Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945: History, Culture, Memory
Liao Ping-hui and David Der-wei Wang (ed.), Columbia University Press, New York: 2006. 416 pp.
Taiwan’s unique colonial history, a “historical period most consequential to the formation of the complex identity of the island,” is difficult to view using the standard lens of contemporary colonial and post-colonial studies. Unlike most colonizing governments of the time, the Japanese government on Taiwan conducted meticulous censuses, resulting in “one of the most accomplished feats of data-collection from any population, at any given time, anywhere in the world.” From a theoretical perspective, this demonstrates significantly that a colonizing government does not necessarily need to distort truth in order to govern; rather, through illuminating data on everything from land rent to population to number of cows, the Japanese colonial government was able to control every aspect of life in the colony. This, the authors say, illustrates “the close relation between power and knowledge.”
The Japanese mechanism of control over Taiwan comprised the following: 1) exchange and mediation with native Taiwanese elites, in order to ensure their collaboration; 2) disciplining and training, aimed at schoolchildren and students, which via rituals and education strove to create a disciplined imperial subject body; and 3) punishment and threat, via military and police force, which maintained public order. By allowing members of the elite landowning class to keep their land, and by providing their children with educational opportunities, the Japanese colonial government effectively achieved what the authors call a “weak hegemony” by polarizing the Taiwanese “into two identity groups: the educated elites who imagined themselves to be sub-Japanese and the underclass majority who had not yet forgotten their Han-ness.”
Though during WWII the Japanese banned the use of Chinese in an attempt to foster a deeper Japanese patriotism, at first the colonial government allowed the Taiwanese to keep their own culture and language. They hoped that the Confucian values common to both cultures, coupled with continued Japanese rule, would cause the Taiwanese to gradually develop into true Japanese subjects. Attracted by the industrial modernity and ‘Westernization’ of Japanese culture, many Taiwanese intellectuals embraced Japanization to some degree. Yet according to the authors, “what developed under Japanese rule was not a simple relationship of oppressive subjugator and the resisting subjugated, but rather a struggle by the Taiwanese people to form a Taiwanese identity while intentionally assimilating the Japanese ideology imposed on them.” With the arrival of the printing press from Japan, literary periodicals and newspapers became popular among both elite and lower-class Taiwanese. The authors estimate that by 1930, “in Asia the literacy rate in Taiwan… was second only to that of Japan.”
The “shared cultural experience” of print media, in addition to creating the first Taiwanese “public sphere,” led “the Taiwanese masses… to imagine that they belonged to a single community” and so was instrumental in establishing a Taiwanese identity.
However, due to the fact that they were subject to more intense brutality and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese, the lower classes on Taiwan did not as easily forego their traditional culture. According to the authors, this gave rise to two kinds of literature: “that of the masses and that of the intellectuals. The mass genre underlined the socioeconomic predicaments of minority groups – mainly the poor and women who were traditionally bound… while the intellectual genre constituted a grand narrative of elite immersion into Japanese identity.”
Generally speaking, the result of this dichotomy was that the upper classes on Taiwan embraced modern Japanese education while the lower classes protected traditional Taiwanese culture.
The results of this distinct cultural combination were apparent upon the arrival of the Nationalist government in Taiwan at the end of WWII. Writer Wang Baiyuan voiced the feelings of many Taiwanese: “Though Taiwan was under oppressive Japanese imperialism, it has lived through half a century in a highly developed industrial capitalism. Its consciousness, social institutions, and political inspiration all came out of an industrial society.” China, by comparison, was still an “underdeveloped” agricultural society. Taiwan’s unique blend of Japanese modernity and Chinese tradition would serve to distinguish Taiwan from mainland China well into the next half-century.