Shedding Light on “Formosa’s Betrayal”: Kabira Chōsei on George Kerr and Taiwanese History

Politics Culture

Soon after World War II ended, the February 28 Incident rocked the island of Taiwan. The diplomat and scholar George Kerr explored this bloody chapter in Taiwanese history in his book Formosa Betrayed. We spoke with Kabira Chōsei, an Okinawan broadcaster raised in Taiwan under Japanese rule, about George Kerr—who taught him English in his school days—and his take on Taiwan’s past and present.

Kabira Chōsei

Born in 1927 in Taichung, Taiwan, then under Japanese colonial rule. Graduated from Taihoku High School in 1946. Returned to Okinawa after World War II and worked to establish the Ryūkyū Broadcasting Corporation. In 1953 went to the United States to study at Michigan State University, where he was reunited with George Kerr, his teacher in high school and an influential figure in his life. In 1967 became the head of the broadcaster Okinawa Hōsō Kyōkai. When Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972, the OHK was disbanded and folded into NHK, and Kabira moved with his family to Tokyo, where he worked for the national broadcaster. In 1992 became professor of English at Shōwa Women’s University, where he went on to serve as vice president and vice chancellor. Currently an emeritus director of the school. Father to three sons, including two TV personalities, John and Jay, and Kenji, an entrepreneur in the United States.

The cross–Taiwan Strait dynamic has long featured a Taiwanese identity that manifests as separate from that of mainland China. On September 26, 2014—when the Sunflower Student Movement, which began in the spring of that year, was still making waves on the island—there was an incident that underscored the strength of this Taiwanese identity. Ma Ying-jeou, then president of the Republic of China, was entering the international reception at the Asia-Pacific Franchise Confederation and World Franchise Council annual conference. There he was greeted by a young protestor who shouted, “Taiwan and China are separate! One country on each side!” and threw a book at him.

This was of course an incident that attracted international attention, but the title of the book in question also made the news at the time: Formosa Betrayed, by George H. Kerr, a diplomat and one of the few scholars to have developed deep knowledge of Taiwan, Okinawa and the rest of the Ryūkyūs, and Japan during the wartime and postwar era. Kerr was a US Naval attaché assigned to Taiwan when Japan surrendered the island in October 1945; he was later the US Foreign Service’s vice-consul in Taipei, from which position he observed the February 28 Incident in 1947, when the Republic of China government killed thousands of Taiwanese rising up against the mainland Kuomintang’s takeover of the island. In his 1965 work Kerr recorded this history and the travails of the native Taiwanese population against the backdrop of the international situation of the time. Given its treatment of the February 28 Incident and the arguments it pressed on the island’s international standing, it is no surprise that this book was banned for many years by the ROC government, particularly during the period of martial law.

In yet another of his many positions, Kerr taught English at the elite Taihoku High School (today the National Taiwan Normal University), influencing a number of students, both Taiwanese and Japanese, who went on to remarkable careers. They included Lee Teng-hui, a future president of Taiwan; the author Kyū Eikan; Oda Shigeru, who would serve as a judge at the International Court of Justice; Sonobe Itsuo, a justice on the Japanese Supreme Court; and the astrophysicist Oda Minoru.

Another of Kerr’s students was Kabira Chōsei, who would eventually supervise the publication of Formosa Betrayed in Japanese translation. Nearly seven decades after the February 28 Incident, we sat down with Kabira to talk about his experiences as a Wansei and as one of Kerr’s students at the Taihoku school.

An Okinawan from Taiwan

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your life in Taiwan.

KABIRA CHŌSEI

I was born in 1927 in the district that was then called Meijimachi in Taichū [now Taichung]. At the time there was a prison nearby, and my mother and father, who had moved to Taiwan from Okinawa, worked at the prison club. My earliest memories, though, are from another neighborhood in that same district, where we lived near to a district courthouse that I remember as a large, white structure. I also remember spending time in Taichung Park.

When I was five, we moved to the Nishikichō district in Taipei and I began attending the Asahi primary normal school, today’s Dong Men Primary School.

In January this year I traveled to Taiwan and visited the courthouse and the place where I lived in Taipei. My old home has been replaced with a giant building, but that old courthouse is still standing there, great roof and all.

INTERVIEWER

You later entered Taihoku High School.

KABIRA

Yes. It was the only higher school on the island at that time, and it later became the National Taiwan Normal University. It was a seven-year program, with a four-year normal course followed by a three-year higher education course; I entered from the lower course. Lee Teng-hui, who went on to be president of Taiwan, was four years ahead of me in the higher course at that time.

INTERVIEWER

It was a very liberal learning environment, right?

KABIRA

Yes, it was much like an American university, providing students with plenty of freedom to chart their own paths. The school’s second head, Misawa Tadasu [1878–1942], had played a central role in making it this way. Students in all levels of the school were taught to call each other with the same honorific, –kun, attached to names. This was a way for us to pay respect to one another without worrying too much about who was higher or lower on the totem pole, so to speak. It was also an unusual school for those days in its lack of corporal punishment. It was a great environment for us young people.

The school heavily emphasized foreign-language instruction, hiring native English speakers to instruct us in that language. One of them was George Kerr. Once we made it to the higher school division, we had many teachers who actually bore the title of professor, and we even got the chance to study abroad at foreign universities. It was a very advanced education that we received at Taihoku. And I remember that the Taiwanese pupils, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 20 percent of the student body, were head and shoulders above the rest of us when it came to our academic performance.

As the tide of war began to go against the Japanese empire, many schools banned the teaching of English, an enemy tongue. But our school was a rare exception that continued to focus on English-language instruction. When the military officer assigned to Taihoku confronted the English teachers and demanded to know why they continued to offer classes in the language, their response was: “If Japan continues to advance southward, which language will be most vital for the Japanese to know?” The answer, of course, was English, without which the Japanese authorities had little chance of governing those far-flung territories. When the teachers argued that we should in fact be putting more emphasis on teaching English, the officer had to agree. In the end, we continued to have English classes just about every day, which was great training for us.

When I was seventeen, though—toward the end of March, just before I was to become a second-year student in the higher school program—our entire school was called up to support the war effort. Even the Taiwanese students, who had been exempted from compulsory military service, were drafted. For around half a year, we served in the Bali district of Taipei, then called the village of Hachiri, and later in Zhuzihu, near the northern Taiwanese peak called Daitonzan under Japanese rule. We disbanded around the end of August 1945, after the war had ended.

In around December of that year, the same pupils gathered in the same building, with the same instructors, to continue their education. Only the school’s name had changed—it was now Taipei High School, a Taiwan provincial school. We received our diplomas, but when we looked on the back there was a note stating that they would only become official at the end of March 1946, when we completed the required courses.

Back to Okinawa and a Career in Radio

INTERVIEWER

Soon after that you moved to Okinawa, right?

KABIRA

Yes. People heading back to the main Japanese islands were known as Nikkyō back then, but those of us in families originally hailing from Okinawa were called Ryūkyō instead. Okinawa had been the scene of major battles in the war, and the US Armed Forces in control of the territory limited the number of Okinawans who could come home, judging that it would be difficult to accommodate them all right away. I wasn’t able to make it back until more than a year after the war, in December 1946.

My first job after returning to Okinawa was interpretation. I found it difficult to catch everything that was being said at first, though, and I had a hard time putting the concepts into words in the other language. In time, though, I found my pace, thanks mainly to the training I had received at Taihoku.

Ever since my days at that school I had entertained the idea of becoming a physician. Around 1949, though, a new opportunity presented itself. There was to be a new radio station on Okinawa, and I walked away from medicine to enter the broadcasting world instead, becoming an announcer there.

INTERVIEWER

It was around this time that you met Kerr once again.

Kabira with his copy of Kerr’s take on the era of Japanese rule in Taiwan, the 1974 Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895–1945.

KABIRA

That’s right. He had given all of us his calling card when we left Taiwan and headed back to Japan or the Ryūkyūs, promising us his help if we decided to look for work with the US forces.

I didn’t contact him right away, but in 1949 he arrived in Okinawa for a survey mission. His expertise extended beyond Taiwan to encompass the Ryūkyū situation as well. By the time I made it to the upper division of the Taihoku school, he had already left his position there due to the worsening of the wartime situation, so I hadn’t had the chance to study under him in any serious capacity. It was after we reunited in Okinawa that we became truly close.

So, around the time I entered the radio world, I also made up my mind to travel to America to study. Of course I went to speak with Mr. Kerr about this, and he strongly recommended that I attend Stanford University, where he was at the time. I had other ideas, though—I wanted to study journalism, and I headed to Michigan State, which had a strong program. I did stay in touch with my old teacher, though, right up until he passed away in Hawaii.

INTERVIEWER

He was very kind and helpful to you and the rest of his students.

KABIRA

Indeed. Even after the war ended and he left Taiwan behind, he remained quite concerned about his pupils—particularly the Taiwanese ones. He seemed to have great sympathy for them, at times worrying more about them than the Japanese students.

At the same time, he spared special attention for the Ryūkyō—those of us who were from Okinawa originally. We were able to return home earlier than expected thanks mainly to his impassioned appeals to the US State Department, which moved General MacArthur to action. Mr. Kerr really was a savior of sorts for all of us who hailed from Okinawa originally.

Formosa Betrayed Hits Japanese Bookshelves

INTERVIEWER

Kerr’s book on Taiwan was eventually published in Japanese, too.

KABIRA

He gave me a copy of the English edition of Formosa Betrayed in 1965. It was a tall challenge, though, weighing in at more than 500 pages, so I didn’t begin reading it for some time. Eventually, though, I received a letter from Shaw Cheng-Mei—a classmate of mine from the Taihoku days who was then studying neuropathology at the University of Washington. He told me that he had read the book and learned all about the chaos that enveloped Taiwan in the immediate postwar days, as well as the harsh conditions that the Okinawans had endured then. I decided it was time to read this book for myself.

The Japanese and Chinese editions of Kerr’s Formosa Betrayed.

So I made my way through its pages. And what they showed me was much more than just the hardships that we Okinawans had known. In just the six to twelve months after the Japanese fled Taiwan, the island was flooded with administrators and soldiers from mainland China who brought nothing but destruction in the form of their corruption and outright plunder. And eventually, as I learned from Kerr’s book, this led to the February 28 Incident and the indiscriminate massacres that followed. All of this was based on decades of his work—his connections with Taiwan, from his time studying in Japan to his posting in Taipei, and his thirty years of research in the United States. It drew on sources from government reports to comments provided by his students, along with input that came directly from members of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration team that went to Taiwan to implement relief programs in the immediate postwar period. This was a tremendous compilation of Kerr’s wide-ranging research.

Later I learned that Shaw had secured the rights to publish Kerr’s work in Chinese translation, and I signed on to get his book put out in Japan as well. We spoke with a Taihoku schoolmate who had left the newspaper business to join a printing company, and he introduced us to a publisher that was ideal for this title. And finally, after many long, hard years, in June 2006, we had a published copy of Kerr’s book in Japanese in our hands.

Changing Times, Unchanging Friendship

INTERVIEWER

When did you make it back to Taiwan? When you did, were you already aware of what had happened in the February 28 Incident?

KABIRA

I went back in 1961, fifteen years after leaving the island. I was of course aware of February 28, and since Taiwan was still under martial law, I was equally aware that I needed to speak carefully about that era.

I was taking part as an instructor at a television-related workshop at National Taiwan University. After the day’s events wrapped up, some of the students asked where I was heading that evening. I answered with no hesitation that I was going to Beitou to enjoy a dip in its hot springs. This brought uproarious laughter from the young men and dubious looks from the female students.

At home with his wife, the educator Wandalee Kabira.

That evening, after an old classmate explained to me that Beitou was no longer a hot-spring area, but had become a somewhat seedy entertainment district, I finally understood the students’ reactions. But we had chosen the area for our reunion that evening since it was located in the north of Taipei, far from the city center, and we could sing the old Japanese songs we once sang at school to our hearts’ content without worrying that they would be heard by others—a real concern in those days of martial law.

Today, Beitou is returning to something more like it once was, with even Japanese onsen-style inns setting up shop in the neighborhood. It seems like we’re entering a new era once again.

A George Kerr Exhibition in Taiwan

INTERVIEWER

Have you heard anything about the February 28 memorial events scheduled to take place this year?

KABIRA

A faculty member at the National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwan History tells me that there will be a special exhibition on George Kerr this February. My friend Shaw has donated a number of items related to our teacher, sending them from America for inclusion in the exhibition.

When I was in Taiwan in January, I was interviewed on the topic of Mr. Kerr. Around five years ago, when I first visited the National 228 Memorial Museum, I was saddened to see that Mr. Kerr barely appeared in the materials on display. I’m hoping that the exhibition this year will increase recognition of him in Taiwan.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 24, 2016. Interview by the Nippon.com editorial staff.)

Taiwan Okinawa history wansei George Kerr