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Taiwan Studies in Japan: A Brief Introduction

Atsushi Sugano

In this article, I will briefly introduce the major trends in Taiwan Studies in Japan during the past 20 years.1

I have divided the 20 years into two periods, the first 10 years as a "Paradigm shift in Taiwan Studies", and the second decade as the "Evolution of Taiwan Studies". In both periods, Taiwan Studies in Japan were directly affected by the political and social changes in Taiwan after 1987, particularly the rapid liberalisation, democratisation, and transfers of political power to the DPP in 2000 and KMT in 2008.

Taiwan Studies in Postwar Japan: Until the 1990s

Until the 1960s, "Taiwan Studies" was almost non-existent in Japan. Masayoshi Matsunaga offered three reasons: (1) Japanese society as a whole avoided discussing and reflecting on past colonial issues; (2) views from the periphery such as Okinawa, Korea and Taiwan were absent in the dominant "one-country centrism" in Japanese modern history studies; (3) affected by Cold War politics, studies on Taiwan were rather "Republic of China studies."2 From 1945 to 1969, research on Taiwan was so scarce that academic volumes on the subject numbered no more than ten, and there were only about 350 articles and papers published.3

In the 1970s, researchers started forming study groups about Taiwan, but the field did not attract much attention until the 1990s. The turning point was Taiwan‘s abolition of martial law in 1987, and particularly the actions of Lee Teng-hui, who gradually transformed the image of Taiwan in Japan.

1995 to mid-2000s: Paradigm Shift in Taiwan Studies

From 1995 until the middle of the 2000s, we can identify a "Paradigm shift" in Taiwan studies. During this period, the old paradigm drastically changed, and the event that helped propel this shift was the foundation of JATS, the Japan Association for Taiwan Studies in 1998.

The foundation of JATS created a nationwide network, and "Taiwan studies" as a distinct was thus institutionalised. The first president was Masahiro Wakabayashi.4 The association started with just 233 members in 1998, and just ten years later membership had expanded to 460.5

However, it is necessary to point out that this paradigm shift was greatly influenced by political change. Debates about identity, relations with mainland China, the impact of Lee Teng-hui and the historic defeat of the KMT in the 2000 Presidential election all led to a renewed interest in Taiwan among Japanese scholars. Especially important was the perceived movement from "Chinese-ness" to "Taiwanese-ness". This meant the focus of research gradually shifted from looking at Taiwan as a part of Chinese history, to a more rounded understanding that embraced the Japanese colonial period, economic development and political change. It was during this period that new archives such as the Official Documents of the Taiwan Governor-General‘s Office (Sotokufu Monjo) were accessed to shed new light on Japanese colonialism.

Hence the growing interest in Taiwan dovetailed with the spread of imperial studies and the rediscovery of Japanese cultural influences in Taiwan.6 Taiwanese scholars such as Yin-che Huang, Yi-lin Ho, Pei-feng Chen, and Yu-ru Hong were influential in driving this change forward. Pei-feng Chen‘s work was especially provocative in advocating Taiwanese subjectivity in learning and utilising the Japanese language under imperial rule as a means of resistance.7 This shifted the focus to the roles and responsibility of the Taiwanese people themselves.

Mid-2000s to 2014: Evolution of Taiwan Studies

Just 10 years after the foundation of JATS and following another political turnover—from the DPP to KMT—a clear diversification of research topics and analytical frameworks brought the field to maturity. Major works on the Japanese colonial era covered areas such as the History of Empire, and the power of the Governor-General and his bureaucrats. However, we also find a range of new perspectives and approaches which examined specific themes in Taiwan itself, namely the KMT, the Cold War and democratisation; indigenisation and identity; ethnicity and society; and development and the environment. Three trends can be identified.

  1. The number of publications focusing on contemporary issues rather than the Japanese colonial era increased.
  2. The development of a new generation of authors who are free from the influence of the martial law period.
  3. A clear shift beyond the binary opposition of coloniser and the colonised, oppressor and oppressed.

Japan has thus experienced a rapid expansion in the number of PhD theses completed on Taiwan (increasing almost four times in 40 years8) and their subsequent publication as research monographs, some of which have won major awards. Nine out of twelve books which have won awards are originally PhD theses and focus on contemporary issues and themes rather than the Japanese colonial era.


New generations of Taiwanese and Japanese scholars have offered fresh insights that have questioned the importance of subjectivity of the colonised, rather than focusing on the traditional discourse of enforcement, suppression and exploitation. The diversification of research themes and topics was most represented by the concept of "Taiwanisation of the ROC".

In other words, we see a clear change in the analytical frame from "Taiwan for ROC" to "Taiwan as ROC." This transformation is still in progress, and continues to attract attention from Japanese researchers.

The rise of China has led some to argue that Taiwan studies is in decline. I disagree. The increase in the number of PhD dissertations relating to Taiwan written by researchers who are experts in contemporary Taiwan politics or economy, and the awards given to many of these academics demonstrate the vitality of Taiwan studies in Japan.9 With JATS as the powerhouse, Japanese scholars will continue their contribution to the advancement of Taiwan studies.


  1. This article is based on my presentation given at the 2nd World Congress of Taiwan Studies (SOAS London University, 20 June, 2015). The full paper will be published in an upcoming co-edited book by Routledge in 2016. Please quote from the full paper instead of from this version in EATS News.
  2. Masayoshi Matsunaga, "Tai Kokki no Ichi" [The Position of Kuo-hui Tai] in Kuo-hui Tai [Meitetsu Haruyama, Masayoshi Matsunaga, Chizuru Tainaka, TetsushiMarukawaeds], Hakka, Kakyo, Taiwan, Chugoku [Hakka, Overseas Chinese, Taiwan, China] (Kuo-hui Tai Collections I), Tokyo: Miyabi Shuppan, 2011, p.428.
  3. This number is based on Kuo-hui Tai, "Nihon niokeru Taiwan Kenkyu" [Taiwan Studies in Japan] in Kuo-hui Tai (Meitetsu Haruyama, Masayoshi Matsunaga, Chizuru Tainaka, Tetsushi Marukawaeds), Taiwanshi no Mosaku [In Search of Taiwan History] (Kuo-hui Tai Collections II), Tokyo: Miyabi Shuppan, 2011, pp.290-296. The original article was in Ajia Keizai Vol.100, September 1969.
  4. Masahiro Wakabayashi is a leading scholar of Taiwan studies in Japan. He was the first president of JATS from 1998 to 2002.The current president is Yukihito Sato.
  5. As of March 2015, the current JATS membership numbers 436.
  6. Following Hironobu Hoshina‘s explanation, the international academic conference on Laihe and other writers of Japanese Colonial Period held in Chinghua University in Hsinchu in 1994 had a crucial impact on bringing attention to the literature on the Japanese Colonial Era. It also accelerated academic cooperation and collaboration between scholars of Japan and Taiwan. On the conference, see: Sakujiro Shimomura, Toshiro Nakajima, ShozoFujii, and Ying-che Huang (eds), Yomigaeru Taiwan Bungaku [Taiwanese Literature Revived], Tokyo: Toho Shoten, 1995.
  7. Pei-feng Chen, "Doka" no Doshoimu [The Different Intentions Behind the Semblance of "Doka"],Tokyo: Sangensha, 2001. The Chinese edition was published by Maitian Publisher in 2006
  8. The number of PhD theses submitted in Japan about Taiwan is as follows: 90 (1975-1984), 128 (1985-1994), 238 (1995-2004), 358 (2005-2014). This covers all disciplines, so the number will be less if we omit those submitted in the natural sciences.
  9. Nevertheless, Yasuhiro Matsuda describes Taiwan studies in Japan as dependent on individual and volunteer efforts. Moreover, most of the studies were undertaken in the humanities. In particular sections of Taiwan studies, especially in the social sciences, still need further help. See: Yasuhiro Matsuda "Taiwan Seiji Kenkyu ha Dokokara kite Doko he Mukauka?" ["Where did Taiwan Political Study come from, and where is it heading for?"], Nihon Taiwan Gakkaiho, No.11, May 2009, pp.33-34.

Atsushi Sugano is Senior Associate Professor, College of International Studies, Meio University, Okinawa, Japan.