Written by Alex Calvo.

The coming 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is not abating the debate over Japan’s historical responsibility and contemporary views of the conflict. To the contrary. Neither Beijing nor Seoul seem interested in renouncing this key aspect of their domestic and international narratives, while speculation continues about the words that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may pronounce on the commemoration of the Japanese surrender. While Taiwan became a Japanese colony much earlier, in 1895, and did not experience combat operations other than strategic bombing during the war, history remains a key component in the debate over Taiwan’s identity and future. It is also important for both bilateral relations with Japan and Tokyo’s own historical narrative. As Japan painfully searches for a way forward avoiding the extremes of straight rejection of her past and wholesale whitewashing of the war and the years leading up to it, Taiwan appears as essential for an alternative nuanced, middle of the road, narrative.

Only 50 years stand between the Japanese takeover of Formosa and the Empire’s surrender in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet thrust into Manchuria. Just 50 years, yet a gulf in views of Japan. In 1895 Japan took over Formosa without any significant opposition from the world’s leading powers, following a show of force that proved that in contrast with her larger neighbour she had indeed managed to become a modern nation-state. By defeating the Qing in the First Sino-Japanese War, Tokyo proved her economic, technological, and military might, and gained a place in the top league of a world where inequality was the norm, with little ground between colonizers and colonized. Meiji leaders were very much aware of the rules of the game, and knew that in the game of colonialism one could be either a subject or an object, with no realistic prospects for a third way.

Once Taiwan had been secured at the negotiating table, a counterinsurgency campaign ensued. While Japan encountered a degree of resistance, to be overcome by force, a number of factors prevented this from tainting Tokyo’s image. First of all, while the campaign was military in nature, its overall political goal was clear at all times, Tokyo may not have had the qualms of liberal democracies engaged in counterinsurgency in more recent times, but she understood that the goal was to achieve the necessary degree of control and stability to ensure her administration of the Island and the territory’s ensuing economic development. Second, by taking Formosa from the Qing, Tokyo was following in the lead of other powers which had already secured a number of concessions, including extraterritoriality, and in the case of Great Britain and Russia land, from China through diplomacy backed by force. Third, Japan’s emergence in North-East Asia fit reasonably well with the wider geopolitical interests of the British Empire, and although the same could not be said about the United States, American hostility towards Japanese expansion did not come to the fore until a decade later, with the Russo-Japanese War.

This was thus the background of Japan’s takeover of Taiwan, which was followed by the economic development of the island, the development of infrastructure and a major public relations drive to present this colonization as proof that Japan was a “civilized” country capable and willing to help more backward territories achieve modernity. Great Britain was one of the major targets of what we would now call an exercise in “soft power”, with Japan, then known as the “Britain of the East”, eager to prove that just like the British Empire, the Japanese Empire was a force for progress. Representative of this effort was the book “Japanese Rule in Formosa”, written by lawmaker Yosaburo Takekoshi in 1910, which began saying that “Western nations have long believed that on their shoulders alone rested the responsibility of colonizing the yet unopened portions of the globe, and extending to the inhabitants the benefits of civilization; but now we Japanese rising from the Ocean in the extreme Orient, wish as a nation to take part in this great and glorious work”.

How do the Taiwanese see the 50 years of Japanese rule? The answer, as usual, is that they do so in different ways. This is clear, to begin with, in the name itself. Should it be “Japanese colonial period”,  “Japanese occupation”, or simply “Japanese period”? All three possibilities are found in all sorts of written materials, from books to tourist leaflets, and this has more than once been a subject of controversy in the political arena. Furthermore, should the Taiwanese experience be seen as part of the wider struggle of a “Chinese nation” to reach modernity after the Opium Wars? Or should it be treated separately, with Japanese control being one of a long list of factors separating Taiwan’s experience from mainland China? Should the colonial experience be rejected wholesale, out of principle and on account of its inherent violence, or should its positive aspects be acknowledged? More controversially, is it legitimate to compare the Japanese record with that of the Communists? Again, we find a wide scope of views. In some public exhibitions in Taiwan, for example, the Second Sino-Japanese War is presented with little mention that Formosa was then part of the Japanese Empire, while sometimes the 1895-1945 period is compared favourably with the KMT takeover. A good example of the latter is the comment by Twu Shiing-jer (former Department of Health minister and former director-general of the Centers for Disease Control) that “In 1942, during the period of Japanese rule, there was only one case of smallpox in the nation and this person did not die of the disease. By contrast, in 1946, after the KMT occupied Taiwan, there was a smallpox outbreak, with 1,561 cases and 315 fatalities”.

Japan is experiencing conflicting pressures concerning her past, with on the one hand the government and some actors wishing to correct a perceived bias against the country, while other voices take the opposite stance and argue that Tokyo has not expressed remorse in a sufficiently sincere way. Many Japanese feel that hostile voices have often been more vocal, having a negative impact on the international image of Japan, or in other words her “soft power”. Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a panel that “Being modest does not receive recognition in the international community, and we must argue points when necessary”, while an unnamed Foreign Ministry official argued that “Many countries are investing hugely in this field and we feel we were not investing enough”. As with other countries, but perhaps even more intensely, Japan feels the need to strike a balance between assertion and openness concerning difficult past events. Paying more attention to Taiwan is no magic pill, but it may enable the country to point to more benign aspects of her post-Meiji expansion. More generally, while the two Koreas and China are traditionally hostile to Japan, and their leaders never shy at publicly accusing Tokyo by reference to her troubled past, countries in other regions of Asia are not always that negative. Just to mention two examples, Vietnam and the Philippines tend to be much more positive towards Japanese moves to become a more “normal country”, although both experienced occupation during the Second World War. Taiwan to some extent lies in between, and attitudes towards Japan, while generally speaking positive, remain closely connected to views about the  Island’s national identity.

To conclude, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, we may observe the further convergence of struggles over Japan’s past and Taiwan’s identity. Both will be played out domestically and also at an international level, with Beijing eager to influence them. The challenge for Japan is to secure a more positive historical image while acknowledging more openly the mistakes and abuses of the past. For Taiwan, the challenge is to seek a historical consensus that, while respecting a plurality of views typical of any democracy, is strong enough to underpin a national security policy able to see citizens with different identities share the same trench. For Beijing, it is to slow down Japan’s “normalization” by portraying the country as unable to deal with her past, and in particular, make it difficult for Tokyo to intervene in defence of Taiwan.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is also a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Dr Calvo is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons/Reed Digital Collections.