TAIPEI – Japanese who lived in Taiwan during a 50-year period of colonial rule ultimately weren’t given a choice after the end of World War II: They were forced to repatriate to a country many hadn’t stepped foot in for decades, if ever.
Altogether, over 300,000 returned to Japan in the postwar years and the estimated 80,000 who were born in Taiwan during the occupation became known as wansheng (Taiwan-born).
Their story began in 1909, when the Japanese government started relocating large numbers of its citizens to Taiwan under a systematic migration policy.
Japan’s goal was both economic and political. In addition to easing tensions at home caused by overpopulation and the scarcity of land, increasing Japanese numbers in Taiwan consolidated its rule, said Chang Su-bing, a Taiwan history professor at National Taiwan Normal University.
Taiwanese were also encouraged to adopt Japanese culture and customs, making Taiwan a base for further colonization in Asia.
Policies were adopted to achieve these goals. With the exception of administrators, military personnel and other professionals, government-sponsored migrants were expected to engage in agriculture. They were also required to bring their families and settle in communities that would set an example for Taiwanese.
By the end of World War II, there were at least 20 such towns across Taiwan, which in the beginning were concentrated on the east coast, where abundant land and a limited population meant colonists would not have to compete with greater numbers of Han Chinese elsewhere.
Yet even with free land, life was hard. In places like the village of Yoshino in Hualien County, Taiwan’s first Japanese settlement, colonists struggled in the face of natural disasters, poor sanitation, hunger, disease and aboriginal conflict.
Interviews conducted in 1928 by the Hualien regional administration bear testament to the struggle of the migrants.
Haruzo Kuwabara, who arrived from Tokushima Prefecture with his family in 1910, saw the settlement destroyed by a typhoon two years later, killing many, including his father.
Another migrant, Yaota Asanuma, who arrived in 1913, lost his house in the village of Toyoda, after which illness claimed his grandfather, father, two children and other relatives.
A third, Jokichi Kusama, arrived from Niigata Prefecture in 1910 and was among the first agricultural immigrants to settle. While looking for cheap land, what he found was malaria and starvation, with no medicine, no doctors and no help from local officials.
“Life was hell,” he said. “I could not help but weep when I thought about my hometown.”
While some borrowed money to return to Japan, most could not.
For those who survived, toil and sacrifice led to modest improvements in farming rice and sugar cane on small individual allotments of land.
“Looking at my rice fields … I thought they were as beautiful as heaven,” Kuwabara recalled of the changes that he and his family realized after a decade of work.
By the 1930s, most enjoyed a good life with excellent prospects for the future.
Then came the war, which brought material appropriations, military service, and finally repatriation. Departure was initially voluntary and many opted to stay. But in time, Taiwan’s nationalist government deported all remaining wansheng, in part for their own security.
“They arrived in Japan penniless,” said Chung Shu-min, a researcher at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History. “And thinking they would someday return to Taiwan, they left almost everything behind.”
But none returned, and the wansheng again became outsiders, this time in their own supposed homeland. Burdened by the country’s postwar difficulties, Japanese marginalized the new arrivals and forced many into new migrant towns.
It is not surprising, then, that many continued to regard Taiwan as home long after they departed.
As Tokyo resident Nobuko Takenaka put it, “After Japan lost the war, we were set adrift, but our feelings for Taiwan have not diminished at all.”
Born in 1930 in Taiwan’s Suao township, Takenaka was a teenager when she left, so while going away was painful, her material losses were small.
This was not the case for painter Tetsuomi Tateishi, who was 40 when the war ended. He was forced to abandon a substantial body of finished work, curtailing what had once been a promising career.
Yet the worst affected were farmers from villages like Yoshino and Toyoda, whose age made starting anew a daunting prospect.
Their losses were profound: land wrested from the bleak eastern coast of Taiwan, soil nurtured for decades into productivity, and their homes. Also left behind were temples, schools built by residents, and cemeteries, where generations of family members lay buried.
In February, the Tainan City Government released a documentary titled “Tainan Stories” about those who repatriated to Japan. The film was also screened in Osaka in April.
“As time passes and wansheng numbers decline, we’re afraid they will one day be forgotten,” said Lin Chien-hsien, deputy head of the city’s Department of Information and International Relations.
Lin hopes the film will attract visitors interested in Japanese history on the island — and not just tourists from Japan.
The plight of the wansheng has long attracted attention from Taiwanese artists, writers, and particularly filmmakers.
Past cinematic productions include Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 art house masterpiece “City of Sadness,” Wei Te-sheng’s 2008 box office phenomenon “Cape. No. 7,” as well as the 2015 documentary “Wansei Back Home” directed by Huang Ming-cheng.
In films like “Wansei Back Home” and “Tainan Stories,” those still able to visit the land of their birth relate memories not of struggle, but of childhood, which if sometimes nostalgic, are no less moving.
Hisae Yoshiga remembers eating caramel pudding at Tainan’s Hayashi Department Store, where her father worked as a manager.
Yoshiga left in 1945 when she was 10. Returning in 2016, she visited the same department store, still open today, and relished the pudding she remembered from her youth.
Born in Hualien in 1927, Masaru Tominaga still sings an old Taiwanese folk song he learned as a boy.
Tominaga wept in 2013 when a Hualien official gave him a household registration card to show that he did once live in the city.
The same year, 81-year-old Kosei Matsumoto, also from Hualien, visited his former school, where he sang the national anthem.
His daughter who accompanied him said she could never understand why her father missed Taiwan so much.
Now, however, she says she does.