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Russo-Japanese Relations, 1905–1917: From Enemies to Allies by Peter Berton (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 477-480 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0055

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Peter Berton, the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Southern California, has been one of the key figures in English-language scholarship on Japan’s relations with Russia. Russo-Japanese Relations, 1905–1917, his most recent work, focuses on the diplomatic history of the Russo-Japanese Convention of 1916.

In 1905, Japan emerged victorious from its 15-month imperial war with Russia over dominance in Manchuria and Korea. Both nations, however, were exhausted by the war effort, militarily and economically. This exhaustion combined with other domestic and international factors pushed the two former imperial rivals toward a peaceful division of spheres of interest in the Far East. The rapprochement between Japan and Russia culminated in the 1916 convention, part of which was kept secret until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The convention established a bilateral alliance by stipulating joint defensive measures against a third-party threat to Russian and Japanese respective interests in the Far East. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia abruptly ended the alliance as the Bolshevik government denounced the treaty and concluded a separate peace with Germany. Japan’s 1918–25 “Siberian Expedition,” which started as part of the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War, again brought the two nations face to face on the battlefield, only 13 years after the conclusion of the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War.

So far, Japan’s rapprochement with Russia has received little attention in the historical narratives of Japan’s relations with its northern neighbor. There are probably a number of reasons for this relative disregard of the period dubbed “the golden age”1 of Japan-Russia relations, such as its brevity and the prevalence of conflict since the conclusion of the first bilateral treaty (Treaty of Shimoda) in 1855. At the same time, the role of the present and its dominant paradigms in shaping historical narratives produced by historians should not be forgotten. Starting from Benedetto Croce who famously stated that “all history is contemporary,” numerous philosophers of history including diverse thinkers such as E. H. Carr and Michel Foucault suggested that works of historians, despite their attempts to convey history as it was, are very much shaped by the conditions of the present. From this perspective, it can be argued that the cold war confrontation and the centrality of the territorial dispute in shaping the state of bilateral relations over the last six or so decades have diverted scholars’ attention away from the period of relative closeness and harmony.

Thus, Russo-Japanese Relations, 1905–1917 is a welcome addition to the voluminous body of academic literature on Japan-Russia relations. Berton has a longstanding interest in this period as the monograph builds on and expands the findings of his doctoral dissertation completed in 1956, the year relations between the Soviet Union and Japan entered another shortlived period of rapprochement. The book is quite ambitious, as it seeks to answer a wide range of important questions related to the period between the end of the Russo-Japanese War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The tasks are set by the author in the preface. Among other questions, Berton purports to explore the origins of the 1916 alliance in the context of the three preceding agreements between Japan and Russia, to identify the key actors responsible for the treaties and their motives, to examine the course of negotiations, and to determine the nature of the alliance and its significance as well as the interplay between Russo-Japanese relations and the relations of the two powers with their respective allies, the United Kingdom, and France.

The book is slim (91 pages of main text with the rest devoted to bibliography and notes) but dense in content and rich in detail. It relies almost exclusively on primary sources obtained from Japanese and Russian archives. Chapter 1 briefly reviews the bilateral agreements of 1907, 1910, and 1912 that followed the Peace Treaty of 1905 (Treaty of Portsmouth). These treaties, some of which were not made public, fully normalized the relations between the recent enemies and provided for further cooperation as they delimited the spheres of Russia’s and Japan’s influence in Korea...



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