Taiwan is probably the only country colonized by the Japanese to look back on the experience with fondness. Other Asian countries, on the receiving end of Japan’s twentieth century expansionism, have raised Japan-hating to an art form.
Korea has dealt with Japanese aggression for longer than any other country, starting from Japan’s invasions of 1592 and 1597 which devastated Korea’s civilian population, military, technological capabilities and cultural artifacts. Japan succeeded in subjugating Korea in 1910. Koreans still hold a grudge.
China was forced to make concessions to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). So feelings were already a bit tetchy—we know how easy it is to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—when the Second Sino-Japanese War rolled around (1937-1945). The assorted atrocities and humiliations China endured did nothing to soften perceptions of Japan.
Since 1592 Japan intermittently sought to extend its control to include Taiwan. Their goal was realized with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the First Sino-Japanese War, when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Though it still took a Japanese invasion to quell resistance in Taiwan.
All these countries have a pretty similar history with Japan and it has engendered the expected animus among Koreans and Chinese, only the Taiwanese openly flirt with Japanaiserie, and exhibit nostalgic feelings for the Japanese times. On the surface Taiwan’s reaction seems to make as much sense as cellulite on a skinny woman, but there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.
Partially it’s a tribute to how horrible the Chinese were as an occupying force that Japanese rule glowed in comparison. The Chinese arrival in 1945 ushered in a period of government (Kuomintang) corruption and repression. Even after the worst of the post-war venality ended, Chinese rule didn’t contribute much to Taiwanese society. They were like hungry locusts, trying to take from Taiwan as much as possible for the eventual recapture of the motherland. Most of what Taiwan had, in terms of infrastructure , roads, bridges, rail, public buildings, etc., came from the Japanese. The Chinese only grudgingly began to build things in Taiwan in the 1970s.
Japan was the font of culture during imperial times and that didn’t change in many Taiwanese minds after the Chinese came. Japan has a seductive culture of its own, in addition Japan was the intermediary between Western civilization and Asia—Japan westernized much of Asia. Notice anything familiar about Taiwanese public buildings from the Japanese period? Japanese culture continues to have an outsized influence on both Taiwanese high and pop culture.
Wai sheng ren (外省人) and ben sheng ren (本省人) [see:The Neighbors Suck] perceptions and experiences of Japan differed greatly. The Chinese arrived in Taiwan straight from a protracted war with Japan. A war not noted for its warm and fuzzy moments. It was an article of faith that the Japanese must be despised. Look what they had done to China. The Taiwanese, however, had for fifty years been a nominal part of Japan, including during WWII. Many Taiwanese fought in the Japanese army. Taiwan endured Allied bombings.
As an example of how this might cause awkwardness, Kuomintang (KMT) memorials and remembrance services are for their war dead. The Taiwanese were on the other side, but in their own country have no way to memorialize their war dead. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) caused a stink when he visited Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) where his brother, who died in the Japanese navy, is enshrined. A slap in the face to some wai sheng ren and pretty reasonable for many ben sheng ren. Lee Tung-hui has been criticized as a Japan-lover by the Chinese government and some wai sheng ren, but it’s more like he was a Taiwanese of that period.
The upshot is the Taiwanese have a surprisingly positive view of Japan despite having been colonized. It’s just another thing that makes them unique.
When I first came to Taiwan I laughed at people’s fascination with all things Japanese. I used to ask my students if they could travel anywhere where would they go. The most common answer was Japan. It’s like me—a Saskatchewan boy—declaring that if I could go anywhere at all the first place I’d go is Bismarck, North Dakota.
Then I found myself adopting the Taiwanese love of all things Japanese. I recognized it during a joint Japanese-Taiwanese architectural exhibit. I was looking at photographs of a piece of architecture, that I assumed was Taiwanese, and thinking it a small, uninspired simple little box. Then my wife told me it was by a Japanese architect and my internal monologue changed instantly to: Ahh yes, the simplicity, the tasteful minimalism, the subtle interplay of shade and light; it’s truly an elegant example of the Japanese aesthetic. [Pretentious douche].
Taiwan’s relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, confuses much of the rest of Asia, but gives insights into Taiwan’s unique experiences with being an occupied nation.