Taiwan´s imperial subjects still speak Japanese

A girls school in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period

Although Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, Japan and its culture are held in high regard in former Formosa. Nowhere in the world is that admiration more pronounced than among the elderly who were brought up to consider themselves subjects of the Emperor in Tokyo.

Such a positive attitude by the older generation would be unthinkable of in Korea and China. There, due to very different and often quite negative experiences, strong resentment against Nippon persists until this day, even among young people who have no personal memories.

The explanation for this astonishing phenomenon lays in the perception that the Japanese, although being very strict and sometimes cruel, at least were incorrupt and capable. When after Japan´s defeat in World War II in 1945 the new Chinese masters landed on the island, they soon proved to be reckless and condescending.

Arrogant Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek treated the Taiwanese who suddenly had become their compatriots as second-ranked citizens, just as the colonial officers had done with their subjects. They did so for very different reasons, though the result was the same and contributed to the alienation between both groups, which still can be felt.

When I arrived in Taipei in August 1988, my Japanese was much better than my Mandarin. While sitting in a restaurant, an old man who didn’t speak Chinese wanted to sell me chewing gum, something I never liked. So I kindly refused in Japanese, but I felt bad about not buying anything as he probably had no other source of income.

He then asked me a little favor: to write down an English sentence using the Japanese “alphabet”, so he could try his luck with other foreigners. I gladly did so and he left very happy.

Many years later and back in Taiwan, I regularly went to a local gym in the morning. There I would meet a bunch of Ojisan, the polite Japanese term for an older man used by native Taiwanese, who were having a chat in Japanese while not exercising.

The acculturation, even 60 years later, seemed obvious to me. It didn’t look (or sound) pretentious, it just happened naturally. As in my case Japanese basically had been replaced by Chinese, they nevertheless were very happy to chat with me.

I just wonder how they would have reacted if I had spoken to them in the “foreign” language they had learned at school and in which they apparently remained fluent. I guess they would have enjoyed our conversation even more-and me too!



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