The obvious objective of this monograph is to address this shortcoming in the historiography on the Anglo-Japanese relationship between 1876 and 1895 - a period in which there is a dire lack of coverage.17 This monograph will also offer a fresh perspective to the historiography of East Asian history in the same period by shedding light not only on the cordial aspects of the relationship between Britain and Japan, it will also look at the issues which did lead to disagreement, or even friction. It will also pay particular attention to how the unique international environment in East Asia before 1895, in which the Qing dynasty was reasserting its influence, affected the Anglo-Japanese relationship. Much light can be shed on this process by looking at how Britain and Japan related to the Qing and to each other over one of the most important regional issues at that time - the future of Korea. The Kingdom of Korea had been under the rule of the Choson dynasty since 1392, but by the late nineteenth century the Korean peninsula attracted the attention of imperial countries. At one level, it emerged as the focus of competition between the two main powers in East Asia, Japan and China. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan took the diplomatic initiatives to strengthen its influence in Korea, which resulted in the signing of the Japanese-Korean treaty (Treaty of Kanghwa) in 1876. Thus, when the Qing began to reassert its influence towards its traditional vassals across East Asia, including Korea, from the 1880s, it inevitably became the main flashpoint between the two local powers in East Asia.
The British decision-makers could not remain indifferent towards the fact that the Qing placed strong emphasis in strengthening its influence over Korea when they were formulating their East Asian policy. It was obvious from the British eyes that the Chinese would be greatly disappointed if they thought the British government were trying to obstruct their attempt. It could potentially lead to the deterioration of the British relationship with the Qing, and could have a negative effect on their trade in China - which was the most important British interest in East Asia.
Korea in this period was also important because it became a pawn in the broader international environment that surrounded the region at that time, namely the rise of global imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia. As many accounts of the Western international and imperial history have argued, the competition between European great powers started to become more intense from the late 1870s onwards.18 This state of affairs began to have strong global implications in the 1880s, as the contemporaneous partition of Africa indicates.19 East Asia was not unaffected by this trend, and neither could a country such as Korea, which mattered very little in trade terms but possessed an important geostrategic position, remain neutral.
By looking at the competition for influence over Korea, one can therefore come to a better understanding not only of the dynamics of international affairs within East Asia but also of the broader international environment that existed around the region, which inevitably influenced relationship between Britain and Japan. Yet, there is a significant shortcoming in the historiography of the so-called 'Korean question' before 1895. The first problem is that there are very few works on how the British government formulated its policy towards Korea.20 While some secondary sources in the
English language look at other actors, there are almost no works that focus on the British side of the story.21 As historians have little knowledge about the policy of one of the most influential Great Power at that time, they cannot gain an accurate and full understanding of the international dynamics that surrounded that kingdom. This monograph will utilise primary sources related to British policy towards Korea in this period extensively in order to fill this significant gap in historiography.
Second, and perhaps a bigger problem, is that the historiography on the Korean question is strongly affected by many inaccurate assumptions. The conventional understanding of this topic follows the line of argument forwarded by Kim Key-hiuk, who depicts the Meiji Japanese government as an aggressive and expansionist regime which sought to colonise Korea ever since its inauguration in 1868. and the Qing as a benevolent suzerain which attempted to protect its vassal from Japan.22 The problem about this conventional wisdom is that the Qing was not as weak and reactive, nor as generous as Kim argued.23 Instead it often accomplished its objectives through imperialistic measures, such as sending military forces to Korea and signing a de facto unequal treaty with the Choson court. Using this argument, the Qing Empire can be portrayed as no less imperialist than the Western great powers or the Japanese in that it attempted to expand its influence in Korea in a manner that was decidedly in its own benefit.
Another problem is that the assumption about Japanese aggression towards Korea, claiming that the Japanese had a long-term ambition to annex Korea, are exaggerated.24 This line of argument ignores the fact that Japan in early Meiji era was not a powerful bully in East Asia as it would later become in the early twentieth century. Instead, it was a small regional power working desperately to uphold its independence amid being surrounded by neighbours which were regarded as being much stronger than itself - the Qing being the most prominent. Japanese modernisation was far from complete in the 1880s. and thus the Japanese decision-makers often had to devote more attention and resources to domestic reform rather than diplomacy, which inevitably constrained their ability to engage in overseas adventurism.25 This point was first raised by Tabohashi Kiyoshi and Hilary Conroy before 1960, and was reiterated by Takahashi Hidenao and Peter Duus from the 1980s onwards.26 They all convincingly argue that the existing archival evidence does not support the conventional understanding of Japanese policy towards Korea before 1895, and that there was no consensus within Japanese decision-making circles on the policy that they should pursue towards Korea. They also point out that, while there were individuals who called for an aggressive policy, those who mattered the most in the Japanese decision-making circle largely kept their distance from such opinions. At least in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War, Japanese policy towards Korea was inevitably cautious and reactive; the bottom line was that there was no long-term blueprint for annexation.
Of course, this is not to deny the fact that on many occasions the Meiji government pursued its interests in East Asia rather opportunistically through the mobilisation of military and unequal treaties, which were naturally resented by the Chinese and Koreans. It is therefore understandable that the latter held strong suspicions towards Japan. However, it must also be said that to understand the motives behind the Japanese policies, one must examine Japanese archival materials in light of the social context of the late nineteenth century, instead of building arguments upon the Chinese and Korean perception towards Japan at that time. And these sources all indicate that the Japanese political leaders in this period were well aware of their weakness. Neither were China and Korea necessarily regarded as enemies or objects of expansionism. There always were sizeable portion of individuals within Japanese decision-making circle who thought they should formulate cordial and cooperative relationship with their neighbours to so that they could survive within a difficult international environment. These points will be emphasised throughout this monograph in order to accurately understand the international environment which surrounded the Anglo-Japanese relationship from 1876 to 1895.