“I told the Japanese ambassador there to read a biography of Shimpei Goto,” Inuhiko Yomota has written from Antananarivo. My distinguished international traveler-scholar friend was in Madagascar’s capital to write a travelogue for the publisher Chikuma.

Shimpei Goto (1857-1929) was one of the outstanding public servants who appeared when Japan emerged on the world stage. A physician by profession, Goto started his government service as quarantine inspector during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and later served as communications minister, home minister and foreign minister.

Goto became chairman of the South Manchurian Railways and head of the Bureau of Trade and Plantations. This was patterned on Great Britain’s office governing colonial affairs. For that matter, most ministries and bureaus in the Japanese government were set up to correspond to those in Britain or other European countries.

While he was mayor of Tokyo (at the time Tokyo was a city), the Great Kanto Earthquake struck in 1923. For the recovery, Goto came up with grand urban planning. But Japan didn’t have enough resources and his plans had to be scaled down.

For all this, Goto is best remembered for his accomplishments in Taiwan, which Japan acquired following the Sino-Japanese War. Appointed civil administrator there in 1898, he introduced and pushed large-scale modernization in many fields at once, beginning with eradication of opium addiction that was as rampant in that land as it was in China.

Goto worked to improve hygiene and sanitation. He undertook the building of infrastructure, introduced modern banking, expanded agriculture, water supply and irrigation, and promoted industrialization and education.

His efforts were so successful that Taiwan stopped needing colonial subsidies from Japan before he left his post in 1906. Some had argued at the outset this “colonial management” would be too costly for poor Japan, and that Japan should sell Taiwan to France, which wanted to buy it.

It was because of Goto’s successes that Yomota advised the Japanese ambassador to Madagascar to read a book or two about him. No, Madagascar was never Japan’s colony. It was France’s, from 1896 to 1960. Yomota’s point was that France had done little to help Madagascar to develop infrastructure or any means of modernization.

However, this is not to suggest in any way that either Goto or Japan brought an idyllic state to Taiwan as a colony. As Kiyoshi Ito stresses in “Taiwan” (1993) — a history of the island from the time the Portuguese sailors “discovered” it in 1544 and called it Ilha Formosa until after Lee Teng-hui became its first directly elected president in 1988 — “colonial management is not a ‘charitable enterprise’ based on love of mankind.”

Ito, born Liu Ming-xiu in Taiwan in 1937, had graduated from National Chung Hsing University before he went to the University of Tokyo for a Ph.D. and was naturalized in Japan. Any territorial acquisition through military force invites resistance, he emphasizes.

So, even as Goto promoted modernization by inviting eminent scholars and specialists in various fields to help him — among them the agronomist Inazo Nitobe from the United States, famed for “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” — he pursued what Ito calls an “iron policy,” apparently referring to “the iron chancellor” Otto von Bismarck. Goto was particularly ruthless in suppressing dohi (tufei in Chinese), “native bandits,” and executed more than 3,000 of them in the five years it took to suppress them.

He recognized that these dohi included “lovers of their land” — patriots. In that sense, these were the equivalents of modern-day “terrorists,” “rebels,” “insurgents,” “militants” — all names the U.S. has concocted for those Iraqis who refused to welcome the invasion in 2003 and its rule that followed.

Ito goes on to point out that Japan’s approach to Taiwan was called “police administration,” and that to Korea, which it annexed in 1910, “military police administration.”

Still, “denying ‘modernization under colonialism’ from the viewpoint of ‘colonial rule is evil’ ” is also wrong, Ito argues, adding this is why he “emphasizes ‘modernization under colonial rule” in describing Taiwan.

It was none other than the Kuomintang that paid the greatest praise to Japan’s accomplishments in modernizing Taiwan, Ito says. The Kuomintang, at the time in a state of war with Japan, sent a mission when the governor-general of Taiwan mounted an exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the office’s governance in 1935 and wrote a laudatory 12-point report.

But after its takeover of Taiwan following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Kuomintang condemned Japan’s education, for one, for “having turned the Taiwanese into slaves.” Education in Taiwan, in fact, had made great strides. Enrollment rates reached 92.5 percent in 1944, probably among the highest in the world at the time.

We may say something similar about Korea under Japanese rule, George Akita and Brandon Palmer show in “The Japanese Colonial Legacy in Korea: 1910-1945” (MerwinAsia, 2015). A historiography, rather than a straightforward history, their book analyzes divergent interpretations of various developments and concludes that Japan’s rule of Korea was “moderate.”

Korea and Taiwan were different, of course. Korea was a proud nation, though China’s tributary; Taiwan was a Chinese province that the Qing Dynasty had not been really interested in governing.

There were other differences. For example, around 1900 Russia wanted Korea as much as Japan did, whereas no one really wanted Taiwan. So, suppose Russia, not Japan, had annexed Korea. The prominent Korean academic and public servant Han Sung-joo posited this supposition, but he was forced to resign from Koryo (Korea) University for making this and some other politically incorrect observations, Akita and Palmer report.

I agree with Ito, as well as Akita and Palmer. But I also think of Tanzan Ishibashi’s observation when the 3.1 Uprising for Independence in Korea in 1919 was suppressed. Ishibashi, whose tenure as prime minister from 1956 to 1957 was brief because of illness, maintained liberal views from the outset of his career as a social commentator.

“Which nation in history has ever been happy to be a vassal state?,” he asked, and predicted that “Koreans would continue to resist Japan’s rule until regaining their independence.”

Many decades since the “liberation” from Japan in 1945, you can say the Koreans still rankle over Japan’s annexation.

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator based in New York.

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