Home About the exhibit Related Research Sponsors

The Russo-Japanese War in Political Cartoons

Editorial cartoons

Editorial cartoons were a staple of American newspapers during this period, with original cartoons that were originally drawn for individual newspapers syndicated and reprinted in other newspapers and also in magazines like the American Review of Review and the Literary Digest. This chronologically arranged gallery of cartoons offers one sort of timeline for the Russo-Japanese War. Drawn from several different newspapers, these cartoons capture some of stylistic variety of American editorial cartoons at the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, while cartoons do not necessarily capture public opinion, they do reflect certain key themes that emerge in the broader American discourse concerning the Russo-Japanese War:

  • the admiration for and anxiety about Japan’s military presence and expansionist ambitions
  • the need to account somehow for Japan’s victories and to estimate the effect of the Russo-Japanese War on geopolitical relations, particularly concerning the role of China
  • the pressing concern with assessing the power and the prestige of the United States in Asia and the Pacific at the beginning of a new century.

The Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War stands as one of the key events that ushered in the twentieth century. At the time it was widely understood to be a racial conflict and an epochal confrontation between East and West. In terms of the weaponry utilized, the level of casualties, and the political ramifications, the actual conflict itself, lasting from February 1904 until the signing of a peace treaty in early September 1905, was arguably the first modern war.

The origins of the Russo-Japanese War stretch well back into the nineteenth century, but the more immediate context was the efforts of England, France, Germany, and Russia to gain increased colonialist control over Asia—particularly China--and the attempt by Japan to wield its own economic and military power in the region. In this struggle, Korea, as the mainland territory closest to Japan, and the southern part of Manchuria, a vitally important region of China, took on special significance as contested territory.

In August 1903, Japan began diplomatic negotiations with Russia designed to reach some accommodation whereby Russia would recognize Japan’s influence in Korea and Japan would, in turn, recognize Russia’s influence in Manchuria. Russia was slow to respond and negotiations dragged on into the fall of 1903. Japan presented what turned out to be its final proposal in these negotiations on January 13, 1904. When there was no official reply by the Russian government, the Japanese formally broke off negotiations on February 4, 1904.

In a well-orchestrated surprise attack on February 8, 1904, Japanese troops moved to occupy the ostensibly neutral Korean port of Chemulpo (the port of Seoul), while Japanese ships destroyed two Russian warships at Chemulpo. On February 9, Vice-Admiral Togo led the Japanese fleet in an attack on the Russian vessels at Port Arthur, including some bombardment of the town itself. Only after these attacks did the Japanese government on February 10, 1904 issue its formal declaration of war on Russia.

Through a series of major battles (at, for example, the Yalu River in May, 1904) the Japanese established dominance on land as well as at sea. In August, 1904 the Japanese undertook the siege of Port Arthur, which was heavily fortified and protected by electrified wire, entrenched defensive positions, and even planks filled with protruding nails. The trench warfare and Japanese frontal assaults in the face of heavy artillery fire, machine guns, and grenades—often under the bright glare of spotlights--were extraordinarily costly. Approximately one mile of territory separated the outer defenses from the city itself; 100,000 Russian and Japanese soldiers would be wounded or killed in the next 5 months, as the Japanese inched forward. Russian forces in Port Arthur surrendered on January 2, 1905.

In March, 1905, the Japanese scored another decisive victory in the battle for control of Mukden, a struggle which involved almost half a million troops. Two months later, in the Straits of Tsushima (between Japan and Korea), Japanese naval forces commanded by Admiral Togo destroyed or disabled virtually the entire Russian fleet.

Soon thereafter, Russia joined Japan in agreeing to meet to work out the terms of a peace treaty, with direct discussions to be held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire under the guidance of President Theodore Roosevelt. Formal negotiations began on August 8, and the treaty was signed on September 5, 1905. The peace terms had Russia agreeing to recognize that Korea was in Japan’s sphere of influence and to turn over Port Arthur, the Liaotung Peninsula, and half of the island of Sakhalin to Japan. Both countries agreed to evacuate Manchuria.

Click on the thumbnails below to view the larger image.

| Last updated: November 10, 2015 | Copyright 2005, The Trustees of Indiana University