This week’s geopolitical cartoon is a depiction of Japanese-Korean relations in the early 20th century. It depicts an imperial Japanese soldier (signifying Japan) stepping on a Korean man wearing traditional clothing (hanbok and gat), the latter forms a bridge over the “Yalu” and a sign on the other bank points the way to Manchuria. As the soldier crosses, the man holds a sign stating permission to use “Korean territory” to cross into Manchuria.
While I don’t have the date of the cartoon, complicating placing it on a precise timeline we can make an educated guess based on what’s happening in the cartoon. But first some background, the cartoon was published during the general historical period of imperialism, more specifically at a time when Imperial Japan began asserting itself in East Asia, of course there was already a hegemon (or “super”power in this region), Tsarist Russia. We often associate the imperial and colonial periods with Europe and often forget that Japan was also involved. China at this time was thrown into disarray with the continued presence of Europeans (and Japanese) and a weak central government. Russian and Japanese tensions led to the Russo-Japanese War from February 1904 to September 1905, ending with the Treaty of Portsmouth. In some interesting foreshadowing, the Russo-Japanese War began with an Imperial Japanese surprise attack on Russian-controlled Port Arthur, now Lushunkou (in Dalian municipality).
The Treaty of Portsmouth signalled Imperial Japan’s emergence as a real world power and exposed Tsarist Russia as a state in decline. Indeed, some twelve years later Tsarist Russia would be torn apart by the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution and a civil war. In addition, Imperial Japan also gained recognized control over unified Korea (with acknowledgement from the U.S. and UK). This control turned to formal annexation in 1910. Korea was nominally an empire from 1897 to 1910 but this may have been due to more wishful thinking than actual power. For instance, the August 1904 First Japan-Korea Convention stipulated extensive Japanese governmental involvement in Korean internal governance (specifically in the areas of foreign relations, finance).
The political cartoon could be referring to the First Japan-Korea Convention, but perhaps also to the outright annexation of Korea in 1910. The words “so obliging” hint at the author’s belief that Korea is partially responsible for Japanese actions against Manchuria. The aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war left Manchuria administratively with China but the actual influence lay with Japan, rather than Russia. Following the Mukden incident in 1931, Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria and established a puppet state, Manchukuo.
This political cartoon is an effective political geography tool. The geopolitical importance of Korea for Imperial Japan is highlighted for the reader in that Imperial Japan must cross Korea (and the Yalu river) in order to reach their political objectives in Manchuria.