Japanese History in Taiwan

Taiwan was part of Japan from 1895 until 1945, and is rich in Japanese historical buildings from this era. Japan's annexation and colonisation of Taiwan is a complicated and divisive topic, but everyone would agree that Japan's role in Taiwan was very different to Korea, China and other regions it invaded as a colonial power. Taiwanese mostly celebrate their Japanese history, and government surveys show that Japan is the country most Taiwanese would like to visit (even if money were not an issue) and is also the country that people want Taiwan to become diplomatically closer to. Because Taiwan was bombed less heavily during World War II than many parts of Japan, much of this history remains.

Japanese Heritage Sites in Taiwan

Since Taiwan was much less heavily bombed during WWII than most of the Japanese Mainland, Taiwan features more historic Japanese buildings than many regions in Japan do.

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Taipei City

 Central Taipei

Presidential Palace
National Taiwan Museum Nippon Kangyo Bank

The Wanhua District (萬華), around National Taiwan University Hospital Station, was the Japanese administrative centre of Taipei, and is named after the Japanese pronunciation of the old Hokkien (Taiwanese) pronunciation of Bang Kah. Despite heavy bombing during World War II many notable buildings from the era remain in use. Japanese architects in Taiwan at this time used a variety of Japanese and European elements.

The Presidential Palace was built from 1910 to 1919, at a cost of 2.9 million Yen, to house the Governor of Taiwan. It was built with Baroque and neo-classical elements. It was bombed to the point of collapse in 1945, and restored in 1948, from which point it has been the residence of the President of the Republic of China. 

Built from 1908 to 1915 as Kodomo Gato Memorial Hall, with Greek Architectural elements, nearby National Taiwan Museum has been Taipei's museum for over a century, and is one of the city's most significant colonial buildings.

This Nippon Kangyo Bank is now administered by the National Taiwan Museum, as the Land Bank Exhibition Hall (土銀展示館), which is dedicated to Paleo organisms and features some impressive dinosaur skeletons. Many of Taiwan's early agricultural and real estate developments were financed here.


Beitou Hotsprings Museum Beitou Museum Plum Garden

Beitou was first established as the onsen (hot spring) resort town of Hokutō Village  (北投庄) in 1896, and quickly grew into Taiwan's top hotspring resort, with its own direct rail link to Taipei (the precursor to today's MRT). In 1923 it welcomed Prince Hirohito for an onsen at what was then the largest public bathhouse in the Japanese empire, and is now the Beitou Hotsprings Museum.

Just up from the Hotsprings Museum and right beside the enrance to the Millenium Public Hotsprings is the beautifully restored 1930s Japanese home of famous artist Yu Youren (于右任), now called the Plum Garden.

A little further up is the Puji Temple (普濟寺), built from 1905 to 1915. It belonged to the Shingon Esoteric Buddhist Sect, famous for the thousand-year old centre at Koyasan, near Osaka.  
The nearby Beitou Museum (formerly Beitou Folk Arts Museum) is housed in the former Kazana Hotel, which in its day was the most luxurious hotspring hotel in Taiwan. It's said that kamikaze pilots would have their final meal and onsen here before heading off on their suicide mission. It's now been beautifully restored, complete with the original tatami dining hall and a small stone garden, and is home to thousands of pieces of Taiwanese artwork from the Qing Dynasty through until the 1970s.

Taoyuan Shinto Shrine

Unfortunately, as of March 2020, the Taoyuan Shinto Shrine is currently closed indefinitely for restoration work.

During the 1930s there were over 200 Shinto Shrines in Taiwan. The most significant was the Taipei Grand Shrine, located on what's now the Grand Hotel. The copper bulls from the Grand Shrine are now outside National Taiwan Museum. After World War II many were looted or used as government buildings, and for any which weren't Chiang Kai Shek's ordered their destruction or conversion to Chinese Marty's Shrines in a desperate attempt to Sinisise the population.

The former Taoyuan Shinto Shrine, built in 1938  was, by chance, left almost in tact because the county government lacked the funds to 'convert' it. During the 1980s, towards the end of the martial law era, Taiwanese began to re-connect with their Japanese past, and while the shrine is still officially the Taoyuan County Martyr's Shrine (桃園忠烈祠), it's now well-known as the best-preserved Shinto Shrine in Taiwan and probably the best outside of Japan. The Torii (entrance) is new, but it's otherwise very authentic.

Northeast Coast

The Northeast Coast is home to not only beautiful scenery but also much of Taiwan's best-kept Japanese history. All Japanese visit Jiufen while in Taiwan for its supposed connections to the famous animae movie Spirited Away.

Jiufen Jinguashi Pingxi Railway

Jiufen and Jinguashi

These former mining towns were, at their peak during the 1930s, some of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, and they supplied many of the metals to Japan's war effort. Production declined after the take-over by the ROC after World War II, and mining ceased altogether in the 1970s. The towns were all but forgotten, until Jiufen returned to fame as the setting for A City of Sadness, the first film to depict the 2-28 Massacre.  It's widely believed that Jiufen inspired Miyazaki's famous Spirited Away, the most successful animae movie of all time, and Amei's Teahouse is said to be the scene of the bathhouse. There's little evidence that Miyazaki even visited Taiwan, but the whole certainly feels very Japanese. Jinguashi rose to fame a little later, and is also famous for its POW Camp (Kinkaseki, the Japanese name for Jinguashi). Houtong, a poorer coal-mining neighbour, is just on its way to fame, partly for its coal-mining history but mostly for its domestic cat population.
This narrow-gauge railway has re-invented itself as a tourist destination, but has a much more timeless feel, as the towns are primarily still focussed on horticulture, and nowadays (unfortunately for the environment) the release of sky lanterns. There are still some old colonial buildings around in use, and some old Japanese mining ruins.


The Chi'An Ching Hsou Temple (吉安慶修院)is a Japanese Buddhist temple founded in 1917, at which time Japanese were encouraged to migrate to this area (then called Yoshino) to develop the region's horticultural industry. Like the Puji Temple in Beitou, this temple belongs to the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism and was then known as Shingon Yoshino Dojo. The temple was recognised as an important historical site in 1997 and opened to the public in 2003.


In Taiwan the restoration of relics from the Japanese administration is always controversial, since for most Taiwanese they are a part of their history, while the the (currently-ruling) Chinese Nationalist Party (who fought Japanese in China) they are a symbol of colonial aggression. Sentiments were stirred up recently when the City Council decided to renovate a collapsed Torii (temple entrance) in Taichung Park. (See this Taipei Times article.) The shrine itself was torn down after WWII, but the dilapidated torii was left lying in the park.


Tainan has many preserved Japanese-era buildings. Please see this excellent Tainan City Guide

History of Taiwan's Relationship with Japan

In 1874 a ship from the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) shipwrecked in Mutan Village in Southern Taiwan, and the crew were beheaded by Paiwan Aborigines.  The Japanese government sought compensation from the Qing Government of China, who answered that aboriginal "barbarians" lay out of their reach and jurisdiction. Japan sent a punitive expedition to the village, subdued it and occupied it for six months. The Qing government backtracked, paid an indemnity (1.7 tonnes of silver) and the government withdrew. The Qing Court then sent its own troops to attempt to subdue the Paiwan tribe, but they were ambushed en route, and the few survivors fled to Kaohsiung and returned to China.

In 1884 war broke out between Japan and China over Korea. Japan decimated The Qing Dynasty's much larger, modernised navy, and China quickly sued for peace. After a month of negotiations Japan and China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which China ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity.

Shinparo Hall, with its layout preserved from the month-long negotiations of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.

In an attempt to resist the imminent Japanese takeover, a group of Taiwanese elite established the Republic of Formosa, Asia's first European-style republic, and employed leftover Qing garrison soldiers for defence. When the Japanese army arrived in Keelung (Taipei's port, not far from Jiufen) the leaders of the republic fled to China, and the soldiers began looting Taipei. Alarmed businessmen rushed to Keelung to invite the Japanese troops into Taipei to restore order. The troops rushed in overnight, and spent two days restoring order. Chinese troops mostly surrendered peacefully, happy to return to their homeland. Eighteen cavalry troopers traveled from central Taipei to Tamsui without firing a shot, collecting several hundred surrendering Chinese troops.

Further south the Japanese army met much stronger resistance from Han (ethnic Chinese) settlers whose ancestors had been in Taiwan for generations, despite much inferior training and weaponry. The Battle of Baguashan, in Changhua, was the largest ever fought on Taiwanese soil, with heavy but unknown losses. It took the army five months to reach Tainan, where the Republic of Formosa fell and Japan officially took control of its new territory. 14,000 Taiwanese and 164 Japanese were killed in battle. The local mosquito population, however, proved much more effective in defending their homeland, as 4,000 Japanese died of Malaria, and over 20,000 more were evacuated to Japan for treatment. It took several years and the work of British and Italian scientists to identify the cause of "Taiwan Fever", after which it was virtually eradicated.

The "1895 Baguashan Anti-Japanese Martyr's Museum" displays exhibits from the Republic of Formosa and the Battle of Baguashan in old air-raid shelter.

Taiwan was Japan's first colony, and it was determined to show the world it was a serious and capable new colonial power. It invested heavily in the island's infrastructure, most notably the electrification of the island. The Daguan Power Station required 2.5 million labourers to dig a 50-kilometre channel through the mountains from Sun Moon Lake, and foreign loans to pay them. It was an incredible feat of engineering for its day, and still supplies significant amounts of electricity for Taiwan today. Schools were built and roads opened up new trade routes, and most Taiwanese quickly settled into their new life as Japanese subjects. 

In the 1930s, as Japan began its more aggressive expansionist policies into the pacific, ans wanted to build a stronger Japanese identity among Taiwanese. The worship of Chinese ancestors was outlawed, many Shinto Shrines were built (see below) and Taiwanese were encouraged to assume Japanese names. Aborigines, however  were still regarded as "barbarians" (as they were by the Qing Dynasty) and were "tamed" by relocating them to the plains, where they could be forced into growing food for the empire. Violent clashes continued until the 1930s, with the final and most bloody being the Wushe Incident, graphically portrayed in Seediq Bale.

By World War II Taiwan was essentially a prefecture of Japan. Eighty thousand Taiwaense men volunteered for the Imperial Japanese Army, and a third lost their lives. Taiwan was bombed many times throughout the war, and the generators at Daguan Power Plant were hit despite extensive anti-aircraft artilery defense, camoflauge and a "fake" power station nearby. During the Raid on Taipei (台北大空襲) on May 31, 1945, 3,800 bombs were dropped in three hours. Three thousand people were killed, tens of thousands of people became homeless and several key buildings were damaged, including the Presidential Palace, the Longshan Temple, Taipei First Girls High School and a Catholic Church.

Why is Taiwan's Relationship with Japan so Different to China's?

1. The Qing Dynasty (before Japanese rule) Didn't Value Taiwan

Prior to 1885 Taiwan was officially part of the Qing Dynasty, but it regarded Taiwan as a "wasteland of unruly inhabitants" and only began developing the island after it incorporated it as a province in 1885, when an arsenal was amassed to defend the island and a railway was built to Hsinchu. For the most part, life was tough, with limited food and resources, and without effective government clashes were common between rival aboriginal, Haka (The "Jews of Asia" and Han Chinese settlers).  As such, while especially Aborigines have know Taiwan as their home for millenia, there was no collective 'Taiwanese': Aborigines lived in the mountains, the Han Chinese on the plains, and Hakka wherever they settled. This is in stark contrast to, for example, Korea, whose people had a strong collective identity with which to resist the invading Japanese.

2. Japanese Invested Heavily in Taiwan, and Brought Peace and Prosperity.

While there was initially strong resistance to the Japanese take-over, the majority of Han (ethnic Chinese) settlers and Hakka quickly settled into life as Japanese subjects and enjoyed the peace, development and prosperity that Japanese colonisation brought: law and order was established, with the law enforced harshly but generally fairly, infectious diseases were eradicated and food production increased four-fold. Roads were built and Japanese, which naturally established itself as the lingua franca, allowed easier communication and trade between previously isolated communities. Many elderly from this era, most still identify more strongly as Japanese than Chinese. The most notable example is Lee Tung-Hui, Taiwan't first Taiwan-born president who, at ninety two years old (2015) is still politically active in promoting an independent identity for Taiwan and closer friendship with Japan. He describes his identity over his life as "First a Japanese, then a Chinese, and finally a Taiwanese", and probably speaks for most of his generation.

3. Post-War Chaos

While China and Korea also went through political turmoil of their own, Taiwanese suffered faster. While at first Chiang Kai Shek showed little interest in Taiwan, after he lost China he and a million of his followers fled to Taiwan. The first thing his soldiers did was pillage homes and factories, and send their loot back to China. Kuomintang (ROC) officials also assumed control of all government industries, despite no knowledge of the island's infrastructure, which led to a breakdown in long-established order: diseases of poverty returned the price of rice reached four hundred times its pre-war value. Following the 2-28 Massacre, Taiwanese revolted, and Chiang Kai Shek sent reinforcement soldiers who spent three days roaming the streets, looting houses and killing and raping their occupants at random. Martial law was declared and would last nearly fourty years, and over a hundred thousand supporters of Taiwanese independence - or so accused - would be killed.

Taiwanese who lived through this White Terror period and the period of Japanese rule generally look positively on the peace and stability brought by the Japanese, at least in comparison to what followed under the KMT.

Terms for Japan's Rule of Taiwan

The period of Japanese rule is described differently by different political camps. The KMT have traditionally called it the "Japanese Occupation", however this is factually inaccurate because, unlike their occupations of China, Korea and SE Asia, Japan won sovereignty over Taiwan through the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which was signed at the conclusion of a month's negotiation with the Qing Dynasty, and was ratified in accordance with international law. While this treaty went against the will of the people at the time, and was strongly resisted in Southern Taiwan,The "Japanese Colonial Period" is a little more neutral, however legally speaking Korea was a colony and Taiwan was governed as a province. On this website I use the neutral term "Japanese Administration".

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