New York – Recently I was asked to translate into English a short story that the Taiwanese writer Chou Chin-bo wrote in Japanese back in 1941. I was happy with this request. I was born in Taipei in 1942, but ever since my family was forced out of the island upon Japan’s defeat in the war, in 1945, I have never really had anything to do with Taiwan.
If there was one exception in the past 70 years, it occurred a dozen years ago when Sallie Huang got in touch with me to ask for my help with the Japanese-language part of the trilingual pamphlet she was writing (the two others were English and Chinese).
At the time China’s insistence that Taiwan was part of its sovereignty was reaching another danger point, and Huang argued that China got its history all wrong. (“Grass-root case for independent Taiwan,” JT, Dec 27, 2004).
Chou’s story in question, “The Volunteer” (Shiganhei), so radically reflects the popular sentiments in Taiwan circa 1940 — at least one segment thereof — that a bit of historical background may be called for.
Taiwan became Japan’s colony in 1895. The island was one of the territories Japan demanded from China and got, following its war against it. About this, Huang pointed out an interesting story that China is unlikely to give in its modern history.
Li Hongzhang, China’s viceroy and minister who negotiated the settlement with Japan, was privately happy to get rid of Taiwan as an epidemic-ridden island where some indigenous tribes still practiced headhunting. In fact, the Japanese military lost far greater numbers of people during “the pacification of Taiwan” from disease than during the direct fights with China.
That didn’t change the fact that Japan’s possession of Taiwan was its imperialist act. But imperialism prevailed at the time. Japan itself was forced to end its semi-isolationist policy lasting more than 200 years because of the imperialist powers vying in East Asia.
Even as the British and Dutch empires continued to expand their stakes in South Asia, France took over much of modern-day Vietnam to set up French Indochina, in 1887, then added Laos to its Asian colonies in 1893.
The United States wasn’t far behind. In 1898 it wrested the Philippines from Spain, then followed it with the infamously brutal suppression of insurgents.
Like any colonizer nation, Japan met resistance and revolts, and the Taiwanese efforts for greater autonomy and independence continued until Japan suppressed them in the late 1930s.
A colony necessarily draws immigrants from the sovereignty nation seeking jobs and other opportunities. My father was typical. In the chronic recession of the 1920s he couldn’t find a job that suited him.
So he asked his father if he could move to Taiwan. His father, a cop in a small village, told him, “Sure, but I can give you only a one-way ticket.”
My father found Taiwan also in economic difficulties and couldn’t land a job until he gained a spot in the police after a fiercely competitive exam. In time he was sent to the Police College in Tokyo, graduated near the top, and joined the Special Higher Police.
Colonials also move to the colonizer country. Our writer Chou Chin-bo may be a good example. He was born in 1920, in Keelung, the important northern port town of Taiwan, but his parents apparently moved to Tokyo in his infancy. Chou was educated there, and graduated from the dental college of the Nihon University.
One estimate of the number of Taiwanese who went to Japan for higher education put the cumulative total of 200,000 in 1945. In contrast, Japanese civilians who had to leave Taiwan after Japan’s defeat is put at 320,000.
In the latter half of the 1930s, Japan pushed a Japanization policy in Taiwan. Called kouminka, “turning colony people into the Emperor’s people,” it included promotion of the use of the Japanese language in schools as well as in homes, and the adoption of Japanese customs and Shintoism.
My mother was a schoolteacher and thus may well have been part of the kouminka efforts, though I never asked her exactly when her own family moved to Taiwan.
Changing surnames to Japanese-sounding names wasn’t promoted, unlike in Korea. But some Taiwanese changed their names, believing that doing so would help their social advancement.
In June 1941 the Japanese military announced it was accepting volunteers in Taiwan starting the next year.
Chou’s short story “The Volunteer” — written in Japanese, to remind — reflects all these developments in acute fashion, and more: the persisting sense among the Taiwanese that they were culturally, socially, behind Japan. This unbalanced relationship, I assume, is what happens between sovereignty and colony.
Its narrator is someone who had received higher education in Tokyo eight years earlier, and now back in Keelung. When the story begins, he is now out in the port to welcome his younger brother-in-law returning from Tokyo after studying there for three years. Both are, you may assume, the author’s alter egos.
The third character is the brother-in-law’s friend, who hasn’t gone beyond junior high school and hasn’t visited Japan. Still, the narrator compliments him on his Japanese, here called kokugo, “the national language,” as Japanese is called in Japan even to this day.
These three young men mainly discuss the pressing concerns as they relate to Japan: Taiwanese becoming “the Emperor’s people”; Taiwanese Japanizing their surnames; and the volunteer system that Japanese military are considering. In fact, the brother-in-law’s friend has already changed his surname from Taka — the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese gao — to Takamine. In addition, he claps his hands in praying at a Shinto shrine the Japanese way.
And it is this young man, Takamine, who startles his friends by submitting to the army a volunteer application with a blood oath, neither demanded nor warranted.
This theme of “The Volunteer” evident in these descriptions was found to be too pro-Japanese after Japan’s defeat, and Chou became a literary “taboo,” condemned as a “kouminka writer,” under Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Thus Chou became one of the victims for having been on the losing side, albeit in a colony. Did Japan’s colonization of Taiwan harm the island’s development and its postwar relations to Japan?
Perhaps not. One clue for this may be the opinion surveys taken in Taiwan in recent decades. In many, the island’s people have ranked Japan as the most friendly and closest among the nations. Some explicitly say the Japanese colonization was beneficial to Taiwan.
But there is a caveat about such retrospective judgments. These may depend to a large extent on what happens after the colonizer nation leaves — in this instance, the Kuomintang regime that did not enjoy too good a reputation.
A frequent contributor to The Japan Times, Hiroaki Sato is a poet, translator and essayist who lives in New York City.