Japan To Asia: The Sino-Japanese War III

The popular narratives of warfare suited the army’s self-image and were part of a more general appeal to the literate public to support the armed institution. A credulous press abetted the army’s propaganda effort, and potential critics always faced the threat of censorship or worse. Still, in an era when imperialism and nationalism were in full bloom internationally, uncritical patriotism was not only easier and safer but also more accurately reflected widely held and accepted popular opinions of Japan’s place in the world.

High Command and Field Initiative

In theory the IGHQ unified civil-military functions as the place where the emperor, his military chieftains, and Prime Minister Itō devised national and military policy. In reality the central headquarters was pitted against ambitious field commanders who unilaterally tried to set military policy. Against their better judgment, Itō and army leaders bowed to Yamagata’s insistence that he be appointed the First Army commander. By the time 56-year-old Yamagata arrived at Inchon on September 12, the First Army had already captured Pyongyang. A few days later he caught cold while bathing in a river, developed complications, and although chronically ill refused evacuation and participated in a minor engagement on the Yalu in late October.

By early November, Yamagata believed that the war had reached a critical stage, and he had no intention of squandering opportunities by remaining idle.65 On November 3 he sent IGHQ three options for an active winter campaign: (1) land the Second Army at Shanhaiguan; (2) combine the First and Second armies on the Liaodong Peninsula; or (3) send the First Army to attack Mukden (Shenyang). From a base at Mukden, Yamagata would reorganize his army for the spring offensive against Peking and check the resurgence of Chinese forces in the region. IGHQ rejected the recommendations and ordered the First Army into winter quarters.

In mid-November, Yamagata received intelligence that the Chinese were massing on his northern flank and again recommended an offensive. He complained that the enforced inactivity had dampened troop morale, allowed the Chinese to take advantage of the lull to improve their defenses, and conceded to the Chinese a secure rear area in Manchuria that Japan would need in order to fight the Zhili plain battle. IGHQ replied ambiguously but did not reject his latest recommendations outright.

The Second Army’s capture of Port Arthur in late November with fewer than 300 casualties was all the more impressive because the army had publicly implied that it would be a hard fight with heavy losses. Yamagata likely realized that the striking victory had overshadowed his command, and, anxious to secure his place as a martial leader, disregarded IGHQ’s operational guidance to avoid large-scale winter operations. On December 1, he unilaterally ordered the First Army to advance on Mukden, expecting to divide Chinese forces and open the way for a decisive battle the following spring. The IGHQ learned of his offensive four days later, by which time it had abandoned any plans to attack Peking because of fear of western intervention. The central headquarters, however, had not notified a frustrated and sick Yamagata of its changed thinking. In short, neither the general staff nor the First Army knew what the other was doing.

Yamagata expected to draw supplies from Japanese depots at Pyongyang, but planners had calculated on sustaining the First Army in static winter quarters, where it would need fewer, not more, supplies. Furthermore, the logistics line of communication was in disarray despite the IGHQ’s efforts to add thousands of supply wagons and tens of thousands more teamsters and laborers. Yamagata’s frail condition added another variable.

Yamagata had never recovered his health, suffered further complications from stomach trouble and diarrhea, and in November was so ill that the First Army’s surgeon-general suggested that he return home to recuperate. Soon afterward several reports reached Vice War Minister and concurrently Military Affairs Bureau Director Maj. Gen. Kodama describing Yamagata’s deteriorating physical condition and the fear that his weakened constitution might not survive the harsh winter. Prime Minister Itō was reluctant to recall Yamagata, concerned that the embarrassment might force the proud ex-samurai to commit suicide. He thus bypassed the cabinet and had the emperor write to Yamagata on November 29 expressing concern for his health and requesting his return to Hiroshima to brief the court on the overall military situation. An imperial envoy departed Hiroshima on December 5 carrying Meiji’s message, but it took him three days to reach Yamagata’s headquarters.

Yamagata eventually returned to Hiroshima on December 17, by which time the First Army’s offensive was well under way, pulling it farther and farther from its supply depots. Although the initial push succeeded, by mid-December the plunging temperatures froze Manchurian roads, making it slow and hazardous for horse-drawn wagons to move along the slippery ice-coated surfaces. Frozen rivers could bear the weight of a column of troops, but not the weight of their horses and wagons. Most soldiers had no winter clothing and faced the howling winds and blizzard conditions in their summer uniforms, tattered by months of campaigning. Respiratory diseases reached epidemic proportions. Many troops had not received boots and were still wearing straw sandals or low quarter shoes that left them susceptible to frostbite.

Itō’s revised strategy, issued on December 14, called for the capture of the Chinese naval base at Weihaiwei on the Shandong Peninsula to prevent surviving North Fleet warships from interfering with Japanese shipping in the Bohai Gulf. The fortress overlooking the naval base was taken on February 2, 1895, although Maj. Gen. Ōtera Yasuzumi, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, was killed in the fighting, the only Japanese general officer lost in action during the war. The Chinese fleet, caught between Ōyama’s army and the Japanese navy’s blockade, surrendered its few intact warships by mid-February. In Manchuria, the First Army, under new command, defeated Chinese forces, leading to negotiations that produced the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895.

The treaty compelled China to recognize Korea as an “independent state,” pay a large indemnity, and cede to Japan control of the Liaodong Peninsula, railroad concessions rights in southern Manchuria, and Taiwan. Just six days later Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula. The Tripartite Intervention shocked the Japanese public, who were still elated by the outcome of the war, and made it painfully clear that Japan, though a regional power to be reckoned with, remained at the mercy of the West. A sense of national humiliation was palpable, and a determination emerged, encouraged by the government, to avenge this wrong. The immediate object of Japanese passion was Russia, seen as the ringleader in the intervention and the inevitable future enemy.

Postwar Gains and Problems

Japan’s acquisition of Taiwan and Japanese special interests in Korea had serious unforeseen consequences. On May 25, 1895, indigenous Taiwanese had declared an independent republic, and an estimated 50,000 insurgents, concentrated in the southern part of the island, took up arms. Four days later the Guards Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Prince Kitashirakawa, landed unopposed in northern Taiwan, where the Chinese governor-general and the 9,000-man Chinese garrison promptly surrendered. The Japanese opened a new governor-general headquarters in Taipei on June 2 and requested immediate reinforcements to crush the rebellion. The Guards and the 2d Division—almost 50,000 troops, supported by 26,000 civilian contractors—conducted a punitive campaign against the rebel strongholds and by the end of October declared Taiwan secure, although counterinsurgency operations continued until March 1896. About 700 Japanese troops were killed or wounded fighting the guerrillas, but epidemics claimed 20,000 more, among them Prince Kitashirakawa. Punitive expeditions to suppress armed uprisings continued until 1907, and thereafter army and police cordon operations enforced a nervous peace with the indigenous mountain tribes. Tokyo gradually reduced its military presence and formed the Taiwan Garrison, eventually reorganized in 1907 as the permanent table of organization and equipment (TO&E) formation, consisting of two infantry regiments, each with a mountain artillery company.

After 1895 the Japanese government became more active in Korea, where decade-long internal power struggles had aligned court factions with Japanese, Chinese, or Russian sponsors. Tokyo attempted to solidify paramount Japa-nese influence in Korea through diplomacy, loans, and the creation of a Japanese-trained military force (kunrentai) of about 800 men to counterbalance the American- and Russian-trained palace guard. In September 1895, Miura Gorō, then a member of the House of Peers, was appointed minister to Seoul, the senior Japanese official in the country. Miura was unwilling to allow Russian predominance at Japanese expense, but his efforts backfired in early October when the Korean queen engineered a court order that dissolved the kunrentai.

In Miura’s mind this was the first step in a court-based conspiracy to assassinate pro-Japanese senior officials in the Korean government, which would likely be followed by requests for Russian intervention to restore order. Miura staged his own countercoup on October 8 when a gang of more than twenty Japanese and Korean cutthroats broke into the palace, murdered the queen, and burned her corpse in a nearby wood. Miura first notified Tokyo that no Japanese were involved in the crime, but foreign ambassadors soon revealed Japanese culpability. The foreign ministry recalled Miura and about forty other Japanese while Itō assured the western powers that Miura had acted independently without instructions from the cabinet.

The queen’s murder touched off an explosion of anti-Japanese violence in Korea, where local peasant militias led by Confucian-educated gentry murdered several Japanese residents. The Korean king dismissed pro-Japanese officials, executed the Korean conspirators, and requested Russian assistance. In February 1896, Russian troops entered Seoul. Around the same time, about 100 Japanese sailors went ashore to restore order on the Pusan-Seoul highway and protect the Japanese-owned telegraph lines against sabotage. A May agreement between the Japanese and the Russians allowed the stationing of small matching garrisons in Seoul and Pusan, ostensibly to protect Japanese residents and property.

Ejecting China from Korea destabilized northeast Asia by exposing the military weakness of the Chinese empire and touching off a scramble among the imperialistic western powers to carve up East Asia and Pacific territories. In 1897 the United States annexed Hawaii and Germany occupied Tsingtao, China. The following year the United States moved into the Philippines. By mid-1898 Britain had leased Weihaiwei after the Japanese withdrawal as well as the New Territories. The looming Russian threat most concerned the Japanese government, which relied on diplomacy to defuse it.

The Nishi-Rosen Agreement signed in Tokyo on April 25, 1898, stipulated that neither Japan nor Russia would appoint military instructors or financial advisers to Korea without prior mutual agreement. Russia further agreed not to hinder the development of Japanese commercial and industrial relations with Korea. Russia withdrew its military and financial advisers following the agreement, but it still occupied Port Arthur, reinforced Manchuria, and expanded its financial stake in northeast Asia. In 1899 Britain and Germany divided the Samoa archipelago and Germany occupied various South Seas territories, the Bismarcks, New Guinea, and the Caroline Islands. Russia continued to push deeper into Manchuria and was double-tracking the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was scheduled for completion in 1903.

Japan retained its privileged position in Korea and acquired a new colony of Taiwan. There was no dispute about the government’s responsibility to protect Japanese interests in Korea against Russian encroachments. Taiwan’s position, however, was ambiguous. Did the island anchor Japan’s southernmost defenses, or was it a springboard for offensive expansion into China and points south? Should the empire passively defend Korea and shift resources to Taiwan for a southward expansion, or was Korea a base to move into southern Manchuria and North China? The army had to confront the new regional and strategic realities, a proposition made more difficult because the western powers now identified Japan as a serious competitor in northeast Asia. The course of Japan’s expansion—north or south—plagued strategy formulation for the next fifty years and was the nation’s strategic legacy from the Sino-Japanese War.

Postwar Army Plans

On April 15, 1895, two days before the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Yamagata, recently appointed war minister and concurrently inspector general, recommended to Emperor Meiji a ten-year military expansion to protect Japan’s newly acquired overseas territory. Ten days previously, Yamagata had made a similar proposal to Foreign Minister Mutsu because Japan needed a larger army in order to maintain stability in East Asia. Though Yamagata was a geopolitical thinker who grasped Japan’s strengths and weaknesses and trusted his innate caution to guide the nation and army through its formative period, he was not a professionally educated officer. He displayed a narrow grasp of modern combined arms warfare and had little understanding of the rapid technological advances that were revolutionizing the role of field artillery in warfare. Military expansion simply meant more troops, and he wanted to double the infantry strength of each division without proportionate increases to artillery and supporting branches. Put differently, Yamagata wanted bigger, not more, divisions.

The general staff likewise wanted to expand the army, but in a more balanced and professional manner. Its approved October plan called for a thirteen-division force structure, and in 1896 the general staff incorporated the thirteen-division troop basis into wartime contingency planning premised on forward offensive operations to preserve or expand overseas interests. Army expansion began in 1898, according to an amended plan to field six new divisions, two new cavalry brigades, and two new field artillery brigades. One brigade (two regiments) from each regular division formed the cadre for a new division. The two regiments of the remaining brigade were divided into cadre to create two brigades (the existing one and a newly organized one). The process took three years, incrementally adding cadre and conscripts to bring the new regiments to their full 1,800-man peacetime strength, and was operational by 1903. Each regular division also organized a depot brigade responsible during wartime for garrisoning occupied territories. Depot units were usually issued obsolete weapons and equipment.

Almost doubling the force structure likewise nearly doubled the conscription rate. By 1904 the army was inducting almost 20 percent of the annual cohort and assigning double the number of those examined to the reserves (see Tables 5.2 and 5.3).

More junior officers were needed to lead the expanded ranks, and in 1897 the army opened six regional preparatory cadet schools to complement the army central preparatory school in Tokyo. Accepting junior cadets between 13 and 15 years of age, the preparatory schools charged six yen a month for expenses, which effectively limited the entrants to sons of middle-class families who could afford the tuition. Each school had about fifty cadets per class enrolled in a three-year preparatory course that consisted of a standard middle-school education except for the emphasis on foreign languages and overdose of instruction on military spirit. Graduates matriculated to the eighteen-month main course at the central preparatory academy. Critics maintained that the school’s narrow curriculum stunted students’ intellectual curiosity, fostered excessive competition and cliques, and produced martinets. Because graduates from the preparatory schools also matriculated at the military academy, the average academy graduating class mushroomed from about 155 between 1890 and 1894 to 663 between 1897 and 1904. Likewise, the staff college more than doubled its annual graduating classes, from twenty to about fifty officers.

Modernization accompanied the expansion. In 1897 Murata’s redesign of his original rifle produced a five-shot repeating rifle with a smaller, lighter 6.5 mm round that enabled the infantry to carry more ammunition in their cartridge belts (between 150 and 180 rounds). The increased rate of fire compensated for the bullet’s alleged lack of killing power and shorter effective range. The general staff and war ministry wanted an artillery gun mobile enough to keep pace with a fast-paced infantry advance and capable of moving across the primitive road networks and tracks of northeast Asia. With new modifications and technological advances in artillery weapons occurring in Europe at breakneck speed, any investment in artillery was a gamble because imminent breakthroughs might soon render today’s wonder weapon obsolete by tomorrow.

The case of the Type-31 artillery gun is illustrative. This 1898 model was a rapid-fire gun whose carriage absorbed the recoil. Because the gun did not move with the recoil, it did not have to be manhandled back into its original firing position after each firing, allowing for a more rapid and accurate rate of fire. It suffered developmental problems, forcing the army to import more than 600 semi-processed field artillery guns and their equipment (gun carriages, ammunition caissons) from German manufacturers. Within a few years, however, the superior range and higher rate of fire of the Russian 1904 field artillery gun made the German guns obsolete. In October 1904 the Japanese government had to strike a secret deal with German industrialists for 400 of their latest-model field artillery guns.

Following the Sino-Japanese War the army gradually changed to a khaki uniform because the color showed fewer stains, particularly the bloodstains that had adversely affected troop morale during combat. At the time of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion soldiers still wore white trousers, but four years later everyone was outfitted in khaki. The army also adopted high boots and gaiters to prevent a recurrence of frostbite and trench foot experienced during the Sino-Japanese War. Individual soldiers were issued rain capes as well as aluminum canteens and mess kits. Blankets remained in short supply because Japan’s woolen mills could not fill the demand.

Postwar military budgets skyrocketed; in 1898 more than half the national budget went toward underwriting military expansion and modernization, a process made more expensive because the navy was simultaneously modernizing its fleet. The military budget of 1896 was 73 million yen—more than three times that of 1893—and in the peak year of 1900 it exceeded 100 million yen. The army invested about half its budget to pay the greatly increased personnel costs associated with additional manpower and about one-quarter to pay for weapons. The navy conversely used more than two-thirds of its budget to pay for new capital ships (almost quadrupling its tonnage by 1902) and only one-sixth in personnel because its manpower was only one-quarter that of the army. By 1903 military spending accounted for about one-third of the national budget. It remained at that level for almost the next twenty years.

The cabinet funded the expansion program through a combination of reparations paid by the Chinese after the Sino-Japanese War, the sale of bonds, foreign loans, and increased consumption taxes. These measures enabled the government to reduce the land tax slightly and gain the political parties’ approval for the budget. The Russian threat and the imperialist race to gobble up China motivated the Diet’s passage of huge military budgets, but politicians also took bribes, accepted a large pay raise for lower house members, gained access to patronage appointments, and enacted franchise reforms in exchange for their votes. Large military expenditures continued even during the financial panics of 1897–1898 and 1900–1901, in part because the government tapped into citizens’ postal savings accounts when its bonds were downgraded on the world market (see Table 5.4).

There was good reason to spend the money. Northeast Asia at the turn of the twentieth century was a powder keg waiting to explode. The Japanese military was in the midst of rearmament, expansion, and modernization to counter the Russian military threat in northeast Asia, but the services were divided over a north or south approach to long-term strategy. Korea was a strategic liability, its people hostile to Japan, its rulers untrustworthy, and the peninsula insecure as a rear area base. China verged on chaos as the old regime vainly struggled against internal reformers and external aggressors. Russia was a menacing presence in Manchuria and had staked out a strategic position on the Liaodong Peninsula. Japan’s military goals for regional supremacy and stability in northeast Asia mirrored Russia’s objectives and set the two empires on a collision course. These competing and irreconcilable versions of regional security made the war with a major western power inevitable.

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