Who are the Wansei?

The term “Wansei” refers to the group of Japanese who were born in Taiwan during the era of Japanese imperial rule in Taiwan, including those born to Japanese-Taiwanese couples, and Taiwanese who left for Japan to study and remained there.

Background

After the First Sino-Japanese War ended in 1895, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed and the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japanese rule.

The Japanese government ruled over Taiwan from 1895 until the end of World War II in 1945. During this time, the Japanese invested heavily in building Taiwan’s modern industry and infrastructure, and so the Japanese government encouraged a considerable number of their people to immigrate to Taiwan in hopes of building a new homeland and have better lives.

Taiwan underwent rapid economic development under Japanese rule, which serves as a testimony to the hard work of the island’s inhabitants. By the end of World War II, there were about half a million Japanese settlers in Taiwan. However, once Japan forfeited control of the island to China’s Kuomintang nationalist party in 1946, all the residents of Japanese descent were forced to leave their lives in Taiwan.

Living Between Two Cultures

The Wansei were treated like Japanese when they lived in Taiwan, but once they were repatriated to Japan, they were treated like foreigners. Parents of the Wansei had to restart their lives once again with profound anxiety and uncertainty over the repercussions of Japan’s loss. The Wansei had to learn to understand their new sense of identity after having grown up in Taiwan, and needed to accustom themselves to this new, foreign environment.

As repatriated citizens, they were ostracized from Japanese society as losers of the war and for having strange Japanese accents. Despite this, many still considered Taiwan as their home.

Lasting Effects

The achievements and infrastructure made by the inhabitants of the Japanese colonial period helped support the continued development of Taiwanese society post-war, and their legacy lives on.

The story of the Wansei is rarely told in Japan nor Taiwan. However, documentaries and novels were eventually made to shed light on this beautiful, yet bitter part of Taiwan’s history.

Documentary review — Wansei Back Home (2015) – Chih Tin Hunag's ...
‘Wansei Back Home’ is a documentary released in 2015, following the stories of various Taiwan-born Japanese as they retrace their roots seventy years after being repatriated. This was based on the novel written by Mika Tanaka.

**This documentary has received criticism after Mika Tanaka admitted to falsifying her background as a Wansei herself. However, the stories, history, and background behind it are mostly true. Nevertheless, the film serves as a motive for older and young generations to rediscover such complexities of Taiwan’s history and identities.

After this film was released in Taiwan, it became an overnight sensation. Taiwanese society experienced a wave of nostalgia and looked to revisit this part of history. Today, several events are hosted to listen to the stories of old Wansei and their memories of Taiwan.

Wansei Figures

Tateishi Tetsuomi

Tateishi Testuomi was a Wansei artist and painter born in 1905 in Taiwan. His works are most well-known for representing Taiwan’s cultural and artistic history during the Japanese colonial period.

The sociopolitical environment in Taiwan began to shift at the beginning of the 1940s, when the “divide began to emerge between Japanese and Taiwanese in areas such as painting, literature, and theater.” The Japanese government was increasingly promoting their own culture, while local Taiwanese cultures were oppressed for being “vulgar and barbaric.” At this time, Tateishi was a writer for Folklore Taiwan, a magazine (in Japanese) to help highlight and preserve the different arts and customs of the indigenous Taiwanese. Some of his paintings also reflect the rich cultures he learned about through his travels to Taiwan’s local villages.

Paiwan village visit.

Taiwanese scholars today still praise the work of Tetsuomi for his help of preserving Taiwanese cultural heritages. Although he was regarded as a talented artist, most of his work was unfortunately lost after he was repatriated back to Japan.

“灣生畫家-立石鐵臣 Wansei Painter – Tetsuomi Tateishi” is a biographical documentary that was made to highlight his life and respectable works–also revealing his ambition and struggles during the complex times of Taiwan’s shifting history. This film received the Audience Award at the 2016 Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF).