After the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894/95, by signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki on April 17th, 1895, China was forced to concede Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity. In fact, Japanese rule lasted for 50 years until the end of World War II.
The film Wansei Back by Taiwanese film director Huang Ming-cheng (born 1970) took almost 20 years to make and was released in Taiwan on October 16th, 2015.
It’s about the estimated 80,000 Japanese born during the colonial era who were repatriated to Japan afterwards. About 300,000 Japanese citizens were forced to leave in 1945/46. Many of those who considered Taiwan their home didn’t do so voluntarily.
In part to avenge decade-long humiliation, the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), who took over Formosa after Nippon’s unconditional surrender, opted to basically deport all of them.
After Japanese administrators, military personnel and professionals had quickly been deployed from 1895 on, the story of these Wansheng (in Mandarin) or Wansei (in Japanese) began in 1909.
Large numbers of settlers started relocating to Taiwan, which was to be developed into a model colony. By setting an example for the locals, these would be encouraged to adopt Japanese culture and customs.
Required to bring their families, they were expected to engage mostly in agriculture. In the beginning these new communities were concentrated near Hualien on the scarcely-populated eastern coast, where abundant free land meant that colonists wouldn’t have to compete with Taiwanese.
Nevertheless, life was very hard for the first colonists, as they struggled with regular natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes, hunger, poor sanitation and medical care, little official support, diseases like malaria and diarrhea as well as conflicts with hostile aborigines of Austronesian descent.
Though some borrowed money to go back, most had to stay in Formosa. Arduous efforts and sacrifice step by step led to modest improvements in rice farming and sugar cane harvesting on small allotments of land.
By the 1930s, the majority of these new Taiwanese enjoyed a relatively good life and the future looked bright. Sanitation, security and education had vastly improved.
The beginning of the Pacific War on December 7th, 1941 marked the beginning of the end, not only for the Wansei. It first brought material appropriations, then military duty and finally repatriation to Japan.
Thinking they would someday come back, they left almost every personal possession behind, as well as homes, temples, shops schools and cemeteries.
The worst affected were farmers, who had slowly nurtured barren soil into productivity and whose age made starting anew a daunting prospect.
Penniless, the unfortunates arrived in a starving nation devastated by American bombings, where they clearly weren’t welcome and forced to live under extremely difficult conditions.
Probably more than in Taiwan, they were treated as outsiders. Their fellow countrymen considered them not be real “Japanese”, spoiled by a cultural environment very different from their supposed fatherland.
In consequence, many continued to regard Taiwan as home decades after their forced departure. Abruptly set adrift, the Wansei struggled with a sense of profound loss for the rest of their lives.
On the other hand, those childhood memories weren’t necessarily painful. Some of the few Wansei able to visit after many years found the same snacks they remembered from childhood, still knew how to choose the best water melons or sing a traditional Taiwanese folk song.
Nevertheless, a gentleman wept when a local official gave him an old household registration card to show that he once lived in that specific neighborhood. That was probably out of sheer joy! Even his daughter nowadays understands why he missed Taiwan so much…
One of those expelled was artist Tateishi Tetsuomi (1905-1980), forced to abandon a substantial part of his paintings, which reflected the colorful landscape of his native land.
His promising career suddenly curtailed, Tateishi continued to paint until his death, but mostly worked as (cover) illustrator for encyclopedias, scientific publications and children’s books.
I couldn’t hold back my tears myself while I was watching the movie with my girlfriend in a Taipei cinema shortly after its premiere. After 15 years there I had already developed a special relationship with Taiwan.
Little did I know then that for personal reasons I would be back in Spain temporarily two and a half years later. Although I grew up in Valencia as a German, it very soon became evident that my heart remained in Asia. I can’t wait to be back on my favorite island!
P.D.: I truly recommend Wansei Back! It’s long, but never gets boring!