The Overlooked Japanese Roots of Taiwanese-Americans

Why older Taiwanese people have such an affinity for Japanese culture

Ever wonder why old Taiwanese people pick Japanese songs at karaoke (shouldn’t they be picking Chinese songs)? Or perfectly line up their shoes with toes facing out? How about a general affinity for Japanese culture, and their inability to speak Mandarin despite being from Taiwan?

That’s because they’re more Japanese than Chinese, and they should be, if they were born and spent formative years in Taiwan before 1945 — when Taiwan was a Japanese colony and ethnically Taiwanese people were fully immersed in a culture that produced “good Japanese citizens.” All my grandparents were raised in Japanese language and culture, and though they spoke Taiwanese all their lives, would have nostalgia sharply marked by Japanese folk songs and other customs learned in childhood. It’s a huge possibility that many young Taiwanese-Americans have grandparents with similar life experiences (That’s a dare — go find out from your grandparents and prove me right or wrong!).

What led up to this cultural blend is the story of a real-life Asian Game of Thrones, in which the Chinese throne was battled over simultaneously by the Ching Dynasty, the Japanese, the Communists, and the Nationalist Army (the KMT). The Bertolucci film The Last Emperor is a good starting point to understand the context of how Taiwan’s history was shaped because it tells the story of Japan setting up a puppet regime through the scion of the Ching dynasty. The eponymous last emperor, Pu-Yi, went from being a property of the Japanese to later being punished by the Chinese Communists — and this mirrors the story of Taiwan.

After the Ching Dynasty succumbed to Japanese powers, Taiwan was signed over to Japan and became a colony. Japanese governors, architects, and engineers worked diligently to systematically absorb Taiwan and its people into the Japanese way of life. A study of historical maps and photographs would show that this concerted effort by the Japanese colonists was to have produced the desired result of anyone from “mainland Japan” setting foot in Taiwan and knowing exactly how everything worked — because it would all be precisely the same as Japan. This included major reshaping of the natural geography and landscape of Taiwan; many agricultural landmarks, especially those having to do with water control, were highly engineered projects that to this day demonstrate how the Japanese tamed nature in Taiwan.

Another huge piece of Japanese legacy is the cultural assimilation. Unlike the Dutch or Portuguese colonists who came before them, the Japanese invested in a mandatory educational program so that the Taiwanese subjects could be properly literate and cultured — and if they earned the merit or distinction, could then finish their education in Japan where the higher educational institutions were. If a Taiwanese subject proved to be academically promising, the natural progression of their life choices would revolve around scholarly programs that would take them to Japan, and in some cases (depending on the field of study), North America or Europe.

If nothing else, this educational system alone would explain why septuagenarians and octogenarians might identify more as culturally Japanese, even if they’ve never had the citizenship or paperwork to prove it. While they may have had typically Chinese names, they would have unlikely learned how to read or write in Chinese — and if they spoke Taiwanese Hokkien at home (which they likely did), that dialect was not codified and therefore had no written form in their childhood. Therefore, going to school essentially meant being socialized as future Japanese adults.

But then World War II happened, and when it was over, the KMT soldiers began taking over Taiwan. Suddenly, there was a generation of Japanese citizens (“second-class” or otherwise) who found themselves in a foreign country with a different language (even though they stayed in the same geographical location). It just so happened that both Chinese and Japanese in written form (especially in the early 20th century) were made up of characters with the same or very similar meanings, so the transition between the two languages would have been “easier” than either of those languages to, say, English. The older adult generation may or may not have recognized they were reliving the past, when the Japanese colonists arrived, but the younger generation would have been the first to eventually mass-migrate to North America. Alternatively, their children (the Boomer generation) would mass-migrate even more, just in plain numbers, and the preceding generation would sometimes follow. This is how numerous millennial Taiwanese-Americans may have grown up with some of their grandparents in the US, but (generally speaking) not their great-grandparents — and why the historical link to Japan is practically forgotten.

In North America, the inter/pre-World War II group is called the Silent Generation because they grew up during war and great economic gloom, and as children they were expected to be seen and not heard. For the Taiwanese equivalents, their silence came partly from the fact that not one but two additional cultures to their parents’ were imposed upon them, with varying degrees of a violent clash each time. The Japanese taught them to be submissive, and the Chinese punished them for being traitors and Japanese sympathizers. Now come their grandchildren, who were born and/or raised from very young ages in North American culture, where nuanced Asian history is neither taught well nor thoroughly. It’s no wonder there is a generational gulf where communication is marked by voids of verbal exchange.

There is hope, however, and a way to bridge that gap. Historic preservation, while on the surface seems about conserving physical objects for museum collections, is ultimately about telling stories of the past with future generations in mind. The concept is exponentially gaining popularity with each passing year; the US government has designated the entire month of May as National Preservation Month, which means pockets of Asian-American communities and organizations are celebrating the resurrection of those forgotten memories that would have defined our 長輩 (elders). And as a bunch of ancestor-worshippers, that should be easy, right?

This article originally appeared on on May 21, 2020. It was the first in a series related to Japanese Colonial, a built heritage documentation project.

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