National / History

Old film and hopeful letter help reunite Japanese teacher, 106, with former students in Taiwan

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Or so said Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who argued that people often don’t see things in the world until an artist shows it to them.

This seems to be what occurred last February when postal workers in central Taiwan’s Wurih district received a letter mailed from Japan to a nonexistent address in their area.

Rather than return the letter, supervisor Chen Huei-tse asked his deliverymen to ignore the usual procedure and try to locate the intended recipient.

Chen had seen the 2008 Taiwanese film “Cape No. 7,” in which a long-lost box of letters turns up at a post office in southern Taiwan.

Written by a Japanese man, now deceased, to the Taiwanese sweetheart he left behind when he was repatriated after World War II, the letters are finally delivered thanks to the efforts of a post office employee who seemed to know that more was at stake in finding the woman than simply discharging his letter-carrying duties.

So, as Wilde suggested, when a similar object arrived in Chen’s office, he recognized the possibilities.

“It is the Taichung version of ‘Cape No. 7,’ ” Chen said, referring to the county in which Wurih is located.

Some had their doubts. But Chen’s men did as requested, and two weeks later they succeeded in finding the letter’s intended recipient, Yang Han-tsong.

Yang, 88, was in a nursing home, however, and neither he nor his son, Yang Ben-ron, could read Japanese.

So again, the letter sat on a table, largely forgotten, mixed with the usual pile of bills and advertising fliers that arrive every day in the mail.

Then in mid-March, Yang Han-tsong’s granddaughter found someone who knew Japanese, and in a few minutes, Chen was vindicated.

The letter was from a 106-year-old Japanese woman in Kumamoto Prefecture who, like the man in “Cape No. 7,” had lived in Taiwan when it was under Japanese colonial rule.

Namie Takaki came to the island with her family when she was 6 years old. Later she graduated from Taichung First Girls’ High School, and between 1929 and 1939 she taught at Wurih Elementary School.

Yang Han-tsong was one of her students.

While still in Taiwan, Takaki married and started a family of her own. Her daughter, Keiko Takaki, remembers her childhood in Taichung where she and a younger brother learned to speak Taiwanese.

Like many who made Taiwan their home during the 50 years of Japanese rule, Takaki and her family left after the war. It was a sad time, especially for those who were raised on the island.

In Japan, her husband became a public servant. She had another child and became a full-time housewife.

Takaki never returned to Taiwan. But as the decades slipped by, she often thought of her young students, wondering where they were and what they were doing.

Ironically, it was another Taiwanese movie that convinced her to turn daydreams into action, specifically, the 2014 film “KANO,” the true story of a Taiwanese high school baseball team in the 1930s.

Recalling how much she enjoyed baseball in Taiwan, Takaki asked Keiko to write to the older Yang, who was listed in documents she had saved as the class leader in 1935.

While the address they had was long gone, Chen’s effort made the connection.

After receiving Takaki’s letter, Yang Ben-ron set out to find as many of his father’s old classmates as he could.

As many as 23 were eventually located, of whom many sent letters and photos to Takaki.

All remember her as a devoted teacher.

“Back then we had to pay absolute respect to teachers,” said Yang Er-tsong, 88. “We couldn’t even step on their shadows.”

But Takaki was different. “She loved children and did not hesitate to show her affection,” he said.

Coming from a poor family, Yang said his parents could not afford to buy proper clothes. So seeing him shivering from the cold one day, Takaki gave him a winter jacket.

“I never missed a class during the six years at school,” he said proudly. “Because of her, I liked studying and did well at school.”

Chen Bai-sha, also 88, said Takaki taught her and other girls to sew tablecloths and other household items. They also made kimonos and wore them on graduation day, she recalled.

Originally, the teacher and students planned to visit, but age prevented many from traveling.

Chen Huei-tse then got the idea of holding a video conference, which occurred thanks to the sponsorship of the Japanese company V-CUBE and the Taichung City Government.

“It may be the last time they have the opportunity to see each other,” Chen said.

In addition to Takaki’s students and their families, Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung attended the video reunion, proposing that Taichung and Kumamoto Prefecture become sister cities.

Current Wurih Elementary School students also attended, and Takaki sang along when they performed the school’s anthem from the Japanese period, which they learned for the occasion.

When told that one of her former students had recently passed away, Takaki joined her hands together in prayer.

On his role in bringing the reunion about, Chen likened himself to a swordsman in Chinese martial arts literature. As the oldest child in his family, he said he feels it is his duty to aid the weak, and he does not hesitate to “draw a sword and render help in time of need.”

But for help to be given, a need must be recognized, and Chen’s sharp eye last February was a result of “Cape No. 7,” a Taiwanese film that broke box office records by showing audiences that bonds established long ago between Japan and Taiwan endure despite the passing of years and generations.