Great Sea Fights: The Battle of Tsushima, 1905 Part 3 – The Japanese Perspective

May 2021

The final instalment of our 3-part special on the Battle of Tsushima explores the Japanese perspective of the battle including a consideration of the extraordinary growth of the Imperial Japanese Navy both before and after Tsushima. Dr Sam Willis speaks with Kunika Kakuta. Kunika is a final year PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and specialises in the relationship between politics and the development of seapower.

The Battle of Tsushima was the decisive naval action between Japan and Russia that effectively ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and one of the most important naval battles in history. It was the first in which radio played a major part; the action that demonstrated the power of the all-big-gun battleship, leading to HMS Dreadnought of 1906 and the Anglo-German dreadnought race; the first time a modern battleship was sunk by guns, and largely fought at previously unimaginable ranges of up to 12,000 metres (eight miles); the first, and last, decisive steel battleship action (the Russians lost eight battleships and more than 5,000 men while the Japanese lost only three torpedo boats and 116 men); the first modern defeat of a great European power by an Asian nation; and arguably the battle that made both the First World War more likely and another great fleet action less likely.

To catch up on the rest of the series, listen to Part 1, a description of the events, and Part 2, the Russian perspective.

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Welcome, everybody to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, and this part two of a ‘Great Sea Fights’ special on the Battle of Tsushima of May 1905, one of the most decisive naval battles in history fought between the Russian and Japanese fleets. This was the first in which wireless telegraphy played a major part. It was the first time a modern battleship was sunk by guns. It was the first and the last decisive steel battleship engagement, and it was the first modern defeat of a great European power by an Asian nation. Part One gave a general background to the battle and to the events which unfolded, part two, the excellent part two, I have to say, gave the Russian perspective we heard from the outstandingly entertaining diary of Captain Vladimir Semenoff.

    Today, we hear from Kunika Kakuta, a contemporary historian of the Imperial Japanese Navy. She is talking to us about the Japanese naval context of the war more broadly, as well as the battle itself. Kunika is a final year PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and she has just submitted her thesis. Her work provides a comparative study of the way that sea power identities form. And she does this by looking at the navies and cultures of fifth century BC, classical Athens, and 19th century Imperial Japan. Wow! Kunika teaches BA undergraduate students in the Department of War Studies and intermediate officer development courses at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham. She is an expert on the relationship between navies, politics and national identity. She is, you must have worked out by now, the perfect person to help us make sense of the extraordinary changes in the Japanese Navy, which occurred both prior to and then after the Battle of Tsushima. And here she is.

    Kunika thank you very much for talking to me today.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Sam, it’s a pleasure to talk to you about the Japanese Navy.

    Sam Willis

    Tell me about the Japanese naval expansion of the late 19th century.

    Kunika Kakuta

    So, Japan started with what I call odds and sods, and in fact actually its being described as the odds and sods by various Western scholars about sort of the ship collection, because they are just basically random steamships and sail ship – bought by, you know, from France or Dutch during the Tokyo shogunate. And then at the end, Tokyo shogunate powers weakening, and the Western powers are coming to Japan and say, Hey, open up your country but mainly, I think the most significant example is Commodore Perry from the US. And they are already sort of a couple of sorts of domains like Satsuma and Choshu who has already got their own vessels that they bought. So, it’s a really just odd mix of collections. So, you can’t really call them a Navy at that point. So, the first thing they have to do is try to put them under centralised control under the new major government after the Meiji Restoration. So yeah, I would say it’s a very odds and sods collection, and it’s not really a proper Navy in a way.

    Sam Willis

    So why did they expand? What was the change? I mean, they had to go from buying ships from abroad to building their own to centralizing it what why did they decide to do that?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I mean it takes a while for them to actually start building their own ships, that only comes into the beginning of the 1900s, rather than the late, you know, 1800s. But it’s essentially to respond to the Western threat: significantly that’s the sort of biggest motivation for them to actually start, you know, building a navy and also, I think, sort of realisation of rest of the world is having the sort of, you know, ironclad warships or much more centralized organized navies, and they didn’t. So, I think it’s much more to do with protecting themselves and there were significant movement sort of expel the foreigners [lost], you know, they’re starting to think about. But it’s that sort of movement, that’s what led them towards sort of these military expansions at the beginning, that significant motivation behind it.

    Sam Willis

    You work in particular on the link between the Navy and politics, which – I was reading some of your stuff, it was absolutely fascinating, but just briefly, why do you think that the link between politics and naval expansion is important?

    Kunika Kakuta

    So, what I found it really fascinating when I was doing my thesis, it’s sort of these political identities of a sea power and political institutions and how it develops and the role of political elites within institutions and rivalry between different groups and States military and their subjects. And these sorts of things you don’t really see if you’re just focusing on a battle narrative, or if you’re looking at technology, and it gives you a slightly different understanding of the Navy. And I think it’s always, what I’ve always found at the beginning of my PhD was that Navy is very much a study of for most people just, oh, it’s about this battle, right? This is about this battle, right? I’m like, no, actually, I’m looking at how these politicians strike to get funding and how people reacted towards these sorts of naval expansions. And it tells you different kinds of stories and different it tells you sort of what identity they’re trying to create. So, that’s why I find the politics and navy relationship absolutely fascinating.

    Sam Willis

    I suppose the basic point is, if you’re talking about something like naval expansion, is that you need a huge amount of money to build, to maintain the warships, the dockyards, the crews, and that money will only appear if you’ve got political support so that the Navy itself has to kind of become a political animal.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Yes, absolutely. And I think that’s another significant that a battle that the Navy has to fight in Imperial Japan, and we can come back to that and expand them a little bit further. But absolutely, it’s sort of you know, you can’t just build something so expensive overnight, or, you know, without convincing your population say, they’re the ones who’s often paying the tax which money is going to go towards it. So, you can’t just say, I’m doing this, by the way. And of course, they have to fight that battle really carefully and say, here’s a reason why we’re expanding these naval forces. And here’s a reason why we should be doing this. So yeah, I think to say they are political bodies is completely almost really wrong.

    Sam Willis

    Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting that if you think about it, going back to the kind of the origin of a Navy is that they have to convince two people it’s a good idea. The first people they’ve got to convince is the politicians who then have to go and convince the people that it’s a good idea. So there’s a fascinating double layer there. Which do you think was the hardest sell for the Japanese Navy – was it more difficult convincing the politicians to support them? Or then more difficult convincing the people?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think that’s a good question. Because initially, I think one thing, when I did my research, I found that it’s very much – there isn’t much engagement from the people because there hasn’t been a parliamentary democracy fully established. And the Diet only opened in 1889, and, you know, hardly anyone got to vote in a way. So, it’s not much to do with sort of actual people convincing, but it’s much more politician convincing, and the sort of parliamentary members, that the Navy had to convince. And initially, Japan has this issue with, and I think it continued to do so literally right up to the end of World War Two really in a way, of having these sorts of certain oligarchic circle of politicians who are very either pro-Army or pro-Navy. And so, in a way, I think what more needed convincing was the actual political body rather than the people and the people did need convincing later down the line, but not immediately at the initial stage of expansion.

    Sam Willis

    It’s interesting you mentioned the army there as well because obviously, you can’t see the Navy in isolation. So, I presume there was a rivalry for funds between the Army and Navy. Is that right?

    Kunika Kakuta

    Yeah, absolutely. And it’s one of my significant focus on my thesis. And what I argue is that Japan could never be a sea power or could not form that sort of solid sea power identity, because there’s always this inter-service rivalry and fighting over money, and just not just over the funding, but also over sort of who’s actually going to be the, you know, principal line of defence. It’s a constant struggle for the Navy, and I think there’s a little bit of an issue with I think, also, trying to an extent, not anymore with a Japanese culture, but early Western scholarship was used to sort of seeing as a army’s far more superior than navy and sort of Navy got pushed to the side. And it might be to do with partially how World War Two has been perceived, but yeah.

    Sam Willis

    Well, let’s focus just briefly on the Russo Japanese war.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Absolutely.

    Sam Willis

    What was the role of the Navy in the defence of Japan prior to the war?

    Kunika Kakuta

    So, the Navy’s always seen as a secondary, or service, sort of secondary sister service to the army. So, the Army was the centre of this defence strategy. So, they’re the ones who do all the essentially the legwork and the Navy was put aside. So, it was more of you know, Navy was used as a troop transport, or actually just ferrying the troops across the mainland and Navy absolutely hated it and said we have these kits for a reason, we’re not doing this because we want to ferry across essentially. So, it’s significant sort of chunks of argument up to 1904, actually, we’ll come back to this later, but was there sort of, you know, they’re helping the or they are perceived to be helping the army when they’re actually, they want, they had their own, you know, defence strategy and everything else. But it was just the Army went Nah you’re always second. It’s always the superiority over the Navy and the Navy from the Army. And partially it’s to do with the sort of political dynamic in the major oligarchs, because the Army is controlled by the Choshi clan, and Navy Satsuma and so what happened at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration is Choshi is much more significantly politically dominant because they are much more skilled at, you know, getting the money or controlling the politics. So, the Navy had to sort of develop that political identity. So there’s, that’s where the partially the issue comes from.

    Sam Willis

    So, is there a kind of an underlying clan rivalry then between Army and Navy as well?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think so. I mean, I think it sort of disappears, or it looks like it disappeared over the course of the period. But I think a fundamental, you know, underlining issue is the clan rivalry between Choshi and Satsuma. And before that, I think Choshi and Satsuma are seen as one block by the rest of the other clans or former domains by the time Meiji Restoration happened that, you know, it’s always Choshi and Satsuma doing everything as they’re always the ones who are in control, they are always the ones who lead the national politics and defence and everything else, they are the leaders. But at the same time, within those two clans, they absolutely fighting, you know, they basically are at each other all the time and say who’s better than whom, and that a significant sort of competition between the Army and Navy. And Army is referred to as a sort of, you know, citadel of Choshi and Navy is referred to as Satsuma Navy. So, you see that sort of very former domain identity attached to the armed services, and that only disappears on the surface, really, but it’s always there at the baseline.

    Sam Willis

    How did it originate? How did it come about? How did one clan become associated with the sea more than the other?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think the Satsuma always had a significant number of vessels prior to the Meiji Restoration: they were one of the few who already were purchasing more ships than anybody else. So, there’s already sort of at the initial stage, Satsuma had more, you know, ships to give it to the central government. So, you could sort of see why Satsuma end up being the dominant one because they’ve given most ships and crew to the central Navy, or centralized Navy. So, they had automatically association with Navy equals Satsuma, that’s the sort of dynamic that they were at.

    Sam Willis

    So how did the kind of the role of the Navy then change because of the war? So, I mean, initially, you said it was all about ferrying troops and that has to fundamentally change but in what ways did it change?

    Kunika Kakuta

    So, one of the things I would say is that I don’t know how many people are familiar with the sort of in depth and [lost] concept of sites of engagement. But the Japanese naval leaders’ naval doctrine was very much on based on decisive battle, which is, you know, battle should be fought on the surface with the big guns. And this gets confirmed by sort of Tsushima. And so, you know, I think all of the navies at this point have this concept anyway, but particularly, the Navy gets obsessed about this, and Togo Heihachiro, who is the Admiral of the Japanese fleet did not want to actually engage in battle, per se. And he also wanted to keep the Russians away from the Army’s logistics. So that’s what sort of the original Navy’s role was. And essentially, what Tsushima did was to demonstrate how important this decisive engagement is, which is actually frankly, where all things go wrong later down the line, but at that time, that’s what was most important to them. So, I think it’s a sort of idea of you know, having sort of an emphasise the importance of quality and warship design and rather than superiority numbers, so all this is all at the same time of where the Dreadnought class is coming. So, you can see where this is all going. Japanese naval leaders are much more interested in having big ships and big guns rather than, you know, focusing on anti-submarine warfare or any sort of convoy system that any any sorts of that I think that’s what Navy goes down along. And I think, yeah, it’s absolutely sort of more focusing on “we engaged with the enemy with the big guns, big ships”.

    Sam Willis

    I mean, what you’re kind of hinting at here is the subsequent naval history of Japan and you know, what happens in the Second World War, and then the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Navy. And do you think it’s been difficult for Japanese scholars to study the history of the Japanese Navy around this sort of time – the early 20th century – knowing what’s coming up, knowing how it all goes wrong? Do you reckon that they found they found it difficult to isolate?

    Kunika Kakuta

    That’s an interesting question. So, one thing I’ve noticed, because I’m actually Japanese by birth, and I’m fluent in the language, so I’ve actually worked extensively both of the Japanese and English sources. And when I started, what I’ve noticed is English sources have a tendency to focus on the battle, and a Japanese scholars (and I think it’s also important to think of in a language barrier) and a lot of the Japanese sources, although it might not be necessary naval history, but it’s focused on looking at sort of the actual constitution and Supreme Command – sort of how Army and Navy fits in and that sort of, you know, much more sort of political-legal side of it, and they are a little bit more focused on that. But I think the problem with the a lot of scholarship has been, I think, especially books in sort of 60s 70s 80s really focused on sort of battle narrative, even from the Japanese side of scholarship, because I think there are still people who survived the war and who are writing these, you know, in retrospect and saying “this is what went wrong”, “this is what happened”, and, you know, “this is what we could have done”. So, I think this shift of sort of scholarship in Japanese scholarship has definitely moved away. And I think I do see the tendency as well in English scholarship as well, but it’s just not as many.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, not as much. So, there is this significant change in the way that the Navy is perceived and the way that the Navy perceives itself after the Battle of Tsushima. I was particularly interested in the way that the – its imagery is changed after the war. Can you talk a little about that?

    Kunika Kakuta

    Yes, sure, absolutely. So, one of my absolute favourite thing of the, after the war finishes, when the Navy and Army returns: Navy returns on mass and Army comes, you know, bit by bit. I mean, to be honest, the sheer numbers difference, that’s partially, I’m sure, it’s partially to do with logistics, but it’s just – imagine sort of, you know, what it looks like for fleets of battleships returning to a port than a bit by bit of, you know, unit by unit of Army returning. So, I think that sort of thing of impacts of “wait, we’ve done this together, and we’re now coming back together”, and I always find that sort of return from the Russo Japanese war absolutely fascinating. And also, because Tsushima had such a huge impact, and Admiral Togo, when he returned, everyone basically applauded him, and he also gets compared to Nelson. So, there’s a significant sort of thing of, “Oh, this actually having this Navy, having a big Navy and having these sort of very strong Navy is a good thing, and we could be like Britain”, and given the fact that the entire Japanese Navy’s training is entirely Royal Navy based, it was, I think, such an easy connection to make and say, “Well, do you remember how Battle Trafalgar contributed to the glory of Great Britain, we could do the same thing”. So, that I think that’s what Tsushima sort of became as, or known as, this is the Trafalgar of the East. And I think that’s the sort of comparison they were going for. And it definitely creates more positive imagery to them than the Army did. So, I think it’s now become more of sudden, not just the sister service in the shadow of the Army, but now we are the Imperial Japanese Navy, we also should be absolutely getting all the funding and support that, you know, the Army has been getting. So, I think that’s the significant turning point for them. It almost became like, you know, a pageantry exercise in a way.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, they kind of jump on the political bandwagon, to go back to the politics. It’s like well actually we can use this to really advance ourselves. I discovered that the British sent the Imperial Japanese Navy, a lock of Nelson’s hair after the battle. I didn’t know that.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Which to be honest, until you told me – yes, I had to look it up. And yeah, you’re absolutely right – it’s a very odd thing to gift.

    Sam Willis

    It’s still on display in a museum in Japan. I want to go to Japan. I’m going to go and find this bit of hair. It makes me wonder how much – where do they get it from and if they had like, a sort of a large collection of Nelson’s hair sitting around that they were waiting to give to people.

    Kunika Kakuta

    It’s an odd sort of here’s a lock of hair because you know.

    Sam Willis

    Hair’s very linked with commemoration, and also memory. It’s a long-standing British tradition to have a lock of hair. I know there’s Nelson’s pigtail, like his cue, it was called, is at the National Maritime Museum. And there – was it the Duke of Wellington, after he died, he basically he was scalped more or less by people just taking his hair. And so that when he was buried, he didn’t have any hair it had all been cut off – all been pinched. So, anyway, let’s get back to the battle. The battle, obviously, a huge changing point. Obviously, it’s the first major military victory in the modern era of an Asian power over a European nation. Every one must have noticed that as well, it’s not just proof of the value of sea power and a sea power strategy, it’s kind of proof of you know, the potential of Asian power as well. But so, you’ve got that. But at the same time, you’ve got Japan almost crippled with bankruptcy, with the amount of money its costs. Was everyone aware that there were two sides to this, or were they all just celebrating?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think, initially, they are in a massive celebratory mode. And Navy takes that as sort of, you talked about a few minutes ago, the bandwagon of let’s use this to get more funding. And, but at the same time, if you look at the politicians, they are clearly aware of how much money we’ve spent, you know, they’ve spent on this, and they are on the verge of bankruptcy without raising taxes, they can’t really do any more expansion. And both Army and Navy want to do expansion based on this. So, I think what follows the Russo Japanese war is a period of sort of 10-15 years of even more political battle between the Army and Navy. And now those two services actively interfere with the cabinet politics because the army minister and the navy minister and active personnel from the services. So, if you know, either services said, actually, we’re not appointing a navy minister or the army minister, the government could not stand. And that’s what they kept doing afterwards, trying to get money. So, clearly politicians are aware of and say, “Look, we can’t actually give you this amount of money you’re asking for because we genuinely just don’t have it”. And what Navy and Army have to now do is compromise and what else gets associated with the Army imagery from 1905 to essentially 1915 is Army, you know, incorporated with the cabinet politics, and they actively, you know, block the parliamentary politics – that’s how they got seen as. Navy has a little bit more, a little bit, sort of half associates (that’s not the right word I’m looking for), more positive association, because they are sort of more willing to compromise and say, “Okay, well, they say we can’t do this, what can we do?”, and there’s a little bit more engagement with a politician side and I think that’s partially because Navy struggled so much before to actually have that political support. So, that’s a sort of interesting dynamic there, but I don’t think the population knew to an extent of how much bankrupt sort of status that Japan was in.

    Sam Willis

    It costs them so much money to fight this war. Where did the money come from?

    Kunika Kakuta

    So, significant chunks of it are, I think, borrowing money from the UK, and, was it I think, Canada and US, or sort of a lot of Western countries. And I think initially, the Western countries definitely were reluctant to lend that amount of money because they thought, “oh, Japan would never win against Russia”. Why would they – Asian power was relatively new. And they did. And so that was a big surprise and not expected. But and also, a lot of it comes from the taxation of the Japanese population. So, it’s another significant reason why a politics-Navy link is really important because the Navy had to justify these enormous costs while actually saying, you know, asking the government to raise taxes to support it. So, I think there’s a little bit of tiptoeing around both governments and the people and being aware of how expensive these expenditures are by the naval services.

    Sam Willis

    So, I mean, the British, the Canadians, the Americans in particular, had loaned a great deal of money to the Japanese, and that meant that they could wield a bit of influence in the peace that happened.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Absolutely!

    Sam Willis

    I mean, it’s a fascinating thing here. So, we’ve got this hugely dominant naval battle, but then the peace doesn’t quite work out the way that the Japanese want it to.

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think the issue with the peace treaty is that Japan had all of these, you know, conditions that they were asking at the Treaty of Portsmouth. And the issue was that they very specifically – of course, whatever you’re going to ask for the treaty, you are going to ask for something that’s going to be beneficial to you – but a lot of them, were asking sort of, you know, extending leasing on Guangdong Peninsula in China or, you know, access to the Nigerian railways: all of these things, which is going to be a later problem down the line. And at the same time, all of the Western countries are wary of these sorts of economic benefits the sort of treaty outcomes would bring to Japan in the later down the line. Because I think all of the Western countries a little bit on tiptoeing around Japan going, “Are there going to be an actual threat to us down the line”. And so, there’s a move to try to stop Japan actually achieving all of these. In the end, in the treaty terms, they didn’t get any financial sort of indemnity, which actually is what they wanted to get because it was so expensive. And previously, when they went to the Sino-Japanese War, they got financial indemnity as well as sort of, couple of sorts of, territorial benefits. So, they tried to do the same, but even on a bigger scale. And when they didn’t, it angered the people. And it’s interesting when the foreign minister comes back from Portsmouth to Japan, actively the crowd tried to attack him. And, you know, say, “we’d prefer if you actually went to the Russians as a prisoner”. That’s basically how much anger that they aimed at. And I think what Japan did is that they won the Russo Japanese war, but they didn’t win the peace. And in a way, you can sort of see where all things that are going on, in hindsight, again, in a great deal of hindsight, from 1905, when Japan starts going towards the path of, you know, naval expansions, and sort of military expansions. That’s, you know, you see, what becomes problematic in the 1930s.

    Sam Willis

    And then, you know, leads up to the Second World War. So, if there’s a sense of grievance that they weren’t treated with respect, they didn’t get what they believed was owed to them from their success in the war – is that it?

    Kunika Kakuta

    I think there’s an absolute element of that too; or it’s sort of thing of why are we backing down now we’ve won against this Europe, you know, one of the major powers – Imperial Russia – is no longer a threat to us, why are we sort of, you know, being timid here, and why are we not asking what we could ask for or what we actually spent should be, you know, paid back. There is definitely, sort of that attitude happening, both in the papers and by also the government as well.

    Sam Willis

    Well, it’s fascinating stuff. You know, what you’ve inspired me, I want to do a new PhD, political clan rivalry of the Japanese in the late 19th centuries, it sounds brilliant. Listen, thank you so much for your time – it was fascinating.

    Kunika Kakuta

    Thank you, Sam. And I’m really glad I got to talk about my thesis a little bit. And thank you again.

    Sam Willis

    I do hope you enjoyed listening to this special on the Battle of Tsushima: listen, please to Parts One and Two of the special series on this battle if you have not already. Part One being a general introduction to the events, and Part Two being the Russian perspective. There are also other episodes within this ‘Great Sea Fights’ series. Previously, we have had multipart special editions on the Battle of the River Plate of December 1939 – that is the first naval battle of the Second World War and it led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee. And also, we have an episode on the Battle of Cape St. Vincent of 1797, in which Horatio Nelson first shot to fame by boarding not one, but two of the largest enemy ships – one from the other in what he described as his patent bridge for boarding first rates. Now please do check us out online @snr.org.uk. Please follow us on social media, the Society for Nautical Research has a very active Twitter page and Facebook page and the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast itself has a fantastic YouTube channel, and Instagram page. And I would encourage you to go and to check that out because there is a wonderful animation of the Battle of Tsushima, which we have recreated from a hand-drawn sketch at the time by Captain William Packenham. Best of all, though, guys, please do join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk and your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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