Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Saturday that Taiwan's present high educational standards resulted from compulsory education implemented by Japan during its colonization of the island and that he believed Japan "did a good thing."
"Thanks to the significant improvement in educational standards and literacy during the colonization, Taiwan is now a country with a very high education level and keeps up with the current era," Aso said in remarks that risk sparking criticism from Taiwan and other Asian countries that suffered from Japanese wartime aggressions.
Among certain circles in Japan there is the claim that current Asia tigers were all once holdings of Japan, and so, this experience was formative in making them the economic powerhouses that they are today. In the case of Taiwan there is a certain amount of truth to that claim. But Aso's claims as far as they go, are wrong.
First, Formosans, when they went to school, usually did not go beyond primary school. Further, Before, during, and after the Japanese period there was a considerable local and parallel Chinese educational system -- the Japanese one was in all in Japanese. Thus "literacy" in Taiwan actually meant "literacy in Japanese." The locals were literate in Chinese long prior to the Japanese arrival. George Kerr in his excellent Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement 1895-1945 describes what Japanese education was really about:
"...proposed to produce obedient Formosan farmers and semiskilled laborers trained for light industrial employment; there was to be compulsory education, so that every child in the island could read and write at an elementary level -- enough to improve his economic productivity and no more. On completing primary school he should be able to read orders, patriotic slogans, and simple technical information...but he would not be encouraged to think for himself."(p56)
Later the Japanese erected a system of junior high, high school, and universities for a limited number of students, when it became clear that the island needed more educated Formosans. One thing Kerr credits Japanes education with doing is developing a Formosan consciousness -- under Japan Formosans began to see themselves as population with a set of common interests, instead of Fukienese, Hakkas, and the like, separated by language barriers that Japanese was bridging. Kerr gives some statistics that show how one-sided the education system really was:
"Although there were more than one thousand primary and higher primary schools, there were only thirty middle schools at the next higher level, and of these, fifteen were not much more than finishing schools for girls. At the beginning of the "China Incident" (1937), when more than five hundred thousand children were in primary school, only 4,117 Formosan students were registered in higher institutions on the island."
Aso does not mention that the higher schools preferentially accepted Japanese in Taiwan, and that they accounted for the overwhelming majority of students in those schools, despite being outnumbered more than 15-1 by locals. Kerr also notes that many Japanese teachers found this unfair but were obliged to follow policy.
Aso's comments are an abuse that whitewashes Japanese colonialism, for which he should apologize. It is indicative of Taiwan's low status that it is likely Taiwan will respond only feebly, or not at all, to these absurd remarks.
Don't miss the complaints in the comments section of the article referenced above. Apparently local expats in Japan hold their breath whenever Aso opens his mouth.
UPDATE: Simon World discusses What An Aso the Foreign Minister of Japan is.