Japan and Taiwan: Diplomacy Without Diplomats

Japan and Taiwan: Officially Strangers, Unofficially Friends

Politics Society Culture

Surveys regularly show that many Taiwanese people feel a deep affinity with Japan. The close relationship was reflected in Taiwan’s ¥20 billion contribution to recovery in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. And yet there are no formal diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Taipei. What accounts for the good relationship?

At a time of dwindling amity and trust between Japan and its neighbors, a positive mutual understanding exists between Japan and Taiwan. Although Japan and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, an organization known as the Interchange Association of Japan interacts unofficially with parties in Taiwan on Japan’s behalf. In a public opinion poll conducted by the organization’s Taipei office during December 2009 and January 2010, 52% of respondents cited Japan as their favorite country after Taiwan, and 62% indicated an affinity for Japan. In a subsequent survey conducted from January to February of 2012, some ten months after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, only 41% of those polled named Japan as their favorite nation but 75% said they felt close to the country. In the most recent survey, conducted in January 2013, 43% of respondents cited Japan as their favorite country; 65% indicated an affinity for Japan.

¥20 Billion from the Taiwanese

This friendly attitude toward Japan was reflected in donations of more than ¥20 billion that flowed from Taiwan to Japan after the 2011 earthquake. While people in Japan were amazed at the scale of Taiwan’s generosity—over ¥20 billion from a population of 23 million—the donations drove home a sense of kizuna, a heartfelt bond between the two peoples. Many people in Japan were outraged when the Democratic Party of Japan government opted for strict adherence to its “one China” policy and ruled out any Taiwanese presence at public events promoting disaster recovery in spite of this generosity.

This decision was reversed after the DPJ was ousted, and delegations from Taiwan have been welcomed at disaster-recovery events since the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power. More noteworthy, however, was the response from ordinary Japanese citizens. In early March 2013, someone hailing from the Tōhoku region that bore the brunt of the devastation in the earthquake and tsunami issued a call via social media for a concerted show of gratitude to the people of Taiwan. Spectators at a March 8 World Baseball Classic game between Japan and Taiwan at Tokyo Dome were asked to display signs thanking Taiwan for its support. The initiative gained considerable momentum; on the day of the game handmade “thank you” signs were on display all around the stadium. After the game, in which Japan defeated Taiwan, the Taiwanese team reappeared on the field and bowed before the assembled spectators to show their appreciation. Because the live broadcast of the game had already ended this scene went largely unnoticed in Japan, but it was widely reported in Taiwan.

People Take the Lead

Formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the Republic of China (Taiwan) came to an end when Japan recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Since then, there has been no official interaction. A de facto relationship has been maintained by proxy, with Japan represented by the Interchange Association of Japan and Taiwan represented by its Association of East Asian Relations. But the lack of diplomatic relations brings many disadvantages.

Japan’s relationship with Taiwan has changed considerably since the 1990s, as Taiwan’s government has become more democratic and its economy has grown. On both sides, however, it is the people, not the government, who have taken the lead in forging closer ties. Problems still exist—the controversy over the Senkaku Islands and questionable representations of Japan’s role in recent history are currently the most prominent. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the successful negotiation (by proxy) of a fisheries agreement in April 2013, the two sides have begun to explore a new bilateral relationship in which government actions are prompted by the public.

What distinguishes this new relationship is the fact that it is led by ordinary citizens and the private sector. In part this reflects the economic interests at stake. To a great extent, however, the closer relationship is the collective result of actions by interested individuals. In recent years there has been a tendency to emphasize these friendly relations and downplay the problems arising from attitudes to historical issues. As most Japanese people who have lived in Taiwan already know, however, things are not so simple. Taiwan is a complex, multifaceted, and constantly changing society. It would be a mistake to assume that all Taiwanese people are “pro-Japanese” and that people in Taiwan will always see Japan in a favorable light.


This series features contributions from a number of people who have provided vital support for the “handmade” relationship between Japan and Taiwan. They personify some of the diverse perspectives found in both Japan and Taiwan.

Hari Kyōko is a well-known Taiwanese writer, manga artist, and fan of Japan. In the 1990s she created the four-panel comic strip Zaoan Riben (Good Morning Japan) and helped introduce Japan’s “kawaii culture” to readers in Taiwan.

Hitoto Tae was born in the city of Keelung in northern Taiwan. The pop singer Hitoto Yō is her younger sister. Her father was the eldest son in one of the grand old families of Taiwan; her mother was Japanese, a native of Ishikawa Prefecture. Hitoto Tae lived in Taiwan as a child and moved to Japan as an adolescent. She is a dentist as well as an actress. In 2012 she published Watashi no shanzu (My Box), a nonfiction account of her early life and family background. A Taiwanese edition came out in March 2013. The book weaves together elements from Japanese and Taiwanese history through the story of her own story.

Baba Masaki worked in the field of cultural exchange for the Japan Foundation. After spending time in Sydney, he was posted to the Interchange Association of Japan’s Taipei office, where he was involved in cultural exchange activities as Director of Culture Affairs. Since retiring from the Japan Foundation he has been active in local development efforts in Akita Prefecture. He is the founder of the Baba Band, a Taiwan-based musical group that has attracted a considerable following.

Watching a swan glide across a pond, it is hard to imagine how furiously it is kicking its legs beneath the surface. The same could be said of the mutual trust between Japan and Taiwan, sustained despite the absence of official diplomatic relations by the efforts of many people behind the scenes. I hope this series will help to shed some light on their activities and the beliefs that motivate them.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Great East Japan Earthquake Kawashima Shin Taiwan Hari Kyōko Hitoto Tae Baba Masaki