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

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

Kabira ChōseiBorn 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.

  • [2017.09.27]
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