The curiously cozy relationship between Taiwan and Japan
18 Jun 2024|

Because Taiwan lacks formal diplomatic ties with most countries, it works hard at developing cultural and social links with them.

But not with Japan. Far more than is widely understood in other countries, Taiwan and Japan have an unusually close cultural and social relationship that doesn’t need government promotion. Their relationship might even be called cozy.

This must be an influence in international policy. Japan has its own national-security reasons for backing Taiwan’s preservation from Chinese conquest, but the mutual fondness between the two countries can only reinforce Tokyo’s resolve.

Most surprisingly, the close Taiwan-Japan relationship is based largely on nostalgia for colonialism. Many Taiwanese even feel reverence for their former Japanese colonial masters, who modernised the island during an occupation that lasted from 1895 to 1945.

More than anything, that colonial nostalgia is the doing of the Kuomintang, the nationalist party that lost China’s civil war to the Communists and came to the island in 1949. Japanese rule had been tough, but the Kuomintang’s was brutal.

Comfort, or even fascination, with a history of Japanese colonialism is a strong cultural factor that sets Taiwan apart from China and South Korea, where occupation by Japan is remembered with revulsion. Last year, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Japan found in a survey that 77 percent of Japanese said they felt close to Taiwan and 73 percent believed that Taiwan and Japan had good relations. A year earlier, Tokyo’s representative office in Taiwan had conducted a similar survey, finding that Taiwanese had much the same feelings towards Japan.

Japan suddenly became aware of the depth of Taiwan’s affection for it after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when an outpouring of Taiwanese donations exceeding 20 billion yen (US$230 million at the time) outdid contributions from every other country. It was a watershed moment for Japan.

Since then, Japan has repaid this friendship. For example, after China suspended imports of Taiwanese pineapples in 2021 in an apparent attempt to squeeze the island’s economy, Japan stepped in to buy loads of the fruit.

When a powerful earthquake hit the Taiwanese city Hualien in April this year, Japanese local governments and private citizens ran fund-raising campaigns. Hualien subsequently suffered from a drop in tourism, so diplomats in Japan’s de facto embassy in Taiwan encouraged Japanese expatriates on the island to visit the city.

Taiwanese visitors were the biggest spenders in Japan last year, even edging out Chinese ones. Taiwan is an unusually popular travel destination for Japanese. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic distorted Japanese travel patterns, 11 percent of overseas trips by Japanese were to Taiwan, compared with 9 percent to Thailand, which is far more famous elsewhere for holidays.

Although Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese, they are culturally very different to the people of China. Much of that difference comes from Japanese colonial influence that permeates Taiwanese society. In Taiwan, the local Chinese dialect includes Japanese words, tatami mats are found in many homes, and big dollops of wasabi are routinely served with seafood. As for more modern influences, many young Taiwanese are keen to learn Japanese so they can read original editions of manga. They copy Japanese fashion, too.

The closeness between Taiwan and Japan isn’t just cultural and social. Mutual trade is booming. Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner and Taiwan is Japan’s fourth-largest. Japan has also voiced support for Taiwan’s participation in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed multilateral free trade pact

Amid concerns that concentration of advanced integrated-circuit manufacturing in Taiwan creates a global vulnerability, Taiwan’s star chipmaker, TSMC, has been lured to set up shop in Japan, the United States and Germany. In February it said it would add a second chip factory in Japan and increase investments there to more than US$20 billion. The word in Taipei is that TSMC’s Japanese ventures are operating more smoothly than those it has in the United States, thanks to cultural similarity.

In 2021, Taiwan worried that its stock of Covid-19 vaccines was running low, because, the government said, China had interfered with the island’s supplies. Japan responded with a donation larger than any other country’s.

Political connections are getting closer, too, even though they are more sensitive than culture and trade, because of China’s hostility. Also, old-guard members of the Kuomintang, remembering Japanese atrocities in China during and before World War II, are not fond of Japan. But the party has not held the presidency since 2016.

Parliamentary diplomacy serves as a Taiwanese channel for discussing security issues with another country. It’s vibrant with Japan. In 2021, Taiwan, Japan and the United States launched a trilateral strategic forum involving lawmakers from all three nations. That year, Taiwan and Japan also launched what they call 2+2 talks, in which two ruling party lawmakers from each side with expertise in defence and foreign affairs would meet twice a year.

The message from all this is simple: to each other, Japan and Taiwan are much more than near neighbours.