New Taiwan envoy upbeat on Japan ties

by Jun Hongo

As Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan, John Feng believes that strengthening ties between Tokyo and Taipei is vital to securing bilateral prosperity.

“Taiwan and Japan have a genuine, people-to-people relationship. We are close strategically, historically and geographically,” Feng, 62, who arrived in Japan on Sept. 27, said during an interview with The Japan Times on Friday.

The experienced diplomat kicked off his stint as chief of the Taipei Economic Cultural Representative Office last month. But he is no stranger to Japanese culture.

Feng, a ruling Nationalist Party heavyweight, spent more than five years in Tokyo with his diplomat father and attended local schools in Minato Ward.

During a reception in Tokyo earlier this month to celebrate Taiwan’s national commemoration day, Feng surprised guests by reciting the 1957 starting lineup for the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

“My favorite player was (Tatsuro) Hirooka,” Feng said, favoring the reliable shortstop over superstar slugger Shigeo Nagashima.

Feng’s appointment followed the collision in June between a Taiwanese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, to which both Taiwan and China claim sovereignty. China refers to the islands as the Diaoyu, and Taiwan as the Tiaoyutai.

The Taiwanese government recalled Feng’s predecessor Koh Se-kai in protest, and Koh resigned on July 10 amid the diplomatic row.

While Feng said that Japan and Taiwan are in an “excellent” relationship, he also acknowledged that the territorial dispute is a matter of concern.

His stance is that the collision is an isolated case and that the two sides should “shelve the issue and move on.”

The time-consuming appointment to fill the vacuum left by Koh triggered worries that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was taking ties with Japan too lightly.

Feng said that was not true and said there was no political motive behind the delay. He stated that Taiwan’s ties with Japan are as important as its ties with the United States, if not more, and that the ruling Kuomin-tang (KMT) simply lacked the resources to find an appropriate representative after being the opposition party for eight years.

Feng himself recognizes that he is not an expert on Japan, and that his language abilities have faded throughout the years.

“After a few ‘sake’, I sing Japanese songs well,” the representative said half-jokingly.

But after three weeks in the hot seat, he has quickly plugged himself back into Japan’s political network, including Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.

“Mr. Ishihara is a friend of Taiwan who believes in the value of democracy,” Feng said, adding that it doesn’t bother him that the governor, who invited him to a round of golf, is known to make frequent trips to contentious Yasukuni Shrine.

“I am beyond that,” he said, anticipating that both sides will remember their history but not involve themselves so deeply in it.

During his time in Japan, Feng hopes to carry out President Ma’s policy of promoting youth exchanges.

Personal interchange is the backbone of a healthy relationship, Feng said, affirming that he will tell President Ma later this month in person that ties with Japan are “solid, genuine and on the right track.”