The fruit of good Japan-Taiwan ties

An exhibition of art treasures from Taipei’s National Palace Museum that is being shown at the Tokyo National Museum through Sept. 15 is attracting a large number of Japanese interested in Chinese artwork. The event at the Heiseikan Special Exhibition Galleries, the first such exhibit held in an Asian country outside Taiwan, is so popular that it attracted some 210,000 visitors from its opening on June 24 through late July. It is hoped that relations between Japan and Taiwan will deepen not only in the economic field but also in the field of cultural exchanges.

The Kuomintang government, which ruled the Republic of China, moved art treasures from the National Palace Museum in Beijing to safety in inland areas during Japan’s military aggression from the 1930s. It then moved them to Taiwan when it fled to the island after being defeated in civil war by the Chinese Communist forces led by Mao Zedong in 1949, and the National Palace Museum has some 700,000 works of art. During China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, historic cultural objects were thought to represent “old ways of thinking” and many were destroyed, so the Kuomintang’s decision to move these priceless works of art to Taiwan might have saved them from such a fate.

Some 180 works of art are on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Among them are vessels made of jewels and bronzeware as well as works of calligraphy. The exhibition includes a Qing dynasty artwork titled “Jadeite Cabbage,” which was made some time in the 18th or 19th century and has never been lent out before. The piece, which looks like a real cabbage and was on display for only the first two weeks of the exhibition, was so popular that at times people had to wait in line for four hours to see it.

The exhibition will move to the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 7 and will be held there through late November. The highlight of that exhibition will be an agate sculpture that resembles stewed cubed pork. This work of art will be on display for just two weeks.

Although the current exhibition is a resounding success, it was difficult to hold such an event earlier becaues of the complicated history of China, Taiwan and Japan concerning the “One China” principle. In 1965, the holding of an exhibition in Japan of treasures from the Taipei museum was considered but did not materialize because Taiwan, which wanted to use the event to promote its existence as the Republic of China, and Japan, which wanted to avoid antagonizing China, could not reach an agreement on conditions for the event.

In 1972, Japan and China normalized relations and Tokyo severed its diplomatic ties with Taipei. In recent years, there was another attempt to hold an exhibition in Japan featuring treasures from the National Palace Museum. Taiwan opposed the plan out of concern that China might try to seize the exhibits on the grounds that they had been “plundered” from China. But a law to promote art exhibitions from abroad, which pro-Taiwan Japanese lawmakers successfully enacted in March 2011, eliminated the possibility of seizure by China and paved the way for the current exhibition.

There was one unfortunate development with the current exhibition. Some of the pamphlets and posters omitted the kanji for “national” from the Chinese notation of the National Palace Museum. There is speculation that some Japanese media co-sponsoring the exhibition omitted it out of consideration for Beijing. Taiwan protested and the pamphlets and posters were revised in time for the exhibition opening, but the incident forced Taiwan’s first lady Christine Chow to skip her appearance at the opening ceremony and to postpone her visit to Japan to early August.

Despite occasional difficult periods, Japan and Taiwan have long enjoyed close and friendly relations. Although they do not have official diplomatic relations, the bilateral relationship remains strong, as the art exhibition reflects. Both governments should strive to maintain close, cooperative ties.