The Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895: Japan is Victorious on the Battlefield and the Baseball Diamond

The Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895: Japan is Victorious on the Battlefield and the Baseball Diamond

Background Information.

In 1876 Kuroda Kiyotaka, acting much like Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan, forced Korea to open up to the outside world. Kuroda forced Korea into an unequal treaty—The Treaty of Kanghwa—that was similar to the ones Western powers had imposed on Japan less than twenty years earlier. As Western aggression increased in the region, Japanese leadership increasingly began to emphasize the need to defend Japan’s “Line of Interest”— the line around the country and surrounding areas that was viewed as critically important in terms of preserving the nation’s independence. By the 1890s, Japanese leaders began to view control of Korea as being within Japan’s Line of Interest and hence vitally important to Japan’s self interests. In 1894, Japan went to war with China over a dispute about political influence in Korea. Much of the world thought that Japan was suicidal for taking on China, but in 1895 they proved the world wrong and emerged victorious. This victory marked the beginning of Japan’s colonial empire as they acquired Taiwan as a colonial possession as part the indemnity settlement.

Woodblock prints of heroic soldiers and glorious battles circulated widely during the war, with some three-thousand triptychs being produced, some in editions of 100,000. Woodblock prints were easy and relatively inexpensive to produce. Most artists never witnessed the battles they artistically rendered. Many simply heard reports about battles and created images of what they thought had transpired, or, as was often the case, what they thought would happen. Because of the high demand for prints, a number of artists created woodblocks of battles they expected to be fought and won so that when victory was achieved they would have a product ready for market. Colored woodblock prints lent themselves easily to dramatizing and glorifying war. Japanese soldiers are always shown in heroic and victorious situations, frequently with piles of dead Chinese soldiers scattered underfoot. At sea, Japanese navy ships stand proud as Chinese ships sink in engulfing blazes of fire. As images of Japan’s glorious victory over the Chinese circulated around the nation, another battle was about to be waged, one far less bloody but in some ways just as psychologically meaningful.

Among the many sports introduced into Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912) by foreign residents and educators—cricket, tennis, gymnastics, skiing, track and field, soccer, rugby, football, swimming, rowing, golf, and baseball, to list just a few—it was baseball that most captured the Japanese fancy. Baseball was one of the most popular and pervasive forms of entertainment in 20th century Japan and in many ways baseball is Japan’s national sport. At the end of the 19th century, many prominent figures in Victorian England and America equated one’s prowess on the athletic field with one’s strength as a nation. In other words, to some people sports were a symbol of national strength. Just as the ruling elite had earlier tried to prove to foreign dignitaries that they were social equals through their mastery of Western social customs at the Rokumeikan, in the 1890s the baseball diamond became another proving ground in Japan’s quest for national self-respect, only this time the Japanese were much more successful in their efforts.

Between 1890-1905, the First Higher School of Tokyo (Ichikô) was the most dominant baseball team in Japan. Ichikô was an elite prep school whose students usually went on to Tokyo Imperial University, and later positions of national prominence. Ichikô players continually challenged the American members of the exclusive Yokohama Athletic Club. For five years the businessmen and sailors of the club, which forbade Japanese from entering their field, refused. Finally, in May 1896, the Americans consented to a game, the first official baseball contest between Japanese and Americans. Though the students were met with jeers by members of the club, they easily won 29-4. The Americans quickly asked for a rematch, which Ichikô also won. News of Ichikô victories quickly spread throughout the country and were the cause of national celebration. These games had a profound influence on the Japanese and their own self-image. As one contemporary noted, “The aggressive character of our national spirit is a well-established fact demonstrated first in the Sino-Japanese War and now by our victories in baseball” (Roden, 530).

From 1896-1904, Ichikô played various American teams 13 times, loosing only twice, once after the American fielded a team with a member who had played professionally in America. In total Ichikô scored 230 runs to the American teams' 64. Over ten thousand people watched some of the games, far larger crowds than attended any other form of entertainment in Japan at the time. Unlike Japanese efforts at assimilating the finer points of social customs as represented by the Rokumeikan, they were clearly much more successful as assimilating baseball and making it their own.

Learning Goals.

  1. To understand and appreciate how Japanese citizens comprehended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 based on the images that were presented to them.
  2. To recognize that national identity is a construct and to appreciate how national symbols are used to evoke certain emotions and sentiments in an effort to promote a national agenda.
  3. To understand that national pride can be achieved through various means. (OR)
  4. To understand that national pride can be achieved on the battlefield as well as on the baseball field.

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.
  • Standard 4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

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. How do nations depict themselves in wartime propaganda?
  2. Is war glamorous?  If not, why do nations glamorize war?
  3. Why do sports often become symbolic battlegrounds between nations?
  4. Is imperialism/colonialism simply about militarily and politically controlling another nation, or is it also about proving one’s self-perceived cultural superiority over another?



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Take any number of woodblock prints from Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era or the MIT site and discuss how the Japanese soldiers are depicted versus how the Chinese enemy is depicted.
  2. On page 124 of Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan, there is a painting of a “Mother and children receive word of husband/father’s death in the Sino-Japanese War. Painted in 1898 by Matsui Noboru.” Compare this image with Kobayashi’s Kiyochika’s A Soldier’s Dream at Camp During a Truce in the Invasion of China, 1895, found on p. 97 of Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era. MFA Publications, 2001. In one picture, the family stoically accepts the news of the death of the father/husband, while in the other the soldier dreams of his family. Also of note in both paintings is that the soldiers are carrying Western swords (look at the handles), as opposed to the samurai sword most often associated with Japanese soldiers, especially during the Pacific War. Also note the prominence of the Japanese flag in both paintings. Flag waiving is not new. Japanese symbols depicted in the works, such as cherry blossoms, women in kimonos, flags, etc, also make for a useful discussion topic.
  3. Read and discuss the lyrics from Ichiko’s “Baseball Club Rouser” (Donald Roden, “Baseball and the Quest for National Dignity in Meiji Japan,” The American Historical Review, v. 85, no. 3 (June 1980): 533-534). Have students discuss some of the issues raised. For example, in stanza # 2 they talk about “catching baseballs on the ice... and in the rain… year round.” Ask the students if they think that really happens. After discussing the lyrics, read p. 28-34 in Robert Whiting, You Gotta have Wa, which discusses Ichiko’s harsh training and the games they played with the Americans.

Summative Activity Ideas.  


  1. Woodblock prints: Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era. MFA Publications, 2001.  Many of these prints can be found in the Throwing Off Asia II collection on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website.
  2. The lyrics from Ichiko’s “Baseball Club Rouser” (Donald Roden, “Baseball and the Quest for National Dignity in Meiji Japan,” The American Historical Review, v. 85, no. 3 (June 1980): 533-534 (or the entire article); Robert Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa, p. 28-34.


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, imperial Japan,war