There are striking affinities between Japan and Russia, noticeable even before either country was fully aware of the other.

Both were backward by 19th-century European standards — economically, industrially, scientifically. Both felt it keenly, and responded similarly. Two clashing factions arose in each country — one agitating for the adoption of Western ways, the other insisting on the moral superiority of the native culture.

Two thinkers who would have found much to talk about, had they met, are Sakuma Shozan (1811-64) and Pyotr Chaadaev (1794-1856). Sakuma in 1849 wrote of Western learning that it “grasps what is essential, and ours does not. We drown in talk of lofty abstractions. … As a country (Japan has) completely lost touch with the truth residing in the penetration into the principle of all phenomenon.”

And Chaadaev, in 1829, wrote: “Nothing of what was happening in Europe reached us. (Russia) stood apart from the world’s great venture. … While the whole world was building anew, we created nothing.”

Sakuma, dubbed “an evil and heinous traitor,” was assassinated by “imperial loyalists.” Chaadaev was declared clinically insane and sentenced to house arrest.

Europeans, to the Japanese — even Japanese who admired them — were “barbarians.” They were strong, advanced and had done marvelous things, but morally they stank. Exemplifying that view is Saigo Takamori (1828-77), who died leading an abortive revolt against Westernization. “Once,” he wrote, “I got into an argument with a man. He refuted my argument that the Westerners were uncivilized. … I explained to him that truly civilized countries would have led the uncivilized ones to enlightenment by adopting a policy of benevolent and well-meant teaching” — instead of conquering them.

He too was an “imperial loyalist.” Russian counterparts were known as Slavophiles. Russia’s superiority, as they saw it, lay in the age-old peasant commune — the joint ownership of land whose inevitable evolution was toward a human brotherhood inconceivable under European notions of capitalism, competition and private property.

Both countries were force-marched by nationalist despotisms into and through an industrial revolution. Russia had long been expansive; Japan became so. In 1895 it won a war against China, astonishing the world. Russia was alarmed: It, too, had interests in China. In 1896, it led a Triple Intervention — a demand, backed by France and Germany, that Japan surrender its territorial gains, notably the Liaodong Peninsula with its prize harbor, Port Arthur (present-day Lushunkou). Japan, without allies and militarily weak, yielded, seething.

The stage was set for the Russo-Japanese War.

It broke out in 1904. Perhaps it needn’t have. Geopolitics aside, Japan and Russia could have been friends. Many Japanese and Russians were.

An early episode involves Russian naval officer Vasily Golovnin who, in 1811, commanded a ship exploring the Japan-claimed Kuril Islands. Golovnin and his crew were captured and held by the Japanese for two years. Later, he wrote a book about the experience. Captives and captors had grown so close, he wrote, that there were tears at parting.

In September 1903, Yoshifuru Akiyama, the father of the modern Japanese cavalry, visited Siberia to “take a good look at things,” as he says in Ryotaro Shiba’s 1979 historical novel, “Clouds Above the Hill.” Shiba describes exuberant welcoming parties, convivial drinking and mutual admiration. “Someday,” Shiba has Akiyama muse to himself, “I will have to meet these fine, warmhearted fellows on the battlefield.” Worthy friends, he seems to be saying, make worthy enemies.

Today, the Russo-Japanese War is a historical footnote. But Japan at the time saw itself facing annihilation. Japan’s “power and military resources don’t amount to even one of Russia’s little fingers,” elder statesman and former Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909) says in Shiba’s novel. Ito wanted to ally with Russia. Other statesmen favored an alliance with Britain — but what was in it for Britain?

“The Japanese themselves,” Shiba writes, “regarded the Far East as a backward, provincial part of the world.” In 1900, says Shiba, Foreign Minister Shuzo Aoki “addressed an unprecedented memorial to the emperor himself.”

“We are only half civilized,” Aoki wrote. “I find that 80 to 90 percent of the Japanese who walk in the streets are still clothed in barbarous traditional dress. In this semicivilized state, we will certainly not be able to overthrow the oppression of the mighty Russian Empire.”

As it happened, Britain had its own reason to fear Russia, whose expansion into Afghanistan threatened the routes to India. Britain responded cordially to

Japanese overtures. Sealed in 1902, the alliance raised Japanese confidence — somewhat. The contrast to the brazen, scarcely sane self-assurance Japan pitted against the United States a generation later is stark. The odds in 1904 were against Japan, and the government — though not the feverishly bellicose public and press — knew it.

Ito feared the worst: “If the Japanese Army is annihilated on the plains of Manchuria, and all the Navy’s ships sunk in the Tsushima Strait,” Shiba has him saying, “I will pick up a rifle and become a common soldier … I will die in a hail of gunfire.”

Financier Eiichi Shibusawa bluntly told an army general who’d come to plead for financial support, “Japan does not have the money to go to war against Russia. Halfway through, the nation will go bankrupt and perish.”

It was nearly bankrupt even without war. Nearly half the budget fed the military, while the people starved.

“This huge budget to prepare for war … was possible,” Shiba remarks, “because the Japanese had grown accustomed to poverty.”

Negotiations with Russia broke down. Japan insisted on acknowledgment of its rights and interests in Korea. Russia refused. Why not? If push came to shove, said a former Russian war minister to his slightly less-complacent successor, “one Russian soldier to every two Japanese will be quite sufficient.”

So it seemed, when the two sides first clashed at Incheon in Korea. Japan’s victory stunned the Japanese themselves. The Japanese consul in Korea, writes Shiba, “was stupefied and then began to cry. Could it really be that the Japanese had defeated Caucasians?”

This is the first of two pieces on the Russo-Japanese War. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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