Impressions of Colonial Taipei.

By Austin Smith.

In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan following China’s defeat in The First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan became Japan’s first overseas colony and there were plans to rapidly develop the island’s economy, infrastructure and industry to demonstrate that Japan was capable of becoming a colonial power. Taiwan was intended to be a model colony and, by all accounts, in the post-war years the Taiwanese looked back on the period (1895-1945) more fondly than other countries that endured Japanese occupation. On a recent visit to Taipei, I set out to find remnants of the colonial period in an ever-changing city. This post will touch on some of the highlights of this pursuit in an attempt to assess the cultural legacy of Japanese rule.

The Office of the Governor-General of Taipei

The former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan:

The most imposing feature of modern Taipei dating from the colonial period is the former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan, designed by Uheiji Nagano. Nagano had a reputation for combining Western and Eastern architectural styles, which were prevalent in Japanese buildings of the period. The building, which is reminiscent of Tokyo Station, has an East facing facade and blends Renaissance, Baroque and neo-Classical architectural styles. The offices were heavily bombed during World War II and not repaired until 1948. The building became The Office of the President in 1950 following the retreat of the ROC government to Taiwan from mainland China and it remains the seat of power. Whether the continued use of this building was borne out of nostalgia or necessity, it has come to symbolise the legacy of Japanese rule in Taipei.

Taipei Botanical Gardens:

The Taipei Botanical Garden was founded as Taipei Nursery in 1896, at the beginning of the Japanese colonial period. It was gradually expanded and renamed the Taipei Botanical Garden, becoming the country’s first botanical garden in 1921. It now covers 8.2 hectares and it includes more than 2,000 species of plants. Taiwan, which intersects tropical and subtropical regions, was ideal for the cultivation of a variety of plant species for natural sciences and academic research. The period of Japanese occupation was the most important in the history of botanical research in Taiwan and most of the country’s native plant species were identified during this time. The Taiwan Botanical Garden is part of a complex of education facilities known as The Nanhai Academy and it remains the country’s premier botanical institute for research and education. References to the positive legacy of the Japanese colonial period appear throughout the garden which is an oasis for those who want to get away from city life.

The Green House, Taipei Botanical Garden.

The National Museum of History:

In 1955, The National Museum of History was established in a pre-existing Japanese-style building on the outskirts of Taipei Botanical Garden. The museum displays historic artefacts transported from the Henan Museum in China during the Sino-Japanese War. The need to find suitable venues to house the vast collection of artefacts transported from mainland China, as well as the picturesque location, made this colonial era building an obvious museum candidate. In 1956, the building was converted to a more appropriate Ming and Qing dynasty palace style, an example of the sinicization that took place in Taiwan from 1950 onwards.

The National Museum of History, viewed from the lily pond.


The Guest House of Imperial Envoys was built in 1889, during the late Qing Dynasty. The building was used as a temporary office for government officials and was the highest public administration building on the island. The first ceremony to mark Japanese rule was held in this building and it was used as the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office and military headquarters until the construction of the Presidential Building in 1919. In 1933, the decision was made to dramatically relocate the building to allow for the construction of The Taipei Convention Centre to mark the ascension of Emperor Showa (Hirohito). The main section of the building was moved to the Taipei Botanical Garden. The relocation of the building appears to have ensured its preservation, it is now the only remaining official building constructed in the Min-nan style. The Min-nan style is characterised by high ceilings, symmetry and the 田- shape layout formed by the wings and corridors. The walls are decorated with traditional lion sculptures symbolising virtue and tradition. The building was painstakingly restored and designated as a historic monument before being renamed the Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz Museum in 1998.

The interior of Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz


Another remnant of Qing Dynasty Taipei can be found just north of Longshan Temple, a popular tourist destination. The Bopilao district is a block of narrow shopping streets with architectural styles hailing from the Qing Dynasty onwards.

A fine example of the colonial era businesses which have been preserved at Bopilao is Taiyoo Bookbinders. The shop was founded in the early 1940s as one of the first bookbinders in Taipei. The Wanhua District was the centre of book production but Taiyoo was the first in Taipei to mechanise the bookbinding process. Taiyoo earned a reputation for high quality and was chosen to bind the official “Chinese-Japanese Dictionary” during the Japanese Colonial Period. After the retrocession of Taiwan, they went on to publish various documents for the National Palace Museum.

Much of the surrounding area was demolished as part of a modernising campaign during the colonial period and Bopilao gradually fell into decline as urban planning shifted Taipei’s commercial centre. However, the area has been preserved and it was reopened in 2010 as a cultural centre containing original shop signs and facades. The once abandoned buildings now house exhibitions an education centre.

The Bopilao District

Taiwan Grand Shrine:

One of the most striking buildings on the route from Taoyuan Airport to the city centre is the imposing Grand Hotel. It was not until researching this project that I discovered the hotel’s connections to colonial Taipei. The Grand Hotel stands on the site of the former Taiwan Grand Shrine, once the most important Shinto shrine in Taiwan and one of sixty-six that were built across the country during the colonial period. On October 23rd 1944, a pilot crashed into the grounds of Taiwan Grand Shrine, the torii gate was destroyed along with other important structures. In the post-war years, Chiang Kai Shek proposed that a hotel, fit for ambassadors, be built on the site and it became the Grand Hotel in 1952. Two copper bulls that stood at Taiwan Grand Shrine were relocated to The National Taiwan Museum.

A postcard of Taiwan Grand Shrine

Overall impressions:

Personally, I found the most significant colonial impression to be a cultural one. In my experience, without meaning to generalise, the behaviour and attitudes of the Taiwanese people was culturally closer to the Japanese than elsewhere in Asia. This was twinned with an obvious appreciation for Japanese fashion and food. The linguistic hangover is also worth a mention, occasional Japanese words are in daily use and the older generations remain fluent Japanese speakers. In truth, physical traces of colonial Taipei were harder to find than I had expected. The city has developed rapidly in recent years and the infrastructure put in place in the pre-war years has been superseded. Nevertheless, the foundations and desire to modernise was introduced by Japan. Significantly, the legacy of the colonial period is often acknowledged positively – this is not something which I have encountered elsewhere in East Asia.

Photographs from Mikawa House.

By Austin Smith.

Due to the positive feedback the photographs from Mikawa House received, I have decided to add a larger compilation of images to this blog (many of which were originally edited and uploaded via instagram). I was contacted by people who remembered visiting the house during its time as accommodation for nursing students, so this may be of particular interest to them.

The original post on Mikawa House can be viewed here –

The approach to Mikawa House.
A fireplace on the ground floor.
Stained glass above doors to the balcony.
The flight of marble stairs.
The landing on the second floor.
The billiards room.
The entrance hall.
The garden.
Art nouveau arch and stained glass.
A dark upstairs corridor.
The main bathroom, with a mosaic of a traditional Japanese scene.
The Japanese style room.
The Japanese style room.

Mikawa House, Tokushima.

By Austin Smith.

The approach to Mikawa House, Tokushima-shi

Mikawa House sits on the banks of the Shinmachi river near the Prefectural Office in Tokushima-shi. Built in 1928, it is the oldest European-style residence in the prefecture. Thankfully, the building survived the heavy U.S. bombing of the city during the Asia Pacific War and was designated as an Important Cultural Property by the national government in 2007. However, it currently stands unoccupied and inaccessible to the general public.

The house was originally owned by Yoshiyaki Mikawa, a doctor of obstetrics and gynaecology who had studied radiology at Universtat zu Berlin. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Mikawa realised the importance of creating earthquake resistant buildings. He enlisted the help of Kinouchi Toyojiro, an industrial engineer who had also studied in Germany, at Leipzig. Mikawa House was built in the Jugendstil style (“The style of youth”), a movement influenced by English Art Nouveau as well as Japanese applied arts and prints. Made from ferroconcrete, the house is said to resemble a German country house or castle – one of an array of cultural connections between Tokushima and Germany from this period.

Mikawa House is currently owned and maintained by the Tokushima city government, staff of the city’s education research department, including myself, were given a supervised tour of the building to appreciate its layout and unique features.

The exterior of the house and surrounding garden are all that can currently be seen by the public, either from the roads along the banks of the Shinmachi river or from trains bound for Mugi on the JR line (which runs past the property). The house boasts a turret-style chimney, a gargoyle perched on the roof overlooking the river and curvaceous, mosaic tiled balconies.

The garden is a fusion of east and west, with moss-covered statues of lions and athletic figures in thoughtful poses standing amongst more traditional Japanese stone arrangements. This juxtaposition is continued throughout the interior of the property.

The garden of Mikawa House.

The layout of the property is very different from that of other Japanese homes of the period. A grand porch leads to the main hall with doors to the drawing room, dining room and access to a corridor leading to the kitchen and utility rooms. A marble staircase can be taken up to the second and third floors, each with spacious landings and corridors.

The landing on the second floor has parquet wood flooring and it opens on to a wide balcony over the porch below. There is also a games room with the original carom billiards table (pocketless) standing in front of a large fireplace in a state of disrepair. Nevertheless, Japanese influences remain, there is an eight mat tatami room on the same floor complete with sliding doors and an alcove. The third floor, containing sleeping quarters, is the least opulent.

The landing – with access to the balcony on the left, the games room in the centre and the tatami room on the right.

There are sash windows throughout the property and there is stained glass over double doors to the porch and balconies. In the majority of rooms the walls are papered and the floors are carpeted – although they are badly worn and in a poor condition. Coving and skirting boards are other obvious European features. A number of rooms contain fireplaces and chandeliers hang from the ceiling, while additional lighting appears to have been added at a later date.

Until approximately twenty years ago, the house was used as accommodation for student nurses. Locals recall seeing laundry hanging from the balconies and bikes parked outside. Air conditioning units, additional bathing facilities and western style toilets are notable later additions that would need to be removed to return the property to its former glory. Although there are ambitions to transform Mikawa House into a museum open to the public it is thought that it would cost five hundred million yen to restore the original features and remove the alterations.

Although the current condition of the interior is unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable given the most recent occupants. The exterior and garden are well maintained by the city government with the objective being to preserve the building for future generations. Ambitions to restore the property could be realised if funding becomes available.

A Snapshot of Sagicho Matsuri

By Austin Smith.


This post aims to provide an impression of the traditions associated with Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri by drawing on themes which emerge from the image above. It will look at how the floats are constructed and examine the participation of children in what is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most dangerous matsuri. Ultimately, all of the floats assembled, paraded and fought with by the people of Omihachiman succumb to the flames and fervour of the festival when darkness falls on the final day.

This photograph was taken at Sagicho Matsuri on March 17th 2013, the year of the snake. This zodiac symbol adorned one of the festival’s smaller floats, which are assembled and carried by elementary school students. Throughout the area children can be seen standing proudly by their floats complete with brightly coloured hair and makeup for the occasion, homage to flamboyant warlord Oda Nobunaga who wore make-up and danced while enjoying the new year’s festivities at Azuchi in the 16th century. Nobunaga’s followers are said to have established Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri following their move from Azuchi to Hachimanyama Castle.

The snake, above, was painstakingly decorated with beans and seeds to create a lifelike texture and colouration. It is suspended in front of a floral-design backdrop. The thirteen neighbourhoods of the old castle town spend the long winter months designing and constructing zodiac themed floats. These designs are judged on the first day of the festival, flags are displayed proudly on the floats denoting how highly each effort ranks. Designers must consider both aesthetic and structural factors. During the fighting teams attempt to flip their rivals, so what is produced must be strong, sturdy and well weighted but also light enough for the people of the neighbourhood to carry it on their shoulders. Groups with fewer members tend to focus on smaller more aesthetic floats as a result.

Each float is required to include a two metre high tower woven from fresh straw and, a long bamboo pole decorated with strips of red paper and tokens of good luck. In total, these structures can weigh over a tonne. The year’s zodiac animal, which is mounted on the centre of the float, must be made from marine or agricultural produce in the hope of a fruitful harvest for the coming year – common materials include dried fish, kelp and tapioca.

The children of each neighbourhood are responsible for decorating their own small floats to be carried alongside the main one. By involving children in the construction process from an early age, techniques and commitment to this local culture can be passed from generation to generation. The children of the town are allowed to fully participate despite the obvious dangers. As the festival draws to a close, a mock fight is staged between the main float and the children’s float. The children theatrically come out on top against the exhausted adults and they celebrate their victory raucously. This event was described as “conditioning” by a festival veteran as the way of the matsuri becomes engrained in the child’s mindset.

By the time they reach junior high school children can be seen competing with adults on the main floats, boys as young as thirteen hang from the top of the floats as they attempt to gain leverage over their rival. As the floats fall the danger of injury is very real, blood can be seen running down the faces of competitors, some are even carried away on stretchers. Alcohol flows freely and tensions run high, fights often break out between competing groups. To the foreign observer it would seem that this is not a place for children.

As night falls, men, women and children dance around the burning pyre in celebration, beating the zodiac symbol with bundles of straw. It is said that after The Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011 the rabbit received a particularly vigorous beating for the misfortune the year had brought to the people of Japan. This shows that the participants remain acutely aware of the meaning behind the symbols of the festival and the rituals being performed.

Traditional festivals appear to be thriving across Japan, supporting local economies and attracting visitors from far and wide. This suggests that the policy of involving children from the preparation process onwards has ensured tradition survives. It is common for children to be introduced to their local culture and festivals from an early age – this enables them to gain an appreciation for the unique culture of the local community and creates a desire to preserve tradition. It is common for elementary students to prepare for local festivals at school and this strengthens community spirit and a sense of local identity. The time and effort invested in preparing for and participating in Omihachiman’s Sagicho Matsuri is reflected in the euphoria generated as the festival comes to a close.

More information about this festival which is staged over a full weekend each year in mid-March can be found here –

The History of ‘The Big Hina Matsuri’ – Katsuura, Tokushima.

By Austin Smith.

The central pyramid of The Big Hina Matsuri, Katsuura.

Katsuura is a rural town of around 6,000 people lying roughly 12 miles south-west of Tokushima City. The town is known locally for growing mikan oranges and for hosting one of the largest doll festivals in Japan.

The origins of doll festivals in Japan can be traced back to the mid-Heian era, 1000 years ago. Rituals using dolls as human representations were carried out in early March to drive out evil spirits. They were purified with water – washed, sent down river and out to sea. These beautiful dolls are still viewed with suspicion, the reason so many are donated by the public is that they are thought to bring bad luck if disposed of when the owners no longer have room for them.

Young girls from wealthy families had long enjoyed playing with dolls, early examples of which can be viewed in both Katsuura and the Tokushima Castle Museum. This custom soon spread to all levels of society. From the beginning of the Edo period dolls became popular gifts for newborn girls, doll markets were held in major towns and the dolls themselves became more elaborate and valuable. In response, the Shogunate issued decrees to keep the majority of dolls plain, simple and low cost.

In the Meiji period, the government discontinued hina events, partly due to their feudal associations. New national holidays were established. Nevertheless, the tradition remained popular – Children’s Day was made a national holiday in the postwar period and the doll festivals gradually returned.

In 1981, a harsh winter hit agricultural production in Katsuura and the townspeople decided to host an annual festival to reverse the town’s fortunes. In 1985 a committee was formed and the decision to host “The Big Hina Doll Festival” was reached. The committee set about collecting enough dolls from residents of the town, and further afield, to fill a 100 stepped pyramid 3.4 metres high. The first festival was held over two days in April 1988.

Over time, the festival became more and more popular so it became easier to source dolls to display. People from across the country send dolls and doll cases to Katsuura Town Office every year. Approximately 10,000 dolls are donated annually with 30,000 dolls on display in total. The festival, which now runs from late February to early April, receives a great deal of media coverage and the town receives more than 30,000 visitors each year. At the end of the festival surplus dolls are given to visitors as gifts and hina dolls have been officially sent to more than twenty countries as international gesture of goodwill. In 2004 the festival organisers acquired a disused woodwork factory and transformed the space into an exhibition hall, a symbol of the shift of the town’s economy from agricultural production to tourism.

The Big Hina Matsuri in Katsuura supports the local economy while being a great source of community pride and purpose. This is particularly important at a time when many small towns across Japan are facing an uncertain future. This renewed sense of community purpose and the boost to the local economy is reminiscent of the Awa Odori festival in the prefectural capital. However, like many other ‘traditional’ Japanese festivals across the country, the motivations for hosting the festival and the history of the event are more recent than they may appear.

ビッグひな祭り will be on display in Katsuura until April 7th this year!

An English Inscription by Shimazu Tadashige, 1908.

By Austin Smith.

Shimazu Tadashige’s English inscription – a translation of the original memorial.

While walking through Okunoin, Koya-san, on a winter’s afternoon, my attention was drawn to a war memorial which appeared to commemorate the second Japanese invasion of Korea, 1597-1598. Tucked behind a modern info board was a moss-covered headstone with an English inscription. It read,

“On the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the second year of Keicho (1597) at Nangen in Zenrado there were slain many thousands of the Ming soldier four hundred and twenty falling by the hands of the men of Satsuma and on the first day of the tenth month of the ensuing year the Ming forces were smiten at Shisen in Keishodo with a loss of upwards of eight thousand men. On these battlefields over three thousand Japanese soldiers perished by arrow and by sword and who shall tell the number of those who succumbed to accident or disease and land and sea.
To the end therefore, that those who fell in the Corean War foe and friend a like may be gathered everyone into the way which leads to Buddhahood.
This monument has been erected in the first days of the sixth month of the fourth year of Keicho 1599 by Fujiwara Ason Shimadzu Yoshihiro Hyogo no Kami Prince of Satsuma and Shosho Tadatsune his son.
This monument recording in English the above inscription of the original monument has been raised forty first year of Meiji 12 January 1908 out of reverent regard of the pious sentiments manifested by ancestors.

Shimadzu Tadashige”

Shimazu Tadashige (born 1886) was head of the Shimazu family and a descendent of the general mentioned above, Shimazu Yoshihiro. His father, Shimazu Tadayoshi, was the 12th, and final, feudal lord of Satsuma. He graduated from the prestigious Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1907 and would go on to study in England in the 1920s.

The Shimazu family controlled Satsuma province for almost four centuries until the dissolution of the daimyo. They were classed as tozama – outside the hereditary vassals of Japan’s ruling Tokugawa clan. During the Bakamatsu era, they were instrumental in bringing about the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Shimazu clan were historically associated with foreign interaction. Their position, at the southern tip of Kyushu, gave them access to foreign trade and a knowledge of the outside world that other clans did not enjoy. As well as playing an important role in the invasion of Korea they gained control of the Ryuku islands in the early 17th century. In the 19th century, international exchanges were revived due to the forced opening of Japan by Western powers. After the bombardment of Kagoshima (1863), the Shimazu family developed ties with the British and they became allies in the Boshin War (1868-1869) which culminated in the Meiji Restoration.

This monument recognizes one of the most famous foreign ‘interactions’ in the family’s long history – the final offensive of a seven year war with Korea. Ming Chinese forces had repelled the Japanese invasion, which began in 1592, and a stalemate ensued. Naval defeats cut off the supply chain, further hindering Japanese progress. More than half of the Japanese forces were withdrawn leaving just 60,000, mostly soldiers from Satsuma, commanded by Shimazu Yoshihiro and his son.

In 1597, Shimazu Yoshihiro and his men assisted in the capture of the city of Namwon (‘Nangen’), where thousands of Korean soldiers, women and children were killed following collusion between Chinese and Japanese forces. These losses are recorded on the memorial at Okunoin.

Shimazu Yoshihiro’s most remarkable victory was the battle of Sacheon (referred to as ‘Shisen’ in the inscription). The Japanese-style fortification at Sacheon (constructed on the site of a former Korean stronghold) was held under siege by Ming and Korean forces. The men of Satsuma were significantly outnumbered. A large artillery explosion caused a fire in the ranks of the Ming forces, panic ensued. This opportunity was seized upon by the defenders who sallied forth. Heavy casualties were sustained by both sides (although those listed on the memorial appear to be considerably lower, and more accurate, than other contemporary estimates – including the chronicles of the Shimazu family).

Despite the initial international allusions, this is not a typical war memorial recording a victory for national posterity. The conflict is framed by the Satsuma clan and the leadership of the Shimazu family. This memorial stands alongside the Shimazu’s family crypt at Koya-san and was erected in 1599, just a year before the battle of Sekigahara, which unified Japan and led to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled until the Meiji Restoration. The consideration shown for the fallen, on both sides, reflects the sacred surroundings of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the watching ancestral spirits.

The English inscription was written during the Meiji period at a time when the Satsuma clan held powerful positions within the new elite. This inscription, rare for its time, made the memorial comprehensible to the few English-speakers who happened across it, on a sacred but extremely remote mountain, at the turn of the 20th century. It provided historical provenance and legitimacy for the Shimazu family, who were once again at the forefront of international relations despite the dissolution of the daimyo. It also underlined the Shimazu family’s powerful Western connections to the passing Japanese pilgrims.

Review – Kimono by John Paris.

By Austin Smith.

Title – Kimono

Author – John Paris (Frank Ashton-Gwatkin)

First published – 1921

Frank Ashton-Gwatkin drafted Kimono between 1913 and 1919, during his time working for the Japan Consular Service. In 1921, the year Kimono was published, he accompanied Hirohito during his visit to Britain.

The story told in this book is used as a medium to bring his observations and impressions of early 20th century Japan to a wider audience.

The book follows a year in the life of newly-weds Captain Geoffrey Barrington and Asako Fujinami – a Japanese woman raised in Europe.

The reaction to this inter-racial marriage among London’s higher social circles is played out in the opening chapters, the couple’s first impressions of each other and the courtship is also outlined in some detail.

An extended honeymoon allows Geoffrey and Asako to return to the country of her birth. On arrival, their marriage is tested by their reaction to Japan, its people and its customs. Differing views of gender roles and strong racial stereotypes further threaten the relationship.

Geoffrey’s initial perception of his wife – exotic, yet Europeanised by her upbringing in London and Paris – is shattered as he observes her in a native setting – particularly as she is re-introduced to her extended family and subsequently re-assimilated.

Asako’s ties to Europe and her bond with her husband are challenged by the life her late father left behind. Her family, the nouveau riche Fujinamis, see her as having a vital role in extending the family lineage and maintaining its wealth and social influence.

The story allows the author to show how the British and Japanese perceived each other at a time when Oriental stereotypes had been overturned, to an extent, by Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War. The notion that Japan could soon be on a par with Britain, or even surpass it, is a constant concern.

Meanwhile, Asako is viewed as an important symbol of Anglo-Japanese relations, torn between tradition and progress.

The language used to describe the Japanese people is unabashedly racist throughout and this can be difficult reading for the modern audience.

However, this aspect is countered by the introduction of Japanese terms used to describe foreigners (and those who interact with foreigners) which have fallen out of general use in modern Japan.

These included rashyamen – ‘goat-face’ a term used to describe a foreigner’s Japanese mistress and ketoujin – ‘hairy-rascal’ a derogatory term for a foreigner.

While this derogatory language is no longer deemed socially acceptable it can provide an insight into attitudes of the period.

A number of observations made in this novel will resonate with those familiar with modern Japan. However, a darker side of old Japan, which has disappeared over the past century, recurs throughout the novel – The Yoshiwara pleasure districts. The Chonkina, a dance performed by the geisha of Nagasaki is described in graphic detail as is the workings of the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo.  Barrington’s moral dilemma over the sex industry in Japan adds a darker dimension to the tale.

At the time it was first published, Kimono provided a refreshing take on Anglo-Japanese relations to an audience whose impression of Japan had been formed by Mikado and Madame Butterfly.

The post-World War II Penguin publication (1947), which I possess, is no less significant. Kimono would have reinforced negative racial stereotypes and a sense of un-breachable cultural difference while noting a prior desire, on behalf of the Japanese, to demonstrate strength to Western powers.

For the modern reader the book provides an insight into the challenges faced by the pioneers who seeked to open Japan to the outside world and the bigotry encountered by those who chose to marry outside their own race.

Other works by John Paris include – Sayonara, Banzai, The Island Beyond Japan, Matsu and A Japanese Don Juan.