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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 Japans 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 Japans 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 Taiwans 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 to 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-pos 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 Mings work on the Four-Hundred-Year History of the Taiwanese and focused on Shi Mings exploration of the relationship between Taiwan, Mainland China and Japanese colonial rule (p. 70).
In Chapter 3, Chings 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 Chings 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. Chings 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.