Fri, Jan 11, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: The Shinto past of a Buddhist shrine

The Bilian Temple in Hualien County’s Shoufeng Township is one of many structures throughout the nation that uses Chinese iconography to paper over Japan’s presence in Taiwan

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Externally, Bilian Temple in Hualien County’s Shoufeng Township today resembles thousands of other places of worship in Taiwan.

Photo: Steven Crook

I’m not interested in remnants of the colonial period as much as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) efforts after World War II to erase the Japanese imprint. Recently, I was thrilled to learn of a few old houses in the south that bear Republic of China (ROC) embossed flags on their facades — but where the post-1945 paint job is now so faded it’s possible to see Hinomaru (the Japanese flag) emblems that were the original adornments.

The KMT’s animosity toward Japan was understandable given Japanese aggression and wartime atrocities when it ruled Taiwan as a colony from 1895 to 1945. After 1949, however, Japan was a key trading partner and an important investor. What’s more, Taipei and Tokyo were both closely aligned with Washington. However, Japan’s 1972 decision to break off diplomatic ties with the ROC and establish formal relations with the People’s Republic of China provoked a fresh wave of anti-Japanese sentiment, at least among the ROC leaders.

In his chapter in the 2002 book New Asian Marxisms titled “Making Time: Historic Preservation and the Space of Nationality,” sociologist Marshall Johnson writes that a 1974 ROC Ministry of Interior edict, Main Points on the Elimination of Taiwan Japanese Era Colonial Rule Memorials and Historical Remains Manifesting Japanese Imperialism’s Sense of Superiority, commanded that Shinto shrines be destroyed, as well as the complete elimination of memorials and tablets.

Several years ago, after hearing about this edict, I wrote the government and asked if they could tell me how many locations had been affected by the policy, and when (if ever) it had been canceled.

“We have never heard of [such an edict],” they replied. Perhaps they didn’t want to admit that the government had behaved in such a petty manner. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered to find the correct answer. But I should be fair to Taiwan’s bureaucrats: Almost every time I’ve sought information from one or another department, they’ve been helpful.



Fengtian Railway Station is served by local trains connecting Hualien with Taitung as well as a few expresses per day. From Hualien, travel time is 25 to 33 minutes; one-way fare is NT$29 to 35. Buses from Hualien, such as the #1121 and #1122, are slower but more frequent.

According to Johnson, “All Japanese stone lanterns and similar fixtures in temples and other public buildings were to be altered (removing the aesthetic quality making them nationally Japanese) or else destroyed,” as were Japanese calendrical inscriptions.

One landmark given a Japanese-to-Han makeover years before the rupture in Tokyo-Taipei relations is Bilian Temple (碧蓮寺) in Fengtian (豐田), part of Hualien County’s Shoufeng Township (壽豐鄉).

Even today, this part of eastern Taiwan is thinly populated. Shoufeng has fewer than 18,000 residents. It’s hardly surprising that, when the government of overcrowded Japan took control of Taiwan, they identified this area as suitable for the development of immigrant villages.

The first batch of Japanese settlers arrived in what the colonial regime dubbed Toyota (豐田 in Japanese script, hence “Fengtian” 豐田 in Chinese) in 1913. In addition to housing for immigrants, the authorities built a police station, an elementary school and clinics.

A Shinto shrine was consecrated in 1915 and dedicated to the Three Kami Deities of Cultivation (開拓三神), a trio of gods commonly worshiped in frontier regions of the Japanese Empire. Also enshrined here was Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa (1847-1895), a distant relative of an 18th-century emperor and commander of an Imperial Japanese Army division during the 1895 invasion of Taiwan. The prince caught malaria and died near Tainan, after which he was elevated to a kami venerated by Shintoists.

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