Written by Bruce Jacobs.

After the United States, Japan is second most important country for Taiwan. There are several reasons for this. First, the two countries are geographically close to each other. Second, Japan was Taiwan’s colonial master for fifty years (1895-1945). Third, Japan is an important Asian democracy. Fourth, the two countries have significant trade and investment with each other. Japan-Taiwan ties have become even closer since Taiwan has democratised.

Taiwan and Japan are close neighbours. Japan is Taiwan’s immediate neighbour to the Northeast while the Philippines are immediately south and China is to the west.

Following the Manchu-Japan War of 1894-1895, the Manchus ceded Taiwan to Japan. For a modernising Japan, this was an opportunity to demonstrate to the Western powers that Japan too could be a successful colonial power. Japanese rhetoric emphasised how Taiwan was a model colony and that Taiwanese were assimilated as Japanese, but the reality was that Japanese rule in Taiwan was quite harsh. However, because Kuomintang rule under Chiang Kai-shek was equally harsh but also more corrupt, Taiwanese began to look back upon Japanese rule as better than it really was. Thus, Taiwanese held relatively good feelings about Japan. (See Appendix for some comparisons between Japanese colonial rule and Kuomintang colonial rule in Taiwan.)

When the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek took over the rule of Taiwan from Japan in 1945 following World War II, things deteriorated rapidly in Taiwan. Nevertheless, relations with Japan in post-colonial period were about to experience positive development. The Chinese had fought the Japanese in World War II and had considerable loathing for the Japanese, who had practiced considerable cruelty in occupied China. However, Chiang Kai-shek was moderate in his demands against the Japanese and this led to some cooperation between Taiwan and Japan during Chiang Kai-shek’s rule in Taiwan.

Thus, for example, in 1971, when it looked like Taiwan would lose its seat in the United Nations, Japan along with Australia and New Zealand seconded the American proposal for dual UN representation (seating both China and Taiwan). The American and the Japanese ambassadors to Taiwan were among those foreign officials with whom Taiwan officials met most frequently. Of course, because of Chiang Kai-shek’s stubbornness, the dual representation motion failed and Taiwan ultimately left the United Nations on October 25, 1971.[1]

When Japan recognised Beijing on September 29, 1972, it did not recognise China’s claim to Taiwan.[2] Furthermore, the Japanese formula of establishing officially unofficial organisations to maintain “unofficial” ties between Japan and Taiwan set the precedent for Taiwan’s “unofficial” ties with all other democratic nations around the world.

With the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 and the beginning of the presidency of Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, relations between Japan and Taiwan improved. Lee had studied in Japan during World War II and had a much more positive view of Japan than Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. Thus, the positive views that Taiwanese had toward Japan helped improve ties. In addition, during Lee Teng-hui’s presidency Taiwan democratised and the shared democratic values added a further layer of understanding between the two countries. Close ties continued under the presidency of Chen Shui-bian. During the Lee and Chen administrations, Japan was clearly Taiwan’s second closest partner behind only the United States.

Relations between Taiwan and Japan deteriorated in the early days of President Ma Ying-jeou’s term. Having Mainlander background and ancestral enmity with Japan dating from World War II, President Ma omitted mention of Japan from his inauguration speech and claimed the Senkaku islands (which the Ma government called the Diaoyutai). However, within a few months, the Ma government made considerable efforts and Taiwan’s relations with Japan improved greatly.[3]

In addition, to propinquity, colonial history and shared democratic values, Taiwan and Japan are important economic partners. Trade between the two countries totalled more than US$60 billion in 2013. Japan is Taiwan’s second largest trade partner while Taiwan is Japan’s fourth trade partner. Both countries have reached an agreement giving de facto most favoured nation treatment to the other.[4] Tourism, with over three million tourists in 2012, cultural exchanges, youth working holiday arrangements, academic exchange, and considerable assistance with natural disasters in the other country have also solidified the relationship.[5] Considerable numbers of senior Japanese politicians have been members of the Japan-Taiwan Commission of Japanese Diet Members (Nikka-kon 日華懇).[6]

The current trends in Taiwan including the Ma government’s disastrous loss in the November 29, 2014 local elections, the continuing expansionist moves of China in the Asia-Pacific, and the increasing closeness and cooperation among the world’s democratic countries all suggest that ties between Taiwan and Japan will continue to improve.[7]

Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/public domain. 


[1] J. Bruce Jacobs, “One China, diplomatic isolation and a separate Taiwan,” in Edward Friedman (ed.), China’s Rise, Taiwan’s Dilemmas and International Peace (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 89-94.

[2]For text, see ibid,pp. 94-95.

[3] J. Bruce Jacobs, Democratizing Taiwan (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 239-243.

[4] Ryo Sahashi, “Japan-Taiwan relations since 2008: An evolving, practical, non-strategic partnership,” in Jean-Pierre Cabestan and Jacques deLisle (eds.), Political Change in Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou: Partisan conflict, policy choices, external constraints and security challenges (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 234.

[5] Ibid., pp. 235-237.

[6] Ibid., pp. 237-238.

[7] In addition to the Ryo Sahashi chapter cited above, those interested in Taiwan-Japan ties should also examine the following four articles: Yoshihide Soeya, “Taiwan in Japan’s Security Considerations,” The China Quarterly, No. 165 (March 2001), pp. 130-146; Jing Sun, “Japan-Taiwan Relations: Unofficial in Name Only,” Asian Survey, Vol. 47, No. 5 (September/October 2007), pp. 790-810; June Teufel Dreyer, “Japan and the Security of the Taiwan Strait,” in Peter C.Y. Chow (ed.), The “One China” Dilemma (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 291-306; and Brian Bridges and Che-po Chan, “Looking North: Taiwan’s Relations with Japan under Chen Shui-bian,” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Winter 2008-2009), pp. 577-596. These four articles are reprinted in J. Bruce Jacobs (ed.), Critical Readings on China-Taiwan Relations (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), Vol. 3, pp. 725-815.

[8]Drawn from J. Bruce Jacobs, “Whither Taiwanization? The Colonization, Democratization and Taiwanization of Taiwan,” Japanese Journal of Political Science, Vol. 14, Issue 4 (December 2013),pp. 537-575.See original for citations.

APPENDIX: Comparing the Japanese and the Kuomintang Colonial Regimes in Taiwan [8]

Comparing the Japanese colonial regime e(1895-1945) with the Kuomintang colonial regime (1945–1988) that replaced it, we find that the two regimes shared at least six characteristics in terms of their nature and in terms of the timing of their policies.

First of all, both regimes considered the Taiwanese natives to be second-class citizens and both systematically discriminated against the Taiwanese. Under the Japanese, for example, a Taiwanese never held a position above head of county (gun 郡). In October 1934, after almost 40 years of colonial rule, the Japanese finally unveiled their “long-awaited reform of local autonomy“, but this “outraged the Formosans…because what had been granted was, in essence, a rigged system in favour of Japanese residents. “ Similarly, when the Kuomintang took over from the Japanese in late 1945, Taiwanese were excluded from many jobs in both central and local government. In addition, under both Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mainlanders, who account for less than 15% of Taiwan’s population, always had a majority in the Cabinet and in the Kuomintang’s Central Standing Committee. Right until the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, no Taiwanese ever held the position of Premier or Minister of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, Economics, Education, Finance, or Justice,Director of the Government InformationOffice or Chairman of the Economic Planning Commission or any seniormilitary or security position.

Secondly, both regimes clamped down very hard at first, killing tens of thousands of Taiwanese. Davidson estimates that close to 8,000 Taiwanese died resisting the Japanese in 1895. Lamley says that the Japanese killed 12,000 Taiwanese “bandit-rebels“ during 1898–1902, while a Japanese source states that the Japanese colonial regime executed over 32,000 “bandits,“ more than 1% of Taiwan’s population, in the same period. In March 1947, as a result of the February 28, 1947 uprising, Kuomintang armies came from the Mainland and slaughtered from 10,000 to 28,000 of Taiwan’s leaders and educated youth.

Third, both regimes continued to rely on oppression for about 25 years. During the Japanese colonial period, this was a period of military governors, strong rule through the police, and continued repression. From1907 to 1915,more than 800 Taiwanese were executed. According to official figures, during the White Terror of the 1950s, theKuomintang executed 1,017 people and during thewhole period ofmartial law from 1950 to 1987 some 3,000 to 4,000 people were executed for political offenses.

Fourth, owing to international and domestic circumstances, both colonial regimes “liberalized“ after about a quarter century. Toward the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson gave his speech about “self-determination“ and the Koreans had a major revolt called The March First (1919) Movement. The liberalization under “Taisho大正 democracy“ at this time enabled public discussion in Japan of various policies. These discussions began to influence Japan’s colonial policies in Taiwan and led to the appointment of civilian governors fromOctober 1919 until September 1936.While police repression continued, this was also the period when Taiwanese, often in cooperation with liberal Japanese, began their political movements. Similarly, under the Kuomintang, in the early 1970s with Taiwan’s defeat in the United Nations, the Diaoyutai 釣魚台 movement, the activities of The Intellectual Magazine (Daxue zazhi大學雜誌), and the promotion of Chiang Ching-kuo to the premiership in 1972, Taiwan began to liberalize.

Fifth, as both regimes came under pressure, they again stepped up repression. Under the Japanese the repression came with World War II, the appointment of military governors in 1936, and the push toward assimilation under the kōminka 皇民化 movement. Under the Kuomintang, repression occurred following the Kaohsiung Incident of December 10, 1979.

Finally, both regimes tried to make Taiwanese speak their “national language“ (國語 Jap. kokugo, Chi. guoyu), Japanese and Mandarin Chinese respectively, as part of their larger cultural attempts to make Taiwanese second-class Japanese and Chinese.


  1. Taiwan is a democratic and free country .China is not.So there is no such thing as a Taiwan problem. There is a China problem in that China under the CCP is totalitarian, oppressive, and expansionist.Taiwan deserves the support of the free world. Any other position is hypocritical.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *