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Colonial Literature or Ineluctable Bias, Nakamura Chihei Commentary Part 1



I’m still in the midst of my next translation but I thought before I post the first part I’d give some background information and some thoughts on its genre.  The translation of the title I’ve settled on is Savage Village in the Mist though I’ve seen a segment of it translated with the title: Mist-Enshrouded Barbarian Village. It is in one respect a piece of reportage, a fictional account of a contemporary event in a journalistic style.  The event in question is what is referred to as the Wushe Incident (October 27, 1930), in which a small group of native Taiwanese rose up in bloody rebellion against Japanese colonists.

The event was shocking for the greater Japanese public at the time.  The first reason being that these “savages” were widely thought of as possessing the mental faculty of cattle, something that supposedly kept them from being able to plan any effective uprising before the Wushe incident.  There existed prior to the event an academic debate among the Japanese on how to both classify the native peoples in Taiwan and properly deal with them.  This was the stuff of racial classifications, head measurements and so on.  In their arguments, all parties agree that extermination of the lowest strata or barbaric natives, was the optimal solution to the problem, however, due to the cost in man power and resources such a solution proved nonviable.  What was instead practiced was a slow constriction of these native peoples by erecting a fence around them, sometimes hundreds of kilometers long and sometimes charged electrically, then slowly decreasing its area, herding them together, so that in the end all barbaric peoples could be easily dealt with in a timely and convenient manner.  This was not mere racist horseplay on the part of the Japanese.  The Wushe Village was someone of an exception since Japanese colonists actually lived in relative near proximity to the natives.  It was seen at the time as being proof of the Japanese race’s superiority and divine right to “civilize” the asian populations.  When a group of savage natives held a successful uprising against this civilization machine, leaving nearly 700 dead in the end, many Japanese felt not only that the empire’s as of then success was perhaps not going to go as smoothly as they had imagined, but also were forced to question their own ideas about racial superiority.

It has long been argued that Japanese colonialism is in many ways a reaction to pressure from an encroaching west.  Japan, who at the turn of the 20th century was the only asian nation to have reached the modern age, felt that if it did not take up its own white man’s burden then all of asia would be lost to the west, forever subordinate in all matters.  The West’s superiority however, from the perspective of the east was seen not as a racial superiority but rather as a technological superiority, a perspective that lead to the saying, “Eastern Morality, Western Technology” 東洋道徳西洋技術.  Meaning that Japan felt it could do the job of a world power better than the east by combining Western science and Eastern ethics.  With this in mind we might better understand why the Wushe incident was so shocking.  In one sense many Japanese at the time felt that while the west was superior in science and technology the Japan’s moral stock was superior, meaning that with the means of western science and the foundation of Eastern morality a greater, just society could be constructed.  The greed and self-destructiveness of the west could be overcome if by the Japanese themselves.  Japan both felt entitled and obligated to bring this “light” of modernity to other asian nations.  While the peoples of what is now modern day North and South Korea and the inhabitants of the Taiwanese coast were in many ways subjugated to the harsh racist ideology of the Japanese colonizers, they were also considered have the potential to become full fledged Japanese.  This was reflected in the rigorous education programs practiced all over Korea, Taiwan and even what is now Okinawa, then Ryukoku, that aimed to Japanicize select members of the population.  When everything seemed to be going so well, the sub-human savages from central Taiwan lead a successful uprising, to many, signifying that perhaps Japan was not so benevolent a ruling force after all.

Savage Village in the Mist was written by Nakamura Chihei, born 1908, Japanese man who went to high school in Taiwan after hearing stories about it.  It was published in 1939.  He taught for some years in Taiwan before returning to Japan and becoming a novelist.  This story is one of his most famous and attempts to give a voice to the otherwise silenced native Taiwanese.  Nakamura is, however, unable to fully detach himself from his perspective as a member of the ruling Japanese power.  While he does succeed in giving some ounce of humanity to his subjects, still refers to them with terms like savage and barbarian.  Looking into some of his other short stories, it becomes apparent that this is a trend running throughout his work.  One of the choices I have made in translating this piece is to use the Japanese readings for all place names, even though the standard for translation of such a piece would be to use the Chinese reading.  The reason being that I want to highlight Nakamura’s perspective.  In this light, the Wushe Incident is actually the Musha Incident.  Taiwan however, remains Taiwan.

There is an interesting book that brings attention to Nakamura’s story and its relation to the Wushe Incident, it is called, Under and Imperial Sun:Japanese Colonial Literature of Taiwan and the South By Faye Yuan Kleeman.

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