Hating and Loving Japan: Memories of Growing Up Taiwanese

History Culture

A Taiwanese author living in Japan looks back at how she shifted between hatred and love toward her chosen home, and endeavored to find the right balance.

Taiwan’s Pro-Japan Reputation

People in Japan meeting me for the first time sometimes ask where I am from. Because of my fluent Japanese, they almost always expect me to say somewhere in the country, so answering “Taiwan” feels a bit like revealing an intimate secret. 

Fortunately, reactions are rarely negative. In fact, many people feel compelled to tell me how much they love Taiwan. The close bonds the two nations share are reflected in many ways. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 Taiwanese financial support of recovery efforts has poured in, endearing the nation to Japan. Japanese traveling to the island are also inclined to comment on the amicable disposition of inhabitants. A broad range of nongovernmental exchange is ongoing in a number of fields, and there is currently a low-key trend toward Japanese interest in Taiwan. Naturally, it is better to be liked than disliked. At the same time, I feel a little uncomfortable whenever I hear someone blurt out that Taiwan is “pro-Japan.” 

I certainly like Japan myself. I chose to study the language and moved here, and now I write books in Japanese, so I will not let anyone suggest my feelings are any different. And it might be a case of birds of a feather flocking together, but many people from my generation have a similar affection for Japan. While I was growing up, however, I never had the sense that Taiwanese were especially fond of Japan.

“They Killed Babies with Bayonets”

I still have a painful memory from when I was in the first or second grade of elementary school. In class, our homeroom teacher told us something to the effect that Japanese are very cruel and that they killed many people when Taiwan was a colony. Our teacher then talked about an uprising called the Musha Incident and that all the Taiwanese who resisted Japanese tyranny were massacred.

Her face twisted with emotion as she told us about a game the Japanese often played. “They’d catch lots of children, smaller than you, and babies that still couldn’t walk, and they’d throw them into the air,” she proclaimed. “And when they fell, the Japanese would take their bayonets and stab them to death. It was a game to see who could kill the most babies or kill them the best.”

I do not remember what inspired her to tell that story, but the details were etched in my memory. I was still very young, but I was certain that the Japanese were a cruel and frightening people.

Thinking back, that teacher only oversaw one part of a rural and conservative education system. Judging from her age, she had not actually lived under the Japanese education system. This meant that she must have heard the terrifying stories she described from someone else.

After World War II, Japan relinquished its control of Taiwan. Then the Kuomintang took over, fresh from defeat against the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949. The KMT was a dictatorship. It instituted martial law and spread its anti-communist, patriotic message through the education system, reaching every corner of the country. Leaders emphasized the role of the Japanese as occupiers and enemies in order to legitimize their own rule. The Chinese-language textbooks of the time included an episode about how President Chiang Kai-shek defied his instructors at a Japanese military school, praising him for his patriotism. My teacher probably had the story about the bloodthirsty Japanese drummed into her during the era of anti-Japanese education, and then dutifully reproduced it for us children.

More Encounters with Anti-Japanese Sentiment

Even after the period ended, I felt its lingering presence as I grew up.

As a child I enjoyed playing on the piano a piece called “Song of the Great Wall” that was a famous tune of resistance against the Japanese. Written using the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale, it had an elegant melody and made me feel a sense of nostalgia, although I was still a child. It was only much later that I studied history and learned the meaning of the lyrics. Here is a short excerpt.

The Great Wall is immeasurably long, and there were once hometowns outside it.

Sorghum ripened, soybeans were fragrant, everywhere was golden, misfortunes were rare.

Since catastrophe came to the plains, rape and looting are rampant, and we cannot bear our suffering.

Unable to bear our suffering, we flee elsewhere, breaking up our families and losing our parents.

After the Manchurian Incident of 1931, the Japanese army took control of northeast China—beyond the bounds of the Great Wall—and Japan established the puppet state of Manchuria. The song describes the miseries of the area when it was overrun by the Japanese army. Although not originally composed for children, it was included in collections of children’s songs when I was young. This may surprise some, yet rulers who wish to implant a particular ideology may use children’s songs as propaganda. Another famous example in Taiwan, “When I Grow Up,” glorifies war and the fight against communism, and presents a male-centered society as a natural fact of life.

Looking back now, I regularly encountered anti-Japanese sentiment while I was growing up. In junior high school history classes, I studied the First Sino-Japanese War and the ceding of Taiwan to Japan, the Musha Incident, the Japanese invasion of China, the Nanjing Massacre, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the comfort women issue. (By contrast, the Kuomintang’s suppression of dissidents in the February 28 Incident of 1947 and the subsequent White Terror were touched on, but not in detail.) My homeroom teacher, who also taught Chinese, hated Japan, saying in class that Japanese were superficially polite.

In my second year at junior high, I started self-study of Japanese, although my teacher disapproved. To improve our English ability, we had to write a sentence in English every day together with the Chinese translation in our notebooks. At some point, I started including the sentence in Japanese too. I think this scandalized my teacher, who often asked me why I was learning the language of invaders and would imply that Japan stole its writing system from China. My parents did not stop me studying Japanese, but they were sometimes puzzled as to why I loved the language so much. 

From early on, I was aware that some people around me unequivocally hated Japan, and their views influenced me to some extent. I wrote above of how my first impression of Japanese was of a cruel and frightening people, and lessons about the comfort women made me think of Japan as an abhorrent country. When I learned about Japan cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1972, I simply felt that the Japanese were self-serving to be so quick to break off relations after Taiwan was driven out of the United Nations due to the recognition of the People’s Republic as the only legitimate representative of China. The fact that my own anti-Japanese thinking did not go beyond this level and that I grew up to like the country was probably due to the influence of language and culture. 

Japan’s Linguistic and Cultural Appeal

I was captivated by the beauty of Japanese from the moment I started studying it at junior high school. Watching anime like Case Closed and Pokémon as a child gave me an affinity for Japan and its language. Later on, I was drawn by the literary worlds of writers including Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Murakami Haruki. Naturally, I was also fascinated by the alternative view of the country presented by otaku anime, such as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Lucky Star.

Enmity toward Japan—or the seeds of it—due to historical events was set against the appeal I felt for the country’s language and culture. I have had to seek my own way to reconcile these opposing sentiments. I was incensed at the crimes the Japanese army and government committed in the past as well as at the historical revisionists who even now refuse to accept that they took place. At the same time, I had an interest in contemporary Japan. In world history lessons—which I hated—I was most absorbed when we studied about Japan, and outside the classroom I was happy to immerse myself in the Japanese language and consume Japanese culture. I needed to decide how to delineate my love and hate.

It seems very shallow now, but for a time I justified my warmth toward Japan by telling myself that it was the Japanese in the past who were bad. The people of today did not commit those crimes, so there is nothing wrong in having an interest in the current culture and language. I would reason that Japan is an Asian country and was also a victim of Western aggression. If the United States had not forced the country to open, Japan would never have become an aggressor itself. Such was my desperation to rationalize my affinity for Japan.

Ironically, once I overcame my conflicting feelings I became too extreme in my love for Japan, using it as a model when venting all my frustrations about Taiwanese society. I projected my ideals and adoration onto Japan to convince myself that Taiwan is backward, while Japan is always far ahead. It need hardly be said that this was also a highly ignorant way of thinking. I was at an age where leaping to conclusions was second nature, making it difficult to keep a suitable distance from the country; I was either too close or too far. Maybe I had the same problem with other people and society too.

Since moving to Japan, I have endeavored to achieve the right distance. Living here, I have encountered fascinating aspects of the culture and met many wonderful people. I have also come face to face with just as many reactionary, backward aspects of society and deeply hidden social ills. These have stayed with me, tipping my feelings for the country one way or the other. Just as light forms shadow, both sides of the scale represent the real Japan.

Showing unconditional hate and contempt, or love and approval, for a country or area may merely display one’s ignorance about it. Someone who sees only the light is an eternal tourist. I felt this through my own experience. I eventually realized how meaningless it was to talk about a country or area as a whole. What does it mean when people say that they “love” Taiwan or Japan, or that they “hate” China or South Korea?

Words like pro-Japan, anti-Japan, love, and hate are convenient, and I myself often use them. Yet I believe one must look beyond these superficial words to approach true understanding.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 15, 2019. Banner photo © lingtsyr/Pixta.)

China literature Taiwan