Taiwan’s Collective Memory of Japan: Around the Horn

By | August 31, 2015 | No Comments

Office of the governor-general of Taiwan, in Taipei (1937). | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Abe Shinzo’s August 14 statement brings a few things to mind. First, it reminds us of a thing that Niall Ferguson once described as post-colonial “self flagellation” in the British context. Abe’s intriguing assertion that remorse cannot really last forever on the part of Tokyo and one day the page would and should be turned is not, however, a sense that seems to be shared by other countries in East Asia, where Japan’s colonial adventure tends to be regarded as a monolith and megalith of misfortune. While the Koreas, China, and others may ascribe to anti-Japanese paradigms, emphasizing savagery and exploitation of the period, Japanese occupation is not remembered in these pained and angry tones everywhere in Tokyo’s former zone of sovereignty and control.

As recent extraordinary research on the Jianan Dashu irrigation system in northern Taiwan has shown, other polities are capable of memorializing Japanese imperialism in positive and even fond ways. Hatta Yoichi, engineer, planner and constructor of the Wushantou Reservoir within the irrigation system, has statues built to his memory and May 8th is celebrated with happy connections between past colonial master and servant. How is this possible in the aftermath of what to many in East Asia was one of the darkest moments of its recent historical memory?

While we cannot hope to give a comprehensive answer, here in the first of a new series of loose and informal but considered and knowledgeable scholarly interactions and engagements, “Around the Horn,” Steven Denney, Sino-NK’s managing editor, explores Taiwan’s current cultural memory of those times under Tokyo’s yoke. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Taiwan’s Collective Memory of Japan: Around the Horn1)A variation of the Introduction appears in the September 2015 edition of The Diplomat Magazine. See: Steven Denney, “A Tale of Two Histories: Japan, Taiwan and Korea,” The Diplomat Magazine Vol. 10, August 31, 2015.

by Steven Denney

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe delivered an official cabinet speech in which he expressed remorse for Japan’s past deeds and the sufferings endured by many during the long and brutal Pacific conflict. He did not, as some had hoped, renew any apologies made by previous leaders, nor did he make any new ones.

Abe’s carefully celebrated speech precipitated a barrage of criticism from South Korea and China, both countries that bore the yoke of imperial expansion. Between 1910 and 1945 Korea was a colony of Japan, and between 1937 and 1945 China bore the brunt of Japan’s military advances into East Asia. As I show in my August 15 article, “Twitter Says: South Koreans Not Satisfied with Abe’s Speech,” South Korea’s media fired a united volley across the mediasphere: Abe did not go far enough in his non-apology (they wanted him to re-new the apologies and make new ones), nor were his words sincere. Chinese media was equally was equally unimpressed.

The response is rather unsurprising given the negative perception of Japan among South Koreans and Chinese. Anti-Japanese sentiment and colonial/imperial experiences are integral and deliberately-cultivated aspects of Korean and Chinese national identities. Such as it is, Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korean policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, was quoted in an August 12 Wall Street Journal article (“South Korean Struggles With Legacy of Japanese Colonization”) asking, as a sort of surrogate inculcator for Japan itself, a question on the minds of many:

While the question was asked regarding South Korean attitudes toward Japan, the same question could be asked of China, or North Korea for that matter. But is it the same for all countries that suffered the brunt of Japanese imperial expansion? Nick Kapur, a historian of modern Japan at Rutgers University, thinks not. Kapur Tweeted on August 14, in response to a query by economist Noah Smith as to whether “studying history can sometimes do more harm than good,” the following:

To probe this puzzle a little further, I reached out to my Taiwanese and/or Taiwanese studies colleagues, asking them the following questions: Do you agree that the Taiwanese do not hold as deep a grudge against Japan as do Koreans and (mainland) Chinese? If so, what explains the lack of animosity? If you disagree, why? Is there a similar, or near similar, level of historically driven bitterness, or is it something much less, simmering below the measurable surface?

Below are responses from four people: Chieh-Ting Yeh, Harvard Law School graduate and co-founder, co-host and editor-in-chief of Ketagalan Media, a news and commentary platform “that informs, inspires, and facilitates the movement of ideas and trends between Taiwan, Asia and the rest of the world;” Ching-Fang Hsu, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and current president of North American Taiwan Studies Association (2015-2016); Derek Sheridan, a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at Brown University and former program director of the North American Taiwan Studies Association; and Scott Simon, research chair in Taiwan studies at the University of Ottawa, school of sociological and anthropological studies, and author of numerous publications on Taiwan, including Tanners of Taiwan and “Formosa’s First Nations and the Japanese: from colonial rule to postcolonial resistance.”

Chieh-Ting Yeh | I think the question you are asking is very interesting, and one that has baffled everyone outside of Taiwan. My short answer is: After the Japanese colonization was over, Taiwan (the people and land that the Japanese surrendered) was colonized by the Chinese Nationalist government. The people who have lived through both have a rosier memory of the past colonizer compared to the current colonizer, while people nowadays would rather not associate themselves with the current colonizer’s own anti-Japanese sentiments.

An interesting hypothetical to ask would be, if Taiwan had become a self-ruling nation-state on par with Korea and China, would the Taiwanese state and people be just as critical of Japan’s wartime actions? I believe so, given Taiwanese activists fighting for self-government or outright independence during the 30s and 40s.


“Formosa [from the Italian, Ilha Formosa] from the latest Japanese government surveys” (1901). The red line indicates the extent of Japanese control over the island. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ching-Fang Hsu | To comment on the quote [from Nick Kapur], I wouldn’t go as far as saying “nobody in Taiwan hates Japan – literally nobody – when they did just as bad stuff there.” Rather, I’d say people are aware of the nature of colonization and have painful memories of Japanese oppression–e.g., police brutality, severe social control, discrimination, war, food shortages, war drafts, etc.

Yet, why do westerners have the impression that Taiwan doesn’t hate Japan? And why do we see this friendly connection between the two societies at present? Arguably, it is due to the comparison made to the Kuomintang. Compared to the Japanese colonial rule by law and order, the KMT colonial style and authoritarian rule seemed even worse and unacceptable. When Taiwan was “returned” to the Allies, and China took over Taiwan as a representative of the the Allies (that is, Taiwan was not returned to China directly), Taiwan was in a pretty good shape in terms of infrastructure and the economy: most of the population was literate (i.e., could read and write in Japanese) and an active intellectual network was present (doctors, lawyers, teachers, and even left wing groups).

By contrast, China was in pretty bad shape, and the bureaucracy was not well disciplined. Corruption was a very serious problem in the late 40s when the KMT was processing take-over, along with other social problems. So in the collective memory of Taiwanese society, it was a less “developed” KMT that came to rule (and rule badly), with unacceptable suppression (see, for example, the “228 Massacre”). Although it is meaningless to consider “which colonizer was worse,” it is because of the linear development in the Taiwanese history that leads to the lack of, or less, animosity towards Japan.

Another important note is also briefly mentioned by Chieh-ting. [Chieh-ting and Ching-fang were part of the same email thread. – Editor] Taiwanese people have been trying hard, since democratization, to learn the national history disguised and even misplaced by the KMT. For a long period of time, the KMT imposed a Chinese identity and ideology upon the Taiwanese population through education and all kinds of informal, cultural channels. A crucial part of this Chinese identity is the construction of history and worldview, and of course, labeling Japan as the “evil side” in WW2 is a key component. Many people, educated before the 90s, did not even realize that their grandparents’ generation was in fact on that evil side half a century ago. This disconnection between generations and intentionally misleading education was common prior to democratization.

For the reasons articulated above, this is perhaps why Taiwan does not join the crowd and “go after Japan.” This is because, to put in in comparison to China, our history is different from (and more complex than) the Chinese point of view. Such difference is crucial, but could be easily misinterpreted and even ignored by the forceful voice of the Chinese. This is perhaps why we see this distance between Taiwan and China (and possibly Korea) on this issue.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower waves to a Taiwanese crowd during his visit to Taipei in June 1960. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Derek Sheridan | I think it is generally true that anti-Japanese sentiments connected to the experience of Japanese colonialism are much less present in Taiwan than in other places. However, it is important to unpack what we mean by “Taiwanese.” Those who came from (mainland) China in 1949 brought with them the experience of the war, and that legacy continues to inform attitudes among waishengren [外省人; people who moved to Taiwan from mainland China between 1945 and the early 1950s]. The benshengren (本省人), Taiwanese who lived on the island prior to the beginning of KMT rule, generally have a more favorable view of Japan, associating it with colonial modernization.

Exceptions and contradictions can be found everywhere, however. Not all benshengren can be assumed to share such attitudes, and it is important to remember that in the aftermath of the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan, Chiang Kai-Shek, who once attended Japanese military school, even invited Japanese military advisers to the island to help him plan for a never-realized military re-conquest of China. In other words, contemporary historical attitudes must be understood as retrospective.

Benshengren attitudes towards the Japanese must be contextualized in terms of the arrival of KMT rule. Unlike Korea, which had more of the outlines of a national identity (a kingship and its own writing system) when it was colonized by Japan, Taiwan’s emergence as a distinct entity is closely linked to Japanese colonialism, which effectively unified the island in terms of both infrastructure, but also in the creation of a colonial elite. Prior to 1945, Taiwanese movements for autonomy and/or independence within/from the Japanese empire did so often within the assumption of being part of a Chinese cultural sphere. The transfer from Japanese to Chinese Nationalist rule in 1945 was presumptive decolonization, but due to the manner in which the Nationalists took control of the island, imposed Mandarin, took over Japanese industries and property, and effectively eliminated the local elite during the 228 Incident, “decolonization” was experienced as “recolonization.”

In addition to memories of political oppression, it is also important to remember that average living standards did not return to the pre-war colonial level until 1960. Positive views towards the Japanese period may say more about Taiwanese views of the KMT than it does views of the Japanese per se. Furthermore, debates about Japanese imperialism in Taiwan are less debates about Japan than debates about national identity in Taiwan. There is, in fact, a history of anti-Japanese movements in Taiwan before 1945, but these narratives were marginalized under KMT rule as footnotes in a greater Chinese anti-Japanese narrative. The result is that even today, studies have shown that many students think it was the Japanese who bombed Taipei in 1945, rather than the Americans.

The rewriting of Taiwanese historical narratives under democratization entailed centering Japan as part of that story. It is perhaps because Taiwan’s shifting status has often been at the mercy of imperialism and great power politics that memories of colonialism and empire are reworked in the service of establishing local identities. The fact Taiwan is awkwardly positioned between the PRC and Japan on such issues therefore makes debates about Japan’s colonial history directly linked to the question as to whether Taiwan should be aligned with the PRC against Japan or with Japan against the PRC. Criticism of Japan is muted for some because it is associated with Chinese nationalism and the project of Chinese unification. Even films in Taiwan which depict the Japanese colonial period seem to go out of their way to humanize the Japanese characters, even while not shying away from depictions of violence or oppression. As much as we may strive for nuance in our views of history, binary logics are compelling in the field of political struggle where history is so much at stake.


The celebration of Taiwan’s retrocession at Taipei City Hall (1945). | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scott Simon | I agree that sentiments of grudge are not as widely spread in the population in Taiwan as in Korea or in the PRC.

First of all, the Taiwanese population has diverse histories vis-à-vis Japan. The Mainlanders, who came to Taiwan with the ROC beginning in 1945, had just come from fighting a war against Japan. They quite understandably held a deep hatred of Japan. They were approximately one-seventh of Taiwan’s population by 1949. They had a difficult time adjusting to the “Native Taiwanese” who had lived through 50 years of Japanese administration, wore Japanese clothing, lived in Japanese-style homes, and spoke Japanese but rarely Mandarin. So, there is less of a feeling of grudge in Taiwan–because there are different ethnic groups in Taiwan with different historical experiences with Japan.

Second, unlike Korea and China, there was no protracted warfare in the territory when Japan took it. The Chinese on Taiwan surely felt betrayed when the Qing gave their island to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki; and then ignored their pleas when Taiwanese leaders asked for recognition as the Republic of Taiwan shortly thereafter. The Qing and Japan had agreed that Taiwan would be Japanese “in perpetuity.” The majority of Taiwanese came to accept that, becoming less Chinese, yet not quite Japanese, with the passage of time. By the 1930s, the goal was to assimilate the population to Japan and, soon after, the Taiwanese joined the war effort on Japan’s side without much reluctance.  In fact, in some aboriginal villages, the Japanese had to use a lottery system to select recruits, because so many young men were eager to go to war. So, there was a stronger positive identification with Japan.

Thirdly, this was surely reinforced by a positive experience with colonial rule. The Taiwanese came to enjoy improvements in public health (entire elimination of rabies and a host of tropical diseases), drinking water in Taipei, roads, railways, ports, the most modern irrigation system in Asia, agricultural improvements, industrialization, public schools and universities, etc. In short, the Taiwanese became modern during the Japanese period; and an entire generation of elites were trained under Japanese mentorship. When the Mainlanders arrived in 1945, they perceived a gap in the “cultural level” between China and Taiwan. They credited Japan for improving their lives. This sentiment is very widespread in Taiwan, even among the youth, who say they learned this from their parents and grandparents.

Fourthly, and this is almost systematically ignored, the Taiwanese endured Allied bombings during the War. They thus had personal experience of war with the Japanese rather than against the Japanese.  This profound emotional experience made the Taiwanese very different from the Chinese (some of whom had suffered the Nanking Massacre; and others also had very negative experiences of Japanese violence).

Fifthly, Korea and China became independent after the war. From a Taiwanese perspective, they were not even consulted to see if they wished independence or to stay within Japan or be incorporated into the Republic of China. Instead, outsiders determined that they were to be annexed by the Republic of China (we cannot accurately say “returned” because it was not the ROC that negotiated the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895).  Their experience with the ROC quickly turned from enthusiasm to tragedy after the violence of the 2.28 Incident in 1947. So, Korea and China experienced the departure of the Japanese as liberation. The Taiwanese saw it as the imposition of a second colonial power–and some of them use exactly those words to describe the situation.

Sixthly, whereas in Korea and China, politicians have successfully kept negative memories of Japan alive as part of their own nationalist agendas; Taiwan has competing nationalist agendas. On the one hand, the KMT (historically dominated by Mainlanders) has kept anti-Japanese sentiments alive–and they have spread throughout the population due to the success of their education system since 1945. On the other hand, opposition parties have nourished the idea that the KMT was worse than the Japanese; and has even cultivated a certain nostalgia for Japan. So, there is a diversity of sentiments toward Japan that probably correlates at least somewhat with political preferences and nationalist yearnings (ROC vs. Taiwan).

In conclusion, due to these historical and sociological factors, the difference between Taiwan and China or Korea is not merely the depth of any grudge against Japan. Looking at it in three dimensions, there is also the extent of grudge against Japan. Some people have no grudge at all, but rather a sentiment of gratitude and respect for the Japanese.

Just a few months ago, an elderly Amis man told me that he was jealous of his brother, who got to fight for the Japanese, whereas he was too young to join the military. He said, “We are not the ones who surrendered. It was the Japanese emperor who forced us to surrender. We would have fought to the end.”

I don’t quite know what to do with such politically incorrect enunciations, but I hear them very frequently in Taiwan.

Correction notice: The article originally stated Eisenhower visited Taipei in 1961; he visited in 1960.


1 A variation of the Introduction appears in the September 2015 edition of The Diplomat Magazine. See: Steven Denney, “A Tale of Two Histories: Japan, Taiwan and Korea,” The Diplomat Magazine Vol. 10, August 31, 2015.

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