Monday, November 14, 2011

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945


Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945
By George Kerr

Apologies. There doesn't seem to exist a cover for this particular tome. You'll have to do with a map instead.

For anyone out there who is an not expert on (or even familiar with) the history of Taiwan and the far east, George Kerr is a rock star in the genre. Kerr is the author of the now legendary Formosa Betrayed and a giant in the field of Taiwanese history during Japanese occupation, the handover to KMT forces in 1945 and the subsequent invasion of KMT loyalists in 1949. In short, if you're into Taiwan, George Kerr is your man.

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895-1945 is a definitive overview of Taiwan during its time as a Japanese colony. Kerr spends a lot of time setting up the geopolitical reasonings for the annexation and colonization of Taiwan by the Japanese and their attempts (albeit uneven) to assimilate the Taiwanese populace into the "greater Japanese empire."

Kerr divides the book neatly into decades beginning with a pleasant overview of Taiwan history before the Japanese occupation. He is careful to point out that never once in the years preceding Japanese control did China have control over the entire island nor where they especially concerned with governing it. In fact, when control of Taiwan was shifted from Imperial China to Japan following the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, it seemed as though China was glad to be rid of the burdensome island. To put it more bluntly, China's current claims on the island of Taiwan are an historical fabrication. China's control and interest in Taiwan before 1895 was cursory at best and more likely leaned toward indifferent.

As for Japan, they were keen to add a colony. Taiwan was an image boost for the emerging power and a global showcase, a way in which Japan could demonstrate their unique ability to govern and rule foreign a colony. They leapt into the mission in earnest, modernizing Taiwan and laying the essential infrastructure that would help the ruling Chiang family catapult Taiwan's economy into the stratosphere in the late 1970s.

However,ended up making many of the same mistakes their western counterparts made in other parts of the world, especially in their dealings with the Taiwanese aboriginal people. While governing the Chinese population was relatively smooth, especially in and around the new metropolis of Taipei, the resources that Japan so sorely coveted lay in the mountainous interior, the ancestral home of Taiwan's Atayal and Bunun populations, both of which would be a consistent thorn in the side of the Japanese occupiers from day one. Japan showed little deftness in dealing with these populations and relations with the tribes remained volatile and often violent (head-hunting remained a cultural mainstay among the aboriginals well into the 1930s, much to the dismay of Japanese policemen stationed in the mountains along the east coast). By the onset of the Sino-Japanese War in the mid 30s, Taiwan was still only nominally Japan-ized and the population's tolerance of the Japanese colonists had more to do with them not being Chinese. Japan was bad, but not as bad as China. In the end, Taiwanese just wanted to be left alone.

Kerr does a wonderful job of introducing the major players on the island during the occupation from hard line Governor General Kodama Gentaro, uber-builder Nitobe Inazo to the forward thinking Sakuma Samata whose lenient policies came closest to building a real and working relationship between crown and colony. Kerr paints the occupying Japanese as more nuanced and complicated than simply a trigger-happy whip-wielding force brow-beating a population on a whim. In fact, the political and social climate, especially during the early years of the Japanese occupation (read: Sakuma's time as Governor General) was such that a very health home rule movement was allowed to ferment and gain momentum.

Under the nominal leadership of Lin Hsien-Tang, a prevailing zeitgeist manifested among the small but influential sphere of Taiwanese intellectuals in Taipei and other major cities and while Taiwan only gained full representation in the Japanese Diet during the waning days of the Second World War, the Home Rule Movement did garner some very notable successes along the way, namely free and open elections (rigged by the Japanese, of course), a more lenient policy toward the aboriginals (after the Musha Rebellion) and the Kominika, a period of real social and political detente between Japan and Taiwan.

While the political and social history in this book is great, where this book really excels is its ability to paint a vivid picture of life on the island during the half-century of Japanese rule. Kerr takes the reader into the homes and schools of average Taiwanese. He depicts the lives of east coast aboriginals and middle class Taiwanese merchants. He discusses the differences between the Hakka and Hoklo populations and the one can practically small the salt in the air as he describes the vibrant trade between Taiwan's west coast than Fuchian province on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, something that a current native of Taiwan would never understand. Kerr really nails the mixed feelings among the Taiwanese in relation to their colonizers. On the one hand, the Japanese brought modernity to the island in a way that the Chinese could never have done, but on the other hand... they weren't Taiwanese.

For anyone remotely interested in the greater history of Asia in the 20th century, this book is essential reading. It lays all sorts of framework and back story to many of the current issues currently plaguing this part of the world and hints at the travesty that would occur after Japan relinquished the island following their surrender to American forces in 1945. It is a balanced overview of an often overlooked (both in Taiwan and the rest of the world) era in Asian history.

Good book.

4 comments:

FOARP said...

Great, more politicised re-imaginings of the colonial period.

Ryan said...

To be fair, the book was written in 1974.

Andrew Kerslake said...

I think the term Japanese occupation is loaded.

FOARP said...

I get the whole reaction to the KMT's portrayal of the colonial period as an ceaseless struggle against foreign invaders - kind of a prequel to Japan's invasion of the mainland 1931-45 - but the exaggeration in the opposite direction is hardly more endearing. The colonial period was an accommodation with a foreign power. It might have had some good points compared to the years after retrocession, but this isn't saying much.

The description of the pre-1895 period here is at least as politicised. In truth, Taiwan was no better or worse off than the rest of China under the late Qing. Why exaggerate?

Saying that Taiwan wasn't well governed in 1895 is hardly controversial. Saying that this automatically means that Taiwan is necessarily not part of China is hardly logical.

Let's flip it around: suppose Taiwan had been well governed in 1895 - would this validate the claim that Taiwan is part of China in the present day?

Since, anyway, the ROC's claim on Taiwan stems from Japan's cession of the island whilst it was under their control, why is the pre-1895 situation relevant to their claim?

Why, when the independence movement wishes to claim a democratic mandate for the formation of a new state, does it need such an interpretation of history to justify independence?

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