Japanese Colonial/Occupational Histories in the National Museums: A Comparison Between Taiwan and Singapore

Written by Pin-Yi Li.

Image Credit: Japanese Air Force Pennant at the National Museum of Singapore by the author.

In the postcolonial Asian context, national museums reflect the countries’ colonial histories and their transformation, offering the country’s incumbent political elites the opportunity to reinvent or adjust the initial museum discourses framed by the colonisers. For example, respectively built by the Japanese and British colonial governments, both the National Taiwan Museum and the National Museum of Singapore are the oldest public museums in each country. The National Taiwan Museum, initially named the “Taiwan Governor Museum,” was established in 1908 during Japanese Rule (1895-1945). The Japanese intended to open the museum to commemorate the opening of the west coast railway in Taiwan. However, it later became an official space for exhibiting the colony’s industrial development for the Japanese emperor during the remaining time of Japanese Rule. Another example is the National Museum of Singapore, which was founded in 1849 during the British Colonial Era (1819-1942), originally called the “Raffles Library and Museum.” Later, during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942-1945), Singapore was renamed “Syonan-To,” meaning “Light of the South,” and the museum was thus renamed the “Syonan Museum,” continuing to function with the help of the former British scholars who stayed in Singapore.

Taiwan: The Appreciation for the Western Knowledge Foundation

“Discovering Taiwan: Re-visiting the Age of Natural History and Naturalists of Taiwan” is the first permanent instalment in the 21st century by the National Taiwan Museum launched in 2009 and will be continued until 2026, functioning as “Episode One” of the intended permanent exhibition trilogy. This exhibition is divided into three sections, including “the Path to Discovery” (發現之道) at the East Exhibition Hall, “Taiwan’s New Scopes” (臺灣新象) at the central corridor, and “the Past is the Future” (過去的未來) at the West Exhibition Hall. The majority of the exhibits are species and ethnological collections. Apart from the collections, the Museum wishes to encourage the visitors to understand the contemporary meaning of the objects being displayed and further engage them to reflect on the past, present, and even the future. 

According to the museum website, “this exhibition traces an age of discovery of Taiwan’s natural history, naturalists, and the foundation of the Museum’s collections; we also present the explorers and their investigation to manifest how Taiwan’s natural world has been ‘discovered’ by modern natural history.” 

From this introduction, the existence of any cruel Japanese colonial figure is barely seen, although the words such as “explorers” and “discovered” all imply the Japanese scholars who were sent to Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period and their work was completed for the colonial government. Moreover, the term “Japanese Rule” as such is not mentioned. Thus, the positive evaluation and appreciation of the named Japanese and some Taiwanese explorers seem to be the major focus of the exhibition.

The Japanese figures and their areas of study displayed in the galleries are intended to showcase the new knowledge and positioning of the existing collections, reflecting their multi-disciplinary origin and the relationship between the objects and the collectors. For example, Japanese Anthropologist Ushinosuke Mori (森 丑之助) instructed the production of Hakata Figurines (博多人偶) to introduce the Taiwanese Indigenous peoples to the Japanese colonisers in the 1910s. Generally speaking, the museum views the Japanese colonial period as the foundation for the western knowledge of natural history in Taiwan and appreciates the Japanese explorers’ findings.

Singapore: From “Syonan-To” to “Surviving Syonan”

The exhibition of the history of Singapore under the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945) is divided into two parts in the National Museum of Singapore. The first part is “Syonan-To” in the Singapore History Gallery, and the second part is “Surviving Syonan” in the Singapore Living Gallery. 

By presenting a wide range of military artefacts and the figure that compares the competitiveness of the then British army and the Japanese army, the “Syonan-To” section details the process of the fall of Singapore. It also attempts to give reasons why the Japanese were able to defeat the British. Also, by displaying the wartime objects, the museum is willing to acknowledge the Japanese soldiers’ loyalty to the Japanese army for the preparatory work to later defeat the British and take over Singapore.

In this part of the exhibition, some personal items from the historical event of Sook Ching (1942), in which the Japanese killed the local anti-Japanese Chinese Singaporeans, are displayed to emphasise the severe political climate that the Singaporeans encountered. Museum visitors may sense that the figure of the Japanese is ambitious yet evil. Japan as a model for winning the Second World War is learnable for Singaporeans, while the Japanese as invaders should be criticised for their cruelty employed in the management of Singapore.

In addition to the Singapore History Gallery’s “Syonan-To,” the museum also selects the same period of history to display an exhibit called “Surviving Syonan” at one of the Singapore Living Galleries. However, with a different focus, the “Surviving Syonan” shows snapshots of people’s everyday lives: working, schooling, and building relationships in the community.

Despite the Japanese government enacting the Japan-ization (or “Nippon-ization”) of Singapore, which enforced people to learn Japanese and follow the new policy catered to the Japanese need, it is people’s endurance and resilience that enabled them to deal with the colonial precarity. For example, its interactive installation compares Chinese characters with their corresponding Japanese pronunciation. It helps the visitors understand how compulsory the people could creatively engage in Japanese learning activities at that time.

There are also some excerpts from the people at that time to highlight their hardships and survival methods. The sentences from these children candidly reflect their reality during the Occupation. For instance, one said that “Life had to go on. Everybody just tried their best to survive and hope for better times.” Another one remarks, “If you eat tapioca without any other food, you are not getting sufficient nutrition for your body. It is not tapioca that gives you beri beri, which is one kind of pandemic related to feet; it is the lack of other food.”

Two Different Attitudes towards Constructing Japan

The two museums have shown us the postcolonial Asian museum realities. The exhibition analysis shows two different attitudes toward constructing Japan as a former coloniser or occupier. In Taiwan, Japan is an introducer to western natural history knowledge. It is the first systematic exploration conducted in Taiwan. Compared to the narratives in Singapore, the museum in Taiwan tends to give a positive evaluation of the Japanese colonial period by showcasing the influential figures in the museum collections, including Taiwan’s endemic species and Indigenous peoples. 

Singapore represents another type of narrative of the Japanese. Sometimes Japan can be a violent intruder, but sometimes they present a learnable model for defeating the British that the younger generations in Singapore should continue to learn from. It is also the people’s collective resilience through their everyday experience during the Occupation when reacting to Japan’s violent treatment that the museum wants to highlight by critiquing the Japanese. In fact, Singapore’s museum reality resonates with the scholarly works on both the museums and wartime heritage in Singapore. 

From the case studies of Taiwan and Singapore, I observe that the image of Japan as a coloniser in the postcolonial Asian countries can be plastic. The way Taiwan approaches Japanese colonial history is to affirm Japan’s contribution to formulating the early knowledge of Taiwan. Alternatively, Singapore attempts to show more of people’s lived experiences during the Japanese Occupation as filled with hardship. These case studies showcase that there is diversity in the manifestation of post-coloniality in Asia. Apart from sorting out the different styles of museum displays, I would like to ask some questions for future research in the field. In Taiwan and in Singapore, we have witnessed the evaluation of the colonial histories happening in the museum field, but the next step is how do we reflexively think about the foundation of the research based on the coloniser’s own interest? And how are the exhibitions, especially when they are part of the national museums’ permanent exhibitions, to deconstruct and decolonise the current discourses?

Pin-Yi Li is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin- Madison. 

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Museums in Taiwan: Intertwining the Past and the Present.”

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