February 06, 2006

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What An Aso

Japan has long been known to be an insular society. But it does not necessarily follow that it should be singularly incapable of producing a foreign minister that calms, rather than agitates, the ocean of discontent between the shores of China and Japan.

It must be difficult to be considered by your neighbors a has-been power. It must make one contemplate the past. How easy it must have been, some right-wing Japanese must think, when to nullify China all one had to do was to manufacture an 'incident' (think Marco Polo Bridge, 1937). But that is hardly any excuse for a Foreign Minister of Japan, Taro Aso (Mr. Potatohead?), in this day an age, to claim credit in a neighbor for colonial policies implemented when Japan was in charge. To wit, I quote from the Japan Times:

Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Saturday that Taiwan's present high educational standards resulted from compulsory education implemented during Japan's colonization of the island and that he believes Japan "did a good thing."

"Thanks to the significant improvement in educational standards and literacy (during colonization), Taiwan is now a country with a very high education level and keeps up with the current era," Aso said in remarks that risk sparking criticism from Taiwan and other Asian countries that suffered from Japanese wartime aggression.

"This is something I was told by an important figure in Taiwan and all the elderly people knew about it," Aso told an audience in Fukuoka. "That was a time when I felt that, as expected, our predecessors did a good thing."

He also for good measure called Taiwan a 'country' and also suggested that the former President Lee Teng-Hui could be invited to come visit Japan.

This as you can imagine has brought out furious reactions from the normally soft-spoken Chinese Foreign Ministry. Aso effectively hit on all three of China's psychohistorical bugbears: 1) Its past as the "Gateaux Chinois", carved up by the imperialist powers a century ago, kicked off by the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 (that made Taiwan a colony of Japan); 2) The ongoing efforts of Taiwan to become an independent country; and 3) the wartime atrocities of Japan in China during World War II.

An astute politician perhaps that knows how to press the buttons of his right-wing audience while conjuring up past demons for China. But this Aso is no diplomat.

posted by HK Dave on 02.06.06 at 10:16 AM in the Japan category.


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Undiplomatic discourse
Excerpt: Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso put on a veritable clinic on pissing off your largest neighbor Saturday by not only referring to Taiwan as a country, but also by praising the role Japanese colonialism played in the territory, especially in the field...
Weblog: From the Nakdong to the Yalu
Tracked: February 8, 2006 08:05 AM


"This is something I was told by an important figure in Taiwan"

the important figure is probably Lee Tenghui. He was one of the few who got the opportunity to study in Kyoto University.

posted by: sun bin on 02.06.06 at 11:15 AM [permalink]

Indeed, Sun Bin. Given the deafening silence from Taiwan's official channels about what for most territories or 'countries' would be a real slap in the face, I can only come to 2 conclusions: 1) This is a very dangerous foreign policy gambit by Japan to more clearly and closely align itself with Taiwan (despite the fact that such statements may alienate segments of Taiwan's population) and that 2) the historic view that Japan's colonization of Taiwan was an overall positive experience (one held by substantial numbers of pre-WWII ethnic Taiwanese has prevailed at least in Taiwan's own foreign policy circles.

posted by: HK Dave on 02.06.06 at 12:57 PM [permalink]

Cool! Just stumbled across this blog - looks very much informative. Will be checking in regularly...

posted by: rachel on 02.06.06 at 06:25 PM [permalink]

Not sure if the Taiwanese are likely to be upset though. One of my professors at uni (specialist in Taiwan/Japan) once mentioned that a lot of the guards in Japan's SE Asian POW camps were actually from Taiwan, and that Taiwanese were among the fiercest soldiers fighting on islands like Okinawa against the advancing Americans. Not sure it was many of them, but it's certainly not something I've read anywhere else...

posted by: Duncan on 02.06.06 at 07:02 PM [permalink]

But why would Aso want to be a diplomat? He's a politician first and foremost. He wants to succeed Koizumi, and he feels like he's not going to make it by toeing the line, as heir apparent Shinzo Abe has been doing. Politically, Aso's statement makes total sense; many people in the higher levels of power don't want Japan to suck up to China.

posted by: Joe on 02.06.06 at 11:39 PM [permalink]

You forgot explanation #3 Dave. That the Taiwan authorities are attempting to align themselves closer to Japan in the vain hope that they can somehow depend on direct Japanese aid in the advent of war. To make this so, they will take any number of slaps to the face.

posted by: Jing on 02.07.06 at 03:20 AM [permalink]

Hi Duncan, that's right, several of the guards at the Stanley internment camp were actually Taiwanese, some were also Sikh Indians that had collaborated with the Japanese during the War.

Joe, fair enough, but doesn't it mean anything to be "Foreign Minister"? Surely doing something vaguely similar to the job description would be correct.

Jing, I quite agree that this is a mutual thing, hence the silence from Taiwan. Chen Shui-Bian is desperate given his incompetence in actually running the country (as opposed to trying on confrontational China policies), and the experience of having been colonized by Japan is indeed the most important event in the historic experience of Taiwan that has made it even possible for its people to claim that they are different from China. It seems like the right wing nutcases in Japan and the hardcore independence flag-wavers in Taiwan are forming an alliance. A logical, if Quixotic and slightly suicidal, combination. Particularly now as the US is demonstrating how little patience it has with Chen and his furious attempts to drive a wedge between the US and China.

posted by: HK Dave on 02.07.06 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

I'd say Aso's comments and the fact that they are even tolerated at the highest levels in Japan is symptomatic of a quiet resurgence of nationalist sentiment that's been going on for some time. There is a disturbing pattern emerging - from the persecution of teachers in places like Fukuoka for talking about Japan's wartime record, to the rhetoric we're hearing over the Okinawa military base discussions, to the Yakasuni visits. Aso's remarks are yet another demonstration of a shift in thinking wrought by 13 very uncomfortable years in economic stagnation as the rest of Asia rises.

posted by: David on 02.07.06 at 11:23 AM [permalink]

I don't think Japan's move toward Taiwan is driven by any alliance between Japanese Rightists and Taiwan Independence supporters, but rather by China's recent military buildup and its projection of power into the seas around it. As a result, Japan is nervous and seeking allies to chain the Dragon, while Taiwan is always seeking allies against China. Alliances between two nations in strategic opposition to China, and occupying adjoining sea spaces, are more or less inevitable.

and the experience of having been colonized by Japan is indeed the most important event in the historic experience of Taiwan that has made it even possible for its people to claim that they are different from China.

That's one interpretation. But a nascent Taiwan consciousness predates that. At the beginning of Japanese rule in 1895 the Japanese offered everyone who wanted free passage back to China. Only a tiny handful of individuals took it. Years of guerilla warfare against the Japanese followed.

What Japanese colonialism did, like colonialisms everywhere, was help foster a sense that the Taiwanese were "Formosans" as opposed to Fukienese, Hakka, Cantonese, etc. Taiwan was always different anyway -- it has a much larger Hakka admixture than China, independent aborigines, a long history of contact with the outside world, and no history of rule by an ethnic Chinese emperor. Taiwan is a pioneer territory, with all that implies. Whether that difference should form the basis for a national polity, though, is ultimately a question of values.


posted by: Michael Turton on 02.07.06 at 06:11 PM [permalink]

"That's one interpretation. But a nascent Taiwan consciousness predates that. At the beginning of Japanese rule in 1895 the Japanese offered everyone who wanted free passage back to China. Only a tiny handful of individuals took it. Years of guerilla warfare against the Japanese followed."

I disagree Michael, Taiwanese sub-nationalism, "consciousness" if you will, is a direct result of the Japanese occupation and the succeeding KMT one. The example you cite, is unfortunately very problematic. Simply put, even if the island was full of raging Chinese nationalists, unless faced with annihilation, few people are willing to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

posted by: Jing on 02.07.06 at 10:34 PM [permalink]

Dear Michael, I respect your opinions, and recognize that many of the Taiwan people you live with feel they are indeed very different from Chinese. I do think that the experience of being a citizen of the PRC over the past 60-odd years is very different from that of a ROC/Taiwan resident.

I have to confess up front, though, that I do not support the formal independence of Taiwan, and have little sympathy for the DPP.

I think that while Taiwan has had a unique history, and contact with/experience of Portuguese, Dutch, and Ming rebels (and Japanese pirates), I think one could say that uniqueness also exists for areas like Tibet or Xinjiang (less contact, but more cultural differences). Whether you think those territories should or should not have been annexed to China is also debatable, but then one could similarly examine American claims to California, Australians to Australia, etc etc. My point is simply that a history of having been on the fringe of imperial Chinese rule and dubious claims to ethnic uniqueness from China proper do not seem sufficiently 'unique' in as of itself, when compared to other PRC territories, to warrant exclusive nationality on that reason alone.

The worst thing about the legacy of colonialism in the 21st century is that it has left behind many messy geopolitical situations that remain to this day - Taiwan, Palestine, Lebanon and Sudan come to mind. Some have been managed better (Singapore) than others (Liberia, or the Indian partition). The vacuum left by any colonial power upon withdrawal causes huge national trauma that has usually proved to have been worse than any 'benefits' brought by the colonial experience.

In the case of Taiwan, I believe that the entity from which it was taken in a blatantly imperialistic fashion (Qing China) by Japan still exists in a reconstituted form as the PRC, which in my mind means that the PRC's claims to Taiwan as part of its territory as legitimate, particularly given the way in which the ROC was created in the first place by the previously legally constituted government of China.

I am not one of the nutcases that thinks any kind of military solution is appropriate. But given that Taiwan's entire economic well-being and future depends on China, methinks the people of Taiwan should treat its neighbors across the Strait with a little more consideration and respect, and be satisfied with Taiwan's de facto independence in practice if not in name.

posted by: HK Dave on 02.07.06 at 11:04 PM [permalink]

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