Saturday, September 10, 2011

Taiwan still very much a 'little Japan'

STEP into any convenience store in Taiwan and you will find oden, a Japanese snack comprising skewers of fish paste cooked in a bath of steaming broth. Go shopping at Shinkong Mitsukoshi and Sogo, the two main department store chains, and you'll be greeted by uniformed girls ushering you into lifts with deep bows and sweet smiles.

By Lee Seok Hwai , Taiwan Correspondent

Visit a Taiwanese home and chances are, there will be a wooden-floored Japanese room complete with tatami mats and a low table, or a Zen garden with bamboo water pipes and pebbled footpaths.

More than 60 years after the last Japanese occupying forces left Taiwan, ending half a century of colonial rule, heat from the Land of the Rising Sun still radiates through an island that it once sought to turn into Little Japan.

Be it cuisine, architecture, fashion, pop culture or even values, the Japanese have left an indelible mark.

Taxi driver Chang Kun-te, for example, prefers to listen to Japanese songs on the job, even though he speaks a mixture of Mandarin and the Minnan dialect.

'My parents grew up during the occupation and they were fond of listening to Japanese songs at home,' the middle-aged cabby told this reporter while driving through the streets of Taipei.

'I speak little Japanese myself, but I like Japanese songs because they were what I grew up with.'

Younger Taiwanese have also embraced Japanese design.

Mr Wu Tsung-han, an interior designer at FPing Interior Design Centre, said three in 10 of his clients ask for a Japanese-style room, while Mr Chiu Jui-cong, who runs He Feng Landscaping company, said about 70 per cent of his projects are done in the Zen fashion.

'I think this affinity for Japanese landscaping is an extension of the colonial era,' he said.

Taiwan was ceded by China after the latter's defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war in 1894. From 1895 until Japan's surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, successive colonial administrations transformed the island from a chaotic, backward and agricultural society into a thriving industrialised outpost with railways, roads, irrigated farmlands, hospitals and schools.

As it went all out in its quest to conquer Asia, Japan wanted to make Taiwan a 'model colony'.

While that ambition ultimately failed, remnants of that era can be found everywhere in Taiwan.

The Japanese Governor's office in Taipei's Zhong Zheng district is now the Presidential Office.

The southern municipality of Kaohsiung, Taipei's shopping mecca Ximenting and Taroko, the popular national park in eastern Taiwan, are Japanese by their very names.

The National Taiwan University's College of Medicine remains the most prestigious in the land, more than 100 years after its founding as the Taiwan Governor Medical School.

Non-spicy Japanese-style curry and miso soup often sit side by side with Chinese dishes on Taiwanese dinner tables.

And these are just some of the tangible legacies. Systems and values such as the rule of law, an abiding sense of punctuality and civilised habits are ingrained into the Taiwanese psyche, historians say.

'The Japanese taught us to be punctual, to queue, to follow rules,' said Dr Li Hsiao-feng of the National Taipei University of Education's Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture.

Physicians, he also noted, are still regarded as the most elite profession in Taiwan because the Japanese masters pushed the brightest Taiwanese to study medicine as a way of improving health conditions on the sub-tropical island once plagued by contagious diseases.

Japan's influence was so entrenched that by the time the Kuomintang government regained control of Taiwan after World War II, tensions flared between the two million mainland settlers it brought and native Taiwanese, whose ancestors had come from China centuries earlier.

'The mainlanders were seen as brutish. They were neither punctual nor orderly,' said Dr Li.

Decades of integration - broken by the occasional skirmish - later, the general sentiment towards Japan is a complicated cocktail of fondness and resentment, divided along ethnic and generational lines.

'Mainlanders, especially the older folk, don't like the Japanese because of their deeper ties with China and the war of resistance against Japan,' said Dr Li.

There are also 500,000 aboriginals whose fathers and grandfathers were mercilessly exploited by the Japanese as hard labour. Many were exterminated in uprisings against the colonial rulers, as depicted in the latest Taiwanese blockbuster, Seediq Bale.

But, said Dr Li, older native Taiwanese, including his father, generally see Japan in a positive light.

'My generation less so because we were taught about China's war of resistance in school,' he said. 'But for the younger generation, because history textbooks are more Taiwan- rather than China-centric, that anti-Japan sentiment is very much diluted.'

So it was no surprise that Taiwan, with only 23 million people, was the world's biggest donors to Japan after the country was devastated by a tsunami in March. Taiwan donated NT$7 billion (S$291 million), the highest in the world.

And even as memories of the colonisation fade, the Japanese influence is here to stay.

Professor Lu Shao-li of National Chengchi University notes that economic and cultural links remain strong, 60 years after the Japanese left.

Before Taiwan opened its doors to tourists from China in 2008, Japan was its biggest source of tourism dollars. Taiwan remains Japan's contract manufacturing base, and about 24,000 Japanese work or study on the island, forming one of the biggest foreign communities here.

Some of Taiwan's top leaders, such as former president Lee Teng-hui and Mr Chiang Pin-kung, Taiwan's chief negotiator with China, were even educated at Japanese universities.

Said Prof Lu: 'Japan's influence will evolve, but not fade.'