Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Japan's Taiwanese residents thrive in a state of 'hidden inbetweenness'

Minority exists under the radar yet civic groups have top-level political pull in Japan and Taiwan

by Nick Horton

“Zainichi” is a term most commonly used to refer to Japan’s sizable ethnic Korean minority. While the stories of Zainichi Koreans are widely known, or at least known of, in Japan, the nation’s more than 47,000 Taiwanese residents — Zainichi and more recent arrivals alike — attract comparatively scant attention.

Like the Zainichi Koreans, Japan’s Zainichi Taiwanese population can trace its history here back to the time of empire. From their distant vantage point across the East China Sea, this community has witnessed the decolonization of their homeland by the Japanese, the tumult of the Chinese Civil War, the ensuing four decades of martial law under the Kuomintang, and finally breakneck industrialization and the growth of democracy on the island.

Angela Han, a Taiwanese researcher at Waseda University who studies the community, says Zainichi Taiwan-jin have constructed a life in Japan characterized by a kind of “hidden inbetweenness,” straddling both Taiwanese and Japanese cultures, “neither here, nor there.”

Because of this chameleon-like accommodation of both their source and destination cultures, the Taiwanese community is markedly less visible than the ethnic Korean population, which has carved out its own cultural enclaves in places such as Shin-Okubo in Tokyo and Tsuruhashi in Osaka. This relative invisibility, however, masks a diverse and historically rich community with its own civil organizations and connections to the highest echelons of political power in both Japan and Taiwan.

Born in Taichung, Dr. Khoo Te-ji, 62, comes from a particularly distinguished lineage. His ancestor, Taiwanese Hakka-Chinese patriot, educator and poet Chiu Feng-jia, led militia forces against the Japanese invasion of the then-Qing Dynasty domain in 1895, before fleeing to the Chinese mainland, where he joined the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and became part of Sun Yat-sen’s new Republic of China government, which succeeded two millennia of imperial Chinese rule.

The third in command of the Japan Taiwan Medical Union (JTMU), Khoo chose a somewhat different path. First arriving in Japan in 1980 as a medical student after graduating from university in Taipei, Khoo has spent the past 36 years of his life in Japan building a family and his medical practice in Saitama, going on to become a key leader in the Zainichi Taiwanese community.

Khoo’s parents, who were educated in Japanese in the then-colony, encouraged his move north, influenced by their nostalgia for Japanese rule. But such encouragement came with its fair share of risks, according to Khoo, who says that the anti-Japanese ideology of the Kuomintang regime forbade all commentary about Japan that was noncritical — an especially sensitive issue for his parents, who were Taiwanese public servants in a civil service dominated by mainland Chinese who had fled with Chiang Kai-shek to the island in 1949.

When Khoo left Taiwan in 1980, the island was three decades into the martial law period that saw thousands imprisoned, tortured and killed, all traces of “Japaneseness” eradicated, and the emigre Kuomintang regime replace the Japanese colonizers as public enemy No. 1 in the minds of many older Taiwanese.

“Back then, education was not a simple thing. It was still the period when people were silenced, and there were things that if you said, you could be carried off,” Khoo explains. “Even when I left to go to study in Japan, it was still this kind of situation.”

Eventually, in stark contrast to his Chinese nationalist ancestor, Khoo decided to naturalize as a Japanese citizen in the 1980s.

“I chose to nationalize because back then Taiwan didn’t really have much freedom. It didn’t have the kind of freedom that Japan had. I was afraid that if I returned I would be imprisoned,” Khoo says, emphasizing that he still loves and cares for Taiwan. “I don’t think your nationality determines where you feel you ‘belong.’ I live and work in Japan, so I think having Japanese nationality is relatively convenient. Although I don’t have Taiwanese nationality any more, I still love Taiwan. I still care for Taiwan.”

Khoo — now Tetsuharu Oka, using the Japanese reading of his original Chinese name — married a Japanese woman and raised his children in Japan. The family does not celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year — every year he phones relatives in Taiwan instead — but they do commemorate the Japanese o-shōgatsu, including the traditional new year visit to the family’s local Shinto shrine.

According to Han, this kind of cultural flexibility, or “inbetweenness,” and mixing of Chinese and Japanese identities is not uncommon among Taiwanese doctors in Japan.

“They are Taiwanese — in the end, they speak Taiwanese inside their family — but they have a Japanese name and they want to be recognized as Japanese socially, for their better survival and pursuit of socioeconomic status,” she tells The Japan Times.


Likewise, for Chia-yin Lin, 45, “Japaneseness” and one’s sense of place is a far more nuanced concept than simply what is written on her passport, or the nationality of her parents.

Unlike Khoo, who was the first in his family to live in Japan, Lin’s links to the country transcend three generations. Hailing from Tainan, one of the earliest Han Chinese settlements on the island, both Lin’s grandfather and older sister studied in Japan. Lin’s husband was also born in the country, his father having been a foreign student here in the 1970s. Although Lin briefly studied Japanese at university in Taiwan, it wasn’t until she married and moved to Japan that she began learning the language in earnest.

Seventeen years and counting, she and her husband have raised their two children across the archipelago — in Fukuoka, Tokushima in Shikoku, Osaka and Tokyo. But unlike Khoo, they have made a point of avoiding Taiwanese-only groups, preferring instead to assimilate.

“I want to live in Japan, not in a Taiwanese group,” she explains, “and I don’t want my children to feel like they ‘belong’ in Taiwan. They were born and grew up in Japan, and they have been educated here. Basically, Japan is where they come from, not Taiwan. Of course, they should understand and know about Taiwan, because it is where their parents come from, where their grandparents and relatives live, but it is unnecessary for them to think that Taiwan is where their ‘roots’ are. Their roots are in Japan.”

Although firmly rooted in Japan, Lin says she still encourages her children to be unofficial ambassadors for Taiwan.

“In every school my children have attended, they have been the only gaikokujin (foreigners). They’ve grown up in an entirely Japanese environment, and are often the first Taiwanese that their classmates have encountered. I’ve told them, ‘We are like diplomats — because we are Taiwanese, we have to set a good example for everyone, and tell them what kind of country Taiwan is.’ ”

As second-generation Taiwanese Japanese straddling two cultures, Lin also made a conscious effort to make Mandarin Chinese — her mother tongue — her children’s first language.

“I read that small children are able to speak four or five languages without difficulty, but that they need one ‘thinking’ language that they can use for all aspects of their lives and deeper cognition. I chose Chinese because it’s my mother language, and because if you don’t learn it young, it’s very difficult to master later. And knowing Chinese can make learning Japanese much easier … because Japanese doesn’t have the difficult tonality of Chinese, and because Japanese poetry and kanji all originate from China.”

The polyglot family speaks a mixture of Chinese and Japanese at home, but reconciling two cultural and linguistic identities does take its toll on her children, admits Lin.

“They think of themselves as completely Japanese, but because their parents are from Taiwan, they do feel very conflicted,” she says. “But I tell them that they are blessed, because they have such a wealth of experience compared to other children in Japan, and by dealing with this inner conflict, they will become more caring people, who can help treat other people experiencing hardship.”

Still, the family has never naturalized as Japanese, since Lin’s husband refuses to give up their Republic of China citizenship. It is now up to her children, she says, to decide whether they want to be officially “Japanese.”


For other members of the community like Khoo, Taiwan remains a focal point of their identity, and many Zainichi Taiwanese have formed sizable community groups that attract interest from even the highest levels of Taiwanese and Japanese politics. Doctors such as Khoo have been perhaps the most active members of the community, and the JTMU has become one of the top Taiwanese civil society organizations in Japan.

Whereas Chinese migrants in Japan are typically engineers, Taiwanese are more generally doctors, says Han, and this trend can be traced back to the colonial period, when to be a doctor was the highest profession Taiwanese people could aspire to under the glass ceiling of empire.

The JTMU has approximately 150 members — all doctors born in Taiwan — and is mainly involved in outreach activities and exchange between Japanese interested in Taiwan and Taiwanese residents. Since its establishment in 2003, the union has also attracted top Japanese politicians to present lectures, says Khoo.

Two of those politicians, current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa, the late former finance minister who was well known for his pro-Taiwan views, show the political pull of the relatively small doctors’ union.

This pull isn’t just limited to Japanese politicians. Along with the Taiwanese Residents Association in Japan and the Zainichi Taiwan Women’s Association, the JTMU helped sponsor a visit to Japan last October by Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, who at that time was the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate. Tsai met with Liberal Democratic Party bigwig Nobuo Kishi — a politician who favors taking a hard line with China — in his Yamaguchi Prefecture electoral district. There were also rumors of a meeting with Kishi’s elder brother, Prime Minister Abe.

According to Han, doctors have also always played a key role in taking the Taidu (Taiwanese independence) movement — which promotes the idea of Taiwan renaming itself the Republic of Taiwan, instead of the Republic of China — overseas.

“They are pro-Taiwan’s independence — very actively,” says Han. “Doctors in Taiwan, Japan and in the United States … are basically one of the main groups that promotes Taiwanese independence.”

According to 32-year-old Michael Huang, a researcher at a prominent Tokyo think tank, it is not only doctors who tend to be in favor of independence. The broader-based Taiwanese Residents Association in Japan is one of the most active organizations, with strong links to activists back in Taiwan.

“In the Taiwanese Residents Association, it is impossible for them to accept people who have a strong identification with China,” Huang explains. “They are pro-Taiwanese independence, and they are in fact one of the leading groups of the Formosan Independence League. They have a very political approach, and it has always been very close to the independence groups in Taiwan, especially during the White Terror period,” Huang says, referring to the period of suppression of political dissent under martial law.

While many Taiwanese in Japan reject the Chinese government’s “One China” principle, according to Huang, there are nevertheless some organizations that successfully link Chinese and Taiwanese in a more cross-Straits setting.

The Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) — the overseas arm of Taiwan’s largest Buddhist order, Fo Guang Shan — attracts members from both the Taiwanese and Chinese communities, but still accommodates some elements of Taiwanese identity, Huang explains.

“I think Chinese represent about 30 percent, but people get along harmoniously,” he says, “but even though people say that Fo Guang is against the promotion of Taiwanese identity, however, the situation in Japan is that it is very pro-Taiwan: The identity is still very strong in this very pan-Chinese group.”

Because of its ability to attract both groups, the Taiwanese Representative Office in Tokyo — Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Japan — makes a concerted effort to connect with the BLIA, says Huang, with the chief representative even known to have driven three hours from Tokyo to Gunma Prefecture just to greet members at events.

“The BLIA also always insists that they need to raise the qingtian bairi qi,” recalls Huang, referring to the flag of the Republic of China. “They never compromise. They never say, ‘Oh, we have Chinese here, let’s not raise the flag.’ ”

Even though the Taiwanese civil groups have to an extent transplanted domestic political and identity discourses into a Japanese setting, at least in the BLIA, says Huang, there is a level of accord between Taiwanese and Chinese members.

“It is a huge group — maybe two or three thousand active members. … I think there you can see harmony between Taiwan and China.”


The differences between Taiwanese and Chinese can also be a source of misunderstanding for Japanese, says Annie Chen, 23, a graduate student of economics at the University of Tokyo, and one of over 8,700 Taiwanese students studying in Japan, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.

“I’ve heard anecdotes about Japanese people not being that friendly to Chinese people,” says Chen. “I have a friend who was involved in an altercation one Friday night in Shinjuku. He was speaking Chinese and I think a drunk salaryman thought they were from China, and they started picking a fight. But apparently, the issue was that the Japanese men thought they were from China and that they were here causing a lot of chaos.”

The different treatment afforded to Taiwanese and Chinese people is not restricted to drunken altercations either, says Chen.

“I have been on trips where I stay at people’s houses and there were Chinese tourists there as well, and I feel the difference in how people treat us,” she says. “When you tell people you are from Taiwan, they immediately warm up and they are friendly, saying they want to visit Taiwan one day. Yet sitting at the same table there are Chinese tourists, and there is barely any interaction.”

Chen explains that there is a perception gap among Japanese regarding China and Taiwan. Whereas Taiwan is viewed as generally pro-Japan — and indeed, surveys show that most Japanese respondents feel an “affinity” with Taiwanese — perceptions of Chinese militarization, and, for example, the disruption of the recent bakugai (“explosive shopping”) phenomenon, create a polarized view of the mainland.

Taiwanese in Japan may not experience the level of discrimination that is sometimes directed at Chinese, but adapting to life in one of the world’s most homogeneous nations is no easy task.

“When people see my name, they know I’m a foreigner,” says Dr. Khoo. “Also when I speak, my intonation is slightly different from Japanese people, so of course people can tell that I’m not Japanese. But I really think that there is no need to change my name or those kinds of aspects of my identity.

“Questions of identity are always difficult,” says Khoo. “I think my feelings toward Japan and Taiwan are about the same. I often identify with Japan. I really love this country.”

Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp