‘Life was hell’: remembering the plight of a lost generation of Taiwan’s Japanese
Hundreds of thousands of Japanese were forced to leave the island after the second world war but many never forgot their adopted homeland
In February, the Tainan city government released a documentary film titled Tainan Stories about Japanese who lived in Taiwan during its 50-year colonial rule and who were repatriated to Japan after the second world war. The film was also screened in Osaka in April.
More than 300,000 eventually returned to Japan in the years after 1945. An estimated 80,000 who were born in Taiwan during the occupation became known as wansheng (Taiwan-born), or wansei in Japanese.
“As time passes and wansheng numbers decline, we’re afraid they will one day be forgotten,” said Lin Chien-hsien, deputy head of Tainan’s Department of Information and International Relations.
Lin also hopes the film will attract visitors interested in the island’s Japanese history – and not just visitors from Japan. The plight of the wansheng has long attracted attention from Taiwanese artists, writers, and particularly filmmakers.
Past cinematic productions include Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 art-house masterpiece City of Sadness, Wei Te-sheng’s 2008 box office phenomenon Cape. No. 7, as well as the 2015 documentary Wansei Back Home directed by Huang Ming-cheng.
The story of the wansheng began in 1909, when the Japanese government began relocating large numbers of Japanese to Taiwan under a systematic migration policy.
Japan’s aims in doing this were both economic and political. In addition to easing tensions at home caused by overpopulation and the scarcity of land, increasing Japanese numbers on the island consolidated imperial rule, said Chang Su-bing, a Taiwan history professor at National Taiwan Normal University.
Taiwanese were also encouraged to adopt Japanese culture and customs, making Taiwan a base for further colonisation in Asia.
Policies were adopted to achieve these goals. Aside from administrators, military personnel, and professionals, government-sponsored migrants were expected to engage in agriculture. They were also required to bring their families and settle in communities that would set an example for Taiwanese locals.
By the end of the second world war, there were at least 20 such towns across Taiwan, which in the beginning were concentrated on the east coast, where abundant land and limited populations meant that colonists would not have to compete with greater numbers of Han Chinese elsewhere.
Yet even with free land, life was hard. In places like Yoshino village in Hualien county, Taiwan’s first Japanese settlement, colonists struggled with natural disasters, poor sanitation, hunger, disease and aboriginal conflict.
Interviews conducted in 1928 by the Hualien regional administration bear testament to the struggle of the migrants.
Haruzo Kuwabara, who arrived from Tokushima prefecture with his family in 1910, saw the settlement destroyed by a typhoon two years later, killing many, including his father.
Another, Yaota Asanuma, who arrived in 1913, lost his house in Toyoda village, after which illness claimed his grandfather, father, two children and other relatives.
A third, Jokichi Kusama, arrived from Niigata prefecture in 1910 among the first agricultural immigrants to settle. While looking for cheap land, he encountered malaria and starvation, with no medicine, no doctors and no help from local officials.
“Life was hell,” he said. “I could not help but weep when I thought about my hometown.”
While some borrowed money to return to Japan, most could not.
For those who survived, toil and sacrifice led to modest improvements in farming rice and sugar cane on small individual allotments of land.
Recalling the changes that he and his family realised after a decade of work, Kuwabara said: “Looking at my rice fields, I thought they were as beautiful as heaven.”
By the 1930s, most enjoyed a good life, with excellent prospects for the future.
Then came the war, which brought material appropriations, military service, and finally repatriation. Departure was initially voluntary and many opted to stay. But in time, Taiwan’s Kuomintang government opted to deport all wansheng, in part for their own security.
“They arrived in Japan penniless,” said Chung Shu-min, a researcher at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History. “And thinking they would someday return to Taiwan, they left almost everything behind.”
But none returned, and the wansheng again became outsiders as the Japanese, burdened by their own post-war difficulties, marginalised the new arrivals, forcing many into new migrant towns, this time in their own supposed homeland.
It is not surprising, then, that many continued to regard Taiwan as home long after they left.
“After Japan lost the war, we were set adrift, but our feelings for Taiwan have not diminished at all,” Tokyo resident Nobuko Takenaka said.
Born in 1930 in Taiwan’s Suao township, Takenaka was a teenager when she left, so while leaving was painful, her material losses were small.
This was not the case for painter Tetsuomi Tateishi, who was 40 when the war ended, forcing him to abandon a substantial body of finished work, curtailing what had once been a promising career.
Yet the worst affected were farmers from villages like Yoshino and Toyoda, whose age made starting anew a daunting prospect.
Their losses were profound: land wrested from the bleak eastern coast of Taiwan, soil nurtured for decades into productivity, and their homes. Also left behind were temples, schools built by residents, and cemeteries, where by 1945 generations of family members lay buried.
In films like Wansei Back Home and Tainan Stories, those still able to visit the land of their birth relate memories not of struggle, but of childhood.
Hisae Yoshiga remembers eating caramel pudding at Tainan’s Hayashi Department Store, where her father worked as a manager.
Yoshiga left in 1945 when she was 10. Returning in 2016, she visited the same department store, still open today, and relished the pudding she remembered from childhood.
Born in Hualien in 1927, Masaru Tominaga, still sings an old Taiwanese folk song he learned as a boy.
Tominaga wept in 2013 when a Hualien official gave him a household registration card to show that he did once live in the city.
The same year, 81-year-old Kosei Matsumoto, also from Hualien, visited his former school, where he sang the national anthem.
His daughter who accompanied him never understood why her father missed Taiwan so much.
Now, however, she says she does.