The Transformation of Taiwan-Japan Relations from a Historical Perspective

Written by Li-Hsuan Cheng.

Image credit: Shinzo Abe Memorial at Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association by midnightbreakfastcafe/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

On July 8th 2022, Abe Shinzo, the longest serving prime minister in postwar Japan, was assassinated while campaigning for an LDP candidate in the coming election for  Upper House. While this tragic incident shocked countries worldwide, few societies like Taiwan showed such strong and wide remorse. Even in Japan, where Mr Abe had enjoyed unprecedentedly high and long support, like most leaders of democratic countries, he could not escape scandals and policy failures that eventually damaged his public support. However, despite some criticisms of Abe’s attitude toward war responsibilities in Taiwan, the mainstream society largely held a very favourable view toward him. One obvious reason is the significant progress in the Japan-Taiwan relation during his terms as prime minister. Many believed that Taiwan-Japan relations had moved to a new stage in the last decade due to Mr Abe’s efforts. Interestingly, even his funeral afforded a strategic site to advance the mutual relation; the vice president of Taiwan, William Lai, was invited as a family guest to attend Abe’s funeral and thus became the highest level of Taiwanese official visiting Japan since the severance of diplomatic relations in 1972.

While Mr Abe’s contribution to the transformation of Taiwan-Japan relations is indisputable, in this article, I focus on one specific aspect of this transformation: the ways the vibrant interactions between these two societies were perceived, discussed and governed in the public sphere. I argue that despite the vibrant interactions throughout the postwar period, the mutual relation was unspeakable in Taiwan and Japan in public spheres; an important part of the current transformation was the resurfacing of Taiwan-Japan relations in public discourses in these two countries. While there are many factors leading to this change, I will especially focus on the impact of Taiwan’s transformation and argue that Abe’s legacy and the future direction of Taiwan and Japan’s relation should be put in this context along with other factors.

Throughout the postwar period, Japan’s impact on Taiwan was obvious: for Taiwanese people, Japanese has long been the second most popular foreign language; Japan was and still is the most popular destiny for tourism, and Japanese universities were among the top choices for Taiwanese students who want to study abroad, Japanese popular culture despite being banned for a long time, was widely circulated and very popular, and so on. Until recently, Japanese corporations were still major foreign capital sources and modern technologies for the Taiwanese economy. The vibrant interactions can be attributed to colonial legacies, geopolitics, and cultural similarity. Especially the fifty years of colonial history played a critical role in these dynamics. While Taiwanese people suffered from oppression, exploitation and widespread racial discrimination under Japanese colonial rule, it also brought some progress in public health, infrastructure and economy.

Furthermore, a generation of local elites had received modern education in Japanese and had personal networks with Japanese people. As a result, people had complicated memories and feelings about Japanese rule. The complicated experiences of interactions with Japan were largely unspeakable until the mid-1990s in public discourse. This silence was caused by the unique path of decolonisation in which Taiwanese people were excluded. The mainlanders of the KMT government, who had just fought a fierce war against the Japanese invasion before they came to Taiwan, strongly resent anything about Japan. They were also very precautious against local elites who showed a hostile attitude due to the oppression since the regime’s transfer in 1945. As a result, not only public usage of Japanese was banned, any public discussion about relations with Japan other than condemnation for oppression and invasion was highly restricted. Ironically, despite the restrictions on ordinary Taiwanese, the KMT government maintained closed economic, political, and even military ties with the Japanese for its survival.[1] The result was that much of the prewar memories and experiences of postwar interactions with Japan could only be privately circulated. 

In Japan, the relations were also unspeakable in public for varied reasons. First of all, China’s reaction was the priority concern in dealing with Taiwan issues after building diplomatic relations in 1972. The Japanese government had a very strict rule of one-China policy that excluded Taiwan from any policy related to foreign countries and preferred to establish special institutions to govern the interactions, even in non-political fields. For example, not until one decade ago, Taiwanese and North Koreans, the two peoples that had opposite attitudes toward Japan, were the only two groups not eligible for funding from the Japan Foundation. Among the major international students in Japan, Taiwanese students were also unsuitable for government scholarships.

Furthermore, the strict exclusion of Taiwan was beyond the political sphere. Even many Japanese scholars and mass media that were generally critical of government policies doubled down the restrictions. For example, Asahi Shinbum, among the most influential newspapers since the early Twentieth century, even once discouraged reporters from visiting Taiwan. In addition to the fear of irritating China, these formal and informal restrictions were legitimised by the claim that ties with Taiwan imply the affirmation of Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian rules and Japan’s imperial past.

On the other hand, Taiwan-Japan relations’ uneven, dependent nature enhanced Taiwan’s invisibility in Japanese public spheres. Historically the pattern of interactions was unilateral; Japan was one major investor, and Taiwan was the provider of labour forces and agricultural products; Japan was the model of modernisation, and Taiwan was the imitator; Japan was the exporter, and Taiwan was the importer of cultural products, and so on. As a result, while Taiwanese people could easily be aware of the impact of Japan, even though the public discussion was discouraged, Japanese people were much less likely to sense the existence of Taiwan.

Many factors led to the change in this situation, and in this article, I am merely concentrating on the impact of Taiwan’s transformation. First of all, democratisation and indigenisation in Taiwan helped revive the public discussion about Japan. One important event revealing these new dynamics is the conversation between President Lee Teng-Hui and Japanese writer Shiba Ryotao. In the conversation, Lee mentioned the simple historical fact that his nationality was Japan before 1945. It was the first time in the postwar period that a leading politician in Taiwanese society publicly recognised Taiwan’s complicated relations with Japan. Removing restrictions on the Japanese language and popular culture also created a new generation that admired Japan’s cultural, economic and technological achievements.  

The second and more hidden factor is the rise of the Taiwanese economy, which created an increasingly even status for economic interactions. As more people can afford to travel abroad, Taiwan has become one major source of tourists in Japan. Furthermore, a large donation (more than twenty billion yen, 252 million U.S. dollars by the exchange rate) from Taiwanese people to Japan after the East Japan Earthquake in 2011 significantly transformed the public image. While most Taiwanese people donated for humanitarianism and a sense of friendship, this action unintendedly made Taiwan more visible for the Japanese public. As a result, it changed the uneven relationship to a certain degree. Furthermore, the rise of some key sectors, such as semiconductors, also significantly changed the dynamics of economic interactions. Terry Kuo’s purchase of Sharp and TSMCs recent investment in Kumamoto shows the increasing stance in financial exchanges. 

Abe’s contribution to Taiwan-Japan relations should be put in this context; Abe’s Taiwan policies should not be seen as either extension of colonial legacy or China bashing as some progressives accused. On the contrary, he crafted a new set of policies to replace the diachronic ones that were increasingly delegitimised by unsuitable for the transformation of Taiwan. Needless to say, the future of Taiwan-Japan relations will still be highly contingent on the dynamics of Northeast Asia’s geopolitics, especially China’s role. China’s pressure will also continuously be a key issue influencing Japan and Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. However, because much of the recent progress in mutual relations is ending the bizarre silence on mutual ties and treating Taiwan as a normal foreign country in many formal and informal institutions, I believe this trend will be increasingly irreversible. This is probably Abe’s most important legacy for the Taiwanese people.

[1] Recently the history about Japanese military officers helped Chiang Kai-shek rebuild his army before mid-1970s was revealed. See Nojima Tsuyoshi, The Last Imperial Battalion: Chiang Kai-shek and Japanese military officers. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2014) (野嶋剛 《ラスト・バタリオン:蒋介石と日本軍人たち》(東京:講談社 2014)

Li-Hsuan Cheng received his B.A. in Economics from National Taiwan University in 1996, M.A. in Sociology from Tunghai University, and PhD in Sociology from Duke University in 2008. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, National Chengchi University in Taipei. He has broad interests in many subfields in sociology and specialises in economic sociology, Japanese society, historical sociology, and social demography. He has published serveral articles on the transformation of contemporary Taiwanese and Japanese societies. Recently he published the biography of Chen Shao-Hsing, the first sociologist in Taiwan. He served as a board member of the Taiwanese Sociological Association, Population Association of Taiwan, and Taiwan Society of Japan Studies.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Taiwan-Japan Relations.

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