At Tainans Hayashi Department Store, the colonial era is recreated, from in-store muzak to the uniforms of the sales clerks. Photo: Tom Coyner

Anyone who has spent time in Northeast Asia will be struck by differences in perspectives among the region’s three democracies and economic powerhouses – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The differences in the attitudes of Taiwanese and Koreans towards their Japanese colonial pasts are particularly striking.

Taiwan’s attitudes toward Japan range from ambivalence to positive. Korea has a hostile attitude towards Japan that is at least partially reciprocated by Japan’s attitudes towards its vexing neighbor.

These differences largely stem from history, and resultant self identities.

National identities

Taiwanese self-awareness is more complicated. For most of history, the island was largely ruled by competing indigenous tribes. While the Chinese long recognized the large island some 100 miles off of their coast, it was of minor concern. Only when Western powers arrived did Beijing take notice. From then on, a Taiwanese identity can be traced. But it’s convoluted.

In 1648, the Dutch attempted to establish a settlement in what is now Tainan. The location was already infamous – the Yanshui River sandbars created a labyrinth in which pirates and smugglers hid. The Dutch colony featured two forts from where profitable trade was conducted with Manila, major Chinese ports and Nagasaki.  

By 1644, the Qing Dynasty was established across China. It sent an overwhelming military force and closed down the Dutch. From that point forward, Chinese emperors were remarkably inconsistent in Taiwan policy.  

In 1724, Emperor Yongzheng established local administrative districts and removed immigration bans, issuing permits and land grants. Many Chinese moved to Taiwan, sparking conflict with indigenous tribes. Subsequently, Emperor Qinlong neglected Taiwan. This cycle continued until 1895 when the Qing dynasty ceded the island to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War.

For the first time, Taiwanese were permanently ruled by a competent government. The Japanese developed the island’s infrastructure and introduced public education. Sensitive to world opinion, they attempted to be model colonialists.

Even so, Taiwan rice and sugar was exported to the metropole, and Taiwan served as a base for Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific during World War II. More than 80,000 Taiwanese were conscripted into the Japanese army during World War II and about 30,000 died.

In 1949, after losing mainland China in the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China government under the Kuomingtang (KMT) withdrew to Taiwan, where KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law. During the immediate postwar period, the KMT administration was repressive and corrupt compared with the previous Japanese rule, leading to local discontent. Anti-mainlander violence flared. Tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed or arrested.

In Taiwan, while most people were Han Chinese, their sense of affiliation was diverse among the regions of China from which they came. This meant affiliation to an offshore location that few had opportunities to travel to. The indigenous tribes became almost insignificant minorities. As such, it was relatively easy for the Japanese to practice consistent, professional rule. The Japanese had demonstrated themselves to be the best rulers to date, and the notion of being part of a better-managed empire held attractions for many Taiwanese.

‘Nippon Daiso.’ In Taiwan, the discount store proudly advertises its Japanese heritage. Not so in Korea. Photo: Tom Coyner

Nationalist identity

Japan’s experience in Korea was more problematic.  

Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) had been the third long-lasting dynasty of a unified peninsula. There was little doubt among Koreans who they were. China was the larger, more sophisticated neighbor while Japan was the lesser, cruder nation to which Korea had passed down Confucianism, Buddhism and Sinic culture.  

But Japan was also powerful and Korea had required China to help battle the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-1598).

Joseon, for all its faults, provided stable governance and a sense of national identity. When the Japanese asserted full colonial control in 1910, there was revulsion. While Japan developed infrastructure, including public education, Japanese colonialists faced a different set of challenges compared to Taiwan.

A strong xenophobic tradition against Chinese, Mongols and Japanese continued. The Japanese education system justified colonization by demeaning the accomplishments of Joseon. The Japanese pointed out the inferiorities of Korean culture and reminded their colonized subjects how much better off they were in the Japanese Empire. Some Koreans accepted or pretended to accept this, while others plotted various liberation schemes.

Uprising against Japan

Contrast each nation’s uprising against the Japanese. Taiwan briefly established the Republic of Formosa, which was proclaimed on May 23, 1895, and extinguished on October 21, when the Republican capital, Tainan, was taken by Japanese forces. Today, this is taught in Taiwanese textbooks, but there is no special annual commemoration.

In Korea, a major national holiday commemorates and re-enacts the March 1st Movement of 1919.  On that day, a declaration of independence was read and the printed proclamation was widely distributed nationwide. During the following six weeks, approximately 2 million Koreans participated in the more than 1,500 demonstrations.

Koreans claim more than 7,500 people were killed, 15,500 wounded and 46,000 arrested, but the Japanese recorded drastically smaller numbers. Today, Korean textbooks highlight the uprising as a hallmark of Korean nationalism.

The March 1 national holiday commemorates the struggle against Japanese colonialism and the Korean national identity. Photo: Tom Coyner

A researcher at the Taiwan National Museum told Asia Times that attitudes toward Japan are “complicated,” depending on family background. Families who arrived during the late 1940s with the KMT remain somewhat hostile toward Japan, as much of the first half of the 20th century involved fighting both Chinese communists and Japanese imperialists. Many young people from non-KMT families, however, have a casual attitude about the colonial period.

They enjoy retrospective reproductions of the Japanese era, such as Tainan’s trendy Hayashi Department Store. Store muzak is popular Japanese marches from the 1930s, sales clerks wear the era’s uniforms, many goods mimic Japanese colonial motifs and a faux Shinto shrine sits on the roof. Elsewhere in Taiwan, a few Shinto shrines are preserved as historical and architectural monuments rather than places of worship.  

No such structures survive in Korea.

In Taiwan, Japanese chain retailers openly advertise as being Japanese and the biggest department stores in Taipei are Shin Kong Mitsukoshi. In Seoul, the original big department store, Mitsukoshi, has long been re-branded Shinsegae, with many younger Koreans ignorant of its origins.  

In both nations, Daiso discount stores blossom. In Korea, few shoppers recognize the stores as being Japanese, whereas Taiwanese branches advertise their Japanese pedigree. One can find Japanese goods on the shelves in Korea as well as Taiwan – but noticeably more in Taiwan. In Korea, consumer boycotts of Japanese products are not uncommon, but this is not so in Taiwan.

Colonial-style shopping experiences at the Hayashi Department Store in Tainan. Photo: Tom Coyner

Identity politics

Speaking broadly, the difference in attitudes comes down to inherent national identities.  

Korea has an ancient, proud culture but is an insecure entity due to its position among larger, more powerful neighbors. Repeatedly, Koreans struggled to preserve their identity and the Japanese were – unnervingly – almost successful in amalgamating Korea, and that process was only terminated by Japan’s World War II defeat. From 1945, the Koreans eagerly assumed the educational system and revamped the curriculum to promote national pride.

The Taiwanese were largely part of a larger Chinese entity with less concern about identity. Settlers were often frustrated by the lack of interest from the mainland, so became more independent in trade and agriculture. When the Japanese withdrew in 1945, many regarded the era as the end of relatively good governance.  

When the Nationalists arrived, they were confounded by how Japanese the local population had become. Under the KMT, the public school system fostered greater Chinese nationalism than ever before. However, the Taiwanese, who unquestionably thought of themselves as being Han Chinese, never felt threatened by, or were at least apathetic about, Japanese influences.  

As a result, Taiwanese self-identity is complicated and varies greatly among families. In contrast, Koreans remain hugely nationalistic and continue to be unified, yet defensive, about the matter.

Will Korea ever move past its grudge with Japan? One long-term Korea observer suggested it will – but obstacles need to be overcome. 

First, the country needs to be reunified. The jockeying between the two Koreas is often the cause for attacking Japan – and other countries. Second, a unified Korea needs to establish a more stable and confident geopolitical presence. 

These conditions, however, may be long in coming. 

Even though the chancery of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul is now a construction site amid the embassy relocation, protests are a constant. Photo: Tom Coyner