Two photographs of men with head wounds.

“Human bullets,” A Russo-Japanese War Photo Album

By Alexander Bay ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011. This essay takes a look at an album of 50 original gelatin silver photographs with handwritten captions in Japanese. The photographs are 8 1/4 x 5 7/8 inches in size.

Photograph of frostbitten fingers.
Wounds caused by frostbite, ca. 1905
National Library of Medicine #101600398

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) Japanese forces lost 85,600 men, while the Russian army incurred from 40,000 to 70,000 deaths. At least 20,000 Chinese civilians died as well. The Japanese army suffered from supply shortages that limited the use of heavy artillery and forced General Maresuke Nogi to take the fortified positions outside of Port Arthur through three bloody assaults. The army sustained more than 56,000 casualties in the battle of Port Arthur. (Nogi atoned by ritually disemboweling himself after the Meiji emperor died in 1912.)

This collection of photos from the war centers on Port Arthur (modern-day Lüshunkou), the Russian Hospital located there, and the care of Russian soldiers by Japanese medical personnel. Many of the pictures reveal the gruesome realities of fighting in Manchuria across the winter months of 1904 and 1905, including frostbitten limbs that required amputation (above). Western audiences, through the reports of foreign observers, received a glowing picture of how the Japanese army treated friend and foe alike. The American doctor Louis L. Seaman, touring hospital facilities in Japan and Manchuria during the war, marveled at how well trained, staffed, and supplied the medical corps were. According to Seaman, Japan had the most sophisticated military triage system and field hospitals in the world. Doctors and stretcher bearers took the wounded from the front to dressing stations, where they received superficial treatment before being conveyed to a field hospital. After surgery the wounded were carried to the nearest railroad station and sent on to the main hospital base in Dairen (modern-day Dalian). Once rested, the wounded traveled to hospitals in Japan.

Image of an open photo album showing 2 photographs of male Russian soliders with head injuries.
Russo-Japanese War Photograph Album, 1904-1905
National Library of Medicine #101425217
Photography by Arne Svenson

Reports of men treated at field hospitals in Manchuria, however, tell a very different story. Lieutenant Tadayoshi Sakurai, who lost his right arm during the siege of Port Arthur, left a bleak account of life inside field hospitals. In his memoir Nikudan (Human Bullets), Sakurai wrote, “Large armies of flies attacked the wretched patients, worms would grow in the mouth or nose, and some of them could not drive the vermin away because their arms were useless…. Those in charge of the surgical work…had to crowd more than a thousand patients into a field hospital provided for two hundred [so] they were powerless to give any better care to the sufferers.” Seaman, no doubt, was shown only what his hosts wanted him to see: the best hospitals in Port Arthur and Liaoyang. In the same vein, these photographs were designed to depict the civilized approach of the Japanese army to the treatment of the war wounded and the advanced state of Japanese military medical services.

We don’t know how this collection came to the National Library of Medicine. The photographs, furnished with captions that offer detailed analysis of battlefield wounds, are aimed at a Japanese-speaking medical audience. They do, however, fit the pattern of wartime reporting—newspapers, photojournalism, and woodblock prints—which was designed to bolster domestic morale and international support by portraying Japanese soldiers in acts of bravery or compassion and stoic Russian soldiers suffering defeat with dignity.

Alexander Bay teaches East Asian history at Chapman University. A Japan specialist, he focuses on the history of science and medicine across the premodern/modern divide as well as during the interwar years. His most recent book is Beriberi in Modern Japan: The Making of a National Disease, 2012.

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