Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame

Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame

by Robert Thomas Tierney

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520947665
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/20/2010
Series: Asia Pacific Modern , #5
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert Thomas Tierney is Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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Tropics of Savagery

The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame

By Robert Thomas Tierney


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94766-5


From Taming Savages to Going Native

Self and Other on the Taiwan Aboriginal Frontier

These primitive tribes had tattoos painted on their faces, thought that killing was a matter of honor, and took pride in displaying numerous skulls of their victims in front of their homes. Since this barbarous race was obstinate and extremely violent, it was no easy matter to smoke them out of their hideouts. He couldn't help but be moved by learning of these people which coexisted with the cultural worlds of airplanes, ocean-faring ships, and trains. He listened to stories about the tribes, looked at their pictures, and heard true accounts of the bloody and tragic rebellions that all too frequently broke out. He thought about them and compared them to the adventure tales, novels, and articles written overseas about persecution by the natives. TAYAMA KATAI, 1918

According to some, the members of the Bunun tribe are by their nature obstinate, insolent, and sinister. One inevitably hears such comments about aboriginal people who have fled into the mountains from observers with superficial knowledge of these people. But as one learns to understand their lifestyles and appreciate their characters, one discovers that they are a simple and pure mountain people. KANO TADAO, 1941


It is commonly asserted that Japan acquired its major colonies by defeating China and Russia in two major international wars that were fought on overseas battlefields. The fact that colonial wars played an essential role in the formation of Japan's empire is less well known. Yet consider the following fact: when the Qing dynasty "ceded" the island of Taiwan to Japan in accordance with the provisions of the Shimonoseki Peace Treaty, there was not a single Japanese soldier present to stake his claim to this new cession. Before Japan could transform this territory into a colony, it needed to fight a colonial war that lasted for two decades and claimed more Japanese, not to mention Taiwanese lives, than the better-known Sino-Japanese War. On June 19, 1895, Kabayama Sukenori, the first governor-general of Taiwan, frankly acknowledged the veritable situation that Japan faced on the island: "In name, Taiwan is already a new territory of the empire, but the real situation is not different from subjugation of an alien land."

During the early years of colonial rule, the Japanese military concentrated on fighting Chinese guerrillas in the densely populated western plains of the island. Lacking the manpower to wage a war on two fronts, the military favored a tactical alliance with the Austronesian aborigines, who for the most part inhabited the mountainous interior. This policy of alliance was variously described as one of "tutelage," "taming the savages," or "leniency and conciliation." In one of the first colonial documents setting forth policies toward the aborigines, Kabayama writes: "If we are to develop the island, we must first tame the savages. If upon meeting our people, the savages regard us as they do the Chinese, we will face a big obstacle to our plans to develop the island. Therefore, this government should adopt a policy of leniency and conciliation; over the long run, we will reap benefits from this policy." To carry out this policy, the colonial government set up Offices of Pacification and Reclamation along the aboriginal frontier, modeled after earlier bureaus through which Qing-regime officials had conducted relations with the aboriginal tribes. The officials manning these offices "would gather together the heads of the tribes and other savages to distribute clothes and tools and hold feasts with drinking." Hashiguchi Bunz, an official who led an early expedition to the aboriginal district of Taikokan (Dakekan), later noted that the aborigines were delighted to hear that Japan was the new sovereign of the island, "since they had been oppressed by the Chinese" and "greeted the Japanese as long-lost relatives."

The colonial government eventually defeated the Chinese resistance, but it depleted its coffers trying to finance the costly campaign against the guerillas and to build infrastructure in the island early on. Furthermore, Taiwan was an immense burden for the home country: subsidies to Taiwan regularly consumed 7 percent of the Japanese national budget from 1895 to 1902. To bail out the colony's finances and reduce the fiscal drain on Japan, the Taiwan governor-generalship established a government monopoly on camphor, opium, and salt; in subsequent years camphor alone supplied from 15 to 25 percent of the revenue of the colonial state. Since most camphor resources were located in the aboriginal areas, the aborigines henceforth became an obstacle that had to be removed rather than an ally to cultivate. As the insurrection in the plains diminished, the colonial authorities intensified military pressure on the mountain aborigines and moved to occupy their lands. At the turn of the twentieth century, Governor-General Kodama Gentar declared: "We must shift our military forces to the savage territory. The savages who live there are stubborn and like wild animals. If we continue to feast them with food and drink, staying with a policy of conciliation, they might evolve to a certain degree. However, given the urgent conditions of the present time ... we must dedicate ourselves to exterminating this obstacle to our progress as soon as possible."

As Chinese and Japanese settlers, tree cutters, engineers, and surveyors flooded into the camphor-growing regions, they encountered fierce resistance from aborigines who resented their presence and opposed their encroachments on ancestral lands. To protect the settlers, the colonial administration recruited guards to police the aboriginal border and retaliated against aboriginal villages that were suspected of harboring insurgents. Nevertheless, the aborigines took advantage of their knowledge of the terrain and hard-to-reach mountain bases to inflict hundreds of casualties on guardsmen and government forces. In response, the colonial regime hired a special police force to guard the aboriginal high country (approximately half of the island's total land area) and established a permit system that controlled access in and out of these territories. When this system was in place, the regime could block all trade in salt and rifles to force rebellious aborigines to halt their attacks on settlers.

Under the regime of General Sakuma Samata, the fifth governor-general of Taiwan (1906–15), the administration shifted from a defensive posture to an offensive one that employed military force to open up the region for economic development and to take control of the land. Just as they had sought to cultivate the neutrality of the aborigines during the war against Chinese resistance, colonial authorities now established a tactical alliance with Taiwan Chinese. To push the conquest of recalcitrant tribes to completion, the Japanese required both the financial backing of the Chinese gentry class and a steady supply of Chinese foot soldiers to man the guard posts of empire.

Between 1909 and 1914, the Sakuma administration launched the "Five Year Plan to Conquer the Northern Tribes," a centrally coordinated campaign to force an end to resistance by the northern tribes. The policy was called "subjugation" but was in fact an invasion. A key strategy of the Japanese offensive was to expand the fortified guard lines—made up of mountain roads, guard posts at regular intervals, electric wire fences, and a two-hundred-meter-wide strip of scorched earth studded with land mines—that marked the outer perimeter of Japanese sovereignty. Aborigines were basically offered the choice of slowly starving to death outside the guard line or surrendering their weapons and moving "inside the line."

First the military commanders would issue a call for the aborigines to surrender, prohibit any entry within the defense perimeter of the guard line and enjoin strict obedience to the orders of the authorities. If the aborigines refused to heed the call to surrender, the authorities would next interdict all their supplies of guns and salt while pushing the defense lines deeper into aboriginal territory by constructing roads through the mountains, felling trees to obtain an unobstructed view of their enemy and constructing fortified battery emplacements at strategic points along the defense perimeter. When the aborigines surrendered, unable to resist an army and police force equipped with modern weapons, they were forced to give up their weapons, which were also their only means of resistance.

Adopting the extermination strategy carried out by the British commander George Arthur in the early nineteenth century against the aborigines on the island of Tasmania, the Japanese army also systematically terrorized the indigenous peoples into submission by carrying out public executions of warriors in aboriginal villages and by indiscriminately destroying their villages. According to a recent deposition to a UN working group on aboriginal affairs, over ten thousand Ataiyals (the largest northern aboriginal group) are believed to have perished during the five-year campaign. In order to minimize casualties to the Japanese troops, the army introduced bomber aircraft to the fight and had Japanese warships bombard villagers within range of naval guns.

Besides using brute force against aborigines, the colonial regime employed psychological tactics to convince them that it was in their best interests to surrender to the Japanese state. The regime organized island tours to the cities of Taiwan for select members of the aboriginal groups, such as village heads or tribal chiefs, sometimes after the group had formally submitted to the authorities, in which they were shown schools, military bases, factories, and other modern institutions. A key purpose of these tours was to show aborigines the might of the new rulers and to dissuade them from continuing any resistance. One researcher notes that these tourists were shown a film that included a scene with an aborigine dying from electrocution after touching the high-power electric wires that surrounded aboriginal territories.

In the end the aboriginal fighters were no match for the well-equipped Japanese army and were forced to give up the struggle. Though some groups continued to resist the colonial authorities for years, most aborigines gave up their weapons and pledged obedience to the new authority in formal surrender ceremonies that signified the submission of the tribes. The final tribe to submit, a village of two hundred members of a Bunun tribe led by the chieftain Rahoare, did not yield to the authorities until April 22, 1933, almost two decades after the Sakuma offensive had ended in victory.

For the tribes, giving up their weapons meant submission to labor drafts, conscription as Japanese allies in campaigns against tribes fighting the Japanese, the abandonment of their previous lifestyle of hunting and its replacement by agriculture and the raising of livestock. Once they had confiscated the aborigines' weapons, the army withdrew from the villages and left the task of enforcing the terms of the surrender to the colonial police force. As a representative of the state in the villages, the policeman was not only a disciplinarian who imposed law and order, but also a schoolteacher, agricultural advisor, medical doctor, arbitrator of trade, and—most of all—the eyes and ears of the colonial state. Until 1945, the aboriginal lands were the most heavily policed part of the Japanese empire, with an average of 1 ranking officer for every 57 aborigines, compared to a ratio of 1 to 963 in the plains area of Taiwan.

While the establishment of police rule ensured that a semblance of order reigned in the highlands, the ensuing peace was punctuated by bloody rebellions launched by aborigines against the colonial authorities. In 1920, a large aboriginal force attacked the Slamao district police stations and killed or wounded nineteen police officers at their posts. In response, the government dispatched military reinforcements and allied tribes to the area and routed the rebels. Ten years later, in what later became known as the Musha Incident, hundreds of Sedeq tribesmen, armed with guns and swords, attacked a group of Japanese during a school sports festival on October 27, 1930, in the town of Musha, which authorities regarded as a showcase of their enlightened rule. In the ensuing melee, they indiscriminately killed 132 Japanese men, women, and children (two Taiwanese wearing Japanese kimonos were also killed, by mistake); at the same time, other aboriginal groups attacked police stations, government offices, and weapon stores before fleeing to mountain bases. Within weeks of the massacre, the Japanese authorities mobilized thousands of police and soldiers, used airpower, and allegedly employed internationally banned poison gas to crush the rebellion. After capturing the ringleaders of the rebellion, the Japanese moved the survivors from rebel villages to an aboriginal district allied to the colonial authority, where, in April 1931, a "second Musha incident" occurred in which 210 of them were attacked and killed by members of tribes allied with, and allegedly instigated by, the Japanese authorities. Of these, some 101 Ataiyal, including men, women, and children, were decapitated by the allied tribes.

The 1930 Musha Incident, the bloodiest uprising against Japanese colonial rule during the imperial period, symbolized the bankruptcy of the colonial government's policies toward the aborigines. It occurred thirty-five years after the Japanese first colonized Taiwan and took place in a model village that had been subjugated decades earlier. It also shook Japanese rule in the Taiwanese highlands to its very foundations. Viewing the incident as the consequence of failed policies, the government dispatched investigators to look into the causes of the rebellion; journalists and diet members openly criticized the colonial authorities. For the first time since Japan acquired its first colony in 1895, events in the colonies became a main topic of deliberation in the Imperial Diet. In the end, the top leaders Governor General Kamiyama Mannoshin and his chief civil administrator, Goto Fumio, were forced to step down from their posts and major changes in aboriginal administration were promulgated. After this watershed in Japanese rule of the aboriginal lands, the police enforced land expropriations and forced relocations of villages and eventually established permanent reservations for aboriginal tribes. Beyond a change in administrative policies toward the aborigines, the uprising led to a "rearticulation of the Japanese colonial strategy in the form of imperialization. The aborigines were no longer savage heathens waiting to be civilized by colonial benevolence, but were now imperial subjects assimilated into the Japanese national polity through their expressions of loyalty to the Emperor."


Chief civil administrator to the third governor-general of Taiwan, Goto Shinpei, who is generally accorded the credit for single-handedly turning the colonization of Taiwan into a success story for Japan, wrote in 1901: "Ruling Taiwan is much more complicated than we originally thought, since today on the island of Taiwan thousands of years of living history exist simultaneously." In this statement, Goto articulated the assumptions that colonial officials commonly held about history as linear progress and about the nature of the population of Taiwan. When he spoke of "thousands of years of living history" that coexisted peacefully on the island, he meant that Taiwan was settled by population groups that stood at radically different levels of historical development: a Chinese majority that had attained a fairly high level of civilization and an aboriginal minority that were "living fossils" at a primitive stage of history. From the earliest years of the colonial period, Japanese officials established two separate systems of colonization on the island in order to rule these different groups. Toward the aborigines, the Japanese system of rule became one of expropriation by dispossession. The colonial government conquered the aboriginal lands primarily to exploit their potential wealth but it actually had little use for the people living there. By contrast, the colonial state sought to have the Han Chinese in the plains work the land and contented itself with skimming off the profits produced through normal circuits of capitalism. This differential imperialism was reflected in the legalistic discourses that the Japanese colonial officials invented to preserve the power relations created by the conquest.


Excerpted from Tropics of Savagery by Robert Thomas Tierney. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. From Taming Savages to Going Native: Self and Other on the Taiwan Aboriginal Frontier
2. Ethnography and Literature: Sat Haruo’s Colonial Journey to Taiwan
3. The Adventures of Momotar in the South Seas: Folklore, Colonial Policy, Parody
4. The Colonial Eyeglasses of Nakajima Atsushi

Conclusion: Cannibalism in Postwar Literature

Glossary of Japanese Terms

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