Tue, Dec 11, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Contrasting conceptions of colonial rule

From massive infrastructure projects to human rights abuses, the legacy of Japan’s 50-year rule of Taiwan remains controversial

By Gerrit van der Wees

The Presidential Office was built during the Japanese colonial era, and served as the headquarters for the governor general.

Photo: Sung Hsiao-hai, Taipei Times

The Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) is perceived quite differently in Taiwan: while pro-China groups consider it negatively and emphasize the colonial aspect, pro-localization groups see it as a period of strict but fair rule, when Taiwan made major strides in infrastructure, health care, agriculture and governance. This latter group compares it positively to the repressive Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) White Terror era, which followed from 1945 through 1987.

Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing Dynasty under the provisions of the Treaty of Shimonoseki of April 17, 1895, which ended the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war. The Qing had lost the war primarily because during the 20 years since the Meiji Restoration, Japan had been able to build up a modern army and navy, easily defeating the Chinese fleet.

The treaty was signed on behalf of the Qing Imperial government by viceroy Li Hung-chang (李鴻章), and included the following four provisions: China recognizes independence of Korea; it cedes Taiwan and the Pescadores to Japan in perpetuity; it pays 200 million taels war indemnity; and opens port-cities to Japan.


Back in Taiwan, the treaty came as a shock. Neither the population nor officials had been consulted. Governor Tang Ching-sung (唐景崧) was convinced by the local gentry to declare independence on May 23 1895, and a new government was inaugurated on May 25. “Black Flag” general Liu Yung-fu (劉永福) commanded the army of some 100,000 soldiers and Chen Chi-tung (陳季同), an experienced diplomat who spoke French fluently, served as foreign minister.

However, six days after the Formosa Republic declared independence, Japanese troops under general Kawamura Kageaki landed near Keelung and started to move South. The Qing soldiers and the local militia were no match for the well-armed and trained Japanese, and on June 7, the Japanese army entered Taipei.

During the next five months, the Japanese pushed further South. Conquering Taipei had been relatively easy: the Qing officials and soldiers had no close connection to the territory, and gave up easily, fleeing without much of a fight.

But in Central Taiwan, the local militia were strongly attached to “their” territory and put up stiff resistance, which resulted in the Aug. 27 Battle of Baguashan (八卦山戰役) near Changhua. The Japanese onslaught, however, proved unstoppable, and on Oct. 21 they captured the last opposition strong-hold in Tainan.

After the fall of Tainan, the Japanese declared Taiwan pacified, though there uprisings for many years to come because of widespread resistance from both the Hoklo and Hakka speaking populations as well as Aborigines. In fact, many historians now argue that a “Taiwanese” identity grew out of Japanese oppression.


In the initial years of Japanese occupation, governor-generals followed in quick succession. It wasn’t until the fourth governor general, army general Kodama Gentaro (1898 to 1906) that Japanese rule stabilized. He started major infrastructure projects, building 10,000km of roads and railroads from Keelung in the north to Kaohsiung in the south. The governor-general was ably assisted by a civilian administrator, Goto Shinpei, who laid the groundwork for Taiwan’s modern infrastructure development. A doctor by training, he set up hospitals, sanitation systems and modern harbors in Keelung and Kaohsiung.

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