Many foreigners who have spent some time in Taiwan and studied its modern history have noticed a curious phenomenon related to its recent past: Although the island was run as a colony by the Japanese empire in the period from 1895 to 1945, there is very little ill feeling towards the Japanese. Japan and its culture is held in high regard, and nowhere is the admiration more pronounced than among the elderly who grew up under Japanese rule and were brought up to consider themselves subjects of the emperor in Tokyo.
This is particularly startling given the contrast with other parts of Asia that were once under Japanese control. In Korea, which was annexed by Japan in 1910 and wasn’t liberated until the end of World War II, bitterness runs deep. South Korea introduced a ban on Japanese cultural imports after the war and only lifted it, partially, in 1998. In China, 14 years of war beginning in 1931 are remembered with deepening anger. Taiwan was under the Japanese heel for longer than both — and still, the Taiwanese are generally fond of Japan. Why?
Several possible explanations have been provided. For example, there was less of a national consciousness in Taiwan than in either China or Korea prior to Japanese occupation, and therefore also not exactly the same feeling of having been taken over by a foreign power.
It has also been argued that the Nationalist Chinese who took over the reins in Taiwan after the Allied victory in 1945 were almost as brutal as the Japanese, and a lot more disorganized. Japanese rule might have been stern, the residents of Taiwan thought, but at least the Japanese brought order. A certain nostalgia developed over the times under Japanese administration “when you could leave your door unlocked at night”.
Then there might be a third explanation. The nature of Japanese rule was probably milder in Taiwan than in both Korea and the Chinese mainland. (“Mild” is of course a relative term, and in this case covers Japanese rule that included murder, torture and imprisonment, but not on a massive scale as in other areas under Japanese control.) And the question again is, why?
Part of the explanation could be that the Japanese Navy had a much bigger say in Taiwan than elsewhere where the Army was calling the shots. After all, Taiwan was an island and became increasingly important in Japan’s efforts to secure an advantageous strategic position in the Western Pacific, culminating, of course, with the massive Japanese offensive southwards against Western colonial possessions in Southeast Asia in the winter of 1941 and 1942. And this part of grand strategy was to a large extent a naval affair.
A recently published document shows just how important the Navy was in managing Taiwan (see below). It is a list, compiled by the US military, of Japanese nationals in different parts of the sprawling Japanese empire at the time of surrender in 1945, and it was kept archived until its release by the Japanese Diet last year.
According to this list, out of a total of 174,793*) Japanese Army and Navy personnel in Formosa (Taiwan) in 1945, 46,713 or 26.7 percent were from the Navy. By contrast the percentage of Naval personnel in Korea was 9.7, in China 5.7, and in Manchuria (northeast China) a mere 0.2. It’s also significant that the two Japanese governors-general ruling Taiwan from June 1936 until December 1944 were both admirals. By comparison, Korea was run by Army governors-general throughout World War II.
The Japanese Navy had a reputation of attracting more open-minded and better-educated people than the Army. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, an admirer of America and one of its most intelligent foes in World War II, is one of the most prominent representatives of the Japanese Naval man. Whether the more refined character of Japan’s Naval personnel caused them to behave in a more civilized manner towards civilians is a topic that merits further study. But it’s an interesting theory.
*) Columns 2 + 3, i.e. 128,080 + 46,713.