Commentary / Japan

Returning from Taiwan after Japan’s defeat

by Hiroaki Sato

Special To The Japan Times

August is the month to remember the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s surrender that followed. As it happens, my mother and her four children, including me, who were refugees from Taiwan following Japan’s defeat, landed in Hiroshima in April 1946, and, in less than two years, moved to Nagasaki.

Not that my family was affected by atomic radiation effects in any direct way as we know it. Otake port in Hiroshima, where we landed, is a little north of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and 27 km southwest of ground zero in Hiroshima. Tobishima, a tiny island in northern Nagasaki Prefecture, where we moved from my father’s hometown in southern Fukuoka following our stay in Hiroshima, is 70 km north of Nagasaki’s ground zero.

But I thought of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Japan’s defeat because Sumiko, my niece in Kitakyushu, sent me my mother’s old resume. Just by simply giving the date and place of birth, a list of jobs, and repatriation from Taiwan, the resume shows how entwined my family was with Japan’s history after it plunged into the imperialist contest in the late 19th century.

For one thing, I had long thought that my mother, Michiko, went to Taiwan as an adult and became a schoolteacher, just as my father, Masao, moved there as an adult and became a policeman. Instead, I learned that she was born there and studied to become a teacher.

Japan took Taiwan after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. A Taiwanese friend of mine who wrote a short history of China-Taiwan relations noted that China’s Li Hongzhang, who negotiated the surrender terms with Japan’s Hirobumi Ito, was happy to cede Taiwan to Japan. China, which had begun seriously to administer the island as a province only a decade earlier, regarded it as “barbaric.”

It may have been around 1906 when Japan completed the first round of the modernization of the colony, emphasizing hygiene, sanitation, industrialization and education, that Michiko’s father (perhaps with his spouse) migrated there from Kagoshima. It was in December 1910 that she was born in Anping, Tainan City, her resume says. She went to the Tainan First Girl’s Higher School. Called the National Tainan Girl’s Senior High School today, it does not reject its origins; its website shows the original Japanese school song, alongside its current one in Chinese.

In 1929, Michiko graduated from the First Normal School in Taipei, today’s National Taipei University of Education, and became a teacher at a public school. Here what I’ve given as “public school,” ko-gakko, was the elementary school for Taiwanese children, as the school for Japanese children was called sho-gakko, though the distinction was later erased, to be called “people school,” kokumin-gakko, in imitation of Volksschule. The Governor-General’s Office promoted education earnestly. By the early 1940s, the school attendance rate in Taiwan was over 70 percent — about the same as the U.S. at the time.

In 1937, Michiko married Masao. Masao was born in 1908 in a village in southern Fukuoka. Unable to find any suitable job after high school, he got a one-way ticket to Taiwan from his father. Japan was going through prolonged economic doldrums for some years before the U.S. stock market crash in 1929. Taiwan was in no better economic condition, but he finally landed a job on the police force. Advancing quickly, he was sent to the Police Academy in Tokyo and became an officer of the Special Higher Police.

From 1937 to 1942, Michiko stayed out of teaching, evidently to give birth to children. She resumed teaching just 10 days after I was born, her resume shows. In the meantime, Michiko and Masao had moved to Guanshan, Taitung, probably because Masao was assigned there.

Soon after their marriage, the China Incident occurred, later called the Second Sino-Japanese War. One of Masao’s younger brothers would be drafted, seriously wounded, and die of the wounds a month before I was born. A few months after my birth, Masao was sent to Java, suddenly becoming a colonial administrator with 12 servants in a newly acquired land.

Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. In Taiwan, it was that Oct. 25 that Governor-General of Taiwan Rikichi Ando signed the instrument of surrender with Cheng Yi of Chang Kai-shek’s Republic of China. (Later Ando committed suicide, indignant that he was suspected of war crimes; Yi was executed for proposing to surrender to Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China.)

On March 2, 1946, Michiko and her children evacuated Guanshan to be repatriated to Japan. On March 26, the family’s ship left Keelung, Taipei. It took nine days to reach Otake port. There were 6,500 departures from Taiwan’s biggest port that day, records show. Altogether, there were 510,000 refugees from Taiwan. With those from other areas — Manchuria, Korea, China and elsewhere — added, a total of 5 to 6 million Japanese, soldiers and civilians, are estimated to have migrated back to Japan.

Masao was retained in Java for possible war crimes by the Dutch who returned to take back their colony. He was cleared and returned to Japan by the summer of 1946. By then Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Occupation had abolished the Special Higher Police.

Having a teaching certificate helped Michiko. After living on the second floor of a cattle barn a farmer rented to my family for a year and a half, she found a teaching post on Tobishima in November 1947. It was there, too, that Masao found a job, with a coal company on an island that originally had only a small fishing village. The two were more fortunate than many others.

In five years Masao found a job in a big city, Hakata, and moved out. Michiko followed as soon as the school term was over, leaving the island where she was my first elementary schoolteacher.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.