three-year TV drama series based on a saga by the late novelist Ryotaro Shiba that depicts the Russo-Japanese War as one of self-defense for Japan.

A draft of the abortive alliance was discovered at the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg. It bears the signature of Aleksandr Bezobrazov, an informal trade minister and trusted adviser to Czar Nicholas II, according to Haruki Wada, the professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo who found the document.

Dated Jan. 10, 1904, the document says Russian expansion beyond the Liaodong Peninsula into the Korean Peninsula and deeper into China is not only unnecessary but will weaken Russia, and that Russia should be allowed to develop natural resources in Manchuria, while Japan should have free rein in Korea.

Bezobrazov’s work on the draft was first communicated to Japan’s Foreign Ministry by telegraph on Jan. 1, 1904, by a Japanese diplomat in Russia. The diplomat reported to the ministry in detail about the proposal 12 days later.

Wada has also found in an archive of South Korea’s National Institute of Korean History a telegram relaying the message from the ministry to the Japanese mission in Korea.

Despite the tip, Foreign Minister Jutaro Komura met with Prime Minister Taro Katsura, along with the ministers in charge of the army and navy, on Jan. 8, when they agreed to initiate hostilities.

Tokyo at the time believed that Russia was dominated by war advocates and it was on alert, thinking that Moscow was planning to advance into Korea after encroaching on Manchuria. Japan later occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The decision to go to war with Russia was formalized on Jan. 12, 1904, at a meeting in the presence of the Emperor and Japan declared war on Russia the following month.

Wada’s findings will be published in a two-volume book starting later this month.

“It was unexpected that Bezobrazov, who was considered the central figure in the ‘war party,’ was attempting to make a peace overture,” he said. “The history of the runup to the Russo-Japanese War needs to be reconsidered by piecing together newfound materials from Russia and South Korea, as well as documents in Japan.”

Shinji Yokote, a professor of Russian history at Keio University in Tokyo, said the circumstances leading to the war have so far relied heavily on the memoirs of Sergei Witte, who was an opponent of Bezobrazov. His account may therefore have been one-sided.

Yokote said he will reserve judgment on the significance of the proposed alliance between Japan and Russia until after reading all of Wada’s latest study.

One of Shiba’s best-selling books, “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“The Cloud at the Top of the Hill”), on which the NHK drama is based, claims Russia drove Japan into the bloody conflict and that Japan had no choice, citing well-known proverbs like “a cornered rat will attack the cat,” and “despair makes cowards courageous.”

Shiba is known for his historical novels and essays on Japan. He won the Naoki Prize for fiction and was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit by the government. He died in 1996 at age 72.

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