PINGTUNG, Taiwan – Marking the bloody Mudan Village Incident, a group of natives who have been taught to remain silent over many generations now want to have their say on the story of the first Japanese expedition to reach “Formosa” after the Meiji Restoration.
Their ambition is not to rewrite history or obtain compensation.
All they want, they say, is to restore the reputation of their tribe and to console the lonely souls of brave warriors.
In December 1871, a ship from the Ryukyu Kingdom, now known as Okinawa Prefecture, carrying a crew of 66 from Miyako Island ran aground near the southern tip of Taiwan.
The mariners, badly shaken, accidentally stumbled upon the independently ruled territory of Mudan, where the Paiwan aboriginals dwelt. Although the natives were stunned by the intrusion, they sheltered the aliens and gave them food and water.
But the Okinawans were too frightened to enjoy their hospitality and decided to run away in the darkness. The inexplicable escape scared the hosts, who chased the “qalja” (strangers) from the mountains and down to the flats.
A violent clash between the sides broke out, and 54 Okinawans were beheaded. The remaining 12 were rescued by Han settlers.
The fight was not publicized until the survivors went home several months later.
“Recent reports from Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture) of a cannibalization incident in Taiwan have made high-level Japanese authorities extremely horrified,” said a Japan Gazette story reprinted by the then Shanghai-based North China Herald.
At first, the Japanese authorities sought to solve the issue through diplomatic channels. But the Qing Dynasty, which had had only nominal control of Taiwan, declined to take full responsibility for what was done by “uncivilized people in outer fringes of the Han civilization.”
The incident had serious repercussions.
Under the pretext of protecting its “nationals,” a contingent of 3,600 soldiers led by Saigo Tsugumichi came to Pingtung in 1874 to punish the “barbarians” for slaughtering the Ryukyu residents.
It is said that a fierce battle erupted as the Japanese soldiers hiked along a river toward a precipitous valley where they confronted the aboriginals, leaving six Japanese and 16 aboriginals dead.
Another large attack followed, ravaging several other remote hamlets and killing dozens of local inhabitants.
“From our perspective, cultural shock and misunderstanding led to the assaults,” historian Valjluk Mavaliu (Hua Ah-cai in Chinese) said, judging from oral histories handed down from the tribe’s elders.
The outcome shocked the Qing Dynasty. Foreseeing Japan’s interest in Taiwan, it began deploying more than 10,000 troops to the island but avoided direct conflict with the Japanese military.
Meanwhile, the government, afraid of inciting Japan’s wrath, tried to settle its diplomatic rows by consenting to Japanese demands to pay an indemnity for the castaways’ decapitation and take punitive action against the natives.
It also acknowledged that Japan’s expedition was to obtain justice for its “citizens,” which was tantamount to legitimatizing Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands, which had paid tribute to China for centuries.
“The importance of the Mudan Village Incident is that it changed (Taiwan’s) fate and reshaped the political landscape in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Huang Chih-Huei, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology of Academia Sinica. “Unfortunately, it has hardly been brought up here on the island for decades.”
A few years ago, some in Mudan’s younger generation decided to break the silence.
Praying to long-forgotten forefathers for understanding, they explored the mysterious, deserted land, aiming to find clues that could help regain the tribe’s dignity and respect.