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Thursday, December 3, 2009

さようなら Saitō-san

It took a while to come about, but the news is far from unexpected:

"Japan's top envoy to Taiwan, Masaki Saitō 斉藤正樹, resigned as director of the Interchange Association 財団法人交流会, Tōkyō's 東京 de facto embassy in T'aipei 台北, association officials said Tuesday. Saitō quit for 'personal reasons,' the officials said on condition of anonymity. They did not elaborate. Saitō's resignation comes amid a tiff with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九, who has been reluctant to meet with Saitō or allow him to meet with senior administration officials for some eight months over a comment the envoy made earlier this year. On May 1, Saitō angered the Ma administration by referring to Taiwan's status in the international community as 'unresolved' in remarks at a Taiwanese academic symposium. The administration insists that the Republic of China 中華民國, as Taiwan is officially called, is a sovereign entity. Heavyweights in Ma's ruling Nationalist Party 中國國民黨 have been calling for Saitō's recall since the remark, for which Saitō and the Foreign Ministry 外務省 in Tōkyō have apologized. Besides virtually freezing out Saitō from high-level contacts, Taiwan has been tough with Japan under Ma's leadership. Shortly after Ma took office last year, Taiwan's then prime minister even threatened war with Japan over a collision between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japan Coast Guard 海上保安庁 vessel in disputed waters claimed by the two sides but controlled by Japan."

It was bad enough that Saitō had to endure a lot of unjustified and just plain vile abuse from KMT hotheads, but the Ma administration's petulant refusal to meet with him was hardly becoming of a government of a supposedly sovereign state. Virtually all neutral observers would agree with Saitō's interpretation of Taiwan's status in regards to the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, and as the above article states, the envoy apologized, claiming the remarks were only his personal opinion. The proper thing to have done would have been to accept the apology, and then move to put bilateral relations back on an even keel. But when it comes to Japan, the Ma administration has been anything but steady in its approach (kudos to the Kyōdō News 共同通信社 for putting the lie to Ma's claims that the relationship is doing fine).

The answer as to why the Ma administration over-reacted to Saitō's observation of the obvious perhaps lies in the English translation of the KMT's name - the Chinese Nationalist Party. The KMT took over a Taiwan that, after 50 years of Japanese rule, was far more prosperous than any province in China, with a population that had adopted a lot of Japanese customs. It must have been an affront to the Nationalists, who had suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese military in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The KMT's solution was to strip Taiwan of much of its industrial capacity (before having to change tack with its defeat in the Chinese Civil War 國共內戰), and to eliminate a good portion of Taiwan's Japanese-educated professional class during the 228 Incident 二二八事件, followed by intensive efforts to inculcate the local population into believing that they were not only Chinese, but were burdened with the responsibilities of preserving the glories of Chinese culture and tradition from the dangerous, radical Communists on the mainland. But despite the decades of relentless propaganda, the party has never been able to eradicate the influences that Japan's period of rule had on the development of Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) culture. Many of the older generation harbored positive memories of that era, perceiving the Japanese to have been much more efficient and less corrupt than the KMT, while the younger generation has enthusiastically embraced Japan's modern-day popular culture in the form of animation, fashion, music and so on. Japanese products are widespread and highly regarded (unlike goods made in China!), Japanese is second only to English in the study of foreign languages, and Japan is the most popular overseas destination for Taiwanese tourists (not counting Hong Kong). All this presents a formidable obstacle to a government that is trying to lay the groundwork for an eventual "reunification" with the Chinese "motherland".

The solution, therefore, has been to let the relationship deteriorate, while denying that such a thing has been happening, of course. Celebrating the achievements of long-dead hydraulic engineers is not a substitute for cordial relations based on mutual respect. Policymakers in Tōkyō were far more leery of Ma's election victory last year than their counterparts in the United States. With his administration's shabby treatment of Saitō, among other things, it appears their fears are far from being allayed, no matter how many soothing words are spoken by Yoichi Hatta's 八田與一 greatest admirer.

For the Taipei Times' take on why the Ma and the KMT have allowed all this to happen, follow this link:

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