Japan versus Russia and the Beginnings of Globalisation.

“There is not one sensible man or woman in a million who will begrudge Japan her happiness in the present and her hopefulness as to the future. After her splendid and unbroken success on sea and land in her death struggle with one of the greatest powers in the world…”

So began a somewhat breathless editorial in the Grocott’s Mail of 27 October 1905. But why would Grahamstown care about Japan in 1905? Japan was still an almost unimaginably exotic country, months away by ship, involved in conflicts very removed from anything the Cape Colony was involved in. The answer lies in a tangle of alliances and treaties that laid the foundation for quite a lot of the world as we know it today.

Grahamstown, at that time, was still very much a staunch member of the British Empire. Britain, in April 1904, had signed the Entente Cordial with France, making the two countries allies in Europe. But France was allied to Russia, which had been at war with Japan since February 1904. Because Japan had been allied to Britain since 1902, and Britain had just allied to France, France couldn’t assist Russia against Japan. In 1905, Britain viewed Russia – the eternal outsider in European politics – with distrust, because they suspected Russia might make an attempt to invade India (which then included the territory now divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh) through Afghanistan. Because the enemy of your enemy is your friend, this meant that anyone opposing Russia was automatically in Britain’s good books. Hence the British support of Japan.

If this seems irrelevant and confusing considering everything that’s happened in the century since, consider this: in October 1905, the Russo-Japanese War had only just ended with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in September. The Treaty was brokered by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States, and made the US a major player in world politics.

The treaty came just in time for Russia, which had been losing the war, and it established Japan as the major power in East Asia. Despite this, the Treaty didn’t go down well in Japan – many Japanese felt that agreeing to end the war without any major territorial gains had made them look weak, and this discontent eventually caused political crises in the Japanese government. Still, Japan was top dog in the East: they had effectively overrun Korea without a single shot fired, and also had colonial ambitions in Manchuria, northern China – which was where they had bumped heads with Russia in the first place, because it was land that Russia also wanted. With the Treaty of Portsmouth, the Americans didn’t end conflict in the region, they just postponed it. Shortly after the treaty was signed, Japan gained territory in Manchuria, occupied Korea, and began building an empire in the East.

Taking advantage of their alliance with Britain, Japan occupied formerly German territories in the Pacific during World War One, and this would prove to be a massive problem for Britain later. By the later 1930s, tension was rising between Japan and the United States. Early in World War Two Japan, still pitted against Russia, allied with Germany and Italy in 1940, and opened up the War in the Pacific. That eventually ended with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, in 1945.

Since we know how this all turned out, it gives one a strange feeling in 2017 to read the closing words of the Grocott’s  Mail editorial from 1905: “Not the least of these [blessings]was the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which knit the two countries in closest amity and established them as the guardians of the highest principles of justice and pillars of peace…”

 Queries, suggestions, tips and corrections to nervousflamingo@gmail.com.

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