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Taihoku: The Modern Capital - Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule

We - the Westerners who have had the privilege to stay in Taiwan long enough to know it at least a little bit better than the occasional traveller - are not the first generation of foreigners who have been to this island and have had the chance to discover its treasures. Most of the people who came here long ago did not write down their impressions, feelings and observations, and their memories are now lost to us. Yet some of them did, passing on to future generations their invaluable knowledge and experience.

One of these Westerners was Owen Rutter (1889-1944), a British historian, novelist and travel writer, who visited Taiwan in the 1920s, during the Japanese colonial era. In this post I share with you the 7th chapter of Rutter's book Through Formosa, in which he describes Taipei (called Taihoku by the Japanese) and the general development of Taiwan as a colony. This part of the book is interesting for several reasons. 

First, it shows us the Taihoku of the 1920s from the perspective of a foreign traveller. Second, it sheds light on how the Japanese wanted their colonial capital and their colonial enterprise on Taiwan to be perceived by the outside world; in fact, Rutter's 'tour guides' were Japanese officials who, as a matter of fact, explained to him the development of Taihoku from their own point of view. Third, it proves how successful the Japanese colonial administration was in the eyes of Western imperialists; Rutter was very impressed by what Japan had achieved on the island in merely thirty years, believing that the Japanese were better colonisers than the British. 

Obviously, Rutter was a man of his times, and his thinking reflects prejudices and stereotypes of early 20th century Westerners (some of which still exist).

The following chapter is divided into sections. Some parts have been omitted to make the reading easier. 


Owen Rutter: Through Formosa - an Account of Japan's Island Colony. London 1923, Chapter VII


We arrived at Taihoku in a blaze of glory. A host of officials was waiting for us on the platform as the train drew in; there seemed to be a never-ending procession of them as they were introduced, card in hand. Among them were Mr. Kamada, head of the Foreign Section (the immediate chief of Koshimura, who now effaced himself), Mr. Hosui, also of the Foreign Section and chief interpreter to the Governor-General, Mr. Yoshioka, an official of the Monopoly Bureau, and Major Akamatsu, who was on the Headquarters Staff of the Formosan garrison. All but the latter spoke English and all were very anxious to do everything they could for us. 

The Railway station built by the Japanese in 1901; it was demolished in the 1930s

On the train Koshimura had discovered the manager of the Railway Hotel;, he had been brought up and introduced and had obligingly taken the checks for our baggage, volunteering to look after it for us, so that when we arrived we did not even have to find a porter. We walked across from the station to the hotel, which exceeded our hopes. It is a very fine building constructed entirely upon Western lines, and we found that its management combined courtesy and efficiency in an admirable fashion. Many hotel keepers in Europe might well take lessons from the Taihoku Railway Hotel; nor, as prices went in Eastern caravanserais, were the charges unduly high - we paid 2 pounds and 10 shillings a day for a double bedroom and food, while in Japan prices were then ranging between 3 pounds and 3 pounds 10 shillings. for similar accommodation. Our bedroom was large and well furnished, opening on to a wide veranda; the only drawback about the latter was that other bedrooms opened on to it as well, and in the mornings it was used by visitors as a convenient promenade on which to take an early constitutional before dressing. The bathrooms were excellent. For the first time in eighteen months we revelled in baths we could lie full length in; and then we sat down to a dinner as well cooked as it was served (*1).

Taiwan Railway Hotel, later demolished

Except ourselves, there were no foreigners staying in the hotel - we had by now become accustomed to regarding ourselves as 'foreigners' - and the only other occupant of the dining-room was a Japanese wrestler [that is a Sumo wrestler]. This was an enormous man, his kimono making him look even larger than he really was; his long hair was dressed in a top-knot in the fashion laid down for wrestlers, who in Japan are a race apart; he kept to the old traditions of dress, and even his cast of countenance was that of an old-time warrior. He looked as if he had stepped out of a Japanese print. It seemed incongruous that he should be sitting on a chair plying a knife and fork, but nevertheless he was an awe-inspiring person and, as R.L. Stevenson said on Francois Villon, "I would not have gone down a dark road with him for a large consideration." ...

(*1): I speak of the hotel as I found it. Other visitors, I am told, have not fared so well.


On the following morning we found that the Foreign Section had planned a formidable day for us. I spent a couple of hours in a perfect orgy of card-shooting [he refers to the Japanese ritual of exchanging 'business cards', a habit that still exists] and calling upon various officials. Each gave me the usual ceremonial cup of tea; had they been whiskies-and-sodas I shudder to think what would have been my fate.

The headquarters of the Government at Taihoku are situated in a magnificent building which is lavishly decorated with marble and cost 300,000 pounds. Koshimura took us up into a little tower which surmounts the building so that we could see the view. It seemed to us rather violent (but very typical) piece of extravagance that it should have been fitted with a special lift, used for no other purpose than to save would-be sightseers like ourselves the trouble of walking up a few stairs. Having got a very good bird's-eye view of the town and having had the principal buildings and places of interest assiduously pointed out by Koshimura, we descended, and on emerging from the lift were surprised to find ourselves confronted with an ample figure in a frock-coat and silk hat. It was as unexpected as if one had met someone in a kimono in Bond Street. Indeed, it was the only 'topper' I had ever seen east of Suez and we found that the distinction of owning it belonged to the United States Consul, who was the first white man we had met since we had been on the island. 

The Palace of the Governor-General of Taiwan. Now Office of the President of the Republic of China

The white foreign community in Formosa is a very small one and, with the exception of the missionaries and the British Consul, is concentrated entirely in Taihoku. Besides the United States Consul, it consists of the representatives of three British and three American tea-export firms, one British and one American firm of general export and import merchants, and one British and one American oil company. There are also a couple of teachers of English in Japanese schools [compare with James W. Davidson's description of Taiwan's foreign community at the end of the Qing era]. There is a foreign club in Taihoku with a membership of about twenty, but in the winter months the community is very small, since the tea men are all away.

The Governor-General of Formosa, Baron Denn [he meant Baron Den Kenjiro, 1855-1930, Governor-General of Taiwan from 1919 to 1923], was in Japan when we reached Taihoku, but Koshimura took us to call upon his Chief of Staff, the Director-General, who, however, was at the time also absent from the capital on a tour of inspection with the Commander-in-Chief.

The Governor-General, who is appointed directly by the Emperor, is invested with the government of the island under the control of the Prime Minister of Japan. In the last few years his powers have been curtailed considerably. Formerly the appointment could be filled only by an admiral or a general, but now a civilian is eligible. If a civilian Governor is chosen, he is not given the supreme command of the local forces and has the right to call upon the Commander-in-Chief for military aid only when he deems it necessary for the preservation of public order. Laws in force in Japan are now applied, wholly or in part, to Formosa by Imperial ordinance, and the Governor-General may not issue edicts having the force of law save in exceptional circumstances, and even then the validity of all such edicts is subject to Imperial sanction. 

The Governor-General's Palace [present-day Taipei Guesthouse], although perhaps not quite so grand as it sounds, is yet a residence of considerable dignity.  Mr. Takekoshi has some interesting remarks to make upon its construction: "Many objections were raised at first to the expenditure, but it seems to me quite justifiable. The fact is that our Chinese and Formosan subjects are very materialistic, seeing nothing great save in the glitter of gold, a gorgeous military display, pompous ceremonies, and magnificent buildings. A Chinese poet in the Tang dynasty once sang, 'How shall the people realize the Emperor's Majesty, if the Imperial palace be not stately?' In order to establish the national prestige in the island and eradicate the native yearnings after the past, it is most fitting that the authorities should erect substantial and imposing buildings, and thus show that it is their determination to rule the country permanently."

The Japanese, although a simple-living people even in what are known as 'the highest circles', nevertheless understand the psychology of the people they have come to rule. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that they understand the psychology of human nature. The enormous sums which were formerly spent by Germany on the housing and surroundings of their representatives, on 'gorgeous military display' and 'pompous ceremonies', were undoubtedly a very important contributory cause of her successful diplomacy; and when one considers how badly our own representatives, especially consuls, are sometimes housed in foreign countries, one cannot help saying, in paraphrase of the Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, "how shall foreign people realize the Empire's majesty if it cannot give its own consuls a decent office?"
On the other hand, the political conditions under which the Formosans live need improvement. Although the Japanese profess to consider Formosa an extension of the 'homeland', they neither give the Formosans any votes for a delegate to the Imperial Diet, nor have they established any local assembly in which the Formosans  may air their views. Since 1920 the Formosan Government Advisory Council has been composed of officials and non-official members, among the latter being a number of Formosans; but it is a purely consultative body, and its sole functions is that of delivering an opinion on matters expressly referred to it by the Governor-General. 

A section of the Formosans has been agitating recently for the establishment of a separate Parliament for the colony, but petitions to the Diet, as was only to be expected, have been refused. Not content with this refusal, however, the Japanese authorities in Formosa have caused those responsible for the petitions to suffer for their audacity in various ways - such as dismissal from subordinate posts, enforced resignations, deprivations of privileges, or financial pressure. Such a policy, although repugnant to the Anglo-Saxon mind, is a contrast to some of our own politicians' easy tolerance of Indian agitators and Irish gunmen. 

Another point to be noticed is that not a single Formosan occupies anything but a very subordinate official position. It seems clear that the Japanese have no desire to train the natives of the island to occupy posts of responsibility, and that they consider that safety and efficiency lie in retaining all power in their own hands. This state of affairs does not, however, make for the happiness and contentment of the governed, who have no outlet for their feelings even in the carefully controlled local press. It is said that the only way to find out what really is going on in the island is to subscribe to a newspaper published in Japan, where the freedom of the press suffers less restriction. 

Taihoku, the seat of the Formosan Government, has some 173,000 inhabitants. Until 1922, when the whole city was amalgamated and the streets were given Japanese names, it was divided into three sections - Daitotei [Dadaocheng], Manka [present-day Wanhua District] and Jonai [corresponding to a part of present-day Zhongshan District]. In Daitotei, which extends along the banks of the Tamsui River, are located the Tea Market and the offices of foreign firms, the population being almost entirely Formosan. Manka, in the south, the oldest part of the city, is also occupied mainly by the Chinese and Formosan sections of the community, both as a residential and as a commercial quarter. Jonai is the modern and most prosperous section, containing the Government offices, Japanese banks and commercial houses, hospitals, and hotels, and also the private houses of the Japanese. 

Streets of Taihoku. Most of these Japanese colonial houses and shops were demolished after 1945 

It was round Jonai that Koshimura hustled us in rickshaws, anxious that we should miss nothing that was (in his opinion) worth seeing. We visited the Museum, where there was an excellent collection of the weapons, utensils, and arts and crafts of the aborigines, on whom Mr. Mori [Mori Ushinosuke], the curator, is an authority. There were also many exhibits from what the Japanese call the South Islands and what we call the East Indies and Malaya ...

At my special request we were taken over the printing office of the leading Taihoku newspaper, which, like all others in the island, is printed in Japanese characters. All the type-setting was by hand. We came to the conclusion that the lot of the Japanese compositor who has to cope with thousands of different ideographs must be a bitter one and that of the Japanese proof-reader more bitter still. 

It is unlikely that the Japanese will ever abandon the institution of their national writing for the more convenient Roman characters of Western nations, yet it must be admitted that their conservatism in that matter makes modern education in the Empire much more formidable than it might be. It takes something like eight years of study for a Japanese to learn to read and write his own language with any proficiency, and although the fact that he does accomplish this task and much else besides is a testimony to his industry, the foreigner cannot but feel that the time spent in learning merely to interpret the written or printed word might well be utilized in other ways. In competition with the Western student the Japanese has a handicap of plus eight in years. 

After leaving the printing office we saw the Government Laboratory and the Government Hospital, both excellent buildings equipped with modern appliances. In the hospital the Japanese sisters looked very attractive in their white uniforms. In the operating-rooms we saw one thing that certainly was not copied from the West, for at the top of the walls were panes of glass, through which the relatives of the unfortunate victims are allowed to gaze while the surgeons are at work. 

In spite of all the imposing buildings and in spite, too, of Koshimura's previous assurances, we found the Taihoku shops, from our point of view, very disappointing. There was nothing to buy. Nothing, that is, of any interest to a mere foreigner. We could not even find a bar of chocolate. Although foreign cigarettes, imported by the Monopoly Bureau, are on sale, the only ones we could find were Formosans, though these are certainly harmless and not unpleasant. The lack of the type of shops which attracts the foreigner is a proof of how few travellers go to Formosa, when one thinks of the number of establishments in Japan which exist solely to batten on the European or American by catering cunningly for his taste in curious, silk or damascene work. When I told Koshimura that I did not think his Taihoku shops came up to what he had led us to expect, he simply put his head to one side and said:
"I think better to wait until you arrive Tokyo."

Although its shops are built on the usual diminutive plan, Taihoku is undoubtedly laid out on a finer scale than any other city in the Japanese Empire, with wide streets, spacious parks, and public buildings which would not disgrace any capital in the world. Before the Japanese came to the island Taihoku was little  more than a dirty Chinese village. Not it is a thriving city. As the populations of cities go, its inhabitants are not numerous, but it has been built with an eye to the future. Millions of yen have been spent upon its reconstruction; there has been no hand-to-mouth building because funds were inadequate - it was decided that Formosa should be developed on an elaborate scale and that the capital should be in keeping with this development. It is a model of what a colonial city should be. The Japanese have been mindful of their national prestige, and by creating a capital worthy of the island they have shown that they intend to foster the development of the country in every possible way. 


Much of this development of the island as a whole has been accomplished already. In fact in twenty-eight years the Japanese have done marvels. I doubt whether any colony of like size could show such progression in so short a period. Nor have the Japanese been in the position of dwarfs standing upon giants' shoulders; they have not built up the prosperity of the island on foundations laid by others. All they have had has been the rich natural resources of the island, which, save for sporadic attempts on the part of the Chinese, had been in an undeveloped state for centuries. When they took Formosa over from China, few civilized institutions existed. The Government was corrupt and unstable; life and property were insecure; the country was ravaged by bands of brigands who wandered about and plundered at will. There were few, if any, modern buildings. The sanitary condition of the towns was typical of the Chinese, who are notorious for the filthy conditions under which they are content to live. Epidemics were common, and these, coupled with the fact that there were no hospitals in the island (except for those of foreign missions) and only the ordinary quack Chinese doctors, kept back the increase and prosperity of the population. Education was no less primitive. Only 62 miles of badly constructed railway line existed, and nothing but earth roads which in wet weather became impassable for traffic. No efforts had been made to improve by artificial means such harbours as the island possessed, so that trade suffered in consequence. The agricultural, mineral, and forest resources were not exploited in a scientific manner with modern machinery; large tracts of fertile land remained uncultivated, and the eastern hills were for the most part unknown territory, inhabited by wild tribes which had been made so hostile by countless acts of tyranny and oppression that no one cared to venture near them, much less make any attempts to bring them under Government control.

This, then, was the position of the island on the arrival of the Japanese, after having been under Chinese rule for two centuries [the exact dates of Chinese rule in Taiwan are 1683-1885]. The new-comers were confronted with a difficult task; it was more difficult than if they had taken over a land merely inhabited by aborigines, for on every side they met with a stubborn resistance, at first active and subsequently passive, from the conservative Chinese-bred Formosan settlers. On the other hand, they had two very material aids. One was a large and hardworking agricultural population, which, once persuaded to accept the reforms in its own interests, was invaluable in the development of the island. The other was the fact that Formosa was a ewe lamb, Japan had for many years longed to have a colony of her own, as a childless woman longs to have a baby. Once she had got it she was prepared to lavish every care upon it; expense was a small consideration if she could but make it all that a colony should be. Formosa, as an only child of Japan, was given everything necessary for its upbringing, whereas had it been one of a large family (such as the British Empire) it might have had to go without. 

From the first the Japanese realized the possibilities of Formosa; indeed they had realized them, one may be sure, many years before the island came into their hands. From the first they were intent upon progress and they wasted no time. Once the upstart republic had been broken, the brigands put down, and the country (all, that is, save the 'savage' area) pacified, the civil administration of the island was organized on the lines of the Imperial Government Service in Japan. Courts of Justice were established, whereby crime was efficiently dealt with and private individuals were enabled to obtain redress for their wrongs. Modern prisons were built; a police service was organized with small stations all over the island. Public buildings were erected and measures were taken to improve the streets and the sanitary conditions of the towns. Fifty thousand pounds were spent in hospitals. Waterworks, artesian wells, and reservoirs were made.  Precautions were taken against outbreaks of epidemics, such as cholera and smallpox, so that there is now no danger of them sweeping through the country like a fire as they were wont to do in days of old. The Japanese have undoubtedly influence the increase of the population, which has risen from 2,500,000 in 1896 to 3,250,000 at the present time. A considerable proportion of this increase is, of course, due to immigration; at the same time the death-rate has been materially reduced, and although malaria is still a prevalent disease, it is probable that as swamps in the neighbourhood of towns are drained, conditions will be further improved. 

Under Japanese administration life and property became secure and the economic position of the labouring class also became less unenviable, for as development went forward wages increased, until now they are between three times as high as they were under Chinese rule; moreover, as wages increased the farmers found they could obtain almost double for their products. This was not an artificial inflation of prices, but rather a natural increase in the standard of living of all classes. 

Careful attention has been given to the problem of education, with the results that have already been shown, and in time the people came to be benefited considerably thereby. The whole question of communications was gone into. A system of telegraphs was established, and there are now over 3,000 miles of line in the island, while telephones are in use in the towns and there is wireless communication between Keelung and Japan. The construction of railways was taken in hand energetically and also the construction of the even more-needed roads. The Japanese, it must be admitted, do not excel as road-makers - most of the road over which I have travelled in Japan are bad or, at best, indifferent - but even indifferent metalled roads are better than earth roads or not roads at all. In Formosa much of the early roadmaking was done, as it usually is under such conditions, by the army. At the present time there are said to be over 6,000 miles of public roads in Formosa, the payment for the work having been made partly by the inhabitants by a system of local taxation in kind, but outside the big towns the roads are not good. A trunk toad which will run through the island from north to south is contemplated and a good road is under construction between Keelung and Taihoku, but at the present time there is not even a bridge across the Tamsui River at Taihoku. There was one a few years ago, but it was washed away and has never been rebuilt. The hill districts, where it has been impracticable so far to make roads, have been opened up by means of 'push-cars' on light trolley lines.

To ensure an adequate service of communications by sea large sums were spent on making the existing harbours possible for ocean-going steamers to enter, and the Government subsidized two of the principal shipping companies in Japan, the Nippon Yusen Kaisha and the Osaka Shosen Kaisha, to run boats connecting Formosa with Japan, China, and the East Indies ...


Every effort was also made by the Japanese to exploit the natural riches of the island. As time went on the salt, camphor, and tobacco industries were taken over by the Government as State monopolies. Agriculture was fostered and inducements were held out to plant up fresh land. The timber resources, till then hardly tapped at all, were worked and attention was devoted to the exploitation of the minerals ...


Thus have the Japanese exploited their island colony. Everything they have touched seems to have turned to money. Hardly a yen seems to have been spent in vain ... They have made Formosa pay. Just as one may pour water into a pump to make it start functioning, so the Japanese poured money into their colony to make it start producing revenue. They have succeeded, for most of the industries which have received Government support now produce handsome profits and yield a large amount of revenue, so that since 1905 the colony has been self-supporting. Even in the previous decade it had only received 3,000,000 pounds from the Mother Country, and now, besides having enough revenue for its own needs, it is in a position to render material assistance to the Treasury of Japan; for example, since 1914 the tax on all Formosans sugar consumed in Japan has been paid to the Imperial Treasury. Direct taxation cannot be said to be heavy, for it only averages sixteen shillings per head, yet the total revenue of the colony has increased ffrom 1,000,000 sterling in 1897 to 11,000,000 pounds at the present time. Imports have risen from 1,500,000 pounds in 1897 to 13,000,000 pounds, exports from 1,500,000 pounds to 15,000,000 pounds, the principal imports (in order of importance) being oil-cake, cotton and silk textiles, raw sugar, rice, dried and salted fish, iron, cotton cloth, and machinery, and the most important exports sugar, rice, tea, coal, bananas, camphor, and alcohol. 

There are now seven main Japanese banks operating in the island, and these have played a considerable part in its financial and economic progress. Credit in this respect is particularly due to the Bank of Taiwan, which was established in Taihoku in 1899 with a capital of half a million sterling, and soon attained the status of an institution such as the Bank of Japan. Its capital is now 6,000,000 sterling. It has been of inestimable value to the colony in extending accommodation to trade and private enterprise; it has supplied funds for industry, and if its rates of interest have been high, borrowers would have been forced to pay still higher rates to private lenders. Acting for the Government, it has reformed the currency and circulates its own notes. It has branches in China and Malaya, and every day many Londoners who pass its massive offices in Old Broad Street must wonder vaguely, as they glance at the legend 'Bank of Taiwan', where on earth Taiwan is. Tow of the main reasons for the rapid increase in the prosperity of Formosa have been the efficiency of the banking institutions and the stabilizing of the monetary system, for these things, together with the maintenance of public security, induced Japanese capitalists to turn their attention to the new possession. For example, in 1899 there were only four public companies operating in the island; now there are over two hundred. 

All the development, brought about in so short a period with such profitable results, was particularly interesting to me, for I had just come from a country which, after having been administrated for forty years by the British North Borneo Company (incorporated by the Royal Charter), still has less than 1 per cent of its area opened up. Formosa was to me an object-lesson in what can be done with sound administration and enterprise, and - most important of all - money. A colony may have sound administration, but that, although it may improve the conditions of the people, can alone never make for economic prosperity, while enterprise can do no more without capital behind it than a churn can make butter without milk. 

The Chartered Company has one much in North Borneo, but how little compared with what the Japanese would have done, for I doubt if Borneo is a naturally poorer country than Formosa; agriculturally it certainly is not, in timber it is richer, while if its minerals have so far proved elusive, that is probably because no one has hunted for them on a large scale. Yet after forty years there are no more than forty miles of State roads in North Borneo, while the Japanese have made 6,000 miles in less than three decades; there are a little more than 100 miles of railway, while the Japanese have 500; there are two saw-mills and a cutch works, while in Formosa industrial factories can be numbered by the hundred; there are only twenty-five public companies operating in North Borneo, and in Formosa there are nearly ten times as many. 

These comparisons are not made with the intention of belittling North Borneo, a country which I love, nor of disparaging the work of the Chartered Company, which has struggled bravely, often against adverse and difficult conditions. But it is illuminating, and not unprofitable, to see what can be done with a young and undeveloped country when the necessary money is available. The Chartered Company's nominal capital is only 2,000,000 sterling, whereas the Formosan Government had the wealth of the Japanese empire behind it. There is no doubt that had Japan, instead of a small body of English gentlemen, secured North Borneo in 1878, the country would present a very different spectacle to-day ...

There can be no doubt that, if the capital is available, the Japanese way of opening up a country as far as possible without waste of time is the right way ... In the profitable expansion of a colonial possession that has come into their hands by the fortune of war the Japanese have nothing to learn from anyone. 


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