Unraveling the truth of ‘wansei’

By Chen Fang-ming 陳芳明  / 

Wed, Jan 11, 2017 - Page 8

Mika Tanaka, author of the 2014 non-fiction novel Wansei Back Home (灣生回家), has admitted to fabricating her identity as a descendant of wansei — Japanese who were born in Taiwan during Japanese colonial rule.

The admission has had a heavy impact in cultural circles.

When the best-seller was made into a documentary of the same name in 2015, both the book and film caused a sensation in Taiwan.

Wansei status represents a “cross-border identity” in Taiwanese history. As second-generation Japanese in Taiwan during Japanese colonial rule, they carried not only their parents’ memories of Japan, but, having been born in Taiwan, also their own memories of Taiwan.

In the eyes of the Japanese empire, they were not “Japanese,” while in the eyes of colonized Taiwan, they were not Taiwanese. Stuck in the cracks between the two cultures, their national identity was an awkward issue.

Had it not been for the documentary, wansei would have been forgotten long ago and faded into history. The film has brought them back to public attention, recalling deep hidden memories.

If Tanaka, the executive producer of the film, had not falsified her personal history as a descendant of a wansei, the movie would have touched countless Taiwanese.

The significance of the documentary lies in the fact that it allows this invisible group to be seen again. Without it, many people would have been unaware of the complexities and instability of Taiwanese history before and after World War II.

From the perspective of the film, whether Tanaka is a wansei descendant or not is not important, but her claim seems to have lent the film weight.

It is already several years since it was discovered that Tanaka is not a wansei descendant. Before the news broke she claimed in her book and in public speeches that she was the granddaughter of a wansei woman named Sayo Tanaka — her real name is Chen Hsuan-ju (陳宣儒).

During an interview three years ago with Japanese journalist Takeshi Yoshimura, then-director of the Japanese-language Sankei Shimbun’s Taiwanese branch, Yoshimura revealed several contradictions in what Tanaka said and accused her of being a fraud.

This fraudster deceived wansei, her publisher, the audience and even history. The wansei that appeared in the documentary were actual descendants, but Chen’s fabrication had a negative impact both on their integrity and on the documentary’s emotional impact on its audience.

As the Chinese saying goes, “fire cannot be wrapped up in paper,” and Chen eventually sent a statement to Yuan-Liou Publishing Co founder Wang Jung-wen (王榮文) to apologize and admit that she was not a wansei descendant, revealing her fraud. Her motives remain unclear and we do not know if she falsified her status to boost her credibility, or to improve the sales of the book and documentary.

Regardless, Chen’s fabrication has dealt a huge blow to Taiwanese history and cultural circles.

Some wansei concealed their status on returning to Japan after World War II. It cannot be denied that many memories that once were lost have been brought back to life by the documentary and from this perspective the movie has been a positive contribution: It rekindled nostalgia among Taiwanese.

History must be treated with great respect. Using a fabricated identity to promote a book or a documentary is not only unethical, it is also extremely harmful to historic truth.

Bringing such rare and precious history to light once again can help older generations to gain a better understanding of history, while it could instill respect for history in younger generations. Unfortunately, that Chen fabricated her identity has caused many people to begin to question the truth of wansei and their stories, and therefore the truth about the end of the war.

Chen’s fabrication cannot be forgiven. Because of her, the authenticity of wansei is questioned and their stories are no longer believed.

After this, they might not dare return to Taiwan and younger generations might no longer believe their stories.

All these questions and doubts must be dispelled if wansei truly are able to return home one day.

Chen Fang-ming is director of the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature at National Chengchi University.

Translated by Eddy Chang