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Self Confirmation and Ethnography

17/03/2009
Taiwan Exhibit - Tokyo 1916

Taiwan Exhibit - Tokyo 1916

With the first chapter of Barbarian Village in the Mist as my previous post, I have decided that since it is going to take me a while to complete the remaining six chapters I will, in addition to my other posts, continue to offer background information on the short story between each chapter and then again at the end as a sort of conclusion.  All together this should be quite an undertaking, lets hope I can make it interesting at least.

In this first chapter, Nakamura Chihei (I observe the Japanese standard of putting last name first) presents the author with an antagonism between the beauty of the region and the brutality of the actual massacre.  The Japanese colonizers naively celebrate their yearly chance to exchange greetings as the conflicted yet resolute Hanaoka Ichiro subdues his misgivings about the imminent attack.  I will talk more about characterization of the natives and the Japanese in another post, but here I would like to focus on the idea of an introduction.

Needless to say, not all Japanese were aware of what exactly went on in the Taiwanese colonies, in fact, most Japanese at the time knew very little of Taiwan itself and even less of its native, non-chinese residents.  Nakamura’s introduction does more than to just set the stage for the event, he also fills the role of a relayer of information.  While it seems that Nakamura does little in the way of offering factual information beyond that which could be found in news paper accounts at the time, he does offer a kind of spiritual background for the event.  His description of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the yearly field day help to give emotional reference for the Japanese reader.  Using language that evokes any number of yearly events held in mainland Japan, Nakamura shows that these residents were not so called adventurers, but average families.

Just how much did the average Japanese know about Taiwan?  While I am unable to answer that question with confidence, using an example from nearly 30 years before to as a point of reference should give a general impression.  In 1903 in Osaka Japan a world fair was held that in many ways mimicd the Paris and London world fairs held in 1900 and 1899 respectively.  Specifically it mimicd the display of native peoples as exhibits in and of themselves.  On the part of late 19th century Europeans, this was of course born partially out of a curiosity of foreign lands.  Specifically lands that were not yet “civilized” or were indicative of ‘man’ in his natural, savage state.  It was, however, perhaps more than this, a way to bring the spoils of the empire back to the home county.  To show one’s own citizens how great their nation was in comparison to the primitives peoples of equatorial and eastern lands.  It was in this act of comparing one self to the backward savage that authors like Edward Said have suggested, colonialism itself was born.

What interested the Japanese Meiji government was perhaps this final aspect of the European world fairs.  That is that while Japan was hurrying to modernize herself, many felt that a colonial empire was not only an essential aspect of a world power, but the defining aspect of a nation’s cultural superiority.  In the 1903 World fair in Osaka there was a building called the Taiwan exhibit, a place where one could be transported to the distant tropical island and see its strange artifacts and interact with its primitive denizens.  One newspaper article from the Osaka Times newspaper published to advertise the event states that upon entering certain rooms the author felt that they had been transported to the orient of opium dens and sultans.

To a westerner it might seem strange to read that Japanese saw the orient as some distant and exotic place in the world since, for the most part, that is what Japan is to the west.  However, Japan, perhaps because it is an island, was, and in many ways remains, quite culturally isolated from all other asian nations.  What was on display in the Taiwan exhibit was a potpourri of everything exotic and Taiwanese, from local flaura to food and clothing to exhibits describing the customs and daily life of the so-called savage native.  Then there was in addition, of course, the Taiwanese themselves.  In the same article the author describes how in a tea house connected to the Taiwan exhibit one could find a young Taiwanese girl who spoke funny broken Japanese while serving you.  Here was a real living savage, half civilized to the point that she could take your order and make you laugh with her strange comportment and speech.

While the 1903 word fair in Osaka was not the only chance Japanese citizens had the opportunity to learn about the empire’s colony in Taiwan, it is indicative of several important aspects of Japanese mentality in the early pre-war 20th century.  First, the Taiwan exhibit specifically categorized Taiwan’s natives as savage, creating an environment in which the Japanese visitor could easily view themselves as superior, view Japan as superior.  Second, for all of the wealth of knowledge contained within the exhibit, it stands to highlight just how little the average Japanese knew about the lands across her seas.  This was Taiwan not as she was, but Taiwan as she needed to be in order to confirm the legitimacy of Japanese colonization.

While I have presented here only one example of how Japan might have viewed Taiwan at the time of the Wushe Incident, a clearer understanding of what Nakamura’s introductory first chapter accomplishes is possible.  Taiwan was in many ways too far away from Japan to be understood outside of the catalogued ethnography of the world fair.  Nakamura brings Taiwan to the Japanese public through portraying its yearly events, its cherry blossoms, its colonizers in terms that any Japanese person would understand.  As the reader approaches the violent climax of the first chapter, they are faced with the question, why.  Nakamura’s answer lies in his artful portrayal of Hanaoka Ichiro, the native policeman.  Though he dramatically sheds his uniform, the symbol of civilization that marks him as no longer savage, there is a sadness in his heart, an emotional struggle that even the colonizing power, the average Japanese might understand.  This portrayal of inner conflict does not however reach its climax in abstractions and metaphor, with Chapter 2 concrete examples of why the Wushe Incident and its perpetrators can not be simply reduced to the ethnographic stereotypes of Civilization vs. Barbarianism bilateral mentality.

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