A Foot in Two Camps - Taiwan and Japanese StudiesAbout Us

Vienna Center for Taiwan Studies

Given the conventional divisions between different fields of study, my research falls somewhat squarely between two relatively clearly demarcated fields, namely that of Taiwanese and Japanese studies. Albeit in a small way, my own experience doing the research I have been doing lately has been an exercise in trying to bridge the two fields, an experience that has presented both exciting possibilities and daunting challenges.

I was originally trained as a Japan specialist, and my primary research focus is news narratives, public debate and mass media discourse. However, I became interested in Taiwan primarily as a consequence of one of my other interests, namely that of poststructuralist and postcolonial theory. It struck me already years ago that despite their historically given postcolonial nature, Taiwan-Japan relations did not correspond very well to the usual patterns outlined in postcolonial research and literature. There seemed to be little resentment between the two states, little insistence on colonial trauma on the side of Taiwan as former colony, and little conflict or ambiguity towards its own past as colonial overlord on the side of Japan. In fact, Japanese culture, language, and commercial products seemed to be extremely popular in Taiwan. To a large extent, unlike its present-day relations with the two Koreas, Japan’s postcolonial relations with Taiwan did not seem to “fit” the conventional theoretical models, at all. I recalled how back in my days as a university student in Japan, my Taiwanese friends would go to the Imperial Palace on the Emperor’s birthday, lightheartedly enjoying themselves waving Hinomaru flags along with the rest of the crowd there. I also remember how that used to disgust the Korean students who scornfully declared that they would never dream of doing such a thing. That difference intrigued me, already back then.

On top of that, Japan belonged historically to the “last wave” of imperialist powers to emerge in the very late 19th century when newly industrialized states were busy splitting virtually all the rest of the world between them in their “scramble for colonies”. Japan was the only non-Western state to rule such a “classical” colonial empire, and Taiwan became in many ways the show-piece “jewel” in Japan’s colonial crown, meant to impress Western powers and prove Japan to be as advanced, modern, and civilized as they were. Thus, postcolonial theory usually operates with an implied notion of the colonial relationship as one of European metropolitan overlords exploiting a territory inhabited by indigenous people of radically different races, cultures, and religions than the colonizers. But what about this case of an Asian state colonizing other Asians? Did that produce a different type of colonial relationship? And how is that relationship imagined and interpreted today, by both former colonizer and colonized?

Lund University Library

The natural way for me to approach such questions was to look at how postcolonial issues were covered and projected through the news media, that being my specialty and my primary field of interest. For that reason, I designed a research project so that I would study individual news stories involving both societies run by the national dailies in Japan and Taiwan during the 2000-2008 period. The idea was very simple: I wanted to compare recent coverage and identify the different narratives, news angles, and interpretations in order to discover how and when ideas and understandings of the colonial past shaped and interfered with journalistic coverage of current events. I would read all sources in the original languages (with many a thankful thought to the ROC for not having simplified the Chinese characters to the point of near practical illegibility for a Japan specialist, as has the PRC) and compare the sources, fair and square. Only, it was not until after I had obtained funding and formally started the research project that I realized just how different the Taiwanese media really are from the Japanese…

Research literature on Japanese media tends to revolve around the question of information access. Japan is a tightknit network society, and the news media operate by close personal connections to the organizations and social actors they cover. One well-known Japanese media phenomenon is the press club (kisha-kurabu) system where sources and reporters mingle and interrelate in ways that, according to many, critically compromise freedom of information and effective public oversight. The public loses out, the criticism often goes, because news organizations share interests and agendas with the powerful agents they cover more than with the readers and viewers they are supposed to inform. News coverage is quite uniform, neutral, and thoroughly fact-checked. Unsensationalist high-quality journalism with mass appeal that tends to ruffle few feathers. Such structural features of the Japanese mass media system, which Laurie Freeman famously called “information cartels” in her 1990s monograph on news production in Japan, have profoundly shaped the field: Most major studies take the form of anthropological or survey-based studies of Japanese newsrooms, reporter-source relationships, and the dynamics of news selection and prioritization. Comparatively little analytical attention is lavished on the actual news narratives and the nature of the discourse delivered by and through the media. Overgeneralizing only slightly, one might say that scholars tend to care more about what is not in the papers than what is.

In Taiwan, I soon realized, the mass media function very differently. Here, the central questions for scholars have been the role of the news media in social transformations, how the media have affected the processes of liberalization and democratization, and how they have transformed from the effective political party publications they once were to today’s aggressively competing news organizations. In other words, how and to what extent the media have led change in Taiwan. How different, I thought, from Japanese media studies that are all about how the media have conspired to prevent change! I thoroughly enjoyed reading my Taiwanese sources; the confrontations, the pathos, the ideological positionings, and (let’s not forget) the various professional gaffes were so different from the meticulous impartiality and “stiff upper lip” of the Japanese national dailies. I read with much excitement Dafydd Fell’s and Gary and Ming-yeh Rawnsley’s studies of the Taiwanese news media and went on from there, getting more and more interested but also feeling less and less secure. I realized that, indeed, these were two very different systems generating very different kinds of texts. No wonder there were so few directly comparative studies out there.

When you find yourself in a difficult situation as a researcher, your immediate choice is either to despair or get stubborn, trusting that somehow you are on to something, that you can contribute and try to bring very different things together, even if in a very small and perhaps exploratory way. The true strength of my approach, I was sure, was that I was reading what both sides had written and therefore had a thorough and valuable “double vision” of the issues and interpretations in my massive amount of original sources. In many ways, I was in an ideal position once I had learned to use its precariousness to my analytical advantage: The diversity of perspectives gave me ideal critical distance to each individual one, my immersion in notions and understandings on each side saved me from the pitfalls of essentialization and superficial characterizations, and the sheer amount of source material presented a discursive richness and complexity adequate for the theoretical discussions I wanted to pursue. I cannot say whether I have managed to bridge Japanese and Taiwanese studies in any significant way, but I have certainly learned how very different the two island societies are. But also how they are connected in often very interesting ways, and, most intriguingly, how they each know and keenly understand things about each other that the other one barely notices or realizes about itself. I suppose I have tried, in a very small and imperfect way, to get just a little bit closer to such knowledge and understandings.

That is the research that I have now been presenting at three consecutive EATS conferences as well as at a number of Japanese studies events, and which I have published as journal articles and book chapters over the last couple of years. Of course I cannot judge the value of that work, but I have noticed with intense gratitude that it has been readily welcomed and accepted by so many friendly and enthusiastic scholars in both fields. In fact, it seems they all think it belongs to “their” field. As you can imagine, I take that as an enormous compliment – and not without a discrete but very heartfelt sigh of relief.

Dr Jens Sejrup is Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Japanese Studies, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, Sweden