First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)

The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) was Japan's first overseas war after she came out of isolation in the 1860s, and saw the rapidly modernised Japanese armed forces inflict an embarrassing defeat on less successfully modernised Chinese forces. Most of the fighting took place in Korea and Manchuria, although the Japanese also invaded Shantung province and several islands, and there were important battles at sea.

For many years Korea had been just as closed to outsiders as Japan, apart from her relationship with the Chinese Empire, where Korea was regarded as a subordinate kingdom. In 1876 the Japanese negotiated a treaty with Korea, opening Korea up to foreign trade for the first time. Three ports were opened to the Japanese and consulates established. Japanese trade with Korea quickly expanded, with Japanese and Western goods flooding to Korea and Korean food coming to Japan.

Until 1876 Korea had seen herself as a subsidiary to China. The treaty with Japan caused great controversy and pro- and anti- Japanese factions emerged. In 1882 the Taewon'gun, a retired former leader of Korean, led a revolt against King Kojong and Queen Min. The rebels attacked the Royal Palace, narrowly failing to capture Queen Min. They burned down the Japanese legation in Seoul and seven Japanese officers were killed. The Taewon'gun was briefly restored to power, but the Chinese intervened, arrested him and imprisoned him in China. Six battalions of Chinese troops were posted in Korea to prevent a repeat of the uprising.

After this uprising the Japanese negotiated with the restored Korean government. The Koreans agreed to apologise for the loss of Japanese lives, pay a fine and allowed the Japanese to post troops at their Seoul legation. At about the same time the Japanese began to prepare for the possibility of a war with Korea or with China.

In 1884, during a clash with the French, the Chinese withdrew three of the six battalions. This encouraged a pro-Japanese revolt, helped by the Japanese minister at Seoul. The revolt was successful, and for a short spell King Kojong led a pro-Japanese, anti-Chinese government. The remaining Chinese battalions in Korea quickly overthrew this new government. A number of Japanese were killed and some of the leaders of the deposed government fled to Japan. In 1885, in the aftermath of this affair, Japan and China signed a new treaty in which they agreed to withdraw all troops from Korea and give the other government notice if they needed to send them back. The Japanese had effectively been given permission to send troops to Korea.

In the aftermath of these disturbances Japanese public opinion supported further intervention in Korea and a number of secret societies were formed with the aim of destabilising Japan's neighbours so that the Japanese government would be forced to intervene. This tied in with a generally expansionist mood in Japan (not always militaristic in nature - the period also saw a campaign to establish Japanese communities in the west and to increase trade).

The tension began to rise again in 1894. In March the pro-Japanese Korean leader Kim Ok-kyn was assassinated in Shanghai and his body taken to Korea for mutilation as a warning to those seen as traitors. The Japanese secret societies began to agitate for war and their efforts played a part in the outbreak of the Tonghak Insurrection. This led to the outbreak of a revolt led by members of the Cult of Eastern Learning, a religious organisation that had been banned in the 1860s and had then gone underground. The rebels wanted both the Chinese and Japanese to leave Korea, but their actions had the opposite effect. The Korean government asked China to send troops, and a 2,500 strong expeditionary force was sent to Asan, forty miles to the south-west of Seoul. The Japanese saw this as a breach of the Tientsin treaty and they sent 8,000 troops to the port of Inchon (then known as Chemulpo). These troops then moved to Seoul, where on 20 July they seized control of the Korean government. By this point the original revolt had been put down by Korean troops, but the damage was done and Japan and China both prepared for war.

Pre-war Fighting

On 25 July 1894 the first fighting of the war took place, at sea off the west coast of Korea. Two Chinese warships heading west ran into three Japanese cruisers. In the resulting Battle of Asan or Phung-Tao (25 July 1894) the Japanese forced one Chinese cruiser to flee, destroyed a modern Japanese gunboat, sank a troopship that arrived after the fighting was over, and captured a late-arriving Chinese gunboat.

At about the same time part of the Japanese army at Seoul moved south to attack the Chinese based at Asan. The two armies clashed at Songhwan (29 July 1894) in the first overseas battle fought by a Japanese army for 300 years. The battle ended as a Japanese victory, but most of the Chinese army managed to escape to the north and joined the main army at Pyongyang.

The War

War was officially declared on 1 August 1894. Both sides rushed reinforcements to Korea. The Chinese were unwilling to risk another naval clash with the Japanese and so their troops came via the Yalu River (the border between Korean and China) and the northern ports. The Japanese were able to land at Inchon (Chemulpo), at Pusan in the far south-east of the country and at Wonsan (at the eastern side of the neck of the peninsula).

The first land battle of the war came on 16 September at Pyongyang, where the Chinese had decided to make a stand. Most sources agree that the Chinese had 14,000 men in the garrison, but estimates of the size of the Japanese force vary from 10,000 up to 20,000. The Chinese were handicapped by a lack of unity amongst their troops, which formed four separate small armies. The Japanese were able to defeat each of these forces in turn and captured the city after inflicting around 7,000 casualties on the defenders. After this success the Japanese advanced north towards the Yulu River, the next Chinese defensive position.

As the Japanese advanced up Korea the Chinese decided to ship reinforcements to the Yalu River on the border between China and Korea. The Chinese fleet escorted one troop convoy to the Yalu in mid-September. The Japanese moved north in an attempt to intercept them and at the resulting naval battle of the Yalu River (17 September 1894) the Chinese lost five of the ten ships in their main line of battle. The survivors escaped to Port Arthur and then to Wei-Hei-Wei, but the Japanese had won control of the seas.

The Chinese built strong defensive positions on the Yalu River, but the Japanese were able to get across undetected on 24 October. They were then able to attack the Chinese fortifications from the Chinese side of the river, and after five hours of fighting on the morning of 24-25 October the Chinese were forced to retreat (land battle of the Yalu, 24-25 October 1894).

After this success the Japanese force split in two, with one thrust pursuing the defeated Chinese and one heading for Mukden, the capital of Manchuria. The Japanese won a series of sometimes hard-fought battles, often against larger but badly led Chinese forces. Hai-ch'eng fell on 13 December, leaving Mukden vulnerable.

Early in 1895 the Chinese went onto the attack, and launched a fierce attack on the Japanese at Hai-ch'eng. This attacked ended in failure and the Japanese were able to go back onto the offensive. The cities of Niuzhuang and Liaoyang fell by 4 March and the fighting in Manchuria was effectively over.

Japanese Second Army

While the Japanese First Army advanced into Manchuria, on 24 October 1894 the Second Army, with the 5th Division, landed on the Chinese coast to the north-west of Korea and advanced towards Port Arthur. A first attack on the port on 19 October was repulsed, but a second attack, on 21 October, convinced the defenders to withdraw. The Japanese entered the city on 24 October, and the first of a series of sacks of Chinese cities began. The capture of Port Arthur denied the Chinese one of their main northern ports, and also saw the Japanese capture a vast amount of military equipment.

The Shantung Campaign

In mid-January the Japanese opened up another front, this time in Shantung Province. Their target was the naval base at Weihaiwei, where the survivors of the Naval Battle of the Yalu had taken shelter. The Japanese arrived outside the port on 30 January 1895, where they found themselves faced by formidable fortifications. Unfortunatly for the Chinese the defenders were less impressive than the guns, and the forts were captured by 2 February. The fleet was now doomed. The Japanese carried out s series of attacks on the remaining part of the fleet, sinking both of the two Chinese battleships. On 12 February Admiral Ting Ju-ch'ang surrendered the port and committed suicide.

The End of the War

The Japanese were now ready for the second phase of their plan. This involved an invasion of the Pescadores Islands, which began on 23 March 1895 and saw the Chinese defenders defeated in a three day battle. The second part was to have been a two pronged attack on Peking, with troops coming from Shantung and from Manchuria. This campaign wasn't needed. The Chinese government was ready to seek peace, and on 17 April 1895 the two sides signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. In this treaty the Japanese gained the Pescadores, Formosa (where they had to fight a short war to establish control), Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, and were to be paid a large indemnity.

These successes worried some of the European powers. Russia, Germany and France combined to force the Japanese to give back Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, but China's reprieve was short-lived. The Russians soon forced them to give them a lease of Port Arthur and the rights to the Chinese Eastern Railway, which linked Port Arthur to the Trans-Siberian. This in turn worried Britain, who acquired a lease of Weihaiwei to watch the Russians at Port Arthur. This European pressure angered many in Japan and laid the seeds for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which would see the Japanese win just as convincingly when fighting one of the great European powers. In China herself the defeat helped encourage anti-foreign sentiment, and played a part in the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion. It also undermined the prestige of the Qing dynasty, and thus played a part in the collapse of Imperial rule in China in 1911.

Armies of the First Sino-Japanese War 1894-95, Gabriele Esposito. Combines a useful account of the build-up to war and the course of the war itself, before moving on to look at the modernised Japanese army and the very varied Chinese forces that opposed them. Provides a good overview of the war that saw Imperial Japan emerge forcefully onto the world stage, and marked a stage in the decline of Qing China. (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (31 October 2013), First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895),

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