History and the Possibility of Taiwan-Japan Relations
Lee Teng-hui in Japan
Image Credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

History and the Possibility of Taiwan-Japan Relations


The latest craze in the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan has taken the form of an old shopping mall, recently renovated and reopened. Each day, shoppers eagerly wait in a queue that stretches out the entrance into the street. Even Sunflower Movement leader and famous local native Lin Fei-fan made a visit. The mall mainly sells popular handcrafted goods and art ware, which are locally made and which, for an island so often subjected to the impersonal foreign forces, are powerful symbols of native ingenuity and creativity – in short, independence.

Yet while the products inside are locally born, the building itself is not: the shopping mall is a remnant of the Japanese colonial period. And no one is hiding it: The original Japanese aesthetic has in fact been painstakingly preserved; waiters sell popular Japanese snacks and strut around adorned in period-appropriate consumes. “Its part of our heritage and culture,” one waitress dressed in a Japanese kimono said to me. “Why forget it?”

While perhaps not quite representing an affirmation of Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, which was often cruel and unjust, the mall, at the very least, represents a certain nostalgic fondness for Taiwan’s Japanese heritage. Certainly one can hardly imagine a similar kitschy remembrance of Japan’s legacy in other countries that experienced Japanese imperialism, and certainly not just across the strait in Mainland China.

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What the mall does represent is the complex and powerful connection Taiwan has with its former colonizer. Indeed, it’s this connection, often neglected in Asian power politics, which might be a huge determiner of how the game is played if the two countries begin utilizing their historical relationship.

In Japan, the rise of the right-wing government of Shinzo Abe and his effort to reawaken the slumbering giant with an active foreign policy could very mean overtures to Taiwan, which is at an important geopolitical crossroads for Japan. Already, members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have vocally promoted the idea of a Japanese version of the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act, allowing for additional extra-diplomatic relations.

The tide towards closer relations is also visible in Taiwan—though one would be hard pressed to notice that given noises from officialdom. In recent months, Taiwan’s pro-unification president Ma Ying-jieo and the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) have taken frequent, petty jabs at Japan, most notably last month when Japanese museum authorities mislabeled an advertisement for an overseas exhibition of Taiwan’s National Place Museum, inferring that the Republic of China’s status wasn’t independent from the People’s Republic of China.

Perhaps to shore up dismal poll numbers or to brandish his credentials as a defender of Taiwan’s nominal autonomy, Ma escalated the controversy despite an official Japanese apology­­­­­, canceling the first lady’s official visit to Japan. He also instructed government agencies to move forward on organizing events and exhibitions highlighting past Japanese war crimes.        .

However, this general degrading of relations between Taiwan and Japan in recent months remains a matter of official policy, not public perception: The Taiwanese public widely adores Japan. A survey last year found Japan was Taiwanese peoples’ favorite country, and little has changed since. Taiwanese remain voracious consumers of all things Japanese, from fashion to music, and look towards the country with admiration for its liberal values and post-industrial society. Most hope for closer relations in the future.

The real news came when in mid-August former President Lee Teng-hui – often called the father of the Taiwanese independence movement – applauded Japan’s far-right and its effort to reinterpret Article 9, allowing for a more robust Japanese military and hard power-oriented foreign policy. Lee’s approving words were in notable contrast to the response of Japan’s other East Asian neighbors, indeed South Korea and China moved to strengthen ties in response. For these countries, the memory of Japan’s past atrocities are painfully salient, but not for Taiwan.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. Taiwan was imperial Japan’s first colony. Bent on presenting itself as apt colonizers on par with the West, Japan made Taiwan its model colony, modernizing the island and offering access to modern education and services. Lee Teng-Hui was a model beneficiary, having studied in Japan. When WWII broke out, many Taiwanese voluntarily enlisted in the Japanese army; some even fought in combat roles and died for Japan, like Lee’s brother who is buried with Japan’s other war dead, including a number of Class A war criminals, at Yasukuni war shrine. Hui paid his respects during a controversial visit in 2007.

Of course, the Japanese committed numerous atrocities as well, a number of which are remembered in Taiwan today, as in the popular historical-biotic Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, which recounts the Wushe Incident. This engagement with the past is in notable contrast to the current position on the many atrocities that the KMT committed during the White Terror period.

Indeed, for many Taiwanese, “liberation” merely swapped a Japanese occupier for a Chinese one. The difference in occupation was only marked by the capriciousness and cruelty through which the occupier exacted their rule. Japanese rule was for the most part consistent if unfair, exemplarily technocratic from start to finish, a quality Chinese rule, from the moment the war weary and tattered troops of the Republic of China landed on the island, noticeably lacked.

“At least the Japanese made us modern, the Chinese just made a mess,” a refrain heard all too often in the presence of Taiwanese elders.

The Chinese forsook their reputation as liberators and presented themselves as colonial overlords, and were openly considered as such. Those who resisted KMT rule found that one colonizer could be weighted and judged within the annals of Taiwanese collective memory. Thus the Japanese colonization  became a convenient historical memory for Taiwan’s nationalists. Kept alive, Taiwanese found, the memory of one colonizer could be used to fight the other.

But a question remains: Beside a love of kitsch, why after so many years of democratization and the dismantlement of the party-state – which is to say the end of the explicit colonization parallel – does the memory of Japan remain salient? Perhaps it is because for many Taiwanese, especially in Taiwan’s pan-green deep south, colonization never ended. It persists through the constitutional flaws that hold back Taiwanese democracy, and the forced stranglehold of the Republic of China and One-China policy that continue to impede the path to genuine independence.

Today Japan is poised to play a new role in the struggle for an independent Taiwanese future: that of international escape. With the Sunflower Movement having ignited anti-rapprochement sentiment and placed Taiwan on a collision course with China, memories of Taiwan under Imperial Japanese may very well take on new meaning.

Lorand C. Laskai is a freelance writer living in Beijing. He previously tracked social movements while living in Tainan, Taiwan. He edits New Bloom, a magazine on Taiwanese politics, and tweets @lorandlaskai.

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