Yasukuni, from an East Asian perspective.

An adapted version of an MA in East Asian History assignment by Lewis Tatt.

The main hall of Yasukuni Shrine
The main hall of Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is somewhat notorious. Every year, around August 15th, the issue of whether individuals should visit the shrine to commemorate the war dead is hotly debated in Japan, particularly if one such individual also happens to be the prime minister. Chinese critics are particularly vocal; the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia calling it the “shame of humanity” (整个人类的耻辱). In 2006, the South Korean President, Roh Moo-hyun, even refused to meet Japanese prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, in protest of the latter’s visits to Yasukuni. The problem is ultimately a conflict between alternative historical narratives, and by analysing Yasukuni as a site of material evidence we can perhaps come to a better understanding of the narratives it presents.

Yasukuni was built in 1869 to enshrine those who died in conflicts during the Meiji Restoration. It subsequently enshrined military personnel who had died in further conflicts for the state. Having been built under Meiji , Yasukuni commemorates those who died fighting imperial wars and had ultimately died for the emperor. In this sense, Yasukuni is explicitly imperial and militaristic.

A statue of Omura Masujiro on the approach to Yasukuni.
A statue of Omura Masujiro on the approach to Yasukuni.

Even before entering the main precinct visitors are greeted by a statue of Omura Masujiro, founder of the modern Japanese army. The outside of the main hall (above) is decorated with large banners displaying the imperial crest and in 1874 the Meiji emperor composed a poem on his visit to the shrine, which is now displayed in the main hall. One passage of the poem states ‘I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine’ (我國の為をつくせる人々の名もむさし野にとむる玉かき).

The poem written by Emperor Meiji
The poem written by Emperor Meiji

It was claimed that those enshrined became kami and joined a pantheon of deities protecting the state. The shrine itself was initially administered by the army and navy ministries. It was later made a ‘special state-funded shrine’, and rituals were conducted on the dates of military victories (until the number became too large to commemorate). On a material level, Yasukuni therefore cannot be separated from the imperial system or Japanese militarism, an important fact when understanding Yasukuni and the debates surrounding it.

Yasukuni was not destroyed after the war, despite the shrine’s clear association with militarism, perhaps on the basis that individuals had the right to honour their war dead. It has also been argued that Yasukuni offers a religious aspect to remembrance, and so fulfils a function that secular memorials cannot. This argument in particular has been forwarded by Georgetown University’s Professor Kevin Doak, who claims rites at Yasukuni are ‘a universal practice that transcends the everyday in order to make a spiritual link to the dead.’ Quite contradictorily, Doak also argues that it is acceptable for Christians to take part in Yasukuni rites precisely because ‘ceremonies of this kind are endowed with a purely civic value.’[1]

This raises the question of whether Yasukuni is actually a religious site, or not, and more importantly whether those visiting Yasukuni consider themselves to be religious (the two are not necessarily related). One particularly significant point that Doak overlooks is how the meaning of Yasukuni changes depending upon whether or not you actually follow Shinto as a religion, and subsequently believe that the souls of the dead really exist there in afterlife, or whether you simply believe enshrinement is symbolic.

In this light, the Meiji Emperor’s poem, quoted above, takes on a new significance. Interestingly, the emperor claims that the names of the dead will live at Yasukuni, not the actual souls. The verb とむる can mean to bury, hold a funeral, hold a memorial service or mourn. It does not imply the souls of the dead exist at Yasukuni or their afterlife is affected.

Similarly, Shinto academic Naokazu Miyaji, speaking on behalf of the shrine after the war, claimed the emperor’s visits meant Yasukuni ‘was very precious to the bereaved families of the war dead’, implying what was really important was what the shrine meant to the living.[2] All this suggests that the site is symbolic.

In reality, Yasukuni serves purely a commemorative purpose,  the problem is what is being commemorated, because, in 1978, fourteen men classified as Class A war criminals were enshrined there.

Yasukuni’s enshrinement of Class A war criminals must be placed within the physical context of the shrine itself, which only commemorates Japanese military dead (one monument, the chinreisha, was built in 1965 to memorialise non-military deaths but lies well hidden from public view, cannot be seen from the main precinct, and cannot be entered).

Located directly opposite the main hall is the Yushukan War Museum, which displays war materials and weapons without any mention of Japanese aggression or atrocities during the war period. For example, a plaque accompanying the Thailand-Burma railway locomotive, displayed at the entrance of the museum, states that the building of the railway ‘was difficult in the extreme’. It fails to mention this ‘difficulty’ involved the deaths of 90,000 prisoners of war and Asian conscripts.

The Mitsubishi Zero which stands in the entrance of the Yushukan War Museum.
The Mitsubishi Zero which stands in the entrance of the Yushukan War Museum.

Whatever the reasons for individuals visiting Yasukuni, prime ministers included, to many observers, particularly Chinese and Korean, it is the symbolic elements that stand out – leading politicians visiting a shrine that glorifies Japan’s war in Asia, is linked to the imperial system that presided over that war, and enshrines Class A war criminals. This act is often carried out without any recognition of, let alone atonement for, the aggression and atrocities committed.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, there is no doubt that war crimes took place during the Asia-Pacific War. Critics of Yasukuni do not see the enshrinement of individuals but that of ‘Class A War Criminals’, separate from the individuals and their souls. In effect, the names have simply become symbolic representations of the atrocities attached to them, and to many Chinese observers the enshrinement of individual Class A war criminals amounts to nothing more than the enshrinement of Class A war crimes.

It is likely that many people ‘worship’ at the shrine as a personal act of remembrance and respect for lost relatives or those who died fighting in a war brought about by Japan’s military leaders. However, there is no escaping the fact that the site is national in character, not individual, and enshrinement there is effectively compulsory.[3] By mourning at a national, imperial site the lines between individual and national identity are blurred. In effect people’s desire to mourn the suffering of friends, relatives, or ordinary individuals they can relate to is used to funnel them into a site that fosters nationalism.

A war widow with children.
A war widow with children.

This can be seen in the layout of the shrine itself. For example, a monument titled ‘statue of war widow with children’ is located directly next to a monument to Radhabinod Pal.The ‘war widow’ is not a specific individual, but an intended focal point of mourning or remembrance for ordinary civilians who suffered.

Radhabinod Pal was the only Judge to reject the Tokyo war crimes trial, arguing it was a vindictive act and on that basis all defendants should be acquitted. By placing a monument to ordinary civilians next to the memorial to Radhabinod Pal, Yasukuni appeals to the act of mourning as a means of overcoming trauma and places it within a context that promotes a particular historical narrative. A historical narrative in which the imperial system is venerated, military death glorified, and (as Pal’s memorial implies) Japan’s war criminals innocent. Furthermore, the desire to memorialise individual experiences, represented by the nameless women and children, is utilized to promote a national narrative that fosters national identity.

Radhadinod Pal Memorial
Radhadinod Pal Memorial

It is perhaps for reasons of identity that several Japanese prime ministers have visited Yasukuni. The Tokyo war crimes trial did more than put individuals on trial, it essential put history on trial, with the result that Japan’s modern history became criminalised, something to be ashamed of.[4] Surely nothing stands in greater contrast than the way Britain’s history is glorified by its virtuous role in World War II, and the way Japan’s history is criminalised. Yet Britain’s history as an aggressive imperialistic power can apparently be overlooked, whilst Japan’s cannot.

That this impacted on Japanese national identity is clear. Prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone , who visited Yasukuni in 1985, even stated in his autobiography that he ‘felt humiliated’ by Japan’s defeat in World War II and the fact ‘two-thirds of a century of modernisation […] had been reduced to dust.’ Here Nakasone displays the sense of shame that the war, and subsequent criminalisation at the war crimes trial, has cast over Japan’s ‘two thirds of a century of modernisation.’[5] It’s likely that his visit to Yasukuni was therefore not an attempt to advocate militarism and war crimes, or even an attempt to reject Japan’s war responsibility, but an attempt to reject an America-centred history that casts the shadow of guilt over all of Japan’s modern history and subsequently modern Japanese national identity.

Refrences –

1. Kevin Doak, ‘A Religious Perspective on the Yasukuni Shrine Controversy’, in John Breen, Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s past (London, Hurst and company 2007).

2. Hiyane Antei, ‘An Interview with Dr. Naokazu Miyaji’, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 7, 2 (1966) 148.

3. Norma Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1991).

4. Carol Gluck, ‘Past in the Present’, in Andrew Gordon [ed], Postwar Japan as History, (Berkeley University of California Press, 1993).

5. Nat Sayer, Nakasone Yasuhiro: My Life in Politics, (draft of translation), 5-6. Cited in Joshua Safier, ‘Yasukuni Shrine and the Constraints on the Discourses of Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Japan’. (MA thesis, University of Kansas, 1991) 46.

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Thoughts on the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

by Lewis Tatt and Austin Smith

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Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now home to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The Holocaust requires little introduction to the average Westerner, and so, it might seem shocking that this event, which so often dominates narratives of World War II, is unheard of amongst many Chinese people. The fact is, in China, the ‘European War’ is not seen as the defining event of twentieth century, to the extent that, the term ‘World War II’ (世界二战) is not commonly used – reference to the ‘War of Resistance against Japan’ (抗日战争) is far more common. This is symptomatic of China’s experience of the conflict, and its national history of the twentieth century, which is somewhat separated from ‘World History’.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is therefore a particularly interesting site as it brings together narratives of the Holocaust under the framework of Chinese war memory. In the recent years, a number of public spaces have been established to rehabilitate Chinese history and to bring the presentation of history back in line with wider historical narratives. As part of this trend, in 2007, funding was made available by the People’s Government of Hongkou District to found the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The museum is housed in a refurbished synagogue located in the former Jewish district, often referred to as a ‘Shanghai haven’, an area which retains original features of the Jewish settlement.

The initial impression given by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is that it represents a shift away from a Sino-centric perspective of history, enough to pique the interest of curious international tourists. The museum’s volunteer guides all spoke a good level of English considering that the museum was somewhat off the standard tourist trail.

Unlike many small museums in the region, information and leaflets were available in both Chinese and accurate English. This could be due to the fact that the majority of visitors to the museum are Western tourists. This area is particularly popular amongst Jewish visitors or those otherwise touched by the horrors of the Holocaust. Because of this fact, this site provides a very interesting contrast with other memorial sites in China – most of which memorialise the revolution and are aimed exclusively at a native audience.

Upon entering the museum visitors are given a brief history of the origins of Jewish Shanghai, a community founded by Russian émigrés, in the main hall of the synagogue. One of the room’s few adornments is a tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai.

A tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai on display at Ohel Moshe Synagogue
A tribute from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai on display at Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The next stage of the tour is held upstairs, where a number of boards providing wider context of the Holocaust have been installed. For the international visitor, this context is perhaps pre-acquired, but, for the Chinese visitor it is eye-opening and potentially opinion forming. However, rather than providing an international context to the Chinese perspective of this history this section of the museum subtly fuses the inevitable victim narrative of the Jews and the Holocaust with an anti-Japanese, Chinese victim narrative.

The first information board the visitor meets describes how Germany, when ‘facing the darkest page of human history’ has ‘shown deep repentance…’ The reader is then informed that ‘there are other countries that refuse to face up to the atrocities of history.’ In the Chinese language version the sentence reads ‘至于那些至今仍不能正确对待历史的国家…’ Literally, ‘as for those countries that still can’t correctly treat history…’ The use of “as for” (至于) implies that a native Chinese reader would have already had a certain country in mind, Japan.

The reader is then informed that the exhibition aims to ‘represent the common effort of Chinese and Jews […] to save lives and dignity from Nazi and fascist atrocities.’ Here ‘Nazi’ refers to German atrocities and ‘fascist’ refers to Japanese atrocities, explicitly linking the exhibition on the Jewish Holocaust in Europe with Japanese atrocities in East Asia.

In this way, the museum brings an external historical perspective in line with the Chinese narrative of victimisation at the hands of Japanese imperialism. By linking these atrocities, Japan’s war conduct is presented as being as abhorrent as the Holocaust. This is perhaps why, when linking the War of Resistance Against Japan to the ‘European War’, Chinese museums and memorial sites still do not refer to the World War II, but instead use the term “International War Against Fascism” (世界反法西斯战争). This Chinese victim narrative is offered as being as undisputable as that of the Jews and the Holocaust. Both narratives are equally as important to the agenda of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and its Chinese and Israeli benefactors.

The fundamental problem faced by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is that the history of the Shanghai Refugees proves Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan did not collaborate as much as this context would lead us to believe. This results in a struggle of memory, between the history that the Chinese and Israeli influences wish to offer to the visitor and the actual experience of the Shanghai Jews.

'To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.' Yitzhak Rabin, Premier of Israel (1993).
‘To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’ Yitzhak Rabin, Premier of Israel (1993).

During the tour it is easy to forget that, by the time the Jews fleeing the Holocaust arrived in Shanghai, the city was firmly under Japanese control. These refugees were fleeing the Holocaust to find sanctuary in Japanese occupied China. As accommodating as the people of Shanghai were to the Jewish community, they remained at the mercy of the Japanese. As the Asia-Pacific War escalated, the Shanghai refugees were confined to the Hongkou ghetto where they lived alongside the Chinese inhabitants of the area.

This raises some obvious questions, if Germany’s European allies had been complicit in sending Jews to their deaths in concentration camps – how had the Jews of Shanghai survived? And why had the Japanese in Shanghai not succumbed to the same pressures?

When pressed on the issue, a member of staff at the museum admitted that – the Japanese had few issues with the Jews and very little desire to exterminate the Jewish population of Shanghai. This admission reveals the difficulty in associating Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany with regards to the Jewish population of Shanghai. One could even go as far as to suggest that the Japanese protected the community. However, this explicit distinction in absent from the museums display material.

The story of the Jewish experience of life under Japanese rule is told in a separate part of the museum, this section is to be viewed once the broader context of the Holocaust has been (re)enforced. However, attempts to unearth evidence of collaboration between Germany and Japan proved to be unconvincing. The strongest link between Japanese controlled Shanghai and Nazi Germany in this section of the museum is purely visual. A section titled ‘Hard Times in the Hongkou Ghetto’ places two picture of Japanese officials alongside two pictures of German officials. Despite being four separate photographs an association is created between the Japanese and German officials through the photographs’ physical locations.

A caption under a picture of Colonel Josef Meisinger, known as the “Butcher of Warsaw”, explains that he ‘proposed a plan (‘final solution’ in Shanghai) to Japanese occupation authorities in 1942 to murder Jews in Shanghai.’ The use of the term ‘proposed’ suggests that there was no diplomatic pressure from Germany. The fact that the proposal to exterminate approximately 20,000 Jews was rejected by the Japanese is also neglected throughout the exhibit. The museum obscures the fact that Japanese authorities rejected a ‘final solution’ for Shanghai by simply not mentioning this fact – perhaps unsurprising, given the museums victim narrative and a sympathetic prospective audience.

Attempts to compare conditions in the Shanghai ghetto with the concentration camps of Europe are wide of the mark. While it would be wrong to suggest the Jews did not suffer, this was a time of global suffering, there does not appear to have been active maltreatment by the Japanese beyond the formation of the ghetto itself.

Evidence of Jewish settlement in the Hongkou District, Shanghai.
Evidence of Jewish settlement in the Hongkou District, Shanghai.

Attempts to place Japanese atrocities on a par with the Holocaust are common in Chinese memorials, which often seek to emulate or borrow from Holocaust memorials. Qi Kang, designer of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, even compares his design to Western Holocaust museums. This is perhaps partly an attempt to place the Chinese victim narrative into a recognisable international framework, alongside other victim narratives of the conflict. Modern Chinese history has been brought back into the focus of wider historiography as a result.

It is an oversimplification to speak of just ‘World War II’ or of an ‘International War on Fascism’. Perhaps we do need to be more specific and speak of the ‘War of Resistance Against Japan’, ‘Pacific War’, ‘War in Western Europe’ and the ‘War in Eastern Europe’. Nevertheless, the nature of the problem for Chinese historians remains the same, how to re-internationalise Chinese history whilst maintaining the nationalistic narrative required for by China’s modern patriotic education.

The atrocities committed by Imperial Japan against the rest of Asia are inexcusable but the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum clearly shows that these atrocities were distanced from, and not directly related to, those carried out against the Jews in Europe. From a Japanese perspective, it would be wrong to be overly critical of the implementation of a Chinese victim narrative, after all, this is something post-war Japan has also been guilty of, in light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, the history presented by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, sponsored by Chinese and Israeli benefactors, is something that should be questioned – sites of war memory should not place emphasis upon particular narratives whilst neglecting other perspectives in order to gain sympathy for a given cause, to appease their target audience or to build ties between nations.

Opening Ceremony of Israel-China Relations Exhibition & Launch of the Shanghai Jews Database Held at the Museum
Opening Ceremony of Israel-China Relations Exhibition & Launch of the Shanghai Jews Database Held at the Museum

Comparing the Songhu Memorials of 1934 and 1989.

The first of a series of articles by Lewis Tatt.
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Before the opening and reform that followed the death of Chairman Mao, the past century of Chinese history was told as a narrative of revolution. Japanese invasion and the Second World War were merely chapters in this narrative, sandwiched somewhere between the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the civil war between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT).

The Shanghai Longhua Martyrs Memorial Hall (上海龙华烈士纪念馆) exemplifies this traditional narrative, stating that ‘the battle of resistance against Japan […] added a glorious page to the military annals of the Chinese revolution…’

In this historiography, the Chinese nation was not viewed as a weak victim of Japanese aggression. Quite the opposite, China’s war casualties became ‘outstanding sons and daughters of the Chinese nation’ who ‘died heroically’.

Since China’s opening and reform in 1978 this narrative has changed. The 1980s saw an increasing emphasis upon Japanese wartime atrocities, an emphasis that the national consciousness was previously lacking. Consequently, many memorial sites to Japanese atrocities sprang up, such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall (侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆) which was constructed in 1985.

One book on the Nanjing Massacre, written in 1962, by scholars at Nanjing University’s history department was even, according to its English translator, made a classified document in China and ‘could not be published openly’. This pre-reform period emphasis away from atrocity might have been an attempt to consciously overlook the KMT’s role in the war of resistance against Japan.

The Second World War in China was preceded and followed by civil war between the communist CCP and the nationalist KMT. Defeated in 1949, the KMT fled to Taiwan, where a ‘rebel’ government held China’s seat at the UN until 1971.

Since the defenders at Nanjing in 1937 were nationalist forces and the nationalist government on Taiwan remained a potential threat, this event did not sit easily into a heroic revolutionary communist narrative.

However, following the opening and reform, China has moved towards what Wang Hui describes as ‘depoliticised politics’. In other words, China’s population is discouraged from being politically active. The government desires above all social stability and continuing economic growth. Political activity, particularly of the type witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, could only damage China’s recent economic success.

It has been argued that, under market reform and depoliticised politics, the traditional narrative of heroic revolutionary upheaval became obsolete. Such a narrative, glorifying revolution and encouraging political activity, might even be threatening to post-reform China.

Increased emphasis placed upon Japanese wartime atrocities, therefore, might well have been an attempt to provide a new focal point for Chinese nationalism that was not part of the revolutionary ideal that had been left behind in the wake of market reform.

Most of this idea of a changing narrative is pieced together from relatively recent public history sites and museums. One thing that seems to be conspicuously missing in large cities in China is war memorials produced during or soon after the war. I am of course referring to the types of memorials to World War I and World War II that are found all over Europe.

Perhaps this is down to cultural difference. Chinese culture traditionally places great importance upon revering dead ancestors, with a national holiday designated ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’ (清明节), in which families will gather together to clean the ancestral tombs. Since the family unit has both a designated place and time for remembrance of the dead it is possible that public remembrance in the form of memorials is not as necessary as in Western Europe.

However, at least some memorials were made very soon after conflicts took place. The Battle of Songhu took place in 1932 in what is now a suburb of Shanghai. Two years later a monument was built near the West Lake in Hangzhou. This was probably China’s first monument to the anti-Japanese war, and was dedicated to the 88th division that was sent in support of the 19th Army Corps defending Shanghai.

Songhu Memorial (1934)
Songhu Memorial (1934)

The monument was, however, dismantled in the 1960s. The fact the monument was commemorating the heroic deeds of a KMT army division might not have been entirely unrelated to the dismantling, considering that a nearby monument to the Chinese Volunteer Army of the Korean War survived the 1960s unscathed.

Contemporary photographs (above) reveal the original appearance of the monument, which consisted of a tall concrete block topped with a statue of two soldiers. It is tall, proud and militaristic.

An inscription describes the 88th Army as inflicting serious damage on the Japanese forces (重创日军), but otherwise information is minimal. In many ways, this monument is in sharp contrast with another monument – dedicated to the 19th Army Corps, which the 88th Army had been sent to support in the Battle of Songhu.

memorial (1989)
Songhu Memorial (1989)

Firstly, the 19th Army monument is located near the site of the battle, in a district of Shanghai. Unlike the monument to the 88th Army, it was not constructed soon after the battle and during the continuing conflict with Japan, but over fifty years later, in 1989. The appearance is smaller and much simpler in scale and, perhaps most significantly, it is surrounded by an abundance of large information boards (no less than 18).

Gone is the heroic aura of the monument to the 88th Army, instead, an inscription on the monument itself describes almost tragically the 19th Army Corps being completely wiped out by the Japanese (被日军炮火所毁). A nearby information board echoes this tone, explaining that, because of the huge disparity of strength between the Japanese and Chinese forces, the 19th Army Corps was completely wiped out. (在敌我实力悬殊下终告失败。 十九路军番号亦被取消。)

Rather than just reflecting on the military campaign, as the monument to the 88th army does, the information boards go much further, describing and events that cannot help but anger the reader. One such information board shows a photograph of a Japanese soldier bayoneting what appears to be a bound body with the caption describing the soldier as ‘torturing to death an innocent Chinese civilian’. (虐杀着无辜的中国百姓。)

Evidence of alledged torture at the hands of the Japanese displayed at the 1989 memorial.
Evidence of alleged torture at the hands of the Japanese displayed at the 1989 memorial.

The large number of information boards suggests that visitors to the site need to go away with certain knowledge. This is not a memorial in the sense of being a place where people come to mourn and remember the dead, but a site of patriotic education where everyone from local party members to school children take part in activities. With this in mind the date for the construction of the monument becomes significant; September 1989, three months after a certain incident involving students and tanks in a Beijing public square.

Just as the Chinese population was increasingly beginning to question the government, monuments were appearing that focused not on revolutionary spirit or military heroics, as they previously had, but on an external enemy. The 1934 monument to the Songhu battle fills the viewer with pride, both with its physical presence and its description of martyrs (阵亡将士) who died inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese.

By contrast, the 1989 monument lectures on a victim narrative that angers the reader, once again unifies the Chinese nation against an external aggressor many decades after the event and potentially distracts attention away from other current domestic problems.

Impressions of Colonial Taipei.

By Austin Smith.
Background:

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.

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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.

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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.

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

Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz:

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.

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Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz
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The interior of Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz

Bopilao:

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.

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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.

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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.

An English Inscription by Shimazu Tadashige, 1908.

By Austin Smith.

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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.