In the summer of 1894, political unrest and reforms in Korea severely strained relations between the Chinese and Japanese. Many saw Korea as a powder keg that would ignite the Far East into a devastating war.
The fuse was lit when, on July 25, two small Chinese warships encountered three Japanese warships in a narrow strait about 65 kilometers south of Jemulpo. According to the initial Japanese reports, the Japanese warships fired their guns as a military salute but the Chinese misunderstood it and panicked. They then fired upon the Japanese ships leaving the Japanese commander no choice but to return fire. Within a short time both Chinese ships were badly damaged and retreated back to China with the Japanese ships in close pursuit.
The Japanese warships then encountered the unarmed British-flagged steamship Kowshing which was bound for the Asan area of Korea. The Kowshing had been chartered by the Chinese government to bring supplies and troops to Korea in order to support the Korean government’s efforts to quell the rampant unrest in the southern provinces.
Capt. Togo Heihachiro, the commander of the Japanese warship Naniwa, demanded that the Kowshing follow his ship back to Japan where the 1,100 Chinese troops aboard the ship would be made prisoners of war. But, because war had not been declared, the Kowshing refused.
After a couple of hours of fruitless negotiations, Togo ordered his ship to sink the Kowshing. More than 800 Chinese soldiers and most of the Kowshing’s crew perished. Some died in the initial attack or, unable to swim, drowned. Many were shot as they tried to swim to safety either by Japanese sailors in boats or by their own comrades on the Kowshing who, unable to swim, had the “savage idea that if they had to die, their brothers should not live either.”
Naturally enough, newspapers in China and England denounced the attack as a massacre and an act of piracy. The British consul at Jemulpo declared that he felt “admiration for the courage shown by the Chinese troops, who preferred death to the dishonor of being made prisoners by their cowardly assailants.”
But this wasn’t the only combat that took place before war was actually declared. On July 29, a large battle between Japanese and Chinese troops took place at Asan. The Chinese were soundly defeated and withdrew in the middle of the night leaving the city along with a large amount of weapons and ammunition in the hands of the Japanese.
It seems almost ironic but, on Aug. 1, 1894, Japan officially declared war upon China. The Japanese government claimed that China had provoked the hostilities by continuing to interfere in Korea’s reforms and for its attack upon Japanese naval vessels. China, in turn, declared war upon Japan claiming that it was Japan that had precipitated the two countries to become rivals.
Incidentally, the Sino-Japanese War wasn’t the only conflict in which the timing of Japan’s declaration of war was a little dodgy. On Feb. 8, 1904, Japan declared war upon Russia — three hours after its fleet, under the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro, had attacked the Russian Far East Fleet in China.