Taiwanese Aborigine Memories of Japan

Memories of its fifty years of Japanese colonial rule are very complex in Taiwan. When the Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist (KMT) party took over the island after World War II they used the term “retrocession,” emphasizing the return of Taiwan to China. “Retrocession day” is still a national holiday. However, since the eighties there has been a revisionist historiography which seeks to emphasize the unique history of Taiwan as distinct from that of China. Central to this unique history are three things: Taiwan’s Aborigine population, its long history of resistance to imperial Chinese rule, and the important role of Japan in modernizing the island. You can usually figure out what political party a Taiwanese person supports simply by asking them about the Japanese era. This is more complicated, however, with Taiwan’s Aborigine population.

The Japanese wanted to prove that they could govern Taiwan more efficiently than the British ruled in India or the Americans in the Philippines. As a result, the Japanese colonial experience in Taiwan was much milder than that in Korea or Mainland China … for the Han Chinese. It is thus possible for many Taiwanese to romanticize this era, as one sees in the rampant Japanese-era nostalgia that is consuming Taiwan. For the Aborigines, however, it was a different story. At the dawn of the twentieth century the mountainous parts of the island where still largely under the control of the Aborigines. The Japanese forcibly took over those areas in a genocidal campaign of violence. There is no record of the number of Aborigine lives lost, but the Japanese recorded 10,000 Japanese dead as a result of what was a largely one-sided battle. Once under Japanese rule, however, schools were set up throughout the region and many Aborigines first gained literacy at schools run by the Japanese police. When missionaries later came into the region (under the KMT), they found it easy to use Japanese language bibles. In the end, Aborigines became some of the most loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor, many even volunteering to serve in the Japanese armed forces during World War II.

All this is the background for a curious political event which took place earlier this year:

On June 13, 2005, Taiwanese independent legislator May Chin, who claims an Atayal identity, arrived in Tokyo with a group of fifty comrades-in-arms representing nine indigenous tribes from Taiwan. Their goal was to protest in front of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of 2.5 million war dead are honored. Among the dead commemorated in the shrine are 28,000 Taiwanese, including approximately 10,000 aboriginal men, who fought for the Japanese Imperial Army during the Pacific War. Although the families of Taiwanese soldiers have long demanded compensation from Japan for unpaid pensions, this protest made only one demand: that the names of aboriginal soldiers be removed from the shrine.

I visited Taiwan last summer, arriving just after this event had taken place. I was completely dumbfounded as to what it all meant. Luckily, anthropologist Scott Simon has woven together a lucid account drawn from both historical and ethnographic sources.

Anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff have called for bringing historical understanding into ethnography, saying that, “No ethnography can ever hope to penetrate beyond the surface planes of everyday life, to plumb its invisible forms, unless it is informed by the historical imagination (1992: xi). ” It is important to note, however, that the historical imagination is often also a national imagination; part of contested ideologies that can very well influence the fate of a people. Yet every time historical memory is mobilized in support of contemporary nationalist narratives, conflicting personal memories are silenced. This dynamic is especially visible in Taiwan, a society torn between two conflicting historical imaginations.

I struggled in my own work to combine ethnography and history, discovering that it is no simple task, but Scott’s article makes it look easy. I highly recommend reading the whole thing over at Japan Focus.