The appointment of a new representative to Japan has been troubling President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government and prompted pundits worldwide to wonder if the new government lacks experts on Japan.
“Japan experts” refers to individuals who are fully acquainted with the country and its people. However, the term has been distorted and to some may now mean “Japan sympathizers,” leading to the misconception that Taiwan’s representative to Japan needs to have three qualifications.
First, the person must be of a certain age — preferably above 70 — to meet the requirements of the seniority system in Japan. Second, the person must be fluent in Japanese, preferably with an aristocratic accent to facilitate access to the Japanese aristocracy. Third, the person must have lived in Japan for a long time and preferably have a strong emotional attachment to Japan and its right-wing politicians.
Such strict standards are akin to selecting a member of the Japanese House of Peers during the Japanese colonial era and imply that the relationship between Taiwan and Japan is not one of equals.
At this crucial juncture in relations between the two countries, Taiwan may want to consider ending the longstanding practice of sending pro-independence representatives who are close to right-wing elements in Japanese politics.
After the generational change that occurred in Japan in the 1990s, Japanese politics are no longer so closely controlled by gerontocrats. In today’s two-party politics, right-wing conservatives are no longer the leading force in the Japanese Diet, having been replaced by younger colleagues who have been re-elected less than four times. Most of them have a more intimate experience with the West and are comfortable speaking English. They have also broken with the factional infighting that characterized the past and are now making Japan’s interests their first priority. Therefore, they have simultaneously joined both the Japanese-Taiwanese and the Japanese-Chinese association for exchanges between parliamentarians.
The definition of Taiwan’s “Japan experts” is not carved in stone and is being shaped by changes in the Taiwan-Japan relationship. For example, under dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) rule, the relationship was based on a shared anti-communist sentiment. The Chinese military officers who had studied in Japan shortly after the creation of the Republic of China (ROC) were therefore seen as “Japan experts” who helped the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government keep the relationship healthy.
Later, under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the “colonial complex” gained primacy. Suddenly, the Taiwanese elite that had studied in Japan during the colonial era became the “Japan experts” and the best candidates to maintain relations following Japan’s ending official diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972.
Finally, under Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule, anti-Chinese sentiment became the driving force behind the relationship. Pro-independence Taiwanese activists residing in Japan were seen as “Japan experts” who offered the best channel of communication between Taipei and Tokyo.
Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the “Japan experts,” relations between Taiwan and Japan have become much closer. Still, the close relationship hides conflicting national interests and growing inequality. The above-mentioned qualifications for Taiwan’s new representative to Japan are therefore outdated, while the attractiveness of such qualifications is weakening. If Taiwan insists on these principles, the relationship will never be normalized. We must therefore come up with a new paradigm when shaping Taiwan’s policy toward Japan.