Japan and Taiwan: Diplomacy Without Diplomats

Taiwan’s Complicated Love Affair With Japan

Politics Society Culture

In the late 1990s, a new group of “super fans” of Japanese culture began to emerge in Taiwan. Hari Kyōko, one of the movement’s leading figures, tells the story.

A Taiwanese Word for a Deep Love of Japan

The word hari is something that I invented—it didn’t previously exist in the Mandarin Chinese used in Taiwan. I first used it in the manga I published, called Zaoan Riben (Good Morning Japan), and subsequently started using it as a penname. The word hari is made up of two characters, 哈 and 日. In Hokkien Chinese, the first of these means “a strong desire or longing.” The second represents Japan; hari, or 哈日, therefore signifies some kind of total adoration for Japan.(*1) I came up with the term when I found it difficult to express what I wanted to say properly in Mandarin. For me, hari is a terminal condition with no hope of a cure so I added a third character, 症 or zheng, to make it sound like a sickness.

Around the time I started using my new term, I happened to appear on a popular book review program on TV. That appearance made the term famous. The Taiwanese media started to refer to the hari “tribe”—people who liked Japan so much, they had come down with a bad case of harizheng.

I have always longed to have a chance to study in Japan—a desire that has yet to be fulfilled. But when I was 22, I finally made my first visit on vacation. When I saw the object of my desires with my own eyes, it was if I had stepped into a pit of hari quicksand. I was hopelessly smitten. There was so much to take in: the language, the food, the beautiful scenery, the clothes, the traditional arts, the ancient buildings . . . all of it fascinated me. It was my first trip abroad and I think it must have awoken some kind of hari gene lying dormant inside me, because since then I have been back more than 60 times. I stayed longer and longer every time; what was once a few days turned into several months. Nowadays I stay until the day my tourist visa expires. They practically have to drag me back to Taiwan.

The Hari Phenomenon Reaches a Peak in 2000

As soon as I returned to Taiwan, I would start longing to go back to Japan again. I wrote about my experiences in my manga, trying to illustrate what I felt when I got off the plane in Japan for the first time and the short time I spent training there. The star of the manga, Axing, suffers from a particularly severe case of harizheng, engaging in activities that would be considered strange in either place. Needless to say, the character has a lot in common with me. Zaoan Riben (Good Morning Japan) was published in 1996. This coincided with a spat over the Senkaku Islands, which soured the bilateral relationship somewhat. None of this could dampen my enthusiasm for Japan, though, and in 1998 I put together a collection of essays about the impact Japan’s culture had had on me. That was the start of my adventures in writing.

“Good Morning Japan,” the manga that started the “hari” boom in Taiwan.

The hari phenomenon was picked up by the media, and reached a peak in 2000. Around that time, McDonalds released a series of Hello Kitty products that were so popular that people were skipping school or work for a chance to buy them. The Japanese media came to Taiwan to witness this strange social phenomenon at firsthand. I got to know some people working in the Japanese media and in January 2001 was able to publish my first collection of essays in Japanese, titled Hārī Kyōko no Nippon chūdoku [Hari Kyōko’s Addiction to Japan]. This book will be available as an ebook in August this year. I’m delighted that the book is going to appear again, more than 12 years after it was first published.

The Reasons for My Japanese Affections

Politics is unavoidable in any discussion of Japan and Taiwan, since Taiwan was under Japanese rule for 50 years between 1895 and 1945. Many buildings that were built by the Japanese still remain, and it is easy to see traces of the lives that Japanese people led there. The feelings of the Taiwanese toward Japan are complex. Under Japanese rule, people were forced to learn Japanese and live according to the systems that the Japanese put in place. When Westerners think of Japan, they tend to think of things like sushi, ninja, sumō, samurai, and perhaps Mount Fuji. For the Taiwanese, things go deeper.

In order to understand why hari took off in Taiwan, it is necessary to look at the origins of Taiwan’s peoples. Chinese people began to emigrate from Fukkien in large numbers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The descendents of these people formed the bulk of the “Taiwanese” population into the twentieth century, until a second wave of Chinese migration in 1949 following the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army in the Chinese Civil War. Taiwan also has an indigenous population of Austronesian-speaking “aborigines,” as well as the Hakka people who speak Hakka Chinese. Each of these groups has its own views on Japan. While some love the country, others hate it.

I belong to the first of these groups; I was born and raised in Taiwan. My father was born in 1912 and experienced Japanese rule. When I was small, he often spoke Japanese to me and sang me Japanese songs. In the winter he would wear a haramaki to keep warm. With geta on his feet and a homburg hat on his head whenever he went out, he looked just like a Japanese. Did he hate Japan? You certainly wouldn’t have thought so. Whenever I mentioned an upcoming visit to Japan, he would always ask me to pick up this or that item for him. If I sent him a parcel containing Japanese medicine, tabi socks, Japanese sweets, or another haramaki, I knew I would receive a delighted phone call to say thank you. Until his final years, he often used to speak Japanese to me. Japan was something precious for him, I think—an irreplaceable part of his life and his history.

But what about me? Why did I become so infatuated with Japan? I have always enjoyed drawing and since I was young I always dreamed of becoming a manga artist. Naturally, this led me to appreciate Japanese manga. For much of my childhood Taiwan was under martial law, which was not repealed until 1987. Information and goods from Japan spread through Taiwan very quietly in those days, since they were only available through private, unofficial channels—basically piracy or personal connections. I managed to pick up things at shopping malls and our local bookstore developed quite a collection of Japanese manga. My brother and I loved to read Doraemon, Ultraman, Osomatsu-kun, and many others. We assumed they were Taiwanese comics. We used to save up our pocket money so that we could visit one of the major department stores in Taipei and buy posters of Japanese idols, cassette tapes (pirated, of course), and Japanese magazines. These were the things we looked forward to enjoying after school.

Long Misjudged

It would take a long time to provide a full analysis of the hari tribe and their behavior. But if I had to sum it all up simply I’d point out the important difference between what’s on the surface, and what lies underneath. Some people are obviously Japan fans—their appearance, words, and actions speak clearly of their affection for Japan. But there are others who greatly admire the country’s business mindset and craftsmanship without necessarily wearing that admiration on their sleeve. I am in the latter category. A writer asked me once how many people are in the hari tribe. I had to admit that it was impossible to give an accurate answer. In my case, although I may publicize my love for Japan, on the outside I look the same as anyone else; no one could look at me and make a judgment based on outward appearances alone. This didn’t seem to be the answer that the media were looking for, though. When they photographed me, I was made to stand in front of a Japanese memorial, holding a fan with the Japanese flag on it, wearing geta and a headband. I felt awful when I saw the photo in a major newspaper. It was a terrible misrepresentation of what I feel the hari phenomenon is all about.

The Taiwanese media have tended to disparage people who like Japan. They accuse us of sucking up to the Japanese. We supposedly say that everything Japanese is good, no matter what the circumstances. Everything is cute. They also accuse us of judging Japan on superficial things. They say we are wasting our time trying to ape Japan, and imply that we are dimwitted and setting a bad example. As a veteran member of the tribe, I would argue that our behavior is perfectly principled. There is nothing wrong with saying that we like people or things from Japan. To enjoy Japanese fashion and cuisine, or appreciate the Japanese way of thinking, is not a bad thing. And we certainly do not do this blindly. We only become engrossed in the things that truly deserve our love and respect, and have no interest in that which does not deserve our time. The fact that we like Japan is all the more reason for us to put effort into understanding the country.

When Japanese dramas became popular in Taiwan, new Taiwanese dramas were made, targeted at young audiences. When people in Taiwan became fans of Japanese fashion brands, a new “made in Taiwan” brand was launched. The impeccable service in Japanese department stores inspired competitors to focus on training their employees and managers. These are all examples of the positive stimulus Japan has provided in Taiwan. You can’t look at these cases and say that nothing good can come from the hari phenomenon. The hari tribe has suffered from prejudice and misjudgments. I hope the media in Taiwan will read these articles and realize their mistake.

A Good Time to Be a Fan of Japan

Changing times and a more liberal political environment have brought about huge changes for fans of Japanese culture in Taiwan. What once went on in secret behind closed doors can now be practiced openly. Today, belonging the hari tribe is regarded as perfectly normal. Liking Japan and living a life full of Japanese influences and products is no longer something newsworthy.

On a visit to Tokyo Station, which has become a major tourist spot since its recent renovation.

Taiwan has a population of 23 million. Around 1.2 million Taiwanese visit Japan every year. According to statistics from the Japan National Tourist Organization, the actual number in 2012 was 1,466,688—representing one visit for every sixteen people. Many people presumably visit Japan several times a year. In the twenty-first century, the Internet has helped to bring Taiwan and Japan closer together than ever before. Getting information on Japan is now a simple matter; something that was not true in the past.

In fact, I think the hari tribe has never had it better. The deterioration of relations between Japan and China in recent years has made Taiwan a popular investment destination for Japanese businesses. It is possible to enjoy all kinds of Japanese products and services right here in Taiwan, almost as soon as they hit the streets in Japan. Fashion, literature, cuisine, medicines, electrical products, and ramen are just a few of the things that have become a regular part of our everyday lives. Alongside these are 100% genuine Japanese-style hot spring resorts, hotels, and beauty salons. When the Takarazuka Revue performed in Taiwan in April this year, the tickets selling out six months in advance.

Continuing the Friendship

The depth of affection that some Taiwanese feel for Japan can be measured by the huge support and generous donations that came in after the Great East Japan Earthquake two years ago. We all have our different starting points—some of us are interested in history, some like hot springs; others become interested in Japan through its video games, music, architecture, or food. All of us love Japan. Naturally, we want Japan to keep thriving. We want to whatever we can to help the country recover and rebuild.

My interest in Japan has transformed me from a regular office worker into a manga artist and published author. I have made many friends in Japan, many of them self-professed “fans” of Taiwan and its culture. The hari phenomenon has changed my life. Through it, I have even managed to gain a deeper love of my native Taiwan. As long as there is a Japan, the hari movement and our affection for the country will continue. Long may the friendship between Japan and Taiwan continue!

(Originally written in Chinese.)

Hari Kyōko’s Facebook page:

Hari Kyōko’s Blog:

Hari TV (YouTube):

(*1) ^ The word hari is written using the pinyin system for transcribing the Chinese language. The native pronunciation is naturally very different from what might be expected from readers familiar with the system Nippon.com uses to transcribe Japanese words.—Ed.

Taiwan culture Hari Kyōko