Baseball has long been a sport that has united fans and players alike, much as it did in 1931 when all of Taiwan rallied behind a scrappy high school baseball team that nearly defeated its Japanese opponent during a prestigious championship series in Japan. Producer Wei Te-sheng (魏德聖) and director Umin Boya capture these heady times in their new film Kano, scheduled for release on Feb. 28, which explores how Taiwanese challenged their colonizer in the one venue where they were equals — the baseball field.
But Kano has also fueled a somewhat edgy debate over Taiwan’s colonial roots, a debate playing out not just in academic circles, but also in the comment section on the YouTube page of Kano’s trailer, as Taiwanese weigh in on the role Japan played in developing and shaping their culture, history and identity.
“Our education has created a huge conflict in how we identify ourselves,” Wei explained in a telephone interview. “When Japan ruled Taiwan, they made us identify with Japan. When the Nationalists controlled Taiwan, they made us identify with China … Why can’t we ever decide for ourselves who we are? This is how Taiwanese feel deep down inside.”
Once regarded as a footnote in Taiwan’s storied past, Japan’s half-century of colonial rule has provided the backdrop and substance for Wei’s three feature films: Cape No. 7 (海角七號, 2008), a romance-comedy and second highest-grossing Taiwanese box-office hit; Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克．巴萊, 2011), the Oscar-nominated epic that recounts the 1930 Wushe Incident (霧社事件) when nearly a thousand Aborigines were killed by Japanese troops; and now, Kano.
Japanese for Jianong (嘉農), the nickname of the Chiayi school baseball team, Kano tells the improbable story of a group of Japanese, Taiwanese and Aboriginal ballplayers who banded together to fight valiantly to earn second-place honors in Japan’s national high school baseball championship, held annually at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hanshin, Japan since 1924. It also speaks to what Wei says is the essence of Taiwan’s identity.
“Internationally, Taiwan is weak,” Wei explained. “We know that. But being able to survive until now and not being uprooted shows that we are also strong-willed. We may never be number one in the world, but we don’t want to give up and be last either. We strive to better ourselves, not to be better than everyone else.”
Taiwan, which was briefly part of the Qing Empire, became Japan’s first overseas colony in 1895, following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Emulating western imperial powers like Great Britain and France, Japan further extended its colonial reach into Korea, Manchuria, China and parts of South East Asia, where it improved infrastructure and launched a campaign to assimilate colonial subjects into the empire. For Taiwan, that meant learning to play baseball.
“Japanese imperialism was a kind of hybrid multi-layered imperialism also shaped by the Japanese experience of western imperialism,” explained Japan historian and Columbia University professor Kim Brandt.
“Baseball was a really good example because it was introduced into Japan by Americans in the 1870s. This was only a few years after Japan had been subject to American informal imperialism, when they said, we are going to teach these not entirely modern people how to become healthy, civilized and gentlemanly, and introduce them to fair play. That experience, then, is reproduced in Japanese interactions with its own colonized population.”