BOOK REVIEW | ‘The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan’ by Toshio Watanabe
Emerging from the isolation it had imposed on itself by Western intrusions and the unequal treaties imposed on it, Japan was preparing to make itself the equal of the great powers. The new Meiji government, convinced that if Japan did not learn Western civilization it could not survive as an independent state, began a heroic effort to emulate what made the great powers great.
Imperialism, which now has a bad reputation, was held in high esteem at the end of the 19e century. The distant possessions of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom were much envied, as were the great trading empires of the Dutch and Americans.
The creation of a model colony
Thus, Japan, among other manifestations of the modernism it covets, would need an empire. Taiwan, acquired from the moribund Qing (Manchurian) dynasty in 1895, was the first of these, and the Meiji rulers were determined to make it a success.
Taiwan had been administered, if that is the right word, with indifference and corruption for two hundred years before being made a province only the year before the island was annexed by Japan. Making it a model colony and a showcase of Japanese know-how is a Herculean undertaking that the new government undertakes with enthusiasm.
The island nation was home to outlaws from China and a variety of indigenous people, some of whom were cannibals. Malaria and other tropical diseases were rampant.
Roads, once winding and muddy, have been straightened and paved. A land survey was conducted, a railway built, and a central bank established. Japan’s greatest architects have designed government buildings – to this day, early Japanese visitors to Taiwan are struck by the resemblance between the presidential office building and that of Tokyo Station. and indeed both were designed by Uheiji Nagano. The seat of colonial government reflected the eclectic mix of Japanese, Baroque and neoclassical elements in vogue at the time.
Medical care, including vaccinations, was introduced, and Western-style schools were opened which ― groundbreaking for the time ― taught boys and girls, albeit separately.
The Meiji Men Who Made Taiwan
The story of the energy and dedication of the men who transformed Taiwan into a prosperous colony and laid the foundations for its success as a modern state is the subject of Professor Toshio Watanabe’s book.
It opens with an anecdote about Furuichi Kōi, a student in Paris whose landlady, worried that he was destroying his health by working so hard, suggested he take a day off. His response, “My one-day rest means Japan’s modernization will be delayed for another day”, exemplifies this spirit and can be seen as the leitmotif of Watanabe’s narrative.
One of Kōi’s students, Yoichi Hatta, is a good example. Taiwan’s Governor General was aware that the island did not have enough energy to develop Kaohsiung as a port that could serve as a base for Japan’s southward expansion and preferred to use Sun Moon Lake for oil production. ‘electricity.
Hatta dutifully abandoned a tank project he was working on. And armed with anti-malaria quinine, a waterproof tent, a backpack of rice, shoyu and preserves, he set out through the difficult hilly terrain of the region.
Barriers to modernization
Quite by chance, he discovered the ruins of a brick dam built during the period of Dutch rule and realized that this would be the perfect place to build a much larger version of the original. However, many problems had to be solved first. The water would have to be drawn from the main course of a larger, less well-situated river, which meant that a tunnel would have to be built. The same would apply to main lines, branch lines, irrigation canals and drainage canals.
Unpredictable setbacks have delayed progress. An explosion near the entrance to the tunnel killed 50 people. And financial problems after the Great Kantō earthquake that necessitated the reconstruction of much of Tokyo prompted layoffs.
In the end, Hatta succeeded, using an unorthodox technique that has withstood Taiwan’s extreme seismic events so far, while transforming the barren former Chianan Plain (southwest of Taiwan) into an area abundant production for rice, sugar cane and other crops.
When completed in 1930, the Wushantou Dam was the largest in Asia. And until the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, it was the largest in the world.
Hatta, who died in 1942 when the ship he was traveling in was torpedoed, is now honored with a park in his name with his statue. Almost forgotten for many years, it has become a symbol of Taiwan-Japan friendship.
Rice: securing a stable source of livelihood
Another major problem to which the young technicians of Meiji attached themselves, complementary to the need for water, was rice, the staple food of the region.
Rice riots were common in Japan after shortages caused by crop failure and storm damage were exacerbated by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, and Taiwan was seen as a possible solution. The island produced rice, but its long-grain Indica didn’t suit Japanese tastes for the wetter, flavorful variety known, appropriately, as Japonica.
Producing such a variety of indigenous rice was a task entrusted to Megumu Suenaga and Eikichi Iso. It was a tedious and laborious process. Pollen with particularly good characteristics should be attached to equally special and robust pistils, the ovule-bearing organ of a seed plant, to mate them artificially. It was important that the plant had many ears to allow it to produce many grains of rice, that it was strong enough to resist several kinds of diseases, and that the stem was as straight as possible to absorb as much light as possible. solar.
Initially, 1,365 types of types were tested, then whittled down to 485, with less than optimal results. Suenaga would leave home at 5 a.m. and drive four kilometers to work carrying food for his morning and midday meals, return around 7 or 8 p.m., have dinner, and report to Iso, his superior, on results of the day.
Eventually, it was decided to try growing Japonica, despite Taiwan’s different soil and climate conditions. The results were surprisingly good, although not perfect at first.
After more careful work, however, Suenaga and Iso were able to improve on the original. Local farmers, initially skeptical, have shown themselves ready to accept the risks. By 1923-1924, cultivation had spread to all the rice-growing areas of the island.
Named Hōrai rice, it became the second largest cultivated crop in the Japanese Empire, as well as the basis of Iso’s doctoral dissertation and the many honors bestowed upon him thereafter.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Iso was one of a small number of technicians whom Chiang Kai-shek’s new government considered indispensable and urged to stay. He did so, only returning to Japan upon his retirement in 1957, 45 years after his arrival and after receiving the new government’s highest honor for his service to Taiwan.
Where Watanabe takes us
Although fascinating in its content, the book can be confusing to read. Its content first appeared in several installments in the monthly magazine Seiron over the course of a year, the book making no attempt to bring order to historical detail or remove overlap.
Chapter three, Taiwan as a Frontier Dream, might have been better placed at the beginning of the book, followed by chapter six, the chapter on the administrative styles of Governors General Gentarō Kodama and Shimpei Gotō that follows. It was their actions that enabled the work of Hatta, Iso and Suenaga. And chapter five ends with the end of World War II in 1945, while chapter six begins with the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
Although we find out in detail what happened to Iso and Hatta, Suenaga disappears from the story. Only by referring to the very beginning of the book do we find a terse line stating that he died in 1939, without giving any details.
Still, rambling as it is, it’s a fascinating read. Photographs, maps and drawings are generously distributed, making it easier for readers to understand the intricacies of issues such as rice hybridization and the semi-hydraulic filling method for building dams.
One stands in awe of the men who accomplished so much under such difficult circumstances while providing the solid foundation that, together with the efforts of its own people, enabled Taiwan to achieve such success in the post-colonial period.
All our praise to Professor Watanabe for producing the book and to Dr Eldridge for his skilful translation of it.
Title: The Meiji Japanese who made modern Taiwan
Author: Professor Toshio Watanabe
Translated by: Dr. Robert D. Eldridge
Editor: Lexington Books, 2022
Format: Hardcover and ebook.
ISBN No. 978-1-66690-853-4 (hardcover) and 978-1-66690-854-1 (ebook)
To buy the book: Via the publisher on this link, or via Amazon and other booksellers.
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Reviewed by: Dr. June Teufel Dreyer