Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000


David Wells and Sandra Wilson (eds)

The Russo-Japanese War in
Cultural Perspective, 1904-05

Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1999,
xiii, 213 pp. Cloth: US$59.95.
ISBN: 0-333-63742-9


reviewed by Tim Wright


This rich and varied book ranges from medieval Japanese poetry through Tolstoy to the lessons of the Russo-Japanese War for military tactics in the First World War. Its remit (p. x) is to put together as a coherent whole an 'aggregate of interpretive and reflective discourses connected with people's experience of the conflict.'

After an introduction by the editors, the book contains seven major chapters. S.P. MacKenzie looks at the unlearned military lessons of the war. Rajyashree Pandey analyses war literature in mediaeval Japan through the Heike Monogatari, a medieval literary text that gives a very different view of the samurai ethic to that of later propaganda in Japan and elsewhere. Tomoko Aoyama looks more specifically at the responses of Japanese writers to the Russo-Japanese War itself. David Wells parallels these chapters for Russia, by looking at the tradition of Russian War literature since the twelfth century, and then at the treatment of the war of 1904-05. Adrian Jones examines the responses of Russian intellectuals in general to the war. Finally Sandra Wilson looks at the way 'Japan's most significant experience of war up until the disaster of 1937-45' (p. 160) deeply influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, in particular providing myths of national identity for future generations. She focuses both on major political figures such as Hara Kei and Katsura Tar˘ and on critical views both of the left and of the right. As a whole, the book is rich in interpretive themes, and it is possible in a short review only to touch on a few.

The chapters on Japanese and Russian literature argue strongly that war literature needs to be seen less in terms of the progress of the war or even of the political requirements of the combatants. It can only be understood as a particular genre of literature and must be interpreted within the culture concerned. Thus any attempt to interpret Mori ďgai's Verse Diary of the war through the prism of western War poets such as Wilfred Owen presents a very different picture from an understanding based on the fact that Mori was writing in the context of the Japanese genre represented by the 8th century Japanese anthology of poetry and travel verse, the Man'y˘shu. When seen in this light, he was successful in introducing into an inventive literary work issues such as racism, strategic mistakes and the ambiguities of the Japanese victory.

Responses in both countries, especially Russia, were a long way from any knee-jerk patriotism. Symbolist poets in Russia saw the war in the context of ancient myths, Christian and Greek. Fears of the East dated back to the Mongols and beyond, and reappeared for instance in Vladimir Solov'ev's poem (p. 112) written at the height of the 1895 Sino-Japanese War:

    Innumerable and insatiable
    As locusts,
    Preserved by an otherworldly force,
    The tribes march northward.
Another group of writers took a psychological approach, echoing Tolstoy's earlier work on Sevastopol and likening this war (and other wars) to insanity, the unleashing of an elemental force within the human mind. The greatest figure of all, Tolstoy, denounced the war (and other wars) as contrary to the teachings of Christ, but still suffered from patriotic distress at the surrender of Port Arthur.

In Japan, there was more widespread support among intellectuals and the press for the war. But there were courageous exceptions, such as K˘toku Shűsui, who rejected all wars, and offered a socialist analysis of the war that in fact came much closer to the truth than the official line, for instance on the cost of the war to Japan. His denial of any unitary national interest is as relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first as at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The meanings drawn from the war at the time and later were diverse and various. MacKenzie writes (p. 32) 'one of the most striking features of the decade following the conflict is the degree to which entirely the wrong operational lessons were drawn by all staffs.' A more dispassionate view could have seen the potential of the defensive use of the machine gun that led to the trench warfare of World War One. But at the time the emphasis was on offence rather than defence, and the importance of 'spirit' or 'soul' over machines. The German history of the war summed it up (p. 33) as 'The will to conquer, conquered.' Most interpretations overlooked how close a run thing the war actually was.

Politically, the war was seen across the world as a victory for East over West. This was particularly ironic in Russia, where an earlier theme for intellectuals had been how a young and vigorous East (Russia) would overtake a corrupt and tired West (Western Europe). But now Russia's role was reversed, with a defeat by the young and vigorous Meiji Japan. To some extent, however, this was a liberating experience for Russian intellectuals who began to see more opportunities for action as a result and, like Chinese intellectuals, saw the result as a victory for constitutionalism over autocracy.

While not central to its concerns, the book also throws some interesting light on gender issues. Nationalism and pacifism informed female as well as male writers. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova later described the Battle of Tsushima (at which the Japanese defeated the Russian navy) as 'a shock that lasted all my life' (p. 109), and as the starting point for a catastrophic threat to Russian and even European civilization. The Japanese poet Yosano Akiko, a pioneer feminist, courageously questioned (p. 70) even the role of the Emperor:

    Never let them kill you, brother!
    His Imperial Majesty would not come out to fight ...
    How could He possibly make them believe
    that it is honourable to die?
The collection also provides insight into how males see the role of women in times of war. In an interesting parallel, both the Heike monogatari (pp. 52, 55) and Pushkin's The Prisoner of the Caucasus (p. 98) include a story of a male captive comforted by a young woman who renounced the world when, for one reason or another, she found no future for her love. The Circassian woman drowned herself, while her Japanese counterpart became a nun.

In conclusion, this book will be of interest to historians of Russia and Japan, students of literature of both countries, and more widely to those interested in the cultural aspects of war.


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This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue4/tims_review.html.

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