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

The Failure of Japanese Colonization of Taiwan's Sacred Geography

The abandonment of the Temple Regulation Movement meant that Taiwanese temples, in Jilong and elsewhere, were safe from complete erasure, but it did not mean that the colonial authorities gave up their efforts to transform Taiwan's sacred geography. Instead, they tried other techniques, such as attempting to redirect Taiwanese to more acceptable, more Japanese festivals. For example, around 1940 Jilong's municipal government attempted to reinvigorate a Japanese ceremony to honor the dead, called the shōkon, probably in part to challenge the Ghost Festival. The ceremony originated alongside the modern Japanese state, since its first observance took place to honor those who died defeating the last Tokugawa loyalists in the Bōshin War (1868-69). (The original shōkon shrine established in modern Japan, where this rite first took place, is now the Yasukuni Shrine.) It was first observed in Jilong in 1898 to commemorate Japanese troops who had perished in the campaigns to take over Taiwan, but it seems to have ceased during the 1910s, according to an inscription on a stele erected in 1927 in an evidently not very successful attempt to rejuvenate the ceremony:

This stele, which  was originally erected on the grounds of the Jilong artillery garrison, was moved to within the grounds of Takasago Park when it was built. During the 19 years since that time, the ceremony was completely halted and the stele fell into disrepair. Looking into this further, this area has become a place where idle youths, dogs, and pigs have roamed and played. It is deplorable that this site has not been remembered with respect. This association (NB: the Jilong branch of the Imperial Veterans' Association) took it upon itself to move the stele, and its members, with their own labor, began work on November 7 of last year and completed it on this day...We send our prayers to the spirits of the war dead that they may remain in this place and bring peace to it, and become the great protective spirits of the nation and protect our country.

—March 15, 1927 [Shōwa 2.3.15] Imperial Veterans' Association, Jilong Branch

If the 1940 effort was, indeed, an attack on the Ghost Festival, it failed: a news report from 1944 indicates that local authorities again attempted to control specific practices when the Ghost Festival occurred that summer, rather than abolish the entire event.

Before this time, in May of 1942, Masuda Fukutarō, the foremost Japanese scholar of Taiwanese religions, stopped in Jilong as part of a tour he made of temples in the north. He went first to the Qing'an Temple, where he found a "clamorous" festival in Mazu's honor was underway, and he noted that the odor of animal offerings filled the air. He went from there to the Lingquan Temple, in the hills southeast of the city, and was initially heartened to see that the temple was flourishing. Although it was mostly patronized by Taiwanese, it had been consecrated within the Sōdō sect decades earlier, and had spread its influence through branch temples across Taiwan. However, when he looked closely, he saw little evidence of the purity of Japan's Zen tradition, but much that suggested the persistence of backwards, syncretistic Taiwanese religion. "Even among the monks," he wrote, "there are some who completely lack in training, and the sutras that they chant, in their hearts they do not understand the meaning." He closed his observations with a mild lament: "[This temple] should not be criticized for the fact that a Japanese-Taiwanese Buddhist fusion is still far off." (Masuda, Minzoku shinkō, 216-24)

That fusion never occurred. Three years later Japan surrendered control of Taiwan to the Republic of China, and Japanese efforts to colonize Taiwan's sacred geography came to an end, after five decades of failure. That terrain had remained predominantly Taiwanese throughout.

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