by Andrey Kapustin
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is remembered primarily for its contributing role in the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Lesser known are the war’s consequences within the Japanese Empire. Having defeated the Russian Empire, the once gendarme of Europe, at the Battle of Tsushima and Port Arthur, the Japanese Empire seemed to have attained a new respected position on the national stage. Yet, the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war, created widespread dissatisfaction among the Japanese populace.
The negotiation was led by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September 1905. Despite an immensely costly war for both sides, Japan lacked the bargaining power to negotiate favorable terms for peace despite its victory. Concerned with maintaining the balance of economic and military power in the region, Roosevelt chose to preserve a degree of Russian power in Northeast China. Further, the Russians were adamant about maintaining their possession of Sakhalin Island north of Japan without paying any indemnity to Japan. With much hesitance, Japan eventually agreed to give Russia the northern half of Sakhalin without indemnity. The treaty affirmed Japan’s hold of territory in Korea and southern Manchuria. Certainly, it reduced Russia’s influence over the region, but the lack of payment from Russia was considered a serious failure by the Japanese government and, most of all, its citizens. This eventually led to a protest, which turned into a riot on September 5-7th, 1905.
Outraged by what was perceived as a diplomatic snub, thousands of residents gathered in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park to protest the treaty’s terms. Quickly growing and angered by the police response, the protest turned riotous, and protestors marched through Tokyo, attacking buildings associated with Russia and the United States. During the three-day riot, “almost three-quarters of the police boxes throughout the capital city were destroyed, buildings and streetcars were torched, and some 450 policemen and 50 firemen were injured in addition to many of the protesters.” Seventeen of whom were killed. Ultimately, the government declared martial law to end the riots.
The protest was the first major social uprising in Japan since the creation of the Meiji Constitution in 1890, which had begun Japan’s age of “imperial democracy.” It is seen as the first of many social upheavals in Japan throughout the first quarter of the 20th century and significantly contributed to the collapse of the government of prime minister Katsura Tarõ. The riots also provided a lens for understanding the way Japanese relations with the U.S. and Russia developed in the 20th century. While relations with the U.S. only deteriorated after the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan’s relations with Russia somewhat improved in the following years. Most importantly, the Hibiya riots demonstrate the turbulence of early 20th-century Japan and the growing dissatisfaction among the Japanese population with the imperial system of governance. Perhaps an indirect response to the turbulent riots and dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Portsmouth, 5 years later, Japan would aggressively move onto the Asian continent, annexing Korea and expanding its commercial and military activities in Manchuria.
1. Gordon, Andrew. “Social Protest in Imperial Japan: The Hibiya Riot of 1905.” The Asia-Pacific
Journal: Japan Focus. Accessed June 30, 2023.
2. U.S. Department of State. Accessed June 30, 2023.