It would be interesting to ask people in Taiwan whether the biggest question they have after watching the film Kano is: Was that what life was like about 80 years ago when Taiwan was under Japanese rule?
It could be that people just quickly decide whether they like the film or not, although it is fair to say that most people were ignorant of the facts on which it was based before the film came out.
The film is about a ragtag baseball team in Chiayi overcoming sloppiness to eventually advance to the finals at the Koshien championship, Japan’s longest-running nationwide high-school baseball tournament, under the instruction of a Japanese coach in 1931.
The box-office hit has aroused much discussion since it opened in theaters just two weeks ago.
Some people have argued that the film uncritically glorifies the Japanese era by centering on the baseball team composed of three ethnicities — Japanese, Han Chinese and Aboriginal boys — in parallel with the Chianan Irrigation System (嘉南大圳) built by Japanese architect Yoichi Hatta as the theme.
Others have found themselves emotionally attached to the film’s vivid visualization of what they have heard from parents or grandparents about some of the “good old colonial days,” a piece of the past deliberately buried in oblivion in the education system under the previous Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime.
The ambivalent attitude toward the period of Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945 reflects deep divergence regarding national identity.
Through tracing the roots of Taiwanese baseball culture to the era of Japanese rule in what it portrays as a rosy period of time, the film makes a strong contrast between the Japanese era and the subsequent period of KMT rule.
As pointed out in some scholarly articles, the then-KMT regime had tried unsuccessfully to eradicate baseball — due to its Japanese roots in Taiwan — after retreating to Taiwan in 1949. It was not until the 1960s — when Taiwan faced international isolation — that the KMT regime began to use the game as a political tool to build a collective national sentiment.
The one-time textbook myth of the Hongye Elementary School little league team (紅葉少棒) developed by the KMT was once again debunked.
Over the decades, long-standing political division has repeatedly overshadowed other values that could have helped bridge gaps — like multicultural harmony, which is what the film is about.
However, this cannot be achieved when people in power maintain the mindset that they have a mandate to set the frame for how history should be interpreted.
This mindset is embodied in the proposed changes to the national high-school curriculum on Chinese literature, history and other social sciences.
In rebuffing criticism from historians, academics, teachers, students and Aboriginal groups over the Chinese and Han-centered historical perspectives adopted to revise the textbook guidelines, government officials defend the plan by saying that there is no deviation from historical facts in the proposed changes.
History is probably a field in which education and indoctrination can be easily distinguished, because a fair question to ask about history when it is taught based on a partisan or an ideological point of view is: Whose history is it anyway?
Taiwan is a multiethnic, multicultural country that can trace its history of immigration back to the early 17th century. That should have helped the nation foster robust public discourse, but this is not the case.
Without an inclusive historical perspective in education to allow the past to be open to interpretation and to encourage people to discover history, it would be difficult for a country to create a climate of mutual respect and tolerance for differences and easy for it to be endlessly embroiled in a textbook war.