Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paper on Parade: Japanese Colonialism and Stature in Taiwan

Last year China Quarterly published a very interesting paper on the standard of living of Taiwanese under Japanese colonialism entitled Was Japanese Colonialism Good for the Welfare of Taiwanese? Stature and Standard of Living by Stephen L. Morgan and Shiyung Liu. The China history blog Frog in a Well mentioned it, so I thought I'd go have a look at it.

The authors begin by noting that there is still some disagreement on the overall effect of Japanese rule on the economic welfare of the Taiwanese themselves. While there is little debate that key indicators rose, and productivity and economic output rose, there is still some disagreement on the effect of the growth on the welfare of the Taiwanese themselves, with a few scholars arguing that Japan's extractive policies took most of the gains, and Taiwanese capitalism was stunted. The problem, scholars realize, is that adequate data of income under the Japanese are lacking.

Enter height.

According to Morgan and Liu, studies of human growth have shown that average population height is "primarily attributable to the environment" in which it lives. All other things being equal, taller populations live better. Height itself is a function of net nutrition over time. A well-fed population will enjoy good growth, and even temporary impairment of nutrition can be made up, but long-term lower nutrition will result in permanent falls in height. The authors observe later in the paper that height cycles similar to the business cycle have been detected. I guess I have Nixon to thank for me not being able to play starting forward for the Pistons....

While height and income are correlated, the relationship is not linear. Incremental rises in height decrease as income rises, and in some cases may even diverge. Moreover, height is more closely related to income distribution, they observe. Not only is the gain affected by public health and other factors, but shifts in consumer preferences may also influence it.
Using several different databases, the authors then explore the changes in the average heights of males during the period of Japanese colonialism in Taiwan. There appear to be some correlations with region (central Taiwan people were taller), occupation (professional and skilled were taller), and education (better-educated were taller). After analysis of the data, the authors found that height rises rapidly through the 1910s and 1920s, and then levels off during the 1930s. In fact, that decade is the only period from the 1880s through the 1970s in which growth in height was not regular, according to the authors. The authors conclude:
"The statistical evidence for the flat trajectory of in height during the 1930s-40s is striking confirmation of the adverse impact on the Taiwanese of the shift in colonial policy in the early 1930s, as Japan increasingly militarized and reoriented development in its colonies to support projection of imperial power."
These gains were driven by improved public health, economic growth, and economic policy. In Taiwan Japan reduced infant mortality, and eliminated tropical diseases. In a footnote there is an impressive quote from George Mackay, the 19th century missionary, on how malaria laid low large fractions of the population, preventing it from doing meaningful work. At the same time incomes nearly doubled in the 1920s, and the income distribution improved, changes confirmed by both the height data and economic data. In the 1930s economic policy changed and the minor industrialization Taiwan was undergoing may have led to drops in the health of the population, as rural laborers shifted to factory employment, even though most people stayed on the farms where subsidies to rice drove rising incomes. Consumer preferences may have changed, promoting purchases of goods that detracted from health. The economic and historical data are not clear, however.

Overall, their conclusion is that whatever you may say about colonialism, there is no denying that it produced gains in the height, health, and lifespan of the Taiwanese. Japanese colonialism in Taiwan was about more than just laying the foundation for the miracle growth during the KMT period; it was about major improvements in living standards for most Taiwanese.


channing said...

This was an interesting read, and then I realized something. People in Japan--one of the most highly developed societies--must be really, really tall!

...wait a minute...

Michael Turton said...

LOL. It's average height of the population, not absolute height. Men propose, but genes dispose.


James said...

It's neither... it's the growth in average height of the population.

So it looks like there's a natural cycle anyways, so really the end to growth started around the mid-1930s (1935). Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I was just talking to a coworker about Japanese colonial effects on Taiwan. When he told a Taiwanese friend what he had learned, she was aghast that anyone might suggest the Japanese had done anything for Taiwanese... she then cited, as proof, that the Japanese had never done anything for Taiwanese...the FACT that the Japanese had imported thousands of poisonous snakes to the island and let them loose to attack people.

Seriously... if you are interested in this kind of stuff... first read George W. Barclay's 1954 report for the JCRR. He sifts through the Japanese numbers and tries to make sense of it. Another good read is Taiwan Under Japanese Colonial Rule, 1895-1945. This book has some great essays on what all those numbers might mean. Lastly, look at Roger Mark Selya's Development and Demographic Change in Taiwan 1945-1995. Selya picks up where Barclay leaves off and corrects some errors.

If you're into this kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

"the Japanese had imported thousands of poisonous snakes to the island and let them loose to attack people."

My uncle told me the exact same thing when I was a kid but I thought he made it up as he was a gifted storyteller. I'm amazed to see someone else heard the same story.

Years ago I read an LA Times article where the Koreans believe a similar story: that the departing Japanese buried structures in Korea to disrupt the flow of "chi" to bring bad luck to the Koreans.

While the snakes and bad "chi" stories seem farfetched, it is a fact, which even Japan has reluctantly admitted, that departing Japanese forces buried massive amounts of chemical and biological weapons in China that is still causing injuries and environmental damage today.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of the scene from "The Life of Brian" where the militant Judean independence group members were debating "what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Most historians agree that the Romans greatly improved the standard of living in Judea and treated the Judeans quite well. Similarly, the British did many good thing for the American colonists (such as financing a war against French encroachment) and the Americans were actually taxed less than the British. But alas, most people (except for Hellenized Jews, American loyalists, Taiwanese Quislings, etc.) tend to frown on their colonial masters no matter how benevolent they were.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I think my first question would be a comparative one: how did the rising height rate in Taiwan compare with Japan, with uncolonized mainland China, with Europe or Latin America? Or with Manchuria and Korea?

That the height is rising is one datum, but, as you note, it's fairly meaningless without something to compare it to.

Anonymous said...

in 1636, Siraya people were reported by the Dutch to be "about a head taller than the average Dutchman". John R. Shepherd in his monograph Marriage and Mandatory Abortion...1995 cites the superior nutrition of the Siraya as a factor in their physical size, as they had access to vast stores of venison.

Therefore, Taiwanese may have also had a genetic predisposition to larger size.

Anonymous said...

I still see a fair amount of Japanese built infrastructure today. So thats proof enough for me.

I also note that a lot of it seems less than adequately maintained? Probably because by now it's long passed it's intended life span.

Thomas said...

"it is a fact, which even Japan has reluctantly admitted, that departing Japanese forces buried massive amounts of chemical and biological weapons in China that is still causing injuries and environmental damage today."

It is unfair to compare China, which was an unsuccessful attempt at colonisation that never quite made it past a brutal war, with Taiwan. Taiwan was a showcase piece for the Japanese, and the Japanese were there relatively uncontested ("relatively" because there were rebellions from time to time) for 50 years.

Lots of retreating armies do nasty stuff: slashing and burning, destroying of infrastructure, etc. It may be true that the Japanese did even nastier stuff in China, but Taiwan was not a territory that they "retreated" from. It was lost at the conclusion of the war, so was meant to be returned to China intact.

As for what the Japanese did for Taiwan, I don't think anyone questions their brutality, however, I did read in one Taiwan history book, although I have forgotten the name, that when the Qing lost Taiwan, it was a poor backwater where officials hoped to avoid being stationed. However, at the end of the war, Taiwan was richer than any province of China, and there were many on the island who did not want to be bled dry to rebuild the country.

Anonymous said...

In Taiwan's case it was the conquering army (KMT) that did the plundering and destruction of infrastructure.

The last major rebellion was in 1930 (Wu she) and the last major non-indigenous rebellion was the Ta Pa ni (1915).

From my own interviews and anecdotal evidence, the people of Taiwan were told to listen to the radio for an important announcement. The Emperor announced Japan's defeat and unconditional surrender. People were openly crying and the Police who had bullied ordinary citizens were sometimes subjected to humiliation. The Japanese did their part to leave peacefully, except for one General who proposed a Japanese backed rebellion led by Ku Chen fu. The Japanese high command opposed such measures.

Furthermore, many Taiwanese were active participants in their own colonization. This is not uncommon.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't venture to say Japanese colonialism was good or bad, but it would be safe to say that the Taiwanese experience as Japanese subjects brought radical changes to Taiwanese expectations and perceptions of their environment. These changes have helped alter the trajectory of post war Taiwanese society and define how Taiwanese view their relationships with each other, their government and the world.. including China.
This is something that is still often lost to Chinese nationalists when discussing a distinct cultural Taiwaneseness.

Anonymous said...

I want to point out that when the KMT came to Taiwan, they deported 20,000 Japanese engineers and their families who remained in Taiwan and wanted to stay.

The result of this was that they didn't have anyone who knew how to rebuild a lot of the infrastructure/sugar processing machines that were all imported from Japan. They eventually did it with Taiwanese, but the quality and the time it took to do so was all much worse.

Taiwan would be an interesting place demographically with a Japanese ethnic minority.

Anonymous said...

If you talk to enough old people you'll find the IS a Japanese minority in Taiwan. My wife's grandfather identifies as Japanese because of his education and youth as a Japanese subject. Many old people feel the same.

John Scott said...

I assume the records the authors used made it obvious the race of the men who were measured.

Japanese were in Taiwan for a couple of generations, raised big families there.

Some schools were Japanese-only, some were more mixed. If all men --including Japanese-- were being measured, and if Japanese were typically taller that Formosans at that time, and if they measured mostly in the cities (where most Japanese lived) then the data is skewed.