“The Tanakas are lovely people doing a horrible thing.”

Who are the Tanakas? Fictional characters, in a Taiwanese novel of the 1930s.

Taiwan is Japan’s forgotten colony. South Korea and China keep alive their own memories — and by extension Japan’s — of what they suffered under Japanese rule for half a century prior to 1945.

Taiwan is different. It harbors less of a grudge. It seems more willing to let bygones be bygones. And yet Taiwan was Japan’s first overseas colony, its maiden stab at imitating the imperial expansionism of the great Western powers whose ranks it longed to join.

Japan, newly “civilized” after Western incursions in the 1850s forced it to modernize or else be colonized, was full of restless spirits. Samurai divested of their former dignity needed new fields of enterprise. Commerce, industry, politics — were they not enough? No more in Japan than in the West. A great nation needed colonies, otherwise it was not a great nation.

Conflicting claims in Korea led to war with China in 1894. In 1895, Japan was victorious. Taiwan was the prize. Lafcadio Hearn, Japan’s first modern expatriate chronicler, wrote at the time: “The real birthday of New Japan began with the conquest of China. The war is ended; the future, though clouded, seems big with promise. … Japan has neither fears nor doubts. Perhaps the future danger is just in this immense self-confidence.”

He spoke more truly than he knew.

Civilization is a mixed blessing. It fulfils many desires, and arouses many more. One is the desire to impose it on, or teach it to, others. Another is a yearning for lost savagery. Why can’t we be both savage and civilized at the same time? Maybe we can — as colonizers.

Historian Faye Yuan Kleeman, in her 2003 book “Under an Imperial Sun: Japanese Colonial Literature of Taiwan and the South,” recreates a more or less forgotten era via more or less forgotten sources: novels and short stories by Japanese and Taiwanese writers who lived imperialism, felt it and responded to it, often in unexpected ways, for the Taiwanese were not simply “oppressed” and the Japanese were not simply “oppressors.” The Tanakas, who figure in a 1942 story titled “Neighbor” by Taiwanese novelist Lu Heruo (1914-51), reflect some of the complexities involved.

They are truly, as Kleeman says, “lovely people.” They live in a provincial Taiwanese town and are on the friendliest terms with their Taiwanese neighbors. The “horrible thing” they do is, being childless, persuade the couple next door to give them their youngest of six children, a 3-year-old boy. Economically pressed, the Taiwanese mother agrees, and then regrets it. Her anguish when, some months later, she visits the Tanakas and the child fails to recognize her, symbolizes the evil inherent in any power relationship. The weak are inevitably victims of the strong; the strong inevitably victimize the weak, even when doing their very best to do good.

Japan’s romance with tropical landscapes, Kleeman shows, goes back at least to the 1870s. It fed a new literary genre of adventure stories unfolding on fantastic jungle islands populated by savage tribal warriors, beautiful tribal maidens, cannibals, headhunters, African elephants, desert camels — whatever the imagination or the subconscious served up, all the exotica a nation with its shoulder pressed to the grindstone of civilization secretly longs for.

Taiwan at the time had a mixed population of highly literate ethnic Chinese and indigenous tribespeople.

The latter were grouped by the new Japanese administration into two categories: “raw barbarians” and “cooked barbarians” — untamed and tame, respectively. The “barbarians” aroused horror but also, simultaneously, envy. “In order to colonize this island we must conquer the barbarians,” noted the first Japanese governor-general.

Yes, but what about the barbarian latent in our civilized selves? That’s the question implicitly raised by novelist Taku Oshika (1898-1959) in “The Barbarians” (1935), about a tribal revolt, one of many, that broke out in 1920. The protagonist, Tazawa, suddenly “goes native.” He kills, decapitates, rapes — not driven mad by the violence around him but liberated by it. Never before had he lived so intensely! Never before had he “breathed the naked wildness.” Civilized life can seem like death in comparison.

Revolt is an occupational hazard of imperialism. The imperial power may think of itself as engaged in a civilizing mission; inevitably, some beneficiaries will resent the yoke more than they appreciate the enlightenment. So it was in Taiwan. The first uprising was on New Year’s Day 1896, barely six months after the founding, in the Taipei suburb of Zhishanyan, of the first ever Japanese-language school outside Japan. Six teachers were slaughtered. Undaunted, the authorities marked the site with a Shinto shrine — Taiwan’s first — dedicated to the “Zhishanyan spirit” of self-sacrifice in a just and worthy cause.

The civilizing mission proceeded. So did the revolts. The worst of them was the Musha Rebellion of 1930, which opened with the tribal massacre of 136 Japanese and took 3,000 Japanese soldiers — plus, allegedly, planes dropping poison gas — to quell.

What conclusion shall we draw? None, if we are wise, for Taiwan’s heart was not whole. The Japanese were occupiers and oppressors, but Japan was rich and Taiwan poor; Japan was on the march and Taiwan stagnant. To some Taiwanese, occupation and oppression were acceptable prices to pay for what Japan had to offer: civilization.

In the 1941 short story “Water Cancer,” by novelist Zhou Jinpo, a young Taiwanese muses wistfully: “Is it that difficult to be a Japanese? I do not think so. … Is one not a Japanese when one … kowtows before the Yasukuni Shrine?”

Part one of a two-part series on “Imperial Japan.” The second part will be published on Sunday, May 18. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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