Written by Ko-Hang Liao
The joint statement between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on April 16, 2021, once again caught everybody’s attention on serious concerns of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait upon the continuing escalation of challenges from China on possibly changing the status quo by force or coercion. This was the first time that Taiwan was mentioned in a US-Japan leaders statement since 1969. Although the situation seems to be frequently changing, it is essential to understand the current tension historically. Indeed, studying the early Cold War period can reveal much about what is happening and how Taiwan has come to the recent position.
There is a consensus among historians that the Korean War (1950-1953) triggered US intervention in the Taiwan Strait, which led to the signing of the Mutual Defence Treaty between the US and the Republic of China (ROC) in 1954. It ‘accidentally’ gave the Nationalist state rooted in Taiwan its permanent shape. Nevertheless, before the Korean War and the arrival of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) on May 1 1951, it was the White Group—a secret Japanese military advisory group consisting of former Imperial Japanese military officers—that helped Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalist/Kuomintang (KMT) regime re-construct the military and re-introduce wartime mobilisation system in Taiwan to defend the island and retake mainland China.
The influence of the Japanese imperial legacy could be seen when the mobilisation experience for total war persisted in the collective memory of many Taiwanese people even after the ‘retrocession’ of Taiwan to the KMT regime upon Japan’s defeat. The misgovernment of the Nationalist government led to the eruption of the 1947 February 28 (2.28) Incident in which many Taiwanese veterans of Imperial Japanese Armed Forces and wartime generation Taiwanese youths. During the kōminka (Japanisation) era, they spent their formative years engaged in military revolt under ‘spontaneous remobilisation’ when their wartime mobilisation memories were once again recalled.
In Taichung, the 27th Brigade was considered the military corps with the most complete organisation and strongest firepower. The 27th Brigade, which composed of 431 people, was formed on March 6, 1947. The name ’27th’ was in memory of the incident that occurred on the evening of February 27. Many brigade members were either former Japanese soldiers or auxiliary military personnel who were dispatched to Hainan Island or Southeast Asia during the war. Other members, such as students, received basic military training regularly in middle and high schools during wartime. As Victor Louzon stressed, during the rebellion, Taiwanese youth spontaneously ‘remobilised the repertoire of actions and symbols formed during the war’. This can be seen from the fact that the structure, military discipline and oral command of the 27th Brigade all followed the Imperial Japanese Army. However, those rebels showed no loyalty to Japan. Instead, the model they claimed was the ‘Japanese soldiers’, not the ‘Japanese tout court’. The Japanese spirit they learned from the Japanese military education served as their core value and had nothing to do with their nationality. In Benedict Anderson’s words, the ‘political style’ of Japanese militarism, which had been promoted in the Japanese empire, could be put to other uses after Japan’s defeat. Here, the values were used to resist Chen Yi’s (陳儀) misgovernment and protect the homeland of young Taiwanese.
As the Chinese Civil War intensified, the Nationalist government in Nanjing began to draw human resources from Taiwan. It was estimated that more than 15,000 Taiwanese were recruited to serve in the Nationalist Army during the Civil War from 1945 to 1949, and many of them were former Japanese soldiers or military personnel. Whether kōfuku (in Japanese, both ‘retrocession’ (光復) and ‘subjugation’ (降伏) are read as kōfuku) meant ‘retrocession’ or ‘subjugation’ seriously confused post-war Taiwanese as they found their resistance against Nationalist government during the 2.28 Incident epitomised the battle between Japanisation and Sinicisation (or ‘the aftershock of the Sino-Japanese War’ if to borrow the concept from Victor Louzon).
Furthermore, Japanese influence on Taiwan did not cease after the 2.28 Incident. When the KMT regime was on the brink of total defeat and adopted ‘strategic transition’ (in Chinese, ‘strategic transition’ are read as zhuan jin (轉進), literally means retreat) in the Civil War in 1949, the White Group was formed and ready to execute its missions in Taiwan. On September 10 1949, three weeks before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, a contract exchange took place in Tokyo between the representative of the ROC government, General Tsao Shi-cheng (曹士澂), the Chief of the First Section for Military Affairs in the Nationalist Chinese Mission in Tokyo, and 14 representatives of the former Japanese military officers, including former Imperial Japanese Army General Okamura Yasuji (岡村寧次), who was the last commander of the Japanese Expeditionary Forces in China and declared not guilty by one of the last Nationalist military tribunals to adjudicate Japanese war crimes and was sent back to Japan in early 1949. Though racked by ill-health, Okamura agreed to assist his former enemy, Chiang, by forming a military advisory group with a handful of former Japanese military officers to help push the Communist tide back and retake the mainland.
The group was called Baituan (White Group). This was because the Chinese name of the leader of the group, the former Imperial Japanese Army Major General Tomita Naosuke (富田直亮), was Bai Hong-liang (白鴻亮). The Chinese word for ‘white’ is bai and ‘group’ is tuan, so Baituan (白團) literally meant the White Group (or Bai Hong-liang’s group). The other reason for choosing the name was that ‘white’ was in opposition to ‘red’, which represented Communism. Converting from Chinese to Japanese, the group was also known as Paidan (白団). The goal of the White Group was to help the war-worn ROC Armed Forces defend Taiwan and retake mainland China by retraining the military, offering military, ideological education, drafting military plans for a counterattack, and re-introducing wartime mobilisation system in Taiwan. It established military education classes for the ROC military officers in Beitou (北投), a township north of Taipei. The White Group also assisted in training the model army (32nd Division), making wartime mobilisation guidelines, and practising the first-ever mobilisation exercise in Taiwan history. The Guideline of the National Mobilisation Plan was passed and implemented in April 1952. The reserve forces mobilisation system, reserve military officer system, and military training guidelines are still in use today.
Although the White Group’s staffing level was reduced from more than 80 to 30 in 1952 under pressure from the US, Chiang still relied on its military training for mid and higher-ranking officers (especially psychological education). He believed that from the training offered by the White Group, the six inner characteristics, namely responsibility, obedience, service, sacrifice, creativity and discipline, can be seen. Those were the soul of Japan, the so-called Bushido spirit. Overall, it might be a coincidence that Taiwan accidentally became the final fortress against Communists for Chiang and his defeated Nationalist regime in the Chinese Civil War at the end of 1949. However, the formation of the White Group and Taiwanese who had experienced wartime mobilisation under the Japanese rule provided Chiang’s exhausted and collapsed KMT regime and the military an opportunity to reform.
The intertwined relations between Taiwan, Japan, and China, developed further when the new ruler (the ROC) hired the former enemy (Japanese) to help train their military and remobilise the people of the ex-colony (Taiwan) for another 20 years after the dismantling of the Japanese empire at the end of WWII. By introducing the history of the early years of post-war Taiwan and the White Group’s first stage of mission on the island from 1945 to 1952, this article helps us better understand how the Japanese legacy (i.e., wartime mobilisation system) continued to play a crucial role in the institutional accumulation of the Nationalist government in Taiwan. It also shows how the defeated KMT regime, through the assistance of the White Group, remobilised Taiwanese people and enabled Taiwan to become its final anti-Communist stronghold to resist Communist China. This history enables us to comprehend how the post-1949 ROC in Taiwan became the state it is now. More importantly, it allows us to consider the possibility of bridging the divergence between Taiwanese and the ROC/Chinese Nationalist historical perspective, which might lead to the pursuit of consensus among people in Taiwan on how this de facto independent country has come to the present status it is today. Finally, it provides insight into Taiwan’s contemporary geopolitical situation, which is undoubtedly at a symbolic crossroads again upon the continuing escalation of the current US-China confrontation that might lead to, if not already, a new Cold War.
Ko-Hang Liao is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University. His research traces the genealogy and impact of the White Group (白團), Chiang Kai-shek’s Japanese military advisory group consisting of defeated Imperial Japanese military officers, on the ROC in Taiwan and argues for its centrality to the Nationalist nation-building and developmental state forged after 1949. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is based on the paper which was the first prize winner of the 2021 European Taiwan Studies Young Scholar Award in the 17th & 18th Annual Conference of European Association of Taiwan Studies, 15-17 April 2021.