The role of Japan in the modernization of Taiwan


From what I am seeing is that there are several viewpoints saying that either the Qing or colonial Japan contributed most to the taiwanese modernization process. Those different approaches seemed to appear in bigger scale after the “invasion” of the KMT and the (er er ba shijian) conflict in 1947 which contributed to an even bigger discussion on “the national identity” in Taiwan, reaching its climax in the 90s and leading to still ongoing discussions (unification vs independence etc.)
My questions would be:
How do you approach and interpret the different viewpoints of Taiwan’s modernization after the big shift to the national identity issue? Can a conclusion be made?
Was the democratization the sole reason for the increase in studies on national identity in Taiwan since 1990? If not why were the 90s so important?
Did the west lose interest in Taiwan or why does only 1 English source for the history of taiwanese historiography exist?
Any further reading would be appreciated. Thanks!


Just curious why you’re asking? Excuse my cynicism, but I can’t help wondering if you want someone to write your school assignment for you :wink:

My 2c:

The biggest contributors to Taiwan’s modernisation were Taiwanese people. Neither the Japanese nor the KMT (or more accurately, I suppose, Chiang Wei-Kuo) could have done what they did without the (grudging) consent and understanding of the man in the street. Exactly how that happened is a complete mystery to me (I started a thread about it, ages ago). IMO, it shouldn’t have happened. Other countries in similar circumstances remained mired in corruption and ignominy. Broadly, I’d agree with Hernando de Soto Polar: the critical points were economic freedom (the freedom of the small businessman to decide what he’s going to make and sell, and to whom) and secure property laws.

‘Democracy’ had little or nothing to do with it.

The West has never really been interested in Taiwan, except perhaps as a military base. China is bigger, and therefore more interesting. The rest of S.E.Asia was a bigger cesspool of depravity, and therefore more interesting. Taiwan just sort of got on with life, and nobody writes books about that.


Thanks for your answer! As to why I am curious that’s because I studied 1 year abroad. At that time student protests started (which I joined out of curiosity) and made me interested in the whole national identity debate :smiley:


I had to look up who Ernie was…
##Main thesis
The main message of de Soto’s work and writings is that no nation can have a strong market economy without adequate participation in an information framework that records ownership of property and other economic information. Unreported, unrecorded economic activity results in many small entrepreneurs who lack legal ownership of their property, making it difficult for them to obtain credit, sell the business, or expand. They cannot seek legal remedies to business conflicts in court, since they do not have legal ownership. Lack of information on income prevents governments from collecting taxes and acting for the public welfare.


Seiji, you mentioned differing views re the Japanese role in modernizing Taiwan versus the “Qing”. Did you mean the KMT or actually the Qing Dynasty? I don’t think that the Qing is completely without credit but most of the discussions I’ve heard have usually centered on Japan versus the KMT (and you do seem to mostly discuss the KMT rather than the Qing).

I agree with the comment above that most of the credit belongs to the people of Taiwan.


I don’t want to write your finals paper here. But from what I learned in history, the Qing court really put no effort into Taiwans modernization. Hell they were fighting th British in wooden ships against metal war ships so that kind of gives you the idea of how far behind the Qing dynasty was. They merely wanted the island to submit to their rule. Nothing else.

The Japanese is more complicated. To them Taiwan was their crown jewel of a colony to show their power to the west. They actually out a huge amount of resources into Taiwan and wanted to make it like a second Japan. The negatives is they repressed some Taiwanese culture and didn’t treat the aboriginals well or people who resisted. But overall The island improved. The Japanese were pretty inclusive of the people of Taiwan and worked together and shared many skills and projects such as agriculture. For example the rice strain here is from a Japanese botanist for Taiwan to be able to grow rice year round. I believe Taiwan still sends rice to Japan as a thank you for that as a symbol today. Other things they showed the people on the island. Building things like bridges, buildings and other architectural project. You can still find many Bridges built my the Japanese and the presidential building is built by the Japanese and if you take a view from the top. It’s actually the symbol for Nippon aka Japan. Another aspect is government and things like policing. Taiwan became a much safer place when the Japanese took control. And they poured heavily into education although they banned any Taiwanese and taught Japanese instead. But people who weren’t able to get a proper education were able to during Japanese rule. Unlike western colonizers who used it to extract resources and left them with nothing. Japan did the opposite. It wasn’t perfect as some freedoms were limited but some people in Taiwan that are very old still miss how organized the Japanese ran things. But after they left. The people of Taiwan really did most of the work to take steps into modernizing. But the Japanese were really the only Asian country to really modernized so it’s no surprise that Taiwan learned from them.


towards the end (when taiwan became a province) there was one guy who started modernising taiwan in the qing. taiwan was said to be the most developed province of china. it wasn’t very long though. no way this could be compared to what took place under the japanese times.

as for the jap era vs kmt all you need to do is look at the photos to see the contrast. its quite a difference. order vs chaos. and today we still live in mostly a shack filled mess.


Before democratization the KMT avoided talking about the advancements of the Japanese period. One way of not mentioning the Japanese was by fabricating stuff and altering facts to give themselves or Qing dynasty officials credit for what the Japanese had done.

Just 2 examples of pre-democratization fabrications, which all Taiwanese probably learned in school if they are born before 1995:

  1. The west coast railway

During the KMT dictatorship period, kids were told that Liu Mingchuan (劉銘傳), a Qing official, deserves the credit of building railroads throughout the west. Liu’s railroad was only from Keelung to Hsinchu, and it was so poorly constructed that it was all but useless.

So Liu asked repeatedly for funds to build his railway. However, he got very little money to do it. At the time, in 1876, the British Jardine Matheson company built a railway from Shanghai to its harbor that regular Chinese people really disliked. A train ran over a cow, and people started rioting against the railway. So when that railway got torn down, the equipments were sent to Taiwan in 1887 for Liu to build his railway.

Liu insisted that his soldiers and workers would construct the railroad, they just put a foreign chief engineer in charge of the project without much supervising power. Things went very poorly and foreign engineers, German or British, left one by one, by the time the project was done, the project saw 5 different chief engineers.

There were only 4 trains a day, and the train would shake violently. It also didn’t operate on schedule as it had to stop every time someone waved for it to stop. There were no signals, no railroad crossings, no platforms. The steam train would run out water and had to stop to fetch it. The route was poorly chosen as it weaves about graveyards and houses. No geological survey was done so after a couple of typhoons it was basically out of commission. Not to mention the railway lost a lot of money and never was able to recover its cost.

As soon as the Japanese secured Taipei in 1895, they appointed someone to make plans for the new railway right away, even before they’ve conquered the rest of the island.

They were in a hurry because they had hoped to utilize the railway in their invasion, but found the railway completely useless. Instead of having trains hauling Japanese troops, Japanese troops had to manually push the train forward. Most railway ties were missing , and the Japanese commented that it more like a trail than a rail road, and nicked named it the “rear-driven train” or the “the railway with pneumonia”. By 1896, 241 Japanese tasked to repair the “rail road” died due to diseases.

The prefecture got the funding to build an entirely new rail way in 1900, and it was completed in 1908. This one ran from present day Keelung to Kaohsiung. It was the Japanese who designed and built the railway that Taiwan still uses today.

  1. The central cross highway and Suhua highway

The KMT have always claimed that the Taiwanese people should be grateful for the large number of troops it brought to the island because these “veterans” contributed to the construction of major infrastructures such as the central cross highway and Suhua highway that linked Hualian and Yilan.

However, both were built by Aboriginal workers during the Japanese era. Central cross highway during those days linked west coast and the east coast, using Taroko gorge as it’s eastern end just like today.

The Japanese also founded the Taroko national park in 1937, which is something that the KMT also likes to claim credit for. The national park during the Japanese era included Xueshan (雪山). It was called Tsugitaka Taroko National Park (次高太魯閣國家公園), and encompassed an area of 2,726 square KM. Today, the Taroko and Xueba national parks combined only make up about 1,689 square KM.

So even though both the Japanese who built the road, and the KMT who at most expanded it, both did it to reap the resources of Taiwan’s precious redwood forests and mines, at least the Japanese was already committed to preservation of the place.

The Japanese through their 50 years of colonization cut down about 833 square meters of precious redwood forests. In comparison, the KMT managed to clear 4,496 square meters in just 43 years between 1946 and 1989. The red wood forests cleared out had been growing for thousands of years, and were what’s holding back rapid erosion on Taiwan’s steep terrains against earth quakes and typhoons. The flooding, mud slide we are suffering annually is a direct result of senseless deforestation sponsored by the KMT government.