Memories of Taihoku

There are chair massages in the emergency room at Mackay Memorial Hospital. What a fantastic idea, I thought, tempted to stop and get some kinks worked out, especially since I had been toting video gear around for three weeks, but I remembered my mission and stoically hurried past.

I was there to see Dr. Marie Lin (林媽利), who was born in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother. For two years, I had been looking for one of the 200,000 Japanese people on Taiwan who were sent back to Japan after the war, but I hadn’t been able to find anyone. Probably since it’s not exactly a popular subject. Taiwan’s history as a Japanese colony was repressed by the Nationalists after the war and in Japan, there probably isn’t much eagerness to examine their attempt to build an empire.

Dr. Lin hadn’t been repatriated after the war, but I hoped she might have some experiences to share as a Japanese in Taiwan during the colonial period. She  turned out to be an energetic and animated woman who is fascinating for myriad reasons. A genetic researcher who studying prehistoric migrations of the Taiwanese through DNA, she’s credited with making blood transfusions safe in Taiwan. She’s also a painter and calligrapher.

I met her in the blood bank office of the hospital and followed her to her office as she apologized, “I’m not sure if I can be of much help to you.” She proceeded to tell me that after she was born in Taiwan, her family left for Manchuria and they didn’t return until 1946, so she had very little memory of Japanese-era Taiwan.

Unexpectedly, however, she had an interesting 228 story. Her father had contracted tuberculosis in Manchuria so he was laid up with water in his lungs, otherwise he might have been a 228 victim like his best friend, Lin Mao-Sheng (林茂生), who vanished without a trace. “The writer?” I asked in surprise. I remembered George Kerr had mentioned Lin in his seminal book Formosa Betrayed. Apparently he was missed by many people. She told me that her father never got over his disappearance; his dying wish was that she would find out what had happened to his friend after all those years.

I told her about my difficulty in finding Japanese-Taiwanese people and she suggested that I visit Gen-Loku-Su, a Japanese language senior citizen program. She had heard that there were several old Japanese women in the program, who had married Taiwanese men and stayed after the war. Then she mentioned a friend, Dr. Shozoh Tateishi, who had been born in Taiwan and left later than most Japanese after the war. He lives in Kyoto and my mind started to turn immediately as to how I might visit him and perhaps see my brother in Tokyo.

The following Monday, I took a bus to Gen-Loku-Su in the Da’an area, eager to hang out with some old Japanese ladies. It turned out to be a fruitless morning of listening to Taiwanese senior citizens sing (and mostly butcher) Japanese songs. Two women sitting in the front of the room turned out to be Japanese, but they both demurred when I asked if I might interview them. I had the feeling that if I had brought a Japanese translator, I might have been more successful.

Karaoke at Gen-Loku-Su.

Interesting faces at Gen-Loku-Su.

That left Dr. Tateishi. It took some financial acrobatics but I managed somehow to get a cheap flight from Taipei to Osaka, just before I was supposed to go back to the states. I would have just about thirty hours in Kyoto, a city I’d always wanted to visit.

The trip did not begin auspiciously. To make the 6:55AM flight, I found myself sharing a taxi to the airport with three other people, trying not to die as the cabbie droned on for over an hour about his bad break-up with his wife, who was in Arkansas (of all places) and refused to come back to Taiwan.

Then the airport absolutely refused to allow me past security with a tripod. I watched several people with umbrellas and canes go through without a hitch, but apparently tripods are potential weapons of mass destruction. Worse, to check the darn thing as baggage, I had to pay a fee of roughly US$50. Which I refused to do and couldn’t really afford anyway. So after arguing with half a dozen people until it was nearly boarding time, I gave $6 to the left luggage office and hurried to catch the plane. I arrived at the Kansei Airport tripod-less, grumpy, starving, and badly in need of some caffeine.

Then I discovered that my itinerary had vanished and to buy a two-day pass on the JR train line to Kyoto, you need a non-Japanese passport and evidence of a return trip ticket. The Japanese bureaucrat at the JR office bowed at me a million times and doggedly repeated a million times that I needed an itinerary or a ticket, while a line of politely irritated Japanese people started to stretch out the door.

So I trudged through the airport to the Business Center and paid US$5 to use their computer for two minutes and reprint the itinerary. I had hoped to eat in Kyoto but it was noon by then and I was fainting from arguing with multiple transportation personnel on an empty stomach, so I ended up eating in the Kansei Airport. The tempura udon was actually really good, or maybe I was just dying of hunger.

Airport food is pretty damn great in Japan.

Kyoto landscape on the train from Kansei Airport.

By the time I reached Kyoto it was already 3:30, and I was supposed to meet Dr. Tateishi in half an hour. But I was upset at the idea of spending all that time and effort and money to end up with a handheld shot. Luckily, after traipsing throughout the humongous train station to find the tourist office, I was told that a camera store was just down the street next to Kyoto tower, an enormous impossible-to-miss landmark. I bought a decent monopod (which I had always wanted anyway) for about US$25 from what looked to be Kyoto’s answer to B&H, downed a good cup of coffee at a cafe near a pachinko parlor, and then got on the train to meet Dr. Tateishi.

No way I could get lost looking for the camera store.

Passed out schoolgirls on the Nara train.

Frog in front of a house in Momoyama.

Dr. Tateishi had instructed me to take the Nara line to Momoyama, fifteen minutes away from Kyoto proper. Getting off the train, I found myself in a tidy little hilly town, watching ravens wheeling around in the sky over a grid of telephone wires. Dr. Tateishi and his wife pulled up in a grey car and took me on a short drive past the grave of the Meiji emperor, before we went to their house for the interview.

Mrs. and Dr. Tateishi.

Dr. Tateishi was born in Taiwan in 1935 and he left for a Japanese homeland he had never seen when he was fifteen years old. This was in 1949, a few years after most Japanese were already gone. The Nationalists had invited his father, a professor of zoology at Taipei University, to stay a little longer to ease the transition. He also remembered that they gave his family some rice and sugar that helped them greatly when they arrived in war-torn Japan. His wife had also lived for a few years in Taiwan as a child. They had first met in primary school.

Although there were hardships during the war (he remembered his father supplementing their larder with bear and alligator meat after being forced to slaughter all the animals in the zoo), they both had fond memories of Taiwan. I had brought them some pineapple cakes but after listening to them speak wistfully of Taiwanese food, I think next time I might bring them some bah-zhang.

Dr. Tateishi’s family in Taiwan. He’s the teenage kid in the rear to the right. His father is in the guy with the mustache, rear left.

Sushi dinner with the Tateishis.

Tateishi said that eel was expensive at the moment, so that long thing on the right that looks like anago is really barracuda. Almost the same, except more bones.

Tateishi showed me a fantastic book of drawings by his former art teacher Tetsuomi Tateishi (no relation).

Tetsuomi Tateishi drawing of a pre-KMT Taiwan.

Tetsuomi Tateishi drawing of Japanese people selling their things before leaving for Japan. Dr. Tateishi said that they were allowed to take four bags.

If I had more time, I might pursue what he said about his old schoolmates meeting once a year to reminisce about Taiwan. It would have also been great to have had a chance to see more of Kyoto than the train station. But I was glad to have gotten a personal angle on Japanese history in Taiwan for the film. And to have met such sweet and generous people as Dr. Lin and the Tateishis. Maybe someone will pick up where I left off and explore this fascinating untold story more fully. Maybe that someone will even be me.

2 responses to “Memories of Taihoku

  1. Our parents bought many items from the street Guling Street(Chinese name) in Taihoku. My sister had a girl’s kimono and a doll. Dishes and we took them to the US years ago as a momentum. The skilled workers were asked to stay in Formosa during transition as the Taiwanese did not have the skills or training to run many operations.

  2. There were quite a few of them with no ties in Japan remained to stay in Formosa. One stayed on as a house helper. She told me in 1960 that her Japanese was so rusty and she was more fluent in the Taiwanese culture and spoke good Mandarin. Most had little trouble with reading or writing of Chinese since the written language are similar.

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