Japanese Magazine Cover Sparks Media Storm in Taiwan


A recent cover of the Japanese magazine Brutus had Taiwanese media outlets up in arms, upset at the representation of their country.

Brutus is well known in Taiwan among followers of the latest trends. It can be found in virtually every bookshop and café, and within arm’s reach of almost every creator. It is an essential publication guiding young Taiwanese people’s consideration of their own cultural identity as something reflecting influences from Japan, the United States, and Europe. This is why the Taiwan-themed July 15 edition of Brutus caused such a stir.

Looking Down on Taiwan?

The cover in question showed Guohua-jie, a street in the former capital of Tainan famous for its fine cuisine. Photographs of Taiwan in Japanese magazines have long focused on food or people in crowded thoroughfares. This time, however, the street itself took center stage.

The Brutus magazine cover that led to arguments over its depiction of Taiwan.

Many Taiwanese commentators took issue with this choice, as the picture showed pedestrians forced to walk in the road by the many scooters parked to one side. It seemed to them as if the magazine was intentionally trying to convey a low standard of living. Some noted that Brutus had previously represented London and New York by high-rise buildings, questioning why it had not picked the capital’s landmark Taipei 101 skyscraper to represent Taiwan. There were also suggestions that depicting the country as unrefined was a form of prejudice.

Others, however, responded by saying the environment they had grown up in was nothing to be ashamed of, and that it was good to see the magazine showing its appreciation. Another riposte was that Taipei 101 was hardly symbolic of Taiwanese culture.

Entrenched regional rivalry between the relatively wealthy capital of Taipei and less well-off provincial areas added fuel to the fire of debate.

Misplaced Nostalgia

Leaving the Brutus cover aside for a moment, I find myself disagreeing with some Japanese people who know the country well and bemoan the way it has changed. “In the old days,” they say, “Taiwan was more chaotic and exciting.” Or, “Now that Taiwan is all cleaned up, it’s become boring.”

Most people want to live in a comfortable, healthy, and convenient environment. Individual travelers are free to find underdeveloped aspects enjoyable, but it is ridiculous to expect residents not to make improvements. In the same way, visitors who say that a Taiwanese location is nostalgic or comfortingly familiar must often meet with the response from locals that, “well, we didn’t exactly design this place just to please you.”

There are some Taiwanese researchers who see the recent fixation on their country in Japanese magazines as a variety of postcolonialism or othering. While not all Taiwanese view it as especially problematic, it is certainly a delicate topic. Why is this?

Complex Affection for Japan

“Taiwan’s most beautiful scenery is its people” has been a popular phrase for the last two or three years. Critics have countered it with the variation, “Taiwan’s most beautiful scenery is its people, but its ugliest scenery is also its people.”

Taiwanese citizens have long struggled with the questions of national identity and culture. They regularly consider, lament, and argue about what the country should see as its source of pride.

For instance, my Taiwanese friends on Facebook engage in earnest debate on a daily basis about how to improve their environment and culture, diligently sharing links to relevant material. Many Taiwanese tourists enjoy visiting Japan, yet I hear them express a sense of inferiority, claiming that their own country is lagging in culture and convenience. Each time, I think that Taiwanese affection for Japan is actually quite complicated.

The naïve, simplistic belief among Japanese people that Taiwanese people “like Japan” becomes quite jarring in encounters with delicate topics like these. The Japanese media, at least, should be aware of this, if not ordinary travelers.

A Brewing Debate

The recent debate may have been touched off by the Brutus cover, but I do not think the magazine was a particularly offensive trigger. It simply brought to the surface a conversation that has been brewing for some time.

Drab scenes offering no attraction to tourists featured in many of the parody covers that appeared online after the magazine hit the racks.

Still, it is good to have this discussion, and it has developed in a positive direction. For me, this is Taiwan’s “most beautiful scenery.” As a Japanese apathetic about my own country’s present state—which appears impossible to change, no matter what efforts I make—I feel great admiration when I see my Taiwanese friends sincerely constructing arguments and pushing the debate forward.

Incidentally, Taiwanese netizens responded to the furor with quick-witted parodies of covers based on Brutus and other publications via an app that appeared on the country’s social media. I always appreciate their rapid-fire humor.

When I actually bought the Taiwan edition of Brutus, I found that it provided high-quality information for travelers. I would urge Japanese people planning a trip there to take a look inside, and Taiwanese people to read it as an expression of Japan’s admiration for their country. After all, one of the reasons that the cover became such a big topic is that for young Taiwanese the magazine is the most widely trusted Japanese publication on the latest trends. Even so, I would be delighted if the whole affair results in Taiwan-themed material from the Japanese media that inspires a deeper understanding of the country.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 26, 2017. All photos courtesy of Sumiki Hikari.)

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