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  • Thomas: “Becoming Japanese”: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation
  • Julia Adeney Thomas
Thomas: “Becoming Japanese”: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation. By Leo T. S. Ching. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001.

English-language books on Japan’s colonial adventures are remarkably scarce, particularly considering the extent of the Japanese empire. By the end of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan had garnered a necklace of dependencies beginning with Hokkaido and Okinawa (areas now considered part of Japan proper) and extending to Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1905. By the 1930s and early ‘40s, large swathes of Asia were under Japanese control. After the 1945 defeat, however, Japan’s colonial empire vanished almost overnight, not just in fact but in public consciousness as postwar policies and scholarship focused instead on domestic development and relations with “the West.” Recently, however, scholars such as Brett Walker, Michael Molasky, Louise Young, Joshua Fogel, Mark Peattie, and the contributors to Thomas Lahusen’s essay collection have begun to place Japan in the context of global imperialism. We are beginning to understand the impetus and mechanisms of Japanese expansion, the response of the peoples who came under its control, and the legacies of those engagements, but there is still much to learn.

For this reason, a book on Taiwan is warmly welcomed. In Becoming “Japanese”, Leo Ching’s focus is the “cultural dimension of Japanese colonialism and its legacy…”(10), rather than the structure or history of Taiwan’s economic, political, and military domination. Given the variety of peoples ranging from hill tribe aboriginals to mainland Chinese immigrants, from Japanese colonial administrators at home on Taiwan for fifty years to recent arrivals, no place could offer a richer arena for investigating the issue of cultural identity. We might expect this study to shed light on how various groups on Taiwan perceived themselves before falling under Japan’s jurisdiction, on how that self-perception changed through the dialectic of colonial identity formation, on the motives and instruments of those who articulated visions of “Taiwaneseness,” “Japaneseness,” “Chineseness,” or various hybrid identities, and on the political advantage to be gained through each articulation. It is disheartening then to read at the outset that this study intends to ignore “intra-ethnic divisions within the Taiwanese identity formation” and the “diverse groupings among Taiwanese aboriginals.”(12) Even more curious is the unexplained decision to ignore the period between 1895 and the 1920s, the first half of Japan’s rule. If we don’t understand the diversity of subject positions on Taiwan or the activities and ideas of the initial decades of colonization, how can we understand the effects of Japanese dominion, effects which, as Ching says, persist to this day?

The book gets off to a slow start. Ching is concerned in Chapter 1 to bolster his study through reference to contemporary theory. He contends that national identities were formed through the engagement between colonizer and colonized, and that the dynamic between colonized and colonizer was more complex than a simple victim-aggressor model would suggest. More broadly, Ching announces that modernity was not the result of colonization, but, rather, that colonization was part of modernity. None of these positions will strike the readers of this journal as particularly original, nor are they expressed with fresh rhetorical force. One longs to get to the textures and tensions of Taiwan’s particular case, but this engagement is still some chapters off. In Chapter 2 on the “political movements in colonial Taiwan,” Ching tells us that it is “not my intention to provide a comprehensive account of the various developments and transformations of the political movements in colonial Taiwan.” (54) Indeed, he describes only one party at any length. Similarly, in Chapter 3, purportedly on assimilation (dooka) and “imperialization” (koominka), Ching states that his goal “is not to conduct a comprehensive and scrupulous analysis of dooka as manifested in specific social and cultural policies, nor do I intend to describe all the shifts and changes within Japanese thinking on dooka as a whole.” (97) Without scrupulous analysis of assimilation policies he dates to the 1920s, it is difficult to grasp the full...

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