The Sino-Japanese War was the first full-out international war fought by the Meiji state. Like the Russo-Japanese War of ten years later, it was fought chiefly in Korea, and over which countries would be the chief power with political & economic influence in Korea.
The Japanese victory over China in this war is often cited as indicating, or representing, Japan's success in modernizing its military, and conversely, the failure of Qing Dynasty China to modernize sufficiently. Japan's acquisition of Taiwan as a colony as part of the treaty agreement ending the war is similarly often cited as marking the beginning of Japan's imperialist/colonialist Empire.
Following the Opium Wars in China and the coming of Commodore Perry to Japan, it became increasingly apparent to the governments of China, Japan, and Korea that action would need to be taken to defend themselves, and their interests in the region, from Western encroachment. In particular, both China and Japan began to fear that Korea could become a European or American colony, which would not only be dramatically damaging to the Chinese and Japanese economies in terms of losing access to Korean goods & Korean markets (i.e. importing goods from Korea, and exporting goods to Korea), but, Korea becoming a Western outpost would also represent a serious strategic military threat to both China and Japan.
Earlier in the 19th century, Korea fended off Western attempts to enter Korea by redirecting them to Beijing, and explaining that as Joseon Dynasty Korea was a tributary of Qing China, it was not entirely free to determine its own foreign relations policies. In the 1870s, Japan began to exert itself throughout the region (including in Taiwan and the Ryukyus), to pull these areas out of China's orbit and into either a more "independent" position such that Japan could more freely trade with them, or more explicitly fully into Japan's own territory. Japanese attitudes towards Korea were little different; after the Seikanron ("Debate on Invasion of Korea") and the decision in 1873 to not invade Korea outright, Japan secured an agreement with Korea in 1876, the Treaty of Ganghwa, that asserted Korea to be an independent state, free to arrange its own foreign relations; this treaty established formal relations between Japan and Korea and opened three Korean ports to Japanese trade.
Having more formally and explicitly established its interests in Korea, Japan began to send troops from time to time to help suppress insurrections and uprisings in Korea, as did China. Outright war was avoided in the 1880s as a result of diplomatic discussions between Itô Hirobumi and Li Hongzhang, and the two countries agreed that in future, they would inform one another if they ever decided to send troops into Korea again.
Yuan Shikai then became the chief Chinese official resident in Korea, and oversaw a number of projects strengthening Chinese influence on the peninsula. When the Tonghak Rebellion broke out in 1894, the King of Korea appealed to Beijing for help. Li Hongzhang sent 1500 troops, and informed the Japanese, who had already sent troops as well, in order to aid Japan's ally, the king, by helping to suppress the rebellion. After suppressing the rebellion, however, things escalated, with the Japanese troops breaking into the royal palace and abducting the king and queen. China sent more troops to Korea in order to stop the Japanese, and the Sino-Japanese War began.
The war can be said to have begun with the Battle of Seonghwan in July 1894, with the official declarations of war being made early the following month. Many central elements of the Meiji government, including the Imperial Diet and the Emperor himself, relocated to Hiroshima to be closer to the headquarters of the war effort.
The Japanese First Army (17,000 troops) attacked Pingyang on September 15, securing the city by the next day, and forcing the Chinese to retreat across the Yalu River. The day after that, September 17, saw the Battle of the Yalu River, the first naval battle in history fought between steamship fleets.
The Battle of Lushunkou, or Port Arthur, in November of that year, was also a major part of the conflict.
In the end, though China had long been considered the great power in the region, to the surprise of the world (read: i.e. the Western powers especially), Japan achieved a decisive victory. This came in large part as a result of superior equipment and organization; China at the time is said to have been struggling with considerable corruption, internal rifts and instability, and inadequate leadership, not to mention an incomplete effort at military modernization. The Empress Dowager Cixi, who wielded de facto power in China at the time, was rather conservative, and hesitant in her attitudes towards reforms, resulting in a military and industries that were not yet as fully modernized/Westernized as Japan's. Some accounts cite anecdotes of admirals who arranged modern warships as if it were a traditional cavalry charge, and artillery shells filled with sawdust, for want of sufficient supplies of gunpowder. Furthermore, many of the regional governors & generals enjoyed a degree of local autonomy, and dragged their feet in sending troops; while the Beiyang ("Northern Sea") Navy was defeated by the Japanese, the Southern Chinese Navy did not participate in the conflict at all.
In Japan, the nationalist feelings stirred up by the war created a more widespread sense of unity and patriotism, and support for the Meiji government, than the government had ever enjoyed up until then. In other words, the war played an important part in securing a greater stability for the regime, which up until then faced considerable political opposition in elections and political parties & movements.
The war was officially ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in May 1895. In the treaty, China renounced any claims to suzerainty in Korea (i.e. claims of Korea being a tributary, or otherwise subordinate to or specially linked with China), and formally recognized Korea as an independent state. The Qing Court also ceded Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands (C: Penghu) to Japan, granted Japan most-favored-nation status, and officially opened an additional seven Chinese trade ports to Japanese trade, as well as agreeing to pay considerable monetary reparations, in British pounds sterling. The indemnity paid by the Chinese was equivalent to roughly 364,510,000 yen, roughly one-third of Japan's total GNP at the time, and far more than making up for the cost of the war to the Japanese government, expenses totalling around 200,476,000 yen.
Having obtained most-favored-nation status meant, to a considerable degree if not completely, treaty equality with the Western powers, and the successful resolution of the Meiji government's long-time aims of renegotiation of the unequal treaties. The terms of the treaty also allowed Japan to begin building factories in China's treaty ports, protected by extraterritoriality.
The Treaty also stipulated that China cede to Japan the Liaodong Peninsula, which extends into the Yellow Sea opposite the Shandong Peninsula and just north of the China-Korea border. However, due to the Triple Intervention of Russia, Germany, and France, which feared the growth of Japanese power/influence, and which desired access to Liaodong for their own spheres of influence, Japan was ultimately denied control of that territory.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 193-195.
- Marius Jansen, "Japanese Imperialism: Late Meiji Perspectives," in Mark Peattie (ed.), The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, Princeton University Press (1984), 71.
- Schirokauer, et al., 180.
- Peter Duus, "Economic Dimensions of Meiji Imperialism," in Peattie and Myers (eds.), 134.
- Duus, 143.
- Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 110.