TAIPEI – Asia is brimming with exciting travel destinations. Each country is like a world unto itself, with new languages and customs to learn, food to try and experiences to have.
Like everyone else, Japanese take vacations for any number of reasons, but the majority seem to prefer sticking to what feels comfortable over seeking adventure. Most want something low-key, a place to relax and let their hair down — but finding the right spot can present difficulties.
Guam is all right, though it can feel at times like a U.S. military base with better shopping malls, and although Singapore is nice, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on a business trip. China and South Korea, both fascinating destinations, carry for some Japanese a tinge of discomfort stemming from ongoing disputes over Japan’s past military aggression.
Even travel within Japan can have its problems. Northern Hokkaido brings the territorial dispute with Russia to mind, while the Okinawa Islands remind one of the ongoing issues there with U.S. military bases. It’s no wonder why so many Japanese, especially millennials, who tend to be more aware and sensitive about such issues than their parents, often avoid Asia as a travel destination.
The exception to this seeming rule, however, is Taiwan. Situated a few hundred kilometers southwest of the Okinawa archipelago, Taiwan was Japanese soil for about five decades until the end of WWII. Amazingly, this is the one country where the Japanese imperialists managed to do more good than harm when they colonized it in 1895.
The man behind much of the change in Taiwan in the colonial years was Shimpei Goto, an upper-crust bureaucrat who acted as deputy governor of the island and remains a popular figure there today. Goto, who later became Japan’s foreign minister, stamped out opium in Taiwan, while building schools and hospitals and the bones of modern infrastructure. He also oversaw construction of the wide, tree-lined streets that became a symbol of Taiwan’s modernization and prosperity.
By all accounts, Goto was several cuts above the typical, oppressive and militaristic Japanese bureaucrat — he was a liberal with a Western democratic slant who had a genuine love for and interest in the people and culture of Taiwan. Thanks in part to Goto, Taiwanese seem to have a soft spot for Japan and the Japanese.
On the streets of Taipei and Tainan, there’s evidence of that soft spot everywhere: in the bilingual store signs written in both Mandarin and Japanese, the number of restaurants advertising nisshiki (Japanese style) dishes, and the way everyone seems to go out of their way to be friendly to Japanese tourists.
Traces of Goto’s legacy are visible in Taipei, especially its surrounding areas: The wide, vehicle-friendly streets are crammed with Japanese scooters, and the Office of the President of the Republic of China occupies the exact same building used by the governor general of Japan until 1945.
Interestingly, when Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan on the heels of the Communist victory in China in 1949, one of the first things he did was restore this structure — which had been bombed by the Allies but was still standing — to its former glory. Although Chiang had fought the Japanese Army in China long and hard, apparently he had no interest in demolishing the work of Japanese imperialists in Taiwan. This is the reason why many old Japanese buildings in Taiwan are still in use, and they stand as a testament to Japanese architecture from a time when Japan was trying to catch up to the West and hybrid was the name of the game in heavy industry, engineering and architecture. Similar examples in Tokyo are rare, but in Taipei, pieces of Japanese history have survived the war as well as the tides of time.
These days, it’s not uncommon for elderly men and women to approach Japanese tourists and start speaking in Japanese, and many still recall a time when every Taiwanese citizen could speak at least the basics of the language. Meanwhile, Japanese video games, manga and books are prominently displayed in malls and stores, and the No. 1 film sensation of late 2016 was “Your Name.,” the mega-hit animation by Makoto Shinkai. “Your Name.” broke box office records across Taiwan, selling more tickets than “Ring,” another beloved Japanese movie.
Japanese culture is so ubiquitous, in fact, that Taiwan can seem a bit like a parallel universe. Compare the experience to parts of Okinawa, where many elderly people retain bitter memories of how, at the end of WWII, the Japanese Imperial Army ordered civilians to commit suicide in the event of an American invasion, then promptly fled the area. With a whiff of such bad history still in the air, it can be hard for a mainland Japanese to break the ice and start communicating with local people, and in many ways, Okinawa feels like a foreign country. Taiwan, by contrast, feels somehow familiar, and more than 12,000 Japanese now live in Taipei.
The feeling appears to be mutual. Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, a renowned Japanophile, has even made a film in Japanese (“Cafe Lumiere,” 2003), dedicating it to director Yasujiro Ozu. And the late Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Edward Yang once said to me in an interview: “Some of my favorite places to hang out are in Japan. I feel such an affinity to Japanese culture which is not surprising because most Taiwanese feel the same way.”
“Japan is a lovely country,” said a woman in her 80s who gave her name as Miao. “I was taught by Japanese teachers and as a child, I played with Japanese friends. They were all so polite, and very disciplined.” Miao smiled,and took up my hand as she spoke in perfect Japanese. She added that she made it a habit to talk to Japanese tourists, “so as not to forget the language.” In Asia, it’s very rare for a Japanese to be on the receiving end of such benevolence.
This is probably why 1.89 million Japanese people chose to visit Taiwan in 2016, according to travel agency JTB, especially women who travel in small groups or, increasingly, solo. Mitsuko Ohtake, who works for a government agency in Tokyo, says she tries to visit Taiwan every other month. “It’s less than a three-hour plane ride from Tokyo and everything is cheaper than in Japan,” explained Ohtake. “The place is so relaxing for me, because I don’t feel obligated to think about history or having to be a certain way so as not to offend anyone.”
Ohtake is even thinking about retiring in Taipei. “There’s a sense of community in Taiwan that Japan lost long ago,” she said, “and even though I’m traveling alone, I never feel lonely or isolated, whereas in Tokyo, it’s the other way around.”
Youki Tsunoda, 32, who works for a Japanese electronics manufacturer, is a recent Taiwan transplant. His firm, which was based in Kumamoto, transferred Tsunoda to their Tainan factory after the earthquakes last year. Initially crestfallen about leaving his home city, now Tsunoda finds his new environment so comfortable that he’s horrified at the thought of returning to Japan. “I’m gay, and that was a pretty miserable predicament for me when I was living in Kumamoto,” he said. “I couldn’t find a partner and I knew my family would never understand. But life in Tainan was a complete game-changer.”
Tsunoda now has a Taiwanese boyfriend who’s teaching him the language, and they can be open about their relationship without feeling like outcasts. “In many ways, Taiwan is a lot more liberal than Japan,” said Tsunoda. “I feel that I’m more valued as a human being, and my sexual orientation doesn’t matter. People don’t care about rules so much here. In Japan things are harsher, everything is more rigid.”
Who knew that the seeds of goodwill planted by a Japanese bureaucrat would someday provide an escape hatch for Japanese who are tired of life in Japan, or of being Japanese? Personally, I’m ready to buy a plane ticket for Taipei immediately.