Rice Rice Baby

Two years after Japan seized Taiwan from imperial China in 1895, the government in Tokyo had started to wonder if it was worth the hassle. The local people were notoriously difficult to control; the anti-Japanese resistance continued to bubble away in the hinterland, and the infrastructure was a mess. Some wag in the Japanese parliament even made the modest proposal that, all things considered, Japan had been sold a lemon, and should probably consider off-loading the whole thing for a bargain price on the first mug to come along… probably France.

Toshio Watanabe’s The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is a study of those Japanese engineers, politicians and scientists who refused to give up, turning Japan’s newly acquired colony into a testing ground for some of the grand schemes that would later be unrolled all across the Japanese empire.

Watanabe zooms in on Shinpei Goto, the administrator whose thoughtful approach to researching his new posting led to the commissioning of invaluable, multi-part scientific surveys, including a 4000-page report on tribal traditions among the indigenous inhabitants – often the first time such matters had been documented. It was Goto who dragged the island out of almost a decade of infrastructural decay, setting up the Bank of Taiwan to disburse investment funds for roads and railways, and declaring a Twenty-Year Plan to make the island a net contributor to the imperial Japanese economy.

Watanabe focuses on several linked elements of Japanese colonial development in Taiwan, particular­­­ly the creation of a new strain of rice, optimised not only for local conditions, but also for the Japanese palate. The result was a strain named for the ancient Chinese isles of the immortals, Penglai Rice (a.k.a. Horai Rice or Ponrai Rice), and Watanabe takes the story of this miracle crop out of both Taiwan and the Meiji era, to demonstrate its wide-ranging impact overseas, particularly in India in the 1950s. Even today, it and its descendants represent up to 93% of all the rice grown in Taiwan – Watanabe’s chapter on Horai Rice scales way, way out, making a bold claim to it as the saviour of millions of twentieth-century lives. This has, however, done some damage to crop diversity on the island – a fact alluded to in Crook and Hung’s Culinary History of Taipei, which notes the extinction of certain other rice strains in the wild.

But the crop was only half the story. Watanabe also delves into the history of the fields where it grew, particularly the plains between Chiayi and Tainan, the agricultural capabilities of which were multiplied a hundred-fold during the Japanese colonial era. For this, we have to thank a Japanese hydraulic engineer, Yoichi Hatta, who designed an irrigation system covering hundreds of square miles, holding back floodwaters and saving them to re-use in dry spells, to turn the Chia-Nan plain from a farming disaster-area into a rice-producing power-house with three crops a year.

Hatta was justly celebrated as one of the icons of Japanese Taiwan, and enjoyed a vibrant afterlife, particularly at the turn of the the 21st century, when a Japanese prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, turned out to come from the same part of Japan. The result was a veritable Taiwan-Japan love-in, with diplomatic visits, high-level glad-handing, and even the release of a worthy-minded dramatization of his life, Noboru Ishiguro’s animated film Batian Lai – well, Batian Lai (“Here Comes Hatta”), is how I translated the title in the Anime Encyclopedia, but the Japanese original Patten Rai, has a stab at replicating the way his name would have been pronounced by the actual Hokkien-speaking locals. The anime film concentrates on Hatta’s obsession with the irrigation system, and his pride and joy, the Wushantou Dam, which for six years in the 1930s was the largest in the world. Hatta’s most recent appearance in the media was in 2017, when a crazed politician in search of clickbait decapitated his commemorative statue at his gravesite beside the dam.

After Japan lost Taiwan in 1945, the new Kuomintang government adopted a scorched-earth policy towards the fifty years of Japanese rule. They played up colonial atrocities (of which there were many), deported thousands of Taiwan-born “Japanese”, banned the Japanese language from public life, and did everything they could to wipe out the Japanese colonial legacy. Watanabe’s book is a celebration of the oft-forgotten achievements of Taiwan’s Japanese era, although in pushing to recognise the achievements of the Japanese, he might occasionally have forgotten the Taiwanese who did much of the hard labour, and the occasional European who might have helped a little bit, such as William Kinnimond Burton, the Scottish engineer who designed many of the island’s Meiji-era sanitation systems.

But Watanabe’s book is more interested, naturally, in the Japanese, whose lives he describes with empathy and occasional melodrama. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the tragic end to Hatta’s story, when he dies aboard the Taiyo Maru, a ship torpedoed by an American submarine. His body lies in the water for a week, in which time the flesh is so picked clean by marine scavengers that he can only be identified by his clothes and personal effects.

His wife, Toyoki Hatta, held on until the 15th August 1945. On hearing the news of Japan’s surrender on the radio, she calmly walked through the rain to the Wushantou Dam, took off her shoes, and threw herself into the waters.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. The Meiji Japanese Who Made Modern Taiwan is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

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