Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Taiwan in Japan’s Empire Building: An Institutional Approach to Colonial Engineering by Hui-yu Caroline Ts’ai

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on June 29, 2009

Ts’ai Caroline Hui-Yu. 2009 Taiwan in Japan’s empirebuilding : an institutional approach to colonial engineering. Routledge, New York.

Caroline Tsai (蔡慧玉) is a research fellow of the Institute of Taiwan History(臺灣史研究) at the Academia Sinica, Taipei (中央研究院). She is perhaps the foremost historian of Taiwan’s colonial period and one of the most prolific researchers, publishing research in Mandarin, English, and Japanese. The volume itself is published through Routledge in cooperation with the Academia Sinica Book Series on East Asia. Understandably, a lot should be expected from such a publication, and there is no disappointment. The book is an absolute necessity for researchers interested in Taiwan’s early modern period, and will undoubtedly remain so for many years to come.

While the book describes itself as “comprehensive but not exhaustive,” it is very thorough in its description of colonial Taiwan. It deals in great detail with the institutional structure of life during this period providing clear understanding of the organizations that made Taiwan a colony. No less important is the book’s role in describing Taiwan’s introduction to the modern world or

…how in practice the colonial government introduced the ideas of ‘enlightenment’ and of ‘modernity’ into local society (p. 8).

The goal of this post is not to review the entire volume. Instead, I want to focus on the place of the book in addressing a number of issues that have appeared as important in my blog. In particular, I want to address the nature of imperialism and colonization, examination in Taiwan and Asia, and the Household Registry.

Imperialism and Colonialism

There is perhaps no other topic on my blog that has created as much ‘friction’ as has use of the term “imperialism”. In part, this is because of its usage in the academic disciplines of Education and language teaching, as well as other departments in universities. I maintain that imperial is the adjective of empire and thus only used correctly in this context.

Apparently, it is also used to describe the continued influence of the USA and Europe in formerly colonial states: ie, in post-colonial states. The usage of the term, in this sense, seems to imply an almost monolithic, unidirectional relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Colonizers tell the colonized what to do through law, policy, and other forms of hegemonic coercion. The description of colonial Taiwan depicted by Tsai is explicitly different from this.

Taiwan was a reasonably well-developed part of the Chinese Empire when it was cede to the Japanese by the Treaty of Shimonoseki (J: 下関条約, Ch: 馬關條約). In addition, there was a long and independent history to the island that Japanese governance was forced to deal with. The formal colonial bureaucracy of Taiwan was never large enough to completely govern Taiwan by itself. Real control was always maintained through a largely informal mechanism of “extra-bureaucratic control” (p. 65). Positions such as heads of headships and villages had no formal legal standing until after 1935 and operated as honorary titles. Official government operated by creating

…employment outside of the regulating law (in ‘gai nin ‘yo 員外任用)…turning the civil bureaucracy into a disciplinary institution for effective administration and social control, as opposed to repression or suppression (p. 66).

The significance of this is that the colonized played a major contribution to the nature of their own colonization through the operating as functionaries and officials in this system. They designed and constructed many of the activities that were what we now think of as colonialism and hence imperial. Colonialism in Taiwan was thus a two-way street of control, albeit streets of unequal importance.

Another surprisingly important feedback of colonialism is the way in which it shaped the modern Japanese state. As Dr. Tsai points out (p. 15),

As Japan’s first colony, Taiwan played a key role in redefining Japan’s prewar constitution….Essentially, to make colonial administration from scratch.

The modernization of Japan began only slightly prior to its emergence as a major colonial power. Development of its constitution and legal code continued throughout this period. Much of what became incorporated into these institutions was designed specifically with this in mind. Japan’s conception of legal control was thus shaped by its experience as a colonizer.


As Dr. Tsai points out (p. 52),

No explicit criteria for recruitment and advancement through examination existed in modern Japan prior to 1885.

Japanese historians of this period have noted that examination was introduced by American foreign experts. Regardless of their origin, as Dr. Tsai points out, within a short period of time, the Japanese had established an extensive network of public service examinations throughout their empire, including Taiwan. Nevertheless, it was impossible to govern Taiwan without the use of alternative roots to professional achievement. This was particularly true for the police. So many police were needed that many Taiwanese were recruited to fill these positions. While police examinations were extensive, there were alternative roots to promotion that Dr. Tsai discusses. As she pointed out in her presentation at the 2008 conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies, most local police officials were promoted without the use of examinations.

The significance of this is that in spite of long use of examinations in Imperial China, examination in schools and professional licensing was introduced by the Japanese. By the time the Japanese had established entrance examinations to their own imperial universities and even a colonial examination system for police, there was not a single state university in China and it was not until Sun Yat-sen wrote his Fundamentals of National Reconstruction that the idea of an Examination Yuan was suggested.

While not a point that Dr. Tsai develops, her research helps clarify one of the more problematic issues in the modern history of examinations. The Asian model for the use of examination in the university and as a way to select modern workers comes from Japan and not China.

Household Registry

The Republic of China practices household registry. While many other states have also used a household registration system, the ones used in Japan, South Korea, and the ROC are strikingly similar.

Continuing with research she did for her doctorate at Columbia University, this book establishes Dr. Tsai as one of the foremost historians of the Japanese colonial reregistration system or the hoko (保甲 Ch: baojia). Household registry and the hoko had their origins as a system of criminal discipline. This very quickly disappeared and was replaced with its use as a system for organizing social activity. Hoko and the organizations that developed around it were involved in the vast number of social and health reforms implemented by the Japanese. Later during the Pacific War, it was used as the organizing principle around which labour, conscription, and mobilization occurred.

Dr. Tsai details the ways in which the Japanese established the registry system and used it to organization Taiwan society during their colonial control. The hoko became so dominant during the Occupation that it can be thought of as the defining principle of organization around which a Taiwanese modernity was created.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Tsai’s book was extremely useful for me to read. While I am quite knowedgable about Japan’s colonial occupation of Taiwan, it straightened me out on a number of points I have always believed – but are wrong. for example, I have always believed that many reforms credited to the Japanese actually followed trends set in Republican China under KMT control. In particular, I have always credited the KMT with the eradication of traditional Chinese practices such as opium smoking, foot-binding and the queue.

Apparently I have been mistaken. In Taiwan, all of these practices were eradicated directly by the Japanese. In fact, Dr. Tsai describes in great detail the way the Japanese used the hoko to orchestrate these reforms, even discussing the emergence of hats as men’s fashion following Japanese enforcement of the ban on the queue.

One significant point about Dr. Tsai’s book is its extensive system of citation. In terms of language, the book is one of the most complex and complete works available. despite this, the manner in which it incorporates Japanese and Chinese script, pinyin, and English is both comprehensive and informative. Readers will never feel left confused by terms. I believe it is so thorough with respect to this issue, it can and should be used as model for research on this period.

Readers interested in the hoko and colonial Taiwan can find Dr. Tsai’s chapter on hoko road building in my forthcoming book (with Ann Heylen) Understanding Taiwan: From Colonialism to Democracy.


4 Responses

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  1. […] On the book front:  J. Michael Cole announces the release of Democracy in Peril: Taiwan’s struggle for survival from Chen Shui-bian to Ma Ying-jeou. David reviews Austronesian Taiwan, a collection of papers on the Austronesian speaking peoples of Formosa, and Scott introduces readers to Caroline Tsai’s book Taiwan in Japan’s Empire Building: An Institutional Approach to Colonial Engineering. […]

  2. fvarga said, on September 24, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Hi Scott,
    Are you still blogging?
    No news since June…

    • Scott Sommers said, on September 27, 2009 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks for asking.

      I don’t want to say I’ve stopped. I’m just so overwhelmed with school and everything else, I couldn’t possibly do a decent job.

      Once I get some time, I hope to be back.

  3. Charles Jannuzi said, on May 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    I think Japan tried to go to some sort of Imperial exam system, affecting some ranks of nobility and their service, in the Heian period. But the samurai evolved into an hereditary class, and atop that was the shogun. I’m not sure how one qualified to serve the shogunate in its later stages. That is a fascinating topic.

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