Vice President William Lai (賴清德) on Monday traveled to Tokyo to offer his condolences after the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Although Lai’s visit was regarded as a part of his “personal itinerary,” it marks a significant diplomatic breakthrough for Taipei, and it conjures memories of past interactions between Taiwanese and Japanese leaders.
An agricultural economics professor at Meiji Gakuin University — whom I have known for many years — was a classmate of late former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) at Cornell University. They kept in touch after graduation, with the professor once visiting Lee in Taiwan.
When Lee was preparing to visit Cornell after his presidential term ended, the professor was also back at the school conducting research. Upon hearing about Lee’s then-unconfirmed visit, I contacted the professor.
Soon afterward, a compatriot group in New York rented four buses to travel to Ithaca to welcome Lee. I relayed the news to the professor, who replied that since there were four buses coming, the rumors about Lee’s visit were likely true.
He called his wife in Japan and asked her to book a ticket to the US, since she and Lee’s wife, Tseng Wen-hui (曾文惠), had spent a lot of time together at Ithaca, where they would sometimes shop for groceries together. Although he and Lee had met a few times since graduating, their wives had not seen each other for more than two decades.
While reporting on Lee’s visit to Cornell, one news outlet said that the professor had relayed a greeting to Lee on behalf of Japan’s imperial family. I wrote to the professor to confirm the report. While he neither admitted nor denied his connections with the imperial family, he said that if he and Lee were to meet again, it would have to be in either Taiwan or Japan, in order not to inconvenience a third-party country.
By using the classmate’s relationship as a means to represent the imperial family, their greeting through the professor not only showcased Lee’s profound connection with Japan, but also Tokyo’s meticulous and prudent attitude when addressing such issues.
In December 2015, then-Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) arrived in Tokyo on a visit to meet with friends. As Abe “happened” to be having a lunch meeting in the same hotel Tsai was staying in, the media were speculating whether Abe would meet with her.
Afterward, when a diplomat working in the US embassy in Tokyo attended a conference at his alma mater Columbia University, I asked him about the rumor during the question-and-answer session.
Before responding, the diplomat said that his statements in the conference do not represent those of the US Department of State, but added he could easily verify that Abe and Tsai had met “by chance.”
Similar to Lai’s visit to Abe’s funeral, these events were arranged with the greatest care and discretion by the Japanese government.
Abe once famously remarked that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency.” The Japanese leaders who inherit Abe’s political legacy would have to tackle difficult issues and must continue to strengthen Taiwan-Japan relations.
Further challenges await the two nations for the next diplomatic breakthrough.
Peter Chow is a professor of economics at City University of New York, and was a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a consultant for the World Bank.
Translated by Rita Wang
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