Leo T. S. Ching, Becoming Japanese. Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation

Becoming Japanese is an important contribution to the growing
body of literature on the intellectual history of twentieth century Taiwan. In
fact, this is more a work of historiography and literary critique than a work
of history. Ching does not present the reader with an historical analysis of Japanese
colonial policies, rather he paints a vivid picture illustrating that the legacy
of Japanese colonialism remains crucial in the current Taiwanese political discourse
and serves as a marker in differentiating contemporary Taiwanese identity from
mainland Chinese identity.

The book consists of five chapters. In the introduction, the
author puts forward a number of arguments on the importance of Taiwanese colonial
experience coalescing around the question of identity formations and the
politics of such analyses in the postcolonial environment. Ching argues that the
historical conditions of Japanese colonialism have enabled and produced various
discourses on the conception and representation of Japaneseness, Taiwaneseness,
aboriginality, and Chineseness in both colonial and post-war Taiwan.

To substantiate this thesis, Ching has selected texts and
events that present and represent the overlapping and dispersed nature of identity
formation in colonial Taiwan. Ching draws particular attention to the triangulation
between colonial Taiwan, imperialist Japan and nationalist China as a prerequisite
in understanding the struggle over identity. These identity positions emerged
for the first time in Taiwanese colonial history, and continue to mark the political
culture of post-war Japan, Mainland China, and postcolonial Taiwan (p. 12).

In Chapter 1, Ching makes two points that shed light on the
marginalisation of Taiwan Studies. First, he addresses the peculiarity of Japanese
imperialism and colonisation. He regrets that the study of the Japanese colonial
discourse is still ghettoised in Euro-American academia and taken in charge by
Area Studies or Asian and East Asian Studies (p. 30). Second, he develops the
idea that it is not post-colonialism but the lack of a decolonisation process
following the break-up of the Japanese Empire that has prevented both Japan and
Taiwan from addressing and confronting their particular colonial relationship
and the overall Japanese colonial legacy. As Ching sees it, post-war Japan’s
inability to deal with its colonial past was caused by the deception and opportunism
of the United States and the lack of a self-examination of shutaisei (subjectivity),
leaving the question of Japan’s war responsibility to its neighbouring nations
unanswered (pp. 46-47). In Taiwan, the KMT takeover precluded a process of decolonisation,
consequent to a reconstitution and reimagination of Taiwan’s colonial relationship
with Japan.

Chapter 2 analyses the formation of and debate over Taiwanese
consciousness and Chinese consciousness looking into their respective political
movements since the 1920s as well as their reverberation and repercussion today.
Ching seeks to demonstrate that the conflicting relationship between the so-called
Chinese consciousness and the so-called Taiwanese consciousness is strictly a
post-colonial issue that has little to do with how those two interrelated identities
were conceived and constructed during the colonial period (p. 77). Ching defines
the 1920s political movements as ethno-national movements, but contests that they
were “nationalistic” movements. He labels them as “neo-nationalistic”
or “proto-nationalistic”, arguing that “the formulation of their
thought was dependent on and related to the larger rubric of the
Japanese empire and the Han Chinese ethnology” (pp. 52-53). Two remarks can
be formulated. First, Ching bases his analysis of ethno-nationalism on the Japanese
interpretation of socio-political activities in Taiwan as recorded in the 1939
internal Japanese colonial police report. Second, he assumes that documentation
of their activities is too scant and ignores treating Taiwanese writings of the
1920s and 1930s as primary research material for further investigation. Further
in this chapter Ching returns to the “neonationalistic” label. Using
a class-based interrogation, he argues that the contradiction between nationalist
aspiration and colonial accommodation among the land-owning class prevented this
class from instigating or supporting any radical or revolutionary anti-Japanese
movement (p. 87). This is a valid argument in that it addresses in more detail
why the “neo-nationalistic thought” was dependent on and related
the larger rubric of the Japanese empire, but he fails to provide an explanation
for its dependent and relational form to Han Chinese ethno-nationalism.

The China/Taiwan divide in the post-war Taiwan political discourse
is illustrated with a brief discussion of Wang Hsiao-po’s idealism of an
essentially Han Chinese ethno-national consciousness in contrast with that of
Sung Tse-lai who fetishises a particularistic Taiwanese consciousness. The part
on the sources from which the post-war advocates of Taiwanese independence have
drawn their theoretical arguments is of particular interest. For instance, Ching
introduces Shi Ming’s work on the Four-Hundred-Year History of the Taiwanese
and focused on Shi Ming’s exploration of the relationship between Taiwan,
Mainland China and Japanese colonial rule (p. 70).

In Chapter 3, Ching’s discussion focuses on the transition
of the Taiwanese from colonial projects to imperial subjects. Ching is the first
author to address in a Western language the historical significance of kominka
or “imperialisation” (1937-1945) and its difference from the colonial
policy of doka, popularly known as “assimilation”. Ching is correct
in pointing out that the Japanese colonial discourse used the [empty] rhetoric
of doka to legitimise its difference from Western colonial rule (p. 105).
The difference between doka and kominka in Ching’s opinion
is that the former was a political/economic mode of colonial power while the latter
was predominantly a cultural mode. Consequently, as he sees it, the post-colonial
debate on the (ideological) definition of “komin literature”
as “imperial (huangmin) literature” or “resistance (kangri)
literature” with regard to the 1930s and the 1940s Taiwanese literature is
a predominant expression of “Taiwanese identity struggle”. Such a struggle
is concerned with whether to acknowledge or to deny the existence and the
notion of a colonial “Japanese” identity.

The most interesting chapter is by far Chapter 4, entitled
“From Mutineers to Volunteers”. Ching succeeds in explaining clearly
what he means by the “construction of identities” and brings to light
the contradictory mechanics of the Japanese colonial discourse. By opposing savagery
to civility, Ching illustrates the change of colonial rule towards the aboriginal
peoples prior to and after the 1930s Musha uprising. The objective of this chapter
is to clarify the historical significance of kominka to the Taiwanese aborigines
who presented themselves as volunteers for the Japanese imperial army in the Asia-Pacific
War of 1937-1945, and to evaluate their oft heard expression of patriotism and
loyalty to the Japanese nation in the post-war Taiwanese political discourse.

The focus of attention in the final chapter is Taiwanese colonial
literature. Ching returns to the triangulation between colonial Taiwan, imperialist
Japan, and nationalist China through a reading of the novel An Orphan of Asia
by Wu Chou-liu. Ching’s conclusion is that the “emergent” Taiwan
under the Japanese did not have a static or fully constituted “identity”.
Rather his discussion makes us aware of the extremely important relationship between
Taiwan and China in thinking about Japanese colonial modernity in Taiwan. In this
respect, Ching echoes the recent tendency in Taiwanese scholarship on the Japanese
colonial period trying to find equilibrium between “residual” Chinese
culturalism and the “dominant Japanese colonialism” in the embodiment
of colonial Taiwanese identity formation.

Ching has performed a considerable service with this work
and has filled a few gaps in existing literature on Taiwan Studies. He has not
only clearly addressed the marginalisation of Taiwan in the academic world as
well as in geopolitics, he has also reflected on significant issues crucial in
furthering our understanding of Taiwanese colonial history under Japanese rule.
Ching has adopted what is I believe a constructivist approach towards identity
formation. He has examined in a nuanced way how people rearticulate and redefine
historical events and how they imagine political possibilities. In view of the
originality and importance of the work, it is unfortunate that Ching does not
do more justice to the imperative of minnan or Taiwanese language usage
in the colonial society. In the book, Taiwanese intellectuals are referred to
in their Japanese transliteration, and so are the names of several organisations
of the mid-1920s political mobilisation movement. In its post-modernist approach,
the book at times reads with difficulty and makes frequently use of a jargon that
requires a second reading. Nonetheless, his approach is extremely insightful in
opening the way to further study, to explore additional primary research materials
and to participate in the debate on definition of terms that are still too vague
in the overall scope of Taiwan Studies.

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