The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905: A Turning Point in Japanese History, World History, and How War is Conveyed to the Public

The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905: A Turning Point in Japanese History, World History, and How War is Conveyed to the Public

Background Information.

Japanese efforts toward achieving equality with the West, though sometimes futile and excessive, as represented in the Rokumeikan Era, started to achieve success in the mid-1890s, particularly after Japan’s victory over the Chinese in 1895. Around this time, Japan was able to renegotiate the unequal treaties it had signed with the Western powers decades earlier. Though it would take a number of years for certain treaty provisions to expire, by 1911 all remnants of extraterritoriality were abolished and tariff autonomy returned. In addition to the Sino-Japanese War, the major event that was pivotal in shifting the world’s view of Japan and Japan’s view of itself was the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. Still stinging from Russia’s participation in the Triple Intervention of 1895, which forced Japan to relinquish part of its Sino-Japanese War spoils, Japan was determined to build up its strength so that such a humiliation would never happen again. Japan was also becoming increasingly concerned about Russian influence in Manchuria. On February 8, 1894, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack against the Russian ships docked at Port Arthur, igniting a brutal 20 month war between the two powers. Japan emerged victorious and for all intents and purposes acquired Korea as a colony. Though Japan was victorious, it was a very close war, and in the end Japan did not get as large a war indemnity as the populous thought it deserved. This led to rioting in the streets.

One reason the populous was upset with the war settlement was because they thought that Japan had won the war much more resoundedly than it actually had. Wartime nationalism, news, and propaganda led the public to the conclusion that Japan had annihilated Russia when, in fact, they had narrowly defeated her. As with the Sino-Japanese War, colorful woodblock prints of heroic Japanese soldiers and sailors fighting the enemy amidst a barrage of blazing bullets and other dangers circulated widely. The importance of woodblock prints for visually disseminating information, however, had decreased by this time because of the rise in photography and motion pictures.

Photography was introduced into Japan in the 1860s. Although a number of photographs were taken of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 and the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895, it was not until the Russo-Japanese War that photography assumed a more prominent position in the visual culture of Japan, as the cost of photographic equipment and reproduction came down and the technology improved. Unlike the stylized woodblock prints that accentuate the heroics of soldiers, photographs provide a starker reality of war. Most of the images are black and white, though there are also some color tinted photographs. Many photographs of the Russo-Japanese War are distant shots of battlefields or soldiers staged in a group . Yet even in these pictures, the faces of the soldiers are much grimmer and wearier than those in the woodblock prints. Other photos vividly reveal the death, destruction, and despair of war, through piles of dead soldiers, sunken ships, and artillery shells hitting their mark.

Perhaps even more influential than photographs and woodblock prints in terms of shaping public opinion about the war were motion pictures. Various types of moving pictures—Cinematographe, Kinetoscope, Vitascope—entered Japan in the late 1890s, only a few years after they were invented. Initially it was the novelty of moving pictures that attracted people to the cinema, and once that novelty wore off interest waned. The Russo-Japanese War produced a boom in the industry that lasted for a number of years as audience flocked to theaters to see images of the war. By some estimates, 80% of the films shown at the time were Russo-Japanese War films. Some films were made by Japanese filmmakers, but most were foreign imports. While some contained actual war footage, shot by the many cameramen from around the world who flocked to the battlefront, many contained reenacted and staged footage. Thomas Edison, for example, made a number of films of the war that he shot in New York. Japanese wanted to see films that depicted their soldiers winning. Any that showed the Japanese losing angered audiences and, as a result, exhibitors stopped showing them. Thus, through self-selection, the Japanese watched films that both shaped and reinforced their perception of how Japan was faring in the war.

Learning Goals.

  1. To understand and appreciate how Russo-Japanese War imagery and press influenced and shaped Japanese perceptions of the war.
  2. To understand and appreciate how different visual media (woodblock prints, photographs, motion pictures) can evoke very different responses.
  3. To appreciate why the Russo-Japanese War is such a major turning point in Japanese and World History.
  4. To appreciate how technological changes at the turn of the 20th century affected the dissemination of information.

Common Core Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 2.  Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. 

Key Concept.  

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. Do artistic renditions or photographs depict the heroics of war better?
  2. Do artistic renditions or photographs depict the horrors of war better?
  3. How does the medium affect the message?
  4. Why is 1905 such a turning point in Japanese and World history?  How might history have been different had Japan lost the Russo-Japanese War?



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Compare and contrast woodblock prints and photographs of the war. (See bibliography for possible sources of images). The images you choose probably will depend on the sources you have access to. I would recommend focusing the discussion on how the images depict war. This relates to the thought questions: Do artistic renditions or photographs depict the heroics of war better? Do artistic renditions or photographs depict the horrors of war better?
  2. Look at and discuss the streaming videos of the Russo-Japanese War.
  3. Read and discuss the introductory remarks provided for a silent film of the Russo-Japanese War in Dym, Benshi, pp. 45-46. This speech was given to an audience prior to a film on the Russo-Japanese War being shown. What does the speech reveal about the film? What does it reveal about the sentiment in Japan at the time? How might this speech excite the audience and give them a false impression of the war? Think about the speech in terms of the riots that broke out after the war, when the Japanese populous was upset that they didn’t get enough of a war indemnity. In other words, is it possible that remarks such as this led the populous to think that Japan had achieved a greater victory then they actually had?
  4. Compare and contrast images (woodblock prints) of the Sino-Japanese War with those of the Russo-Japanese War. Is the enemy depicted in the same way? Do the Japanese depict the Russians in the same way that they depict the Chinese? Why would they depict the Russians differently?

Summative Activity Ideas.  


  1. Woodblock prints: Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era. MFA Publications, 2001. This collection of prints also forms the basis of the Throwing Off Asia III collection on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website.
  2. Streaming films of Russo-Japanese war:
  3. Introductory remarks provided for a silent film of the Russo-Japanese war. Found in Jeffrey A. Dym, Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei (UK: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003), pp. 45-46.
  4. The feature length film Nomugi Pass (Available on VHS with English subtitles). This film dramatizes the lives of female silk workers. The Russo-Japanese War is taking place in the background and a few newsreel clips of the war are worked into the film.


Topic,Art; Theme,Culture; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Topic,Imperialism; Topic,International Relations; Type,Lesson Plan; Historical Period,Meiji (1868-1912); Topic,Popular Culture; Grade Level,Secondary; Subject Area,Social Studies; Subject Area,Visual & Performing Arts; Topic,War & Conflict;
Meiji, government, war