Taiwan was a colony of Japan from 1895 to 1945. However, the history of invasion has not prevented the two peoples from developing a friendly relationship. Throughout the past decade, cross-border, volunteer-driven disaster relief has established mutual respect and appreciation at an interpersonal level.
New Bloom writer and photographer Enbion Micah Aan captured Japanese volunteers helping in the aftermath of Tainan earthquake. The original post, titled “Japanese Volunteers at the Tainan Earthquake Site”, was published on February 21 as part of New Bloom's photography column Seeds, which seeks to explore and promote just causes by highlighting individuals‘ efforts in social changes. The following edited version is republished on Global Voices with permission.
On February 13, at the Tainan earthquake disaster site, I saw about 20 Japanese volunteers wearing Taiwan Presbyterian Church vests with Japanese flags displayed on their clothes or badges. In the supply section, the Japanese volunteers outnumbered the Taiwanese volunteers. I spoke to a few of them, and the common sentiment among the Japanese volunteers was that they felt compelled to help with the rescue effort, since Taiwan donated the most money out of all the nations in the aftermath of March 11, 2011 earthquake that ravaged Japan.
Akiko Kitayama, a professional pool player who lives and works in Tainan, said
When somebody is in trouble, and it is someone who has helped us before, of course, we would help them. You [the Taiwanese people] helped us and we weren’t even your friends, so of course we came to help. Japan and Taiwan will be best friends forever.
Most of the volunteers said they also wanted to help out since the first day, but the opportunity did not present itself until Masaki Tsuji, a local resident in Tainan, posted on Facebook, informing people they would be able to enter the disaster area to help through the Taiwan Presbyterian Church. He brought along some 15 volunteers.
There were also others who joined the volunteer team via the Presbyterian Church without seeing the Facebook notification. One of them was Mew Hatta, a student studying agriculture in Taipei, who had experience working with the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church at the Japanese Christian Disaster Victim Relief Center of the Northeast District during the rescue effort following the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
There were also Japanese volunteers who said they would have helped regardless of Taiwanese’ contribution after the Japanese earthquake — Hiroyuki Yamada, who lives in the neighborhood and runs a Japanese shop in Tainan, and Reiko Akamine, a student at Cheng Kung University.
In Taiwanese media, much has been discussed about Japanese sympathies and aid following the Tainan earthquake. Though some organized efforts are politically motivated, such as a diplomatic desire to forge an alliance with Japan against China, upon seeing and talking to actual Japanese volunteers, even the most hardened observers would conclude that the bond between the two peoples is genuine.
While most would interpret the relationship now between the two nations as friendly, the history and politics of Taiwan and Japan is not as simple as it appears on the surface. As of now, Taiwan’s government is still not formally recognized by Japan, and given Japan's historic colonization of Taiwan, most Taiwanese people commemorate the day marking the end of Japanese occupation after World War II.
It was not until Kuomintang (KMT)’s brutal rule in Taiwan beginning in 1949, after the party had retreated there following defeat at the hands of the communists in mainland China, that the general Taiwanese attitude towards the Japanese gradually softened to the point that the Japanese occupation is often viewed with a sense of nostalgia. Japan in its role as a former colonizer of Taiwan can be seen on one hand as having started a modernization process and building of important modern infrastructure that is still in use today. But on the other, it also oversaw the environmental and ecological exploitation of the island (often to build the aforementioned infrastructure) as well as subjugated and, in some cases, killed Taiwanese, establishing a ruling foundation later continued with the KMT regime.
However, at a grassroots and interpersonal level, the bond between the two cultures has been born out of the contradictions and complication of history and politics, and this is especially apparent during times of disaster. It is without question that the Taiwanese and Japanese have developed deep appreciation for one another.
Other photos record Japanese volunteers’ efforts at the Tainan earthquake site: