Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

"All Equal Under the Emperor's Gaze"

Colonized students and writers had varied experiences with ethnicity and discrimination in Tokyo. For some, the city offered relief from the harsh boundaries of life in the colonies. For others, however, the experience brought to the fore the prejudice that motivated Japanese attitudes toward colonized subjects (Thornber 2009, 61-65).

Travel to and from Japan also sparked considerable commentary from colonized students and writers. Customs officers, ship, and railway officials singled them out for special scrutiny. Yŏm Sangsŏp, a Korean nationalist and socialist writer who lived in Japan, described the experience of discrimination in transit eloquently in his short story “Mansejŏn” (On the eve of the uprising; 1924). The protagonist, Yi Inhwa, is a Korea student studying in Tokyo. Traveling from Tokyo to Pusan, he gets stopped at multiple points on his way. “Your age? School? On what business? Destination?” a customs officer asks him in Kōbe. “Helpless and irritated,” Yi thinks, “I wanted to ask out loud why on earth he needed to know” (Yŏm 2010 [1924], 29; McDonald 2017, 95-96). As one Taiwanese commentator argued, why should colonized subjects bother to Japanify themselves, if state officials won’t recognize them as Japanese anyway (Go 1994; McDonald 2017, 83-102)?

Cai held on to the ideal of equality even as he too experienced the dark side of colonial modernity. The Government General of Taiwan used the idea of “all equal under the Emperor’s gaze” (isshi dōjin) to distinguish Japanese colonialism from the Western imperialism that had come before. Cai used the same ideal to compel Japanese voters to end the Government General system. He quoted a recent address by Governor General Ueyama: “There is no other essential meaning of [Japanese] rule of Taiwan than to reverently accept the imperial will of all equal under the Emperor’s gaze, and to be the mainstay that waits expectantly for the parallel advancement of culture and economy.” Accepting the premise that the goal of Japanese colonial rule was to treat all subjects equally under the Emperor’s gaze, Cai asked his audience to consider whether this ideal manifested in the actions of the Government General: “But what are the actual results that have showed up in practice? Gentlemen, don’t be surprised. Please listen quietly to my explanation” (57-58). He described in detail how the Government General established a separate and unequal education system, financial network, and agricultural market. “Is this actually the generosity of virtuous citizens (kunshi kokumin)? Is this really the imperial will of ‘all equal under the emperor’s gaze?’” (71)

Ultimately, Cai argued that self rule was the only way to achieve equality. Only with self rule would the state recognize “Taiwanese-ness” as an asset rather than a marker of unwelcome difference. Assimilation turned a blind eye to the distinctiveness of Taiwan and Taiwanese Chinese people. Worse, it became a rationale for sustaining a separate and unequal system. “What if,” Cai proposed, “the Taiwan bureaucrats (perhaps foolishly) misunderstood ‘all equal under the Emperor’s gaze,’ and sincerely believed that the assimilation policy was the way to fulfill the imperial will and to pull us up to the same life as people from the mother country?” Well, he concluded, if equality was their true intent, “Why then did they consistently create walls and ditches of discrimination in every area?” (51) Self rule would remove the power of the bureaucrats to discriminate; it would replace the logic of “lack” that had governed policy in Taiwan with one of “value,” and recognize the full humanity of Taiwanese Chinese people as equal subjects of the emperor.

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