Sino-Japanese War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sino-Japanese War was the first stroke in the development of modern Japanese imperialism. Followed by the Russo-Japanese War a decade later, it propelled Japan to world power status and established a Japanese hegemony in East Asia.

Summary of Event

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 was the result of geopolitical tensions whose foundations lay in a newly established Japanese strategic culture that sought to project the nation’s power and protect its security. This aggressive worldview was based upon an energetic military-industrial complex that had been created in the years directly following the Meiji Restoration and was driven by Japan’s decision to adopt Western science and technology. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, Japan had developed an international philosophy based upon the application of European geopolitical thought to the empire’s situation in East Asia. Japanese theorists such as Tokutomi Sohō, Tokutomi Sohō began to create a grand strategy that reflected the geopolitical model found in the organic state theory of Friedrich Ratzel Ratzel, Friedrich . Based upon social Darwinist Social Darwinism principles, this system was predicated on the beliefs that, like an organism, the nation-state had to grow or die and that only the strongest nations had the right to survive and prosper. Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War (1894-1895)] China;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and China[China] Korea;and Sino-Japanese War[Sino Japanese War] [kw]Sino-Japanese War (Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895) [kw]Japanese War, Sino- (Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895) [kw]War, Sino-Japanese (Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895) Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War (1894-1895)] China;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and China[China] Korea;and Sino-Japanese War[Sino Japanese War] [g]Japan;Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895: Sino-Japanese War[5950] [g]China;Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895: Sino-Japanese War[5950] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 1, 1894-Apr. 17, 1895: Sino-Japanese War[5950] Tōgō, Heihachirō Oyama Iwao Sohō, Tokutomi Yoshida Shōin Ratzel, Friedrich

Sohō also incorporated into his geopolitical philosophy the theories of Yoshida Yoshida Shōin Shōin, who earlier had written that Japan’s long-term security depended on an aggressive, expansionist policy. Shōin was the first intellectual to forecast the potential dangers posed by Russia and China to Japan’s security, and he identified the geopolitical importance of Manchuria Manchuria and Korea to the future of the Japanese nation. Sohō synthesized the ideas of Ratzel Ratzel, Friedrich and Shōin to develop the first Japanese imperialist theory. He advocated the establishment of an East Asian Japanese sphere of influence created by military conquest. Sohō believed such a sphere would establish Japan as a major force in world politics and enable it to expand Asia’s “greatest civilization” into the rest of the region.





This theory gave rise to a grand strategy predicated upon economic and military strength. Japanese industrial success would provide both the wealth and the technology needed to develop a military capable of defending the nation against Western imperialism. The Meiji government began to create a new army based upon the German model. Every Japanese man would serve a period of active duty in which he would acquire the skills of the modern soldier. He would then be placed in the ready reserve, available for duty at any time over the next decade. The army again used the German model when it created a general staff to oversee its long-term planning, intelligence gathering, and logistical needs. This German connection also reinforced contemporary European geopolitical theories that called for imperial expansion and warned against the acquisition of territory by foreign rivals within Japan’s geographic realm of security.

The Japanese perception of encroachment by potential rivals began as early as the late 1850’s, when France established control over parts of Southeast Asia that would become known as French Indochin Indochina a. The French expansion coincided with the British acquisition of Burma and its competition with Russia over control of Central Asia. This so-called Great Game between Great Britain and Russia over the gateway to East Asia was viewed by Japan as a potential threat to its long-term security.

The Meiji government viewed the Great Game as all the more problematic because China was being ravaged by colonial partition and could not be counted on as an adequate buffer against European expansionism. Japan would eventually regard Russia as the greatest threat, when the Russians established a strong presence in northeast Asia and began to plan the construction of the Trans-Siberian Siberia;railroads Railroad. Japanese strategists viewed this great “heartland” power’s ability to project its military might deep into Japan’s strategic realm as a danger to the nation’s security.

Japan’s response to these geopolitical challenges was to attempt to establish control over the centuries-old East Asian “land bridge,” Korea. This strategy would bring Japan into direct conflict with China. The Chinese for centuries had dominated Korea and believed they had the right to control the peninsula. When the Meiji government was first established, it had attempted to break China’s centuries-long diplomatic dominance, but both Korea and China rejected Japan’s advances, leading to increased tension among the three nations. These tensions increased until they caused a diplomatic crisis in 1875, when Chinese ships fired on Japanese naval vessels off the coast of Korea. The crisis was resolved with an agreement that granted Japan both economic and military privileges on the Korean peninsula.

Chinese herald reading the government’s declaration of war against Japan.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Early in 1894, the corruption and inefficacy of the Korean government led to the outbreak of the Tonghak Rebellion Tonghak Rebellion (1894) . Korea, unable to defeat the rebels, called upon its traditional protector, China, for assistance. Japan responded to the rebellion by sending in its own troops, bringing China and the Meiji government face to face on the peninsula. Japan, not content with the concessions it had gained in 1875, had been seeking an opportunity to bring Korea under its direct control since the early 1880’s. Japanese strategists considered Korea to be the lynchpin in the nation’s plans to keep the Europeans, especially the Russians, out of its sphere of influence. As the July Crisis of 1894 developed, both the Chinese and the Japanese military positioned themselves for action.

The first engagement took place in July, before war had been formally declared. Japanese ships, under the command of Captain Heihachirō Tōgō, Heihachirō Tōgō, engaged Chinese ships off the coast of Inchon Harbor, sinking a vessel that was attempting to transport a large contingent of Chinese troops to reinforce this strategic area. Instead, the Japanese landed a unit of marines and brought the harbor under the control of Japan’s military. War was subsequently declared on August 1, 1894, and by September the Japanese had captured the strategic city of Pyongyang. This victory allowed the Japanese to drive deeply into Chinese territory, opening the northern half of the Korean peninsula to Japan’s forces.

The Japanese navy Navy, Japanese then delivered a fatal blow to the Chinese fleet in the Battle of the Yellow Sea. Twelve Japanese men of war attacked the Chinese contingent, destroying most of its battleships and bringing the vital waterway under the control of Japan. The eastern coast of China was left undefended. When this development was coupled with another victory at the Yalu River, the Japanese were provided with a clear avenue of attack at the most strategic fortification in the Chinese defensive line, the city of Lüshun (Port Arthur).

Constructed during the late nineteenth century, Lüshun was an Asian Maginot Line consisting of twenty-two fortified positions and protected by seventy large and extremely accurate artillery emplacements. These fortifications protected the Liaodong Peninsula, which was the terminal of the South Manchurian Railway. This important transportation system connected the area to all the major railroad lines in northern China. It was also to provide the linkage to the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian Siberia;railroads Railroad, whose construction was being organized by the Russian government. The geopolitical significance of this peninsula made it a primary objective of the Japanese military.

Japanese forces entering China after crossing the Yalu River.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The Chinese army believed that the fortifications at Lüshun were impenetrable, and this false sense of security emboldened them to launch a series of hostile actions that backfired, filling the Japanese forces with a terrible resolve. The Chinese military placed advertisements all over the city, offering money to anyone who produced the body of a Japanese soldier. The decapitated and mutilated remains of these soldiers were then placed hanging upside down around the Lüshun fortifications. The heads of the soldiers were placed on spikes in full view of the Japanese army.

Japan attacked Lüshun. General Oyama Oyama Iwao Iwao executed a brilliant attack, penetrating the fortifications; in short order, the invincible fortress fell to the Japanese forces. With both the Yellow Sea and Lüshun under Japanese control, Iwao launched another successful attack on Shantung Province. This victory left the Chinese capital of Beijing open to attack, and the Manchu forces sued for peace, signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki Shimonoseki, Treaty of (1895) on April 17, 1895.


The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 altered the strategic situation in East Asia. China was forced to turn over the island of Taiwan, and this placed the Japanese navy within striking distance of the Chinese mainland. Japan also gained control over both Lüshun and the Liaodong Peninsula. This gave Japan a direct avenue of attack against Russian territory in northeast Asia. The Russian government concluded that force had to be used to remove the Japanese threat.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the two competitors clashed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Japan was once again successful, defeating both Russian naval and land forces. This victory catapulted Japan into a position of prominence in East Asia until 1945. Russia’s disastrous defeat undermined czarist authority and initiated the Revolution of 1905.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beasley, W. G. Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Provides an excellent overview of the history of modern Japanese imperialism. Maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Robert B. Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. Gives a detailed account of the rise and evolution of the Japanese military from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyt, Edwin P. Japan’s War: The Great Pacific Conflict. New York: Da Capo Press, 1989. One of the most respected accounts of the causes and effects of Japanese militarism in East Asia. Maps, index.

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