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

Shinpei also implemented standardization of currency and weights, oversaw the construction of major buildings (like the governor-general’s office, Presidential office) and major railway stations and brought in agricultural experts to enhance rice and sugar production. Taiwan became Japan’s “model colony.”

Particularly in the period 1902-1918 the Japanese tried to entice both the Hoklo and Hakka farmers and Aborigines with incentives: jobs and money. Japanese policemen were deployed, maintaining strict control over every aspect of life.


After 1920 there was more of an educated elite: a new generation had grown up under Japanese rule, and Japan had gradually opened up high schools and universities to students from Taiwan. Events that had a lasting impact on these students were the 1911 revolution in China, Korea’s 1919 uprising against Japan and, in the same year, the formation of the League of Nations.

Particularly influential were US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points. Made in a speech to the US Congress in 1918, he stated in point five that a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

In Taiwan, this led to the home-rule movement: a loose coalition of people and organizations pushing for more say by the local population in their own affairs. They conducted meetings, workshops, awareness campaigns and, from 1921 to 1935, a yearly delegation to the Japanese Diet to petition for Taiwanese representation in the Representative Assembly.

These were all denied.

The Taiwan Cultural Association, established in 1920 and led by key campaigners such as Chang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), Lin Hsien-tang (林獻堂) and Tsai Pei-huo (蔡培火), was the most prominent organization to call for more self-determination. Other organizations followed in later years: The Taiwanese Farmers’ Association (台灣農民協會) in 1926, the Taiwanese Workers League (台灣工友總聯盟) in 1928 and the Taiwan Local Autonomy Alliance (臺灣地方自治聯盟) from 1930-1937.

By the end of the 1920s, the program of universal education and Japanization had taken hold and for some time there was rather widespread stability and prosperity. The Japanese had a “strict but fair” system: Police maintained tight control, particularly in the mountain areas. The educational system evolved a Taiwanese upper-middle class that thirsted for democratic representation.

The tight Japanese control in the mountain areas led to a major conflict with the Atayal and Seediq communities on Oct. 27 1930: the Wushe Incident (霧社事件). Angered by police misconduct, forced labor and disregard for Aboriginal beliefs and customs, the Seediq exploded in anger, and, led by chief Mona Rudao, attacked a flag-raising ceremony at an elementary school, killing 132 Japanese and wounding 215 others.

The Japanese authorities immediately dispatched an army of some 2,700 soldiers, which swarmed into the mountains to hunt down the Atayal and Seediq. In a 50-day campaign some 275 Aborigines were killed, while almost 300 women committed suicide. For both sides it had become a matter of protecting their “dignity and honor.” The events formed the basis for the recent movie Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克巴萊).

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