The First Portsmouth Peace Treaty Forum
JAPANESE-RUSSIAN RELATIONS: AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
John Curtis Perry
It's very nice to be here, and I feel that it is truly an historic occasion, and a nice coincidence that I can be here, since I have the honor and privilege of holding the Dennison Chair at the Fletcher School.
I think it is not entirely accidental that Portsmouth was the selection of the place for this treaty negotiation, because New England has a great tradition of international commerce and interest in international affairs. It may have run a bit thin by the early years of this century, but the tradition lay here. And geography favored, of course, the selection of Portsmouth for this important occasion, because of the pleasant climate in the summer months, and because of the fact that there was a telegraph at the Navy Yard, and that meant that communications were greatly eased. But of course, it was Theodore Roosevelt, our most remarkable President of that era, who took an active role in bringing together the two belligerents. Theodore Roosevelt was a man of great erudition, a man of great energy, a man of great goodwill and optimism. And his optimism, I think, was important in ensuring the success of this treaty negotiation. But inevitably, the treaty had a positive outcome because the two sides wanted a resolution. Each recognized that total victory was impossible. They were, therefore, ready for compromise. Now, Chuck, I think referred to the significance of the Russo-Japanese War in world history, a major conflict. It was an early instance of global warfare of what I think we call today swing strategy: the Russians bringing their Baltic fleet to reinforce the Pacific Fleet, in a great voyage of 18,000 miles. Of course, the voyage ended tragically for the Russians with the virtual annihilation of the fleet; but perhaps more important in the long run is the fact that the voyage was successful. It was an indication of the shape of things to come.
The war rapidly became an exercise in mutual self-evisceration on the plains of Manchuria, foreshadowing the terrible toll of deaths in World War I. Much the same kind of pattern of conflict developed. Trench warfare at its worst. Now, beyond considerations of military affairs, this war was very important because of the impact that it had on various nations, both the belligerents and others. For Japan, of course, the war signified success of modernization on the North Atlantic model, that which the Japanese had been striving for during the forty years or so of the Meiji era. The Japanese were successful in depicting themselves as defenders of civilization, successful in depicting the Russians as barbarians. And the result of the Japanese victory was to greatly enhance the prestige of Japan internationally, and a recognition of the fact that civilization or power was no longer coterminous with the United States and Western Europe. That is, those who looked at history in the broad way could see that the Columbian or da Gama age in world history was now coming to an end. The immediate result of the war for Japan was to enhance the prestige of the Japanese military enormously. And this would carry sinister implications both for Japan and for its neighbors, as Japanese domestic politics turned to extremism in the 1930s, not so many years after 1905. And for the United States and Japan, 1905 marks a high point in terms of friendship before World War 11. It is the beginning of a period of tension between the two nations, alienation, antagonism, animosity, and finally, fighting in the war. For Russia, the war marks the opening gun of the Revolution; first, 1905, and then 1917. Just as the war proved the success of Japanese modernization, the war seemed to show the failure of Russian modernization-the failure of the Tsarist autocracy to lead a successful cultural and technological revolution, with the result that the system collapsed. The humiliation of the Russian government was enormous, and discouragement in Asia tended to deflect Russia's expansive energies to Europe, at least until 1945.
The war also had an impact on Great Britain, although the British were not realty aware of it fully at that time. This was only dimly perceived, but it really marks the end of the era which historians label the Pax Britannica in which British power determined the course of world events. Britain was mistress of the seas, workshop of the world. But now, 1905 with the rise of Japan, and in Europe with the rise of Germany, Britain had rivals-not to mention the United States, too, as a rival. The war meant that for Britain, East Asia hereafter held only commercial interest. No longer was it strategically important to the British.
For what we would call, now, the third world, the Russo- war was important, too. It was the beginning of Psychological decolonization, we might say. The white man, for the first time, was shown to be vulnerable; and the Japanese, in World War II, would accelerate this feeling with their rapid conquest of Southeast Asia. British face would never recover from the fall of Singapore m 1942.
Everywhere in Africa, in South Asia, in India, knowledge defeat of Russia by Japan was widespread, and it signaled to these people that the age of colonialism might be coming to an end. But the big exception to this, of course, is China and Korea. China and Korea were passive participants in the war. But they were where the war was fought. So this is a most unusual war, in that neither of the belligerents had to suffer directly, except at the end; all the fighting was done either in Korea or in Manchuria. Syngman Rhee the father of Korean independence, wanted to come to Portsmouth to plead his case, but no one paid any attention to him. And Korea would disappear as a nation as part of the Portsmouth settlement. Korea became a colony of Japan. Korea was traumatized by the Japanese attempts at cultural genocide. The only parallel I can think of in world history is the British treatment of Ireland.
China, too, at the end of the war, seethed at risk of dismemberment. Manchuria was the first to go, where the fighting had gone on-this was a source of interest to foreign powers wanting to invest in China. Manchuria seemed the richest, potentially the richest part of China for foreign investment. Japan would succeed in getting there first and with the most.
So, I cite these as instances of the impact of this war, and I think we have to put it into some kind of context, a context of continuing influences, moods, attitudes, which I think resonate even today; they are relevant to today-indeed, they are essential to understanding the feelings of the peoples of the North Pacific today. There are three phenomena that I would like to mention that I think color the relationship between Japan and Russia.
The first is that Japan and Russia face each other in the North Pacific across a frontier of undeveloped space. Hokkaido has been a frontier for Japanese civilization. This is the northernmost major island of the Japanese archipelago, undeveloped really until the Meiji period, at which time the Japanese decided to put ten percent of their government revenues into its development lest the Russians take it. For Russia, a frontier also exists between Japan and the Russian heartland: Pacific Siberia, underdeveloped even today, even less developed than Hokkaido. These frontiers for both nations were frontiers of apprehension, frontiers of anxiety, and it's hard for Americans perhaps to grasp this because we think of our frontier in terms of opportunity, which it was for so much of our history.
A second phenomenon that I would like to float for your consideration in thinking about the war and its impact on Russia and Japan is the fact that both these states have had conflicting and fluctuating senses of mission toward China. In Tsarist times, the Russians had a notion of China being something to be shaped along Russian patterns, and I would defer to Dr. Pleshakov, whose knowledge of these matters is far greater than mine, but this interest in China, of course, continues in the age of Marxist-Leninism and the success of communism in China. There was on the part of both these nations a strong desire to shape the Chinese revolution, as if the Chinese were not able to shape themselves as they so wished. Americans, too, were very much involved in this sense of mission towards China, but that's another subject.
Another factor which I think continues to resonate in the Russian-Japanese relationship is the lack of mutual respect between the two people. I'll speak very frankly: I think on the Russian side there has always been a strong sense of racism towards the Japanese. Perhaps this reflects an atavistic sense of fear of Asia, because Russia suffered under the Mongol yoke.
The successful conquest of early Russia by the Mongols was a traumatizing experience, I think, for the Russian people. Perhaps this is why the Russians have been somewhat racist in their attitudes towards the Japanese, and to the Chinese also. This was very clear in the months leading up to the war: Tsar Nicholas referred to the Japanese as "lacquered monkeys," for example. But on the other side, the Japanese I think are guilty of a sense of cultural condescension towards the Russians. With that keen sense of hierarchy, which the Japanese have, I think, in their view of international relations-or at least during the Meiji period this was very clear-Russia was at the bottom. The United States enjoyed considerable prestiges, but Britain, France, Germany were perhaps at the top. Russia was at the bottom. And despite the flow of cultural influences between Europe and America and Japan in the late nineteenth century, there were not flows of influence between Russia and Japan. That is, the Japanese did not look to the Russians for assistance in building a modern state. The cultural connective tissue, therefore, between these two nations, has remained remarkably thin. The Orthodox Church made some inroads in the late nineteenth century, and there is a great cathedral in Tokyo today still, on Suruga Heights, the Nikolaido, which stands as a physical reminder of this cultural influence. But more important, I think, was the impact of the modern Russian novel on Japanese literature-Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevski, seem to have concerns that echoed in those of Japanese writers at the same time. Russian literature was widely translated into Japanese and very influential in it. But the major events between the two nations were wars. First the war of 1904-1905, and then the war at the end of the Pacific war, or World War II, those last desperate weeks in 1945. Both wars I think followed without catharsis. Americans fought the Japanese, but experienced the catharsis of the Occupation, which has shaped for the good Japanese attitudes towards Americans, and American attitudes towards Japanese. Russians and Japanese have not had this same opportunity.
And so, today, as these two nations face certain problems, the most specific one being of course the unresolved territorial issue-the Northern territories or Southern territories, whatever you want to call them-one has to ask the question, do the Russians and the Japanese really want reconciliation? And second, is there a role for the United States in helping them to achieve this reconciliation? Is it possible for Americans once again to serve as intermediaries as they did back in 1905?