In Taipei, the Rising Sun Casts a Long Shadow

The Control Yuan. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

More than 70 years after the Japanese occupation of Taiwan ended, Japan’s legacy endures in the Taiwanese capital.  

At first blush, little remains of Japan’s colonial legacy in Taipei. The traditional Japanese wooden homes that lined the Taiwanese capital’s streets in the mid-20th century were long ago razed to make way for contemporary mid- and high-rise buildings. The Japanese language, once spoken by a large segment of Taiwan’s native population, now is largely only heard in conversations among Japanese visitors to the city. Even the city’s streets all were renamed to correspond to places in China or Chinese concepts.

And yet, in Taipei the outsize impact of Japan’s 50-year colonization of Taiwan (1895-1945) is hidden in plain sight. Consider the august Renai Road, which with its towering palm trees and wide promenades is hailed as Taipei’s most attractive thoroughfare. Renai, and many of Taipei’s other central avenues, were part of a dramatic effort by the Japanese colonial government beginning around 1900 to reshape Taipei as a modern metropolis by razing the city walls and replacing them with boulevards that facilitated easy entry into the city.

The houses on Qingdong street are beautiful examples of traditional-style Japanese structures.

“What may now seem a logical treatment of the old wall was at its time quite radical,” wrote Joseph R. Allen, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in his 2012 book Taipei, City of Displacements. “The Taipei city wall… was the first one razed as part of the modernization of urban space in East Asia,” he notes. As a result, “traffic no longer ritually penetrated the city at its gates, moving toward a stationary center, but rather circumnavigated the open, modern city.”

The Japanese colonial government designed Taipei’s boulevards as elegant thoroughfares with three traffic lanes divided by tree-lined islands. Historians say that design was likely inspired by the grand boulevards of Baron Haussmann’s Paris (Haussmann was chosen by Napoleon III to carry out a massive renovation of central Paris in the mid-19th century). The boulevards transformed Taipei “from a traditional bureaucratic center, walled and imperial, into a site of colonial modernism,” says Allen.

Indeed, on those grand boulevards the Japanese built elegant European-style buildings incorporating a blend of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical elements that were in vogue at the time. Many of the buildings look fashioned after the colonial architecture of French Indochina or British Malaya.

The National Taiwan Museum was founded during Taiwan’s colonial period. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

The most famous of the Japanese colonial buildings in Taipei is Taiwan’s current Presidential Palace, which formerly served as the headquarters of the Japanese colonial governor. The ornate building’s late-Renaissance style was influenced by the English architect Norman Shaw, according to the official website of the Office of the President of the Republic of China. Classical elements on the façade include colonnades, gables, arched windows, oeil-de-boeuf (small oval) windows, brackets, Roman columns, and compound columns. When the façade is viewed from the front, “the two corner towers and the peak of the central tower combine to approximate the shape of a pyramid,” the website of the President’s Office says. Heavily bombed during World War II, the building was restored in 1948 and has served as the center of operations of the ROC president ever since.

The outside of the Presidential Office Building and a shot of the magnificent interior. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)
The outside of the Presidential Office Building and a shot of the magnificent interior. (Photo: Matthew Fulco)

Other prominent Japanese-era colonial buildings in Taipei include the Control Yuan (the former Taipei County Hall under the Japanese colonial government), Taipei Guest House (the residence of the Japanese governor-general), National Taiwan University Hospital, the National Taiwan Museum, and the Land Bank Exhibition Hall (the former Nippon Kangyo Bank).

“These colonial buildings are unique because they have preserved a snapshot of early 20th-century Japanese architecture in Taipei,” says Hank Huang, a research adviser at the Taiwan Institute for Economic Research (TIER) who regularly travels to Japan on work assignments. On the other hand, he notes, “the buildings are not at all representative of architecture in Japan today.”

Traditional architecture

While well-preserved examples of Japan’s European-inspired colonial architecture abound in Taipei, traditional Japanese buildings are scarce. One of the few stretches of intact structures lies on secluded Qingdong Street, located near the intersection of Zhongxiao East Road and Jinshan South Road. According to Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, 10 houses built for civil servants during the Japanese colonial era remain on the street. These houses were restored by the Taipei City government at a cost of NT$650,000. There were 17 houses originally, but the Bank of Taiwan, the landowner at the time, tore seven down in 2002.

“The wooden structures make the preservation of historical Japanese buildings a challenge, and even in Japan, most old buildings were destroyed or dismantled to make way for urban renewal projects,” said Teng Wen-tsung, a division chief in the Department of Cultural Affairs, during a 2009 press conference, according to the English-language Taipei Times. 

One of the historically most interesting traditional Japanese buildings in Taipei is the former Umeyashiki Hotel, located off of Civic Boulevard near Taipei Main Station.  Constructed in 1900, the 165 square-meter wooden building hosted ROC founding father Sun Yat-sen on his second visit to Taiwan in August 1913. During that visit, Sun met with local revolutionaries and Japanese supporters to discuss how to topple then-provisional Chinese president Yuan Shi-kai, a former Qing dynasty general who later declared himself emperor in 1915.

The old National Taiwan University Hospital building is a prime example of Japanese colonial-era architecture. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The old National Taiwan University Hospital building is a prime example of
Japanese colonial-era architecture. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Historians are uncertain of the exact length of Sun’s stay at the hotel as no official records exist, but it is generally believed that he was there for about a week. After the ROC government took over Taiwan in the 1940s, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party turned the hotel into a museum honoring Sun and named it the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial House. In 1983, the museum was disassembled and moved to a site 50 meters north of its initial location in order to facilitate construction of Taipei City’s underground railway project. Later, a traditional Chinese garden, including a pond full of Japanese koi (a type of colorful carp), was added to the site.

Hidden treasures  

While the Japanese influence can be appreciated visually, some of the best Japanese elements of Taipei are those that can be eaten and imbibed. Indeed, the city has a selection of myriad Japanese restaurants and bars. Some, like Taipei’s Japanese architecture, recall a Japan of yesteryear. “I visited one Japanese restaurant in Taipei which serves amazing unagi (grilled eel),” says Takehiro Masutomo, a reporter for Beijing-based Caixin’s international news desk and a research associate at the National University of Singapore’s Centre on Asia and Globalisation. “I felt it was more authentic and traditional than many in Japan. The atmosphere is very Showa,” he says, referring to the period in Japanese history corresponding to Emperor Hirohito’s reign: 1926-1989.

Unagi (grilled eel), is a popular Japanese dish in Taipei.

As in Japan, the most intriguing Japanese restaurants and bars in Taipei are tucked away in labyrinthine back streets. The contrast with the city’s multi-story neon-lit Chinese restaurants and KTVs is striking. “Japanese culture greatly values discretion,” says Olga Su, a Taipei-based audio editor and fluent Japanese speaker who lived in Japan for four years. “Japanese people believe that some of the best things can be found in hidden places.”

That may explain why the Okinawan izakaya (a Japanese-style pub that serves food and is typically open late into the night) Tyurajima is located in a lonely lane off of Zhongshan North Road across the street from a barren lot. Entering the lane from Zhongshan North Road, you have the sense you are headed in the wrong direction. But once you walk through the izakaya’s doors, you are transported to Japan’s southernmost islands. The chef and owner are Okinawan, as are several of the servers, and the restaurant decor has a slight island feel. The clientele are largely Japanese businessmen, which explains why the menu is written mostly in Japanese. Fortunately, there are bright photos to accompany the Japanese script, as well as a limited English menu.

The authentic Okinawan dishes include a number of delicacies hard to find outside of Okinawa, like sea grapes, the small bubble-shaped seaweed that is also known as green caviar. When the bubbles break on your tongue, they release a subtle ocean taste, with just a hint of salt and cool water. Tyurajima also serves sunui tempura, an Okinawan version of the fried dish made from mozuku seaweed. Food critics liken the tender pieces of seaweed coated in crispy batter to a bird’s nest.

The entrance to an izakaya pub, a Japanese-style pub that serves food and is typically open late into the night. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The entrance to an izakaya pub, a Japanese-style pub that serves food and is typically open late into the night. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Looking ahead, Huang of the TIER wonders whether Japan’s cultural influence in Taipei will be eclipsed by the ascendant Korean Wave (the spread of South Korean pop culture). “Of course, the infrastructure the Japanese built is here to stay, but Korean culture is catching on in many ways: television shows, food, pop music, consumer electronics brands like Samsung and LG,” he says. “Just think about how popular brands like Sony and Toshiba used to be in Taiwan, and now think about how much stronger the Korean brands are.”

Caixin’s Masutomo has a different perspective. “I sometimes feel that there are Taiwanese who admire Japaneseness almost indiscriminately,” he says, attributing that to the unique historical relationship between the two countries. In the near term, he expects Japan’s cultural presence to remain strong in Taiwan. “Colonial influence is sticky,” he says.