Intricate bonds behind Taiwan’s donations to Japan

TAIPEI — Taiwan, a country of 23 million people, has to date pledged approximately NT$5.9 billion (about $205 million) in relief funds following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11.

By comparison, South Korea’s 49 million people have raised 55 billion won (about $50 million), while the United States, a country of 300 million, has donated $120 million.

Taiwanese contributions have taken several forms. Charitable organizations such as the Red Cross raised NT$2.2 billion. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation has collected more than NT$1.7 billion.

In March, President Ma Ying-jeou and first lady Chow Mei-ching joined a TV fundraiser that raised NT$700 million from individual donors in four hours.

Such remarkable generosity from such a small country has led many to ask why. On one hand, the answer is simple. The Taiwanese are sympathetic to the suffering of their Asian neighbor and they are returning aid that Japan provided Taiwan in 1999 after an earthquake struck Taiwan, claiming 2,415 lives.

Of the many countries that dispatched teams to help with relief during that crisis, Japan’s was the largest. And of the NT$1.6 billion donated by the Red Cross, about 80 percent came from Japan.

Yet ties between the two countries go far deeper and stem from their colonial relationship, which lasted half a century. While other Asian countries regard the history of their Japanese occupation negatively, the Taiwanese have different feelings toward their former colonial masters.

For one thing, the Japanese colonial period from 1895 to 1945 saw great developments in Taiwan. The Japanese built railroads and highways, developed steamship lines, dredged and modernized harbors, constructed irrigation systems and built hydroelectric power plants.

Of course, this work was intended to advance Japanese interests in the region. Yet it also helped to establish the foundations of Taiwan’s industrial and economic developments in the 1950s and 1960s, laying the groundwork for the country’s current prosperity.

And the story doesn’t end with modernization. With the arrival of the Nationalist Party (KMT) after their defeat by the communists in 1949, analysts said the Taiwanese found other reasons to appreciate their Japanese rulers.

While the new occupiers had much in common culturally with island inhabitants and they instituted policies meant to turn the Taiwanese against their former colonizers, KMT corruption and brutality only produced nostalgia for the past.

It is also the case that Japan’s departure did not sever social, cultural and economic ties between the two countries, which grew close during the occupation and continued after. For example, Japanese universities provided educational opportunities unavailable at that time in Taiwan, and to this day many Taiwanese students travel there to obtain advanced degrees.

Inevitably too, colonized and colonizers met, fell in love and were married, creating cross-cultural family relationships. Indeed, just such a relationship forms the backdrop of a recent hit film in Taiwan, suggesting a basis for Japanese ties that explains their persistence across generations by way of youth culture.

Appearing in 2008, Wei Te-Sheng’s “Cape No. 7” broke box-office records with a weepy story set in Taiwan about the love between a Japanese band manager and her local rock-star boyfriend.

Their relationship succeeds, the audience learns, where one failed 60 years before when a Japanese man was forced to leave his Taiwanese sweetheart behind at the conclusion of World War II. Scenes of their sad parting appear in sepia tones periodically throughout the film, suggesting that the alienation and generational strife experienced by the contemporary characters will somehow be remedied by the pledge by the new lovers to remain together.

The film’s nostalgia for a happy colonial past is one of many signs that bonds between the two countries are not limited to older generations. Young Taiwanese people have shown great affection for various forms of Japanese popular culture, from comic books, Hello Kitty and animated films to martial arts, soap operas and romantic songs, the lyrics of which are often translated into Taiwanese and Mandarin for local audiences.

In addition to shared history, social ties and popular culture, changing geopolitical conditions in East Asia have helped renew bonds between Taiwan and Japan, pundits say.

China’s rising power is a source of mutual insecurity, along with waning confidence that the United States is willing or able to underwrite the security interests of either country.

Chinese efforts to obstruct Taiwan’s recognition as a sovereign nation by the international community have made official cooperation difficult. Yet despite the lack of diplomatic ties, Tokyo has on occasion resisted pressure from Beijing, and in ways that strengthen traditional bonds with its former colony.

One such act of solidarity was Tokyo’s decision, against Chinese objections, to allow former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit Japan to seek medical attention. Lee, who was born during the colonial era and received his education in Japan, has maintained close ties with that country and is a favorite with Japanese media.

A small gesture perhaps, yet the act of admitting Lee resonates deeply, once again, with a history of ties that transcend mere political or military alliances.

Refusing to bow to Chinese pressure to deny their former leader medical treatment was met with quiet gratitude among Taiwanese, gratitude that took a material form in the remarkable outpouring of concern and generosity for Japanese disaster relief following the earthquake and tsunami.

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