A New Administration in Taiwan: Prospects for Relations with Japan


On May 20, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, head of the Democratic Progressive Party, was inaugurated as president of Taiwan, replacing Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT, Nationalist Party). With this change of administration in Taipei, hopes for improved relations between Japan and Taiwan have risen to an unprecedented level on both sides. The combination of Tsai’s posture on external relations—one of maintaining a certain distance from the People’s Republic of China while stressing ties with Japan and the United States—and the current Taiwan boom in Japan seems to have produced favorable chemistry between the two sides, but comments by senior PRC officials suggest that the friendly mood between Tokyo and Taipei is setting nerves on edge in Beijing.

Meanwhile, less than a month before Tsai’s inauguration, Japanese authorities impounded a fishing vessel from Taiwan in the waters off Okinotorishima.(*1) This development was a reminder of the latent risk of confrontation between Tokyo and Taipei over territorial issues. Here I would like to consider the prospects for Japan-Taiwan relations following the launch of the Tsai administration.

The Dual Structure of Japan-ROC and Japan-Taiwan Relations

First, as a major premise, we must note that the relationship between Japan and Taiwan is complicated by the involvement of China, whose presence often emerges as a barrier to the maintenance and development of bilateral ties. For one thing, the PRC, which upholds the “One China” principle, dislikes seeing Taiwan getting too close to Japan. But that is not all. Within Taiwan as well there are China-related elements that can make relations with Japan awkward. Prime examples are the issues of the Senkaku Islands (which China and Taiwan also claim), the “comfort women” mobilized to provide sexual services for the Imperial Japanese Army, and Japan’s claim to an exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima in the Pacific.

To understand the situation, we must start by considering the dual structure of the bilateral relationship. It is both a “Nik-Ka” (Japan–Republic of China) relationship and a “Nit-Tai” (Japanese-Taiwanese) relationship.(*2) The former refers to official ties and the latter to those grounded in personal ties. Many researchers in the field of Taiwan studies have noted this dual structure as a characteristic of the relationship over the years since the end of World War II. And it seems to me, judging from my own observations, that the relationship tends to become more fragile when the Nik-Ka side comes to the fore and to become steadier when the Nit-Tai side is ascendant.

Postwar Relations Between Japan and the ROC

The principal source of friction in the Nik-Ka, or Japan-ROC, portion of the relationship is the legacy of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45 and World War II; Japan was defeated in this pair of conflicts and the KMT-led Republic of China emerged as one of the victorious Allied Powers. The island of Taiwan itself is a source of righteous criticism of Japan: From the ROC’s historical perspective, Japan stole this island from Qing-dynasty China after defeating the latter in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. As the ROC, the government of Taiwan displays dogmatically antagonistic behavior toward Japan in connection with historical and territorial issues. Since the Japanese do not ordinarily think of Taiwan as the ROC, there is widespread puzzlement in Japan when the Taiwanese side adopts hardline positions like those of the PRC.

Meanwhile, Japan and the island of Taiwan have an intricately meshed set of personal ties originating from the links formed during the half century when the island was under Japanese rule. These ties form the core of the Nit-Tai portion of the relationship, which has been supported by people born in Taiwan during the colonial period and educated in Japanese, such as Lee Teng-hui (president of the ROC from 1988 to 2000), Taiwanese who for various reasons moved to Japan in the colonial period and continued to live there in the postwar period, such as the author Chin Shunshin, and the “Wansei” (Taiwan-born) Japanese who were repatriated to Japan after World War II and whose experiences were featured in the 2015 documentary film Wansei Back Home. The modern history of conflict and confrontation between Japan and mainland China does not cast a major shadow on this portion of the relationship, which thus remains generally unaffected by territorial and historical issues.

In 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, Japan reestablished diplomatic relations with the ROC, and for the following two decades, the ROC—effectively Taiwan—became “China” for Japan’s diplomatic purposes. Until 1972, when Tokyo broke off ties with the KMT-led government of the ROC in Taipei and recognized the Communist government of the PRC in Beijing, Nik-Ka and Nit-Tai were in effect two sides of a single coin. During this period, the KMT administrations led by Chiang Kai-shek and Chang Ching-kuo did their best to keep the Nit-Tai aspect of the relationship under wraps, and at times the KMT conducted political campaigns to erase it as a relic of the colonial effort to turn Taiwanese into loyal subjects of the Japanese Empire.

“Nit-Tai” Comes to the Fore

After the 1972 break in diplomatic ties, the Japan-ROC aspect of the relationship receded, and in some respects it became easier for the Japanese-Taiwanese portion to come to the fore in its place. But the ROC continued to view itself as the legitimate government of China as a whole, so the Nik-Ka aspect continued to be the official face of the relationship as far as the authorities in Taipei were concerned. It was not until the 1990s that the Nit-Tai aspect came to make its presence strongly felt. Lee Teng-hui, born and educated in colonial-era Taiwan, became president of the ROC in 1988, and from around 1995 on, having established a stable leadership position, he began to speak openly about the “Japan” that he harbored inside himself. The views of Japan that Teng expressed in his own writing and in his conversations with Japanese author Shiba Ryōtarō were in keeping with the Nit-Tai framework of personal ties, and they were widely welcomed in Japan, though they raised hackles among members of the ROC establishment in Taiwan and the PRC authorities in Beijing.

Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou also responded angrily to more recent remarks by Lee Teng-hui about relations with Japan. This may reflect the irreconcilable difference between the stances of Lee and Ma as politicians of the Nit-Tai and Nik-Ka camps, respectively. Those in the Nit-Tai camp, including many members of incoming President Tsai’s DPP, are relatively unconcerned about the conflicting claims to the Senkaku Islands, for example, while for the Nik-Ka camp, which centers on the Kuomintang, this is an issue allowing no compromise. But the DPP went along with the KMT-led criticism of Japan following the seizure of a Taiwanese fishing vessel near Okinotorishima this April. The DPP and its members are part of the legislative and administrative structure of the ROC, and as such they are bound to sing the ROC tune on the political stage. When Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Chang-ting), the new administration’s appointee to head Taiwan’s representative office in Tokyo, expressed reservations about taking a hard line against Japan on this issue, he came under harsh criticism from KMT backers, some of whom labeled him a “subject of the [Japanese] emperor.” In the context of the ROC’s value system, this is tantamount to calling him a traitor.

Since the days of the Lee administration, however, the overall balance in relations between Japan and Taiwan has definitely been shifting gradually from Nik-Ka to Nit-Tai. This shift from Japan-ROC to Japanese-Taiwanese as the main current in the bilateral relationship is related to the rise of a sense of Taiwanese identity among the people of the island, who are becoming less inclined to think of themselves as Chinese.

It is interesting to note in this context that when Ma Ying-jeou was inaugurated as president in 2008, some feared that the relationship with Japan would suffer, since he was reported to hold anti-Japanese sentiments. In fact, however, the bilateral relationship actually advanced over the course of his eight years in office, notably with the conclusion of a landmark Japan-Taiwan fisheries agreement (which set aside the issue of Taiwan’s claim to the Senkakus) and the realization of a long-hoped-for exhibition in Japan of treasured works from the National Palace Museum in Taipei. People on both sides declared that the bilateral relationship was the best it had been since the rupture of diplomatic ties in 1972—or even since the end of World War II. Similar assessments were heard toward the end of the administration of President Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008). It seems fair to say that ever since the Lee administration, though problems have continued to exist between Japan and Taiwan, the trend has been toward Nit-Tai as the main current in bilateral ties, and the relationship has been on an upward trajectory. The focus on the Japanese-Taiwanese aspect of the bilateral relationship may be seen as underlying the mutual outpourings of aid in response to earthquakes in Japan and Taiwan and the positive cycle of mutual goodwill that has emerged between the two sides. A solid base of Nit-Tai ties has taken shape at the grass-roots level, grounded in people-to-people links and emotional resonance, and largely unaffected by the historical issues between Japan and mainland China.

Official Decorations as a Tool for Better Relations

With the switch to an administration headed by the DPP, which seems to be more oriented to the Nit-Tai aspect than the Nik-Ka aspect of relations with Japan, there is a strong chance that the relationship will be managed on the basis of a tacit rule that, unlike the KMT, the DPP will not cause a great commotion even when territorial or historical issues come up. This is partly a reflection of hopes that Japan will adopt favorable policies toward Taiwan. And there is the risk that stress will arise on the Taiwanese side if Japan falls short in meeting these expectations. I remember seeing the emergence of such discontent during the Chen Shui-bian administration.

The circumstances of the current administration in Japan, however, differ from those of the years when Chen was president of the ROC, and Tokyo now has more ways of showing its friendship toward Taiwan. One good example is the conferral of decorations on Taiwanese individuals, as I noted in my recent book Taiwan to wa nani ka (What Is Taiwan?). Following the diplomatic break with Taipei in 1972, the Japanese government granted virtually no awards to people from Taiwan, while conferring a relatively large number to people from mainland China. There was a clear difference based on the presence or absence of diplomatic ties.

This state of affairs changed in the spring of 2005, when Tsai Mao-feng, visiting professor at Soochow University, was granted the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, for his many years of contributing to Japanese-language instruction. In the autumn of that year, the same decoration was conferred on Lee Shang-chia of the Taiwan-Japanese Economic and Trade Foundation. Since then the number of Taiwanese receiving decorations has continued to increase. Prominent recipients have included Jeffrey Koo, chairman of Chinatrust Financial Holding, and Chang Yung-fa, founder of the Evergreen Group, both of whom were awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, in 2012. And in the autumn of 2015 this decoration was bestowed on Peng Run-tsu, who was instrumental behind the scenes in arranging for that year’s visit to Japan by Lee Teng-hui, while the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, was conferred on Shi Wen-long, founder of the Chi Mei Group and a prominent promoter of friendly exchanges between Taiwan and Japan.

Taiwanese decorated in 2015 also included Chiang Pin-kung, who was at the forefront of negotiations on improvement of relations with the PRC during the Ma administration, and Hsu Shui-the, who headed Taipei’s representative office in Tokyo during the Lee administration. Chang received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, and Shu received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest-ranking decoration ever conferred on a Taiwanese. And in 2014 the Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays, was conferred on Tsai Kun-tsan, a figure who appeared in works about Taiwan by Shiba Ryōtarō and Kobayashi Yoshinori under the cognomen Lao Taipei (Mr. Taipei).

What we see from this record is that the Japanese government has been aiming to strengthen relations with Taiwan on a long-term basis by conferring decorations on people who have contributed to bilateral exchanges, an approach that deliberately transcends political standpoints within Taiwan. In the context of a relationship where ordinary diplomatic initiatives are unavailable, the granting of decorations is one of the few non-diplomatic tools that can be used effectively.

Prospects for Further Improvement Under Tsai

The relationship between Japan and Taiwan is not simply bilateral but is subject to the influence of two powerful countries, the United States and the PRC. These two have tension in their relations, notably in connection with the South China Sea. And the United States considers Japan and Taiwan strategically important. This makes it somewhat easier for Japan to develop its ties with Taiwan. The PRC, meanwhile, took a relatively indulgent attitude toward a certain amount of increased closeness between Tokyo and Taipei during the administration of President Ma, when ties between Beijing and Taipei were improving, but frostier ties under the new DPP administration in Taipei are likely to make Beijing more concerned about coziness between Japan and Taiwan. However, the relationship between the PRC and Japan has been heading toward improvement, as seen in the recent visit to Beijing by Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio and the emergence of prospects for a bilateral summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō sometime this year. In this context the Chinese will probably find it somewhat difficult to be too sharply critical of Japan.

Also, inasmuch as the DPP places relatively little weight on the Nik-Ka, or Japan-ROC, aspect of Japan-Taiwan relations, there is less chance for bilateral issues to develop into serious flaps under the new administration than under the previous one, which was led by the KMT. In Japan, meanwhile, the recent Taiwan boom—the marked rise in popular interest in and support for Taiwan—combines with strategic and emotional motivations in the political sphere operating in favor of treating Taiwan well. And Japan’s current Abe administration has already shown its positive posture toward Taiwan through its policies and actions. Taking a comprehensive view of these conditions, I believe that there is a strong possibility for Japan-Taiwan relations to become more stable and amenable to improvement under President Tsai than ever before. Up to now, Nit-Tai ties have been severely constrained by the “One China” principle, but the coming period may offer a historic opportunity for broadening and deepening this relationship by actively pursuing initiatives in the non-diplomatic sphere and in the gray zone between the non-diplomatic and diplomatic spheres—while paying close attention to the response from the PRC, which identifies Taiwan as one of its core interests.

The rise of a sense of Taiwanese identity among the people of the island means a stronger nationalistic desire to promote Taiwan’s interests and its dignity. I hope that Japan will manage the bilateral relationship adroitly through ongoing dialogue and take care not to halt the positive trend, paying close attention to the currents in Taiwanese society and maintaining a proper balance between principles and flexibility in its handling of potentially divisive issues like the Senkakus, comfort women, and Okinotorishima.

The incoming administration has named Frank Hsieh to head Taiwan’s representative office in Tokyo. Hsieh is a senior figure, having served as premier and as the DPP’s candidate in the 2008 presidential election. Japan up to now has mainly designated career diplomats with experience as ambassadors to head its office in Taipei, but we may see a move to match Hsieh’s appointment with the naming of a more prominent figure as Japan’s senior representative.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 19, 2016. Banner photo: Tsai Ing-wen, campaigning for Taiwan’s presidency, attends a party in Tokyo held by a group of backers, mainly Taiwanese living in Japan, on October 6, 2015. © Jiji.)

▼Further Reading
Japan and Taiwan: Officially Strangers, Unofficially FriendsHow to Read Taiwan’s Recent Elections: A New Administration at a CrossroadsThe Wansei: History’s Castaways Look Homeward to Taiwan

(*1) ^ Japan claims Okinotorishima, its southernmost possession in the Pacific, as an island with an exclusive economic zone. Taiwan asserts that it is no more than “rocks” and does not recognize Japan’s self-declared EEZ, claiming that its fishers have the right to operate in these waters.—Ed.

(*2) ^ The Republic of China was founded in 1912 following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, but since 1949, when the Communists took control of the mainland and established the People’s Republic of China, it has effectively ruled only Taiwan.—Ed.

China Taiwan ROC PRC