Was Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor out of character for the chrysanthemum nation? Her actions at Port Arthur, nearly 38 years earlier, suggest otherwise.
In 1898 Russia began leasing the Liaotung Peninsula, which juts into the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula, from the Chinese. On the southern tip of the Liaotung Peninsula was Port Arthur, named for the skipper of a British merchant vessel, who guided his ship into the harbor during a typhoon in 1860. Port Arthur was not only sheltered from all winds but ice free throughout the year. Russia’s only other port on the Pacific, Vladivostok, was choked with ice all winter. Port Arthur’s only drawback was silting, causing larger ships to run aground. Russia began dredging and deepened the anchorage enough to accommodate the largest of ships. After securing a right of way from China’s moribund Qing Dynasty, Russia extended the Trans-Siberian Railway south from Harbin through Manchuria to Port Arthur.
All of this was interfering with Japanese plans for the region. In an 1894 war with China, Japan had acquired Korea, and she now had her eyes on mineral-rich Manchuria. By the turn of the century she had begun negotiating with Russia over the fate of the province. Not yet strong enough to challenge the bear to the north militarily, she used the negotiations to buy time while developing her armed forces.
By early 1904 Japan had built a modern navy, patterned closely on the British model, and, on land, could put 300,000 soldiers into the field. Russia had a total of 80,000 soldiers stationed along the Trans-Siberian Railway in Manchuria and in garrisons at Vladivostok and Port Arthur. Given enough time, though, Russia could marshal upward of a million soldiers at the other end of the Trans-Siberian.
Japan determined that she must strike a decisive blow before Russia could bring her greater strength to bear. On the night of February 8, 1904, without a declaration of war, Japan launched a sneak attack against Russia’s Pacific Squadron, which included 7 battleships and 12 cruisers, at Port Arthur. The Japanese severely damaged three Russian battleships and four cruisers before heading back out to sea. The next day the Japanese fleet was back and began shelling Port Arthur from five miles’ distance. By then, though, Russian ships had steam up and sallied forth to fight. Aided by Russian artillery pieces on the hills surrounding Port Arthur, they inflicted heavy damage, including killing five senior officers on the flagship Mikasa, before the Japanese fleet withdrew.
Two days after their sneak attack, the Japanese declared war. During 1904 and the early part of 1905 the Japanese won several major land battles, although the Russians drove the Japanese back on several occasions. The death toll reached the tens of thousands on both sides.
The Russian Baltic fleet arrived in May 1905 after an eight-month voyage. In the Battle of Tsushima, the modern and fast Japanese fleet shredded the slow, antiquated Russian vessels. Despite the Imperial Japanese Navy’s great victory, the Japanese army was suffering terribly in Manchuria, and Japan agreed to President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer of mediation. Roosevelt brought the belligerents together on the decks of his presidential yacht anchored at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In the Treaty of Portsmouth, September 5, 1905, Russia surrendered her economic and political interests in southern Manchuria, including the Liaotung Peninsula and Port Arthur, to Japan. Russia also gave Japan the southern half of Sakhalin Island and recognized the Japanese occupation of Korea. Japan got about as much as she could have hoped for from the treaty, but Japanese leaders told their people that the American President had cheated them out of vast territorial gains.
Serving as a correspondent during the war, Jack London was impressed with the rapid industrialization and modernization of Japan since his first visit in 1893, and with the organization, discipline, and selfless devotion to duty of her armed forces. However, he also warned of Japan’s treachery and predicted that her expansionist appetite would not be sated with Korea and part of Manchuria; it would demand all of Manchuria and China, too.
As Japan “has surprised us in the past, and only the other day,” said London,
may she not surprise us in the days that are yet to be? And since she may surprise us in the future, and since ignorance is the meat and wine of surprise, who are we, and with what second sight are we invested, that we may calmly say: “Surprise is all very well, but there is not going to be any Yellow peril or Japanese peril?”
Jack London did not live to see Pearl Harbor, but after Port Arthur and the Russo-Japanese War he would not have been surprised.