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Friday, November 20, 2009

Living in the past

There's an excellent article by Max Hirsch of Kyōdō News 共同通信社 in today's edition of the Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ ("When Taiwan-Japan relations run afoul, there's always Hatta Yoichi" http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20091119f1.html):

"The Japanese animated movie 'Hatta Yoichi' was given wide theatrical release Friday in Taiwan, but few moviegoers here are likely to grasp its political significance. Purely as 'anime' アニメ entertainment, the film has much to offer young Taiwanese unconcerned with politics. But it is also a historical biography, and the significance has not been lost on President Ma Ying-jeou (Ba Eikyū) 馬英九, who attended a special showing Nov. 4 in southern Taiwan before the general release. With bodyguards and dignitaries in tow, Ma made a point of traveling to T'ainan (Tainan) 台南 to attend the two-hour local premiere. For Ma, the film crystallizes his vision for even-keeled Taiwan-Japan relations. But where the movie appeals to the Taiwanese administration, the reality of bilateral relations misses the mark, as gaffes and hurt feelings have abounded between T'aipei (Taihoku) 台北 and Tōkyō 東京 since Ma took office last year — a reality spurring him to bring into play his vision through politically charged sites, figures — and even cartoons."

And who is Yoichi Hatta 八田與一, you might be asking? He isn't a particularly well-known personage in Japan, but in Taiwan he's a celebrated figure, as Hirsch explains:

"(Hatta was a) Japanese engineer who planned and supervised the construction of southern Taiwan's Wushant'ou (Usantō) Reservoir 烏山頭水庫, which was completed in 1930. Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 until 1945. Despite some lingering post-colonial resentment, Japan is generally credited in Taiwan for improving the island's infrastructure, rule of law, educational system and social services during its 50-year rule. Among Japan's achievements, Wushant'ou ranks as one of its most popular, with the dam taming the waters of southern Taiwan and ending a drought for millions of farmers, according to the film and Ma. Wushant'ou is still in operation, while Hatta is lionized as a humanist who treated local laborers as equals and worked tirelessly for Taiwan's benefit."

You can read a brief bio on Hatta in English here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoichi_Hatta (plus a longer one in Japanese here http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%AB%E7%94%B0%E8%88%87%E4%B8%80). Hirsch goes on to explain how a presumably unassuming (and long deceased) hydraulic engineer has been adopted as a poster boy for close Japan-Taiwan relations:

"'Because of Mr. Hatta's efforts, a desert became fertile cropland . . . (his) kind, upright character is akin to that of the Taiwanese,' Ma said at the Tainan premiere...the film adds to the political symbolism that Ma has already lent to Hatta and his dam. Though Wushant'ou has been a symbol of bilateral friendship, Ma has further amplified its political meaning through special visits and functions. For example, Ma observed the 67th anniversary of Hatta's death in a ceremony May 8 held at a bronze statue of the engineer overlooking the reservoir. Last year, Ma arranged for the Taiwanese and Japanese de facto ambassadors to meet at the reservoir and take a tour. The site was chosen to encourage a rapport between the envoys and underscore bilateral friendship."

I hadn't realized that "kindness" and "uprightness" were special qualities of the Taiwanese - I appreciate both the president's clarification of this matter, and his generous acceptance that even (some) Japanese might also possess these fine local characteristics. But why is the Hong Kong-born scion of a well-connected nationalist political family with deep roots in China (and very few in Taiwan) so eager to embrace a symbol of the former colonial master, especially when his own Government Information Office 行政院新聞局 is putting out revisionist North Korean-style propaganda like this http://web.archive.org/web/20071029130020/http://www.gio.gov.tw/info/festival_c/restore_e/restore.htm?:

"'Since President Ma took office, Japan's image of him has been one of cuddling up to China and moving away from Japan, and so he seeks to use Hatta Yoichi to counter this image,' said Luo Fu-chuan, a former Taiwanese envoy to Japan. 'Tōkyō suspects President Ma of wanting to get in bed with Beijing.' Indeed, while Ma has wooed China, restarted formal negotiations across the Taiwan Strait 台湾海峡 and signed trade agreements with Beijing, T'aipei's relations with Tōkyō have mostly stagnated. Last year, a collision between a Japan Coast Guard 海上保安庁 vessel and a Taiwanese fishing boat in disputed waters near the Senkaku Islands 尖閣諸島 touched off a diplomatic spat about sovereignty over and access to the uninhabited islets and surrounding area. Since May, Ma has been reluctant to meet with Japan's envoy to T'aipei, Makoto Saitō, who angered Ma by referring to Taiwan's international status as 'unresolved.' The remark came as a slap in the face to the Ma administration, which insists on the sovereignty of the Republic of China 中華民国, Taiwan's official name. And T'aipei's much-touted plans to open a new representative office in Hokkaidō 北海道 have quietly faded away — apparently a sign that the Ma administration's interest in Japan is flagging. But amid the currently chilly ties, Hatta and his reservoir perhaps have taken on more political significance than ever as one of the few remaining, and thus more precious, symbols of positive relations. For Ma, they remain symbols to fall back on."

While it's great that the Tiaoyut'ai Warrior can find something about the Japanese to like (remember the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene from "Life of Brian"? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSELOCMmw4A), all this adulation is no substitute for solid, stable relations between Taiwan and Japan. Like it or not, for Taiwan Japan is an important trading partner and source of investment, not to mention a potential ally in matters of security, built on a shared historical relationship. Though it might offend his Chinese nationalist feelings, Ma needs to shift his focus from the past, and pay more attention to the Japan (and Japanese) of the present and the future.

UPDATE:
It seems Hirsch's article struck a nerve with the T'aipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office 台北経済文化代表処 in Tōkyō 東京:
The KMT 中国国民党 can be pretty arrogant at home (and why not? It controls both the presidency and the legislature, as well as many local governments), but it's often very sensitive about criticisms from outsiders, so it should come as no surprise that someone at TECRO felt the need to respond.

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