Japan and the 1911 Xinhai Revolution

The Impact of the Xinhai Revolution on Japanese Politics

Politics Society

The Xinhai Revolution in China (1911–12) heightened political tensions in Japan, as the government supported the besieged Qing dynasty despite the popular sentiment backing the revolutionaries. Professor Sakurai Ryōju examines the repercussions this historic event had on Japanese politics, particularly with regard to Japan’s policy toward China.

The Xinhai Revolution in China started with an uprising by military forces in the inland city of Wuchang on October 10, 1911. From there the revolt quickly spread throughout the country. On January 1, 1912, the rebel forces proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of China, with Nanjing as its capital. And on February 12, the final Qing emperor abdicated, ending the dynasty that had ruled China for two and a half centuries. News of the uprising appeared just about daily in the Japanese press, and some Japanese who sympathized with the cause of Sun Yat-sen and his fellow revolutionaries went to China to support the rebel forces. That much is relatively well known. But little attention has been paid to the impact this revolution had on Japanese politics.

The Revolution Shakes up Japan’s Foreign Policy

My conclusion is that the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution, in addition to producing confusion in Japan’s policy toward China, also had a considerable impact on politics within Japan, resulting in the replacement of the cabinet. The uprising in China was not something that Japan could simply sit and watch as a disinterested observer. Katsura Tarō, who had been prime minister through August 1911, stressed the need to carefully follow events in a letter that he addressed to Terauchi Masatake, the army minister in his former cabinet, on February 4, 1912.(*1) In the early part of the Taishō era (1912–26), Japan had a series of short-lived cabinets, and one of the reasons for the frequent changes was the country’s wavering foreign policy.

Saionji Kinmochi (Photo: National Diet Library)

Friction and confrontation between Japan and China began to surface after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 and took over the Russian interests in southern Manchuria under the September 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth. In the years that followed, Japan adopted a policy of gradually extending its influence in this part of China while operating in concert with Britain and Russia. This manifested itself in the establishment of the South Manchuria Railway in 1906 and in the conclusion of Sino-Japanese treaties relating to Manchuria in 1909, supplemented by the Russo-Japanese agreement of 1910, under which the two countries undertook to protect southern Manchuria jointly as an area in which they had “special interests.” All of the powers were seeking to extend their influence over China at the time, but under the Boxer Protocol concluded in 1901, following the previous year’s Boxer Rebellion, they had adopted a stance of cooperating, even as they sought to check each other. Meanwhile, there was no change in the condition of the Qing government such as to allow it to overturn the protocol. Japan’s moves in China during these years were conducted within this international cooperative framework. Within Japan there was virtually no political conflict over this foreign policy, and from 1905 through 1912 the country enjoyed a period of government stability, with the premiership alternating between Katsura Tarō, who represented the conservative Meiji oligarchs, and Saionji Kinmochi, head of the Rikken Seiyūkai (Friends of Constitutional Government), the political party that controlled the lower house of the Imperial Diet. This period of stability is sometimes referred to as the Katsura-Saionji decade.

When the Xinhai Revolution occurred, the second Saionji cabinet (August 1911–December 1912) was in power. On October 24, after the uprising started, the Japanese government adopted a policy of supporting the maintenance of Qing dynasty rule and of projecting Japanese influence in mainland China to get the Western powers to recognize Japan’s position of strength; this involved working in concert with Britain in particular and moving in step with Russia with respect to Manchuria.

The upheaval in China had been foreseen to some degree; for example, the Army General Staff Office had referred to this possibility in its May 1911 “Plan for Tactics Toward Qing [China].”(*2) But the Japanese government had not anticipated the lightning speed with which the revolution spread across the country, nor was it prepared for the extended period of instability in the Republic of China after the establishment of the Yuan Shikai administration, based in Beijing, in March 1912. The 1911 revolution was followed by conflict between the Yuan administration and the southern opposition led by Sun Yat-sen and the “second revolution” of July 1913 led by the southern revolutionaries. The Chinese revolution led to debate within Japan concerning the shape of the new state and Japan’s relationship with it, and it also led to a number of actions from the Japanese side. Japan’s previously limited diplomatic options became more diverse and complex.

The first point of contention concerned the form of China’s government. There was a debate over the provision of military assistance—whether Japan should support the Qing monarchy or place its hopes in the revolutionary camp. The initial decision by the second Saionji cabinet to support the Qing side was in line with the wishes of Yamagata Aritomo, representing the Meiji oligarchs, and people like Terauchi Masatake in the Army Ministry. In response to a request from the Qing government for weaponry assistance, the Japanese government decided on October 23 to provide materiel through the Taihei Kumiai, an organization set up as a joint venture by Ōkura-Gumi, Mitsui & Co., and Takata Shōkai to sell weapons that the army no longer needed.

Popular Sentiment in Favor of the Revolutionaries

Inukai Tsuyoshi (Photo: National Diet Library)

Popular opinion within Japan, however, was sympathetic to the revolutionary camp. Miyazaki Tōten, a famous “continental adventurer” (tairiku rōnin), worked at building up Japanese popular backing for Sun Yat-sen, and a number of support groups were organized. Uchida Ryōhei of the Amur River Society (Kokuryūkai) submitted a petition to the Japanese government opposing weaponry aid to the Qing, and his organization sent many members to China. Within the political world, meanwhile, the opposition Rikken Kokumintō (Constitutional Nationalist Party) sided with the revolutionary camp, and Inukai Tsuyoshi, one of its senior officers, traveled to China in December 1911 to offer encouragement to Sun Yat-sen. The support for the revolutionaries among many members of the political opposition in Japan probably arose from their identification of the rebels’ fight against the conservative forces of the Qing and Yuan Shikai with their own posture of opposition to the established power of the Meiji oligarchs.

Uchida’s idea was that the Japanese should help popular movements in other Asian countries so as to drive out the influence of the Western powers from the Asian continent. He had maintained ties with Sun Yat-sen since 1898, and had also extended support to the Philippine independence movement. On January 15, 1912, Sun Yat-sen appointed him as a foreign policy advisor to the newly established Republic of China. This was related to the move by the cash-strapped revolutionary camp to get a loan from Mitsui & Co. via Uchida.(*3) Mitsui & Co. thus provided support both to the Qing government, via the Taihei Kumiai, and to the revolutionary camp, via Uchida.

Uchida and other figures outside the government were not the only ones who supported the Chinese revolutionaries. The recently published diary of Utsunomiya Tarō reveals some moves within the Army General Staff Office based on similar sentiment.(*4) (At the time, Utsunomiya was chief of the General Staff’s second division, which was responsible for intelligence.) In the diary entry for October 18, for example, Utsunomiya writes of meeting with Koga Renzō, head of the Police Bureau in the Home Ministry, and asking him to turn a blind eye to exports of arms to assist the rebel camp; he also records moves to establish contact with Sun Yat-sen. In addition, Utsunomiya writes about efforts to promote revolutionary sentiment through the dispatch of members of the General Staff to various places on the mainland of China and the provision of support to continental adventurers. But the moves within the General Staff were not entirely devoted to supporting the revolutionaries; there was also plotting aimed at maintaining the Qing dynasty by separating Manchuria and Mongolia from China and making them independent. We have learned that money for this operation came not just from the secret funds of the Army Ministry but also from the personal funds of Iwasaki Hisaya, head of the Mitsubishi zaibatsu. Inukai’s mission to China used ¥10,000 from this source. Iwasaki’s provision of funds may be seen as part of Mitsubishi’s policy with respect to the mainland.

Diversification of Japan’s China Policy and Calls for an Independent Approach

Within the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, Ijūin Hikokichi, Japanese minister to Beijing, worked at one point to promote a policy of supporting the revolutionaries while calling for a north-south split of China into different countries. This was significant as a move inside the Foreign Ministry to involve itself actively in Chinese affairs. But the basic stance of the ministry was to keep in step with Britain and Russia. Moreover, Ijūin’s line of thinking was not adopted, and his own attitude changed after Japan lost its opportunity for unilateral action.(*5)

On November 28, in response to the course of developments in China, the second Saionji cabinet adopted a decision declaring that Japan would seek a settlement of the situation by pushing for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy jointly with the Western powers. But Britain had started to consider brokering a cease-fire and peace agreement and a shift to a republican government, and it did not accept this Japanese proposal. In other words, Britain and Japan failed to act in concert. And at the end of the year the Japanese government gave up on the idea of maintaining the monarchy and adopted a wait-and-see approach.

As it had become impossible for the Qing government to continue to rule China as a whole, Yamagata and Terauchi argued that it was necessary at least to maintain the Qing dynasty so as to keep the revolution from extending to Manchuria, where Japan’s influence was strong, and they called for a large-scale dispatch of forces for this purpose.(*6) There was also a plot laid by adventurer Kawashima Naniwa and others to carve out a Japanese sphere of influence by sending forces to support the “Manchurian-Mongolian Independence Movement” that sought to establish independent states in Manchuria and Mongolia headed by members of the Qing dynasty and Mongolian royal family. This had backing from the Army General Staff. And Iwasaki Hisaya apparently extended financial support to Kawashima through a route other than Utsunomiya.(*7)

The second Saionji cabinet emphasized international coordination and rejected the option of dispatching forces to China; it also quashed the Manchurian-Mongolian Independence Movement. But the cabinet came under considerable criticism for its failure to accomplish its initial policy of maintaining the Qing dynasty or to win Britain’s support for a proposed coordinated approach. Katsura, in his letter to Terauchi cited above, wrote that the cabinet’s foreign policy felt like a ride in a ship without a captain.(*8)

These criticisms subsequently led to demands for a more independent foreign policy. The opinions expressed covered a considerable range—from calls for a complete departure from the framework of coordination with the Western powers to assertions that Japan should lead the Western powers within this framework—but all were critical of the Saionji cabinet’s lack of a proper policy. And these calls for an independent approach were well received by the “pan-Asianists” among the public, who had been dissatisfied with a foreign policy subordinate to the Western powers.

The Fall of the Saionji Cabinet and the Taishō Political Crisis

Katsura Tarō (Photo: National Diet Library)

The diversification of views concerning China policy intensified the subsequent political confrontation within Japan, leading to the so-called Taishō political crisis, which started in December 1912. This crisis occurred when the army minister resigned to protest the second Saionji cabinet’s rejection of the Army’s request for two additional divisions; the Army refused to designate a replacement, forcing Saionji and his cabinet to resign. Though the process of forming a new cabinet proved difficult, eventually the third Katsura cabinet was formed. But the resumption of the premiership by Katsura, an Army man, was seen by the public as a high-handed move by the Army, and Katsura’s use of imperial edicts when forming the cabinet was taken to represent a threat to constitutional government. This led to the emergence of the Movement to Protect Constitutional Government, a broad opposition movement including parliamentarians, journalists, and others, and the holding of mass protest demonstrations. As a result, the Katsura cabinet was forced to resign en masse on February 11, 1913, less than two months after it was formed. This was the first time a cabinet fell in Japan as a result of a popular movement, and it is seen as representing a step in the development of Japanese democracy.

Katsura was long viewed as an “old school” politician, but recent studies have strongly suggested that his concealed desire to build a new political system caused the crisis that brought down his cabinet.(*9) This can be seen in his efforts to rebuild Japan’s foreign policy in the wake of the Xinhai Revolution and in his attempt to bring about a realignment of domestic political forces by establishing his own political party. As noted above, he was critical of the Saionji cabinet’s foreign policy response to the Xinhai Revolution, and he had initiated moves to rebuild Japan’s relations with Russia and Britain, traveling to Europe and holding summit meetings with his counterparts there in July 1912. (The death of Emperor Meiji forced him to cut his trip short and return to Japan.)

The third Katsura cabinet included the pro-British Katō Takaaki as foreign minister and the pro-Russian Gotō Shinpei as minister of communications. These appointments reflected Katsura’s hopes of reviving the Anglo-Japanese alliance and of maintaining and expanding cooperation with Russia. The new party that Katsura founded, the Rikken Dōshikai (Constitutional Association of Friends), included many figures who had argued in favor of supporting the Chinese revolutionary camp, and it seems likely that Katsura hoped to improve relations with China by taking advantage of their network. It was these party members who arranged Sun Yat-sen’s February 1913 visit to Japan. This was the only one of Sun’s numerous visits in which he was treated as a state guest.

Katsura’s foreign policy was based on a framework of international cooperation, inasmuch as he sought to restore close ties with many other countries, but at the same time he sought to achieve a position of international leadership for Japan; in this respect he was aiming to shift Japan’s foreign policy to a more independent course. The Rikken Dōshikai that he established was intended as a means of achieving national consensus. Katsura died in October 1913, and eventually this group merged with others to form the Rikken Minseitō (Constitutional Democratic Party), which became one of the two major parties supporting Japan’s system of party politics.

In sum, the Xinhai Revolution had a major impact on the subsequent course of Japanese politics.

After World War I: The End of Moves Toward an Independent Foreign Policy

Hara Takashi (Photo: National Diet Library)

The situation changed sharply following the outbreak of World War I in July 1914—a war Japan anticipated. The European powers stopped taking an active interest in Asian diplomacy; this meant that Japan no longer needed to consider their intentions and could take a more independent and active approach in its China policy. This was seen, for example, in the policy adopted by the second Ōkuma Shigenobu cabinet (formed in April 1914, with the Rikken Dōshikai playing a major role) of supporting the southern opposition to Yuan Shikai’s government in Beijing and the policy adopted by the Terauchi Masatake cabinet (formed in October 1916) of supporting Duan Qirui’s government, which succeeded the government of Yuan Shikai following his death. These diametrically opposed policies reflected the differences between the rival political forces seeking to control the cabinet, but both were representative of the independent foreign policy initiatives that Japan adopted in the face of the instability in China following the Xinhai Revolution. In China, however, where the north-south confrontation was becoming increasingly serious, Japan’s foreign policy shifts ended up engendering mistrust.

World War I was ended by a November 1918 armistice, and Japan found itself placed on the defensive vis-à-vis the United States, which had emerged as the world’s new leader, with respect to policy toward China. It once again became difficult for Japan to act independently in its China diplomacy. The Hara Takashi cabinet (1918–21), which was formed shortly before the armistice, returned to a policy of international cooperation and adopted the stance of nonintervention in China’s affairs. The move toward an independent foreign policy, which emerged in the wake of the Xinhai Revolution, came to a temporary halt. All that remained of that policy was mistrust of Japan among the Chinese people—a negative legacy that contributed greatly to the subsequent friction between the two countries.


Sakurai Ryōju. Shingai Kakumei to Nihon seiji no hendō (The Xinhai Revolution and Japanese Political Shifts). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2009.

———. Taishō seiji shi no shuppatsu (The Start of the History of Taishō-Era Politics). Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1997.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ Chiba Isao, ed., Katsura Tarō hatsu shokan shū (Collected Correspondence of Katsura Tarō) (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2011), p. 292.

(*2) ^ Shimanuki Takeharu, “Nichi-Ro Sensō igo ni okeru kokubō hōshin, shoyō heiryoku, yōhei kōryō no hensen (jō)” (The Changes in National Defense Policy, Required Military Power, and Tactical Principles after the Russo-Japanese War [Part 1]), Gunji Shigaku, vol. 8, no. 4 (1973).

(*3) ^ Uchida Ryōhei Bunsho Kenkyūkai, ed., Uchida Ryōhei kankei bunsho, vol. 1 (Tokyo: Fuyō Shobō Shuppan, 1994), p. 346.

(*4) ^ Utsunomiya Tarō Kankei Shiryō Kenkyūkai, ed., Nihon Rikugun to Ajia seisaku: Rikugun Taishō Utsunomiya Tarō nikki (The Japanese Army and Asia Policy: The Diary of General Utsunomiya Tarō), vols. 1 and 2 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2007).

(*5) ^ Shōyū Kurabu et al., ed. Ijūin Hikokichi kankei bunsho (Shingai Kakumei ki) (Materials Relating to Ijūin Hikokichi [Xinhai Revolution Period]). Tokyo: Fuyō Shobō Shuppan, 1996.

(*6) ^ Yamagata Aritomo, position statement, January 14, 1912, in Ōyama Iwao, ed., Yamagata Aritomo ikensho (The Position Statements of Yamagata Aritomo) (Tokyo: Hara Shobō, 1966), pp. 337–38.

(*7) ^ Aida Tsutomu, Kawashima Naniwa ō ([Biography of] Kawashima Naniwa) (Tokyo: Bunsuikaku, 1936), p. 222.

(*8) ^ Chiba, Katsura Tarō hatsu shokan shū, p. 292.

(*9) ^ In addition to my works on this topic, see Kobayashi Michihiko, Katsura Tarō (Kyoto, Minerva Shobō, 2006).

United States China Britain Xinhai Revolution Sun Yat-sen Republic of China Katsura Tarō foreign policy Manchuria Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 Russia Treaty of Portsmouth South Manchuria Railway Qing Rikken Seiyūkai Saionji Kinmochi Taishō era Yuan Shikai Yamagata Aritomo Terauchi Masatake Mitsui & Co. Rikken Kokumintō Inukai Tsuyoshi Meiji oligarchs Mitsubishi pan-Asianists Taishō political crisis Movement to Protect Constitutional Government Katō Takaaki Gotō Shinpei Rikken Dōshikai Duan Qirui Hara Takashi