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Celebrating Japan's Trafalgar

By Chris Summers
BBC News Website

This year Britain will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar. But this week, on the other side of the world, another naval skirmish is being commemorated, in which the victor was trained in England and most of his ships were built in Britain.

Painting of the battle of Tsushima
Admiral Togo directs the battle of Tsushima, in this classic Japanese print

At the beginning of the 20th century Japan was considered an upstart on the world stage and when it stumbled into a confrontation with Tsarist Russia - which had the world's second largest navy - it was considered a no-contest.

But Japan was undergoing a rapid industrial revolution and its armed forces had been transformed since the last of the samurai died.

The Russo-Japanese War broke out as a result of conflicts in China and Korea. The Japanese besieged the Russian-operated territory of Port Arthur in China and sank several Russian warships.

The Russians despatched a mighty fleet, under Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski, all the way from Europe to deal with the pesky Japanese.

But they were in for a surprise.

Togo regarded Britain as his second mother country and he was a great admirer of Nelson
John Graves
National Maritime Museum
On 27 May 1905 the Japanese crushed the Russians at the battle of Tsushima, an island in the straits between Japan and Korea.

The hero of the moment - Admiral Heihachiro Togo - had been trained in England by the Royal Navy.

John Graves, a curator at the National Maritime Museum in London, said Togo regarded Britain as his second mother country and was a great admirer of Nelson.

"In fact his signal (to his fleet) at Tsushima was closely based on Nelson's Trafalgar signal."

Togo's signal "The fate of the Empire depends upon this event. Let every man do his utmost", almost exactly echoed Nelson's exhortation to his men at Trafalgar.

Captain Jeremy Howard, former director of the Marine Society, said: "As a young cadet Togo came over to Britain in 1871 to be trained on a sea school called HMS Worcester, which was moored in the Thames."

In 1878 Togo, the son of a samurai, went back to Japan and rejoined the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Royal Navy model

The Japanese navy was in fact modelled quite closely on the Royal Navy, which remained the world's strongest navy until the beginning of World War II.

Even the uniforms were copied from the British models.

Togo on his flagship the Mikasa
Admiral Togo (centre) on board his flagship, the Mikasa

Many of Togo's ships were also built in Britain - including the Mikasa which was built at Vickers & Maxim's Barrow-in-Furness yard. Barrow's Dock Museum has a large collection of Japanese artefacts from this era.

Bill Madison, a former US Marine who set up the Russo-Japanese War Research Society and runs its website, said: "The Russians outnumbered the Japanese roughly two to one in terms of ships.

"But Togo took advantage of the conditions, and of his superior firepower, and won a great victory."

Togo conducted an extremely risky manoeuvre during the battle, as Mr Madison explained: "Togo turned his fleet through 180 degrees during the battle, and although they were very vulnerable during the turn, he stuck to the manoeuvre and then overwhelmed the Russians."

He said Togo ruthlessly chased down all the Russian ships, sinking them or forcing them to surrender. His victory was complete and enabled Japan to master the seas and win the war.

Mr Madison, a computer programmer from Boston, Massachusetts, said there were many similarities between Nelson and Togo, especially in the way they took risks and disobeyed orders.

© Barrow Museum Service
The Mikasa, built in England, nowadays is a museum in Tokyo

"Togo's manoeuvre at Tsushima was a real risk, and would have horrified his bosses. Nelson too was known to disobey orders. He often 'put his bad eye to the telescope'.

The Treaty of Portsmouth, signed in New Hampshire, US, imposed a humiliating peace on the Russians, who were forced to sign over considerable rights in Korea and China to the Japanese.

After the Russians' defeat the Western powers were forced to acknowledge that Japan was a force to be reckoned with on the world scene.

Battle flag

In 1911 Admiral Togo returned to London to attend the coronation of King George V.

Mr Graves said Togo received the Order of Merit from the British Empire, which was almost unprecedented for a foreigner.

Admiral Togo in his battle room
Admiral Togo discusses plans with his staff

"His activities were widely reported in the British newspapers of the day and he was much admired in this country," he said.

Togo presented his alma mater, HMS Worcester, with a battle flag from his flagship, the Mikasa.

HMS Worcester ceased operating in 1978 and Togo's battle flag was inherited by the Marine Society, where it joined a large collection of artefacts held at Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent.

Last year the battle flag, and a rose bowl which also been donated, were given to the Togo family's Shinto shrine in Tokyo on a permanent loan basis.

Capt Howard and some of his colleagues from the Marine Society flew out to Tokyo earlier this week to attend celebrations marking the anniversary of the battle of Tsushima.

We are very proud of Admiral Togo and his heroic role in Japanese naval history
Captain Takaki Mizuma
Japanese defence attaché

The British embassy in Tokyo is also holding a reception in honour of Togo, who died in 1934 just as relations between Japan and the West were faltering.

The defence attaché at the Japanese Embassy in London, Captain Takaki Mizuma, said: "We are very proud of Admiral Togo and his heroic role in Japanese naval history.

"It is perhaps fitting that these important anniversaries for the Battle of Tsushima and the Battle of Trafalgar should take place in the same year as we celebrate these two key events in naval history on opposite sides of the globe," he said.

The Russo-Japanese War broke out in February 1904 as a result of growing tension in Korea and China.
The Russian stronghold of Port Arthur, in China, fell to the Japanese in December 1904.
On 26/27 May 1905, having steamed 18,000 miles from Europe, the Russian fleet is destroyed by Admiral Togo's ships at Tsushima



SEE ALSO
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20 May 05 |  Hampshire

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