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Japanese Taipei, and What Remains of It

Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, and Taipei was its capital. Yet visitors  may wonder what is left of those years of Japanese rule. If one visits Taipei, one doesn’t see many “Japanese-looking” buildings. Most tourists focus on night markets, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, shopping areas, temples, clubs etc. The Japanese heritage of the city is certainly one of the most underrated. However, the impact of the Japanese colonial era on the urban structure of Taipei is enormous and can be seen until today. 

One of the paradoxes of Japanese architecture in Taiwan is that most of it looks ‘Western’ rather than ‘Oriental’. I’m sure that many people who have come to Taipei may have seen a lot of Japanese buildings, but they don’t know they’re Japanese. 


The Office of the President of the Republic of China




The reason is simple. At the end of the 19th century, the Japanese, in their rush to modernise and catch up with Western powers, emulated Western architecture and produced enigmatic hybrids. That’s why a great number of Japanese colonial buildings look so similar to buildings in the West that one may not recognise them as Japanese. 

The Control Yuan (監察院), formerly Government of Taihoku Prefecture
(臺北州廳). It was built in 1915.

As I will show later, there are still many buildings from the Japanese colonial era in Taipei, and most of them are still in use. The majority are occupied by governmental offices and departments. The entire government district in Taipei has basically the same urban structure the Japanese created. Also the urban division between West and East, North and South, dates back to the Japanese period. 

For the very few people that might be interested, I will post a series of short articles and photos of some of the major Japanese constructions in Taipei and other important buildings that integrate the Japanese urban planning. Among them:



          Remodelling Taipei – From Chinese Settlement To Japanese Colonial City


          The urban structure of many areas of today’s Taipei City dates back to the Japanese colonial era. After the initial period of chaos and rebellion, during which urban planning stalled, the city was literally transformed. In 1898, the new governor-general, Kodama Gentaro, and a civil administrator, Goto Shimpei, began to reshape the capital of the colony. Gentaro and Shimpei are still remembered as capable politicians who gave a great contribution to Taiwan’s development.

          The Japanese were the first ones to create a coherent urban plan for the city. Prior to the Japanese colonial era, the growth of Taipei was relatively underdeveloped and chaotic. 19th century maps show that just around 50% of Taipei’s total area was built, while the rest was occupied by agricultural fields (Joseph R. Allen: Taipei. City of Displacements. Seattle / London 2012, p. 29). 

          Within the Qing Empire, Taiwan was a faraway, marginal province. Most Chinese settlers had come to the island to escape poor conditions on the mainland. There had never been any concerted attempts on the part of the imperial government to direct and organise the Han settlement in Taiwan. As a consequence, cities like Taipei had grown without much urban planning. Most efforts to give Taipei a proper structure were made by the imperial government only during the two decades before Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese (read my post about Qing Dynasty Taipei).

          Many areas that are now located in Taipei City or New Taipei City were outside the city walls. For example, Bangka (艋舺) and Dadaocheng (大稻埕), which are two of present-day Taipei’s oldest areas, were not part of Taipei walled city during the Qing era (see Zhuang Zhanpeng / Huang Jingyi et al.: Taibei Gucheng Shendu Lvyou [台北古城深度旅遊]. Taipei 2000, p. 18).

          At the beginning, the Japanese left the older districts untouched. Subsequently, however, the Japanese integrated the various districts to form a unified city. 

          One of the most long-lasting effects of Japanese urban planning was the creation of large boulevards and the construction of Western-style buildings. The concept of the boulevards might have been inspired by 19th century European models such as Paris and Berlin. Goto Shimpei had lived in Berlin for two years and the example of the German imperial capital, with its wide streets created after the demolition of the city walls, may have influenced his vision of a new Taipei (ibid., p. 75-76).

          These changes were a real revolution for Taipei. The current government district, which has largely maintained the same structure given to it by the Japanese, is still one of the neatest, tidiest and most spacious areas of the capital. 

          3-lane boulevards like this one (Zhongshan South Road) were  built by the Japanese

          One can only imagine what an impression these buildings made on the native Chinese population. Nowadays, we take boulevards and Western buildings for granted. However, in 19th and early 20th century Asia they were revolutionary. The Taiwanese had never seen anything like that. They had only known narrow alleys, temples, Chinese-style government buildings etc. Those monumental, exotic Western-style constructions must have a deep psychological effect on the colonial subjects. 

          We have to understand that in those years, that kind of Western buildings were symbols of modernity, power and progress, just like skyscrapers are for us today. Wide streets, where there was space for traditional vehicles, but also for modern cars and trams, facilities like hospitals, and the impressive governmental edifices, told the world that Japan was a great, modern power, and that the Japanese would guide with firm hand the colony of Taiwan into the modern era. Japan and Taiwan were indeed the only modern areas in the whole of Asia, with the exception of British-controlled Hong Kong, that could face up to the West as equals. 

          As I will explain in other posts, the appeal of such progressive vision succeeded in co-opting many Taiwanese, who willingly took part in the Japanese colonial project. Japan appeared the future, while China was backward and marred by wars. This situation helped the Taiwanese elites identify with the Japanese empire.

          Interestingly, when in the 1990s the Taiwanese government decided to construct Taipei 101 and the surrounding super modern area in Xinyi district, it emulated somewhat the same logic of the Japanese colonial administration. Xinyi is nowadays the same thing that the government district was in the colonial era: a modern, technologically advanced, Western-style area that tells the world that Taiwan is a global player. It is no coincidence that Xinyi is often called by locals “the Manhattan of Taipei”. Obviously, Taiwanese understand this kind of architecture as the measure and symbol of their status in the world.

          In order to carry out their urban restructuring of Taipei, the Japanese had to demolish the nine city walls that separated the various districts. The names of many places, like Ximen (西門), Dongmen (東門), Nanmen (南門) etc., still remind of the existence of the old gates.

          In traditional Chinese cities the walls were extremely important, and Taipei was no exception. They were built for protecting the inhabitants and at the same time allowing people to move in and out of the compact city space. The Japanese broke with this tradition in order to create a new, modern city landscape. Originally, they had planned to raze not just the walls, but also the gates. They indeed began their work by tearing down the West Gate (Ximen). Ximen is now one of the most vital areas of Taipei, known for its nightlife and restaurants. Despite its name, however, nothing has remained of either the gates or the walls. 

          Afterwards, the Japanese administration seems to have changed its mind and decided to save the other gates and incorporate them into the new thoroughfares. East Gate is perhaps the most famous of these surviving gates.

          East Gate. Behind it, you can see the Office of the President.
          This is one of the main examples of Japanese monumental boulevards
          that still shape the urban structure of Taipei

          Without the walls, the gates lost their function. Indeed, they now even blocked the traffic. In the case of the East Gate, a rotary was constructed so that the traffic could move around it. Until today, the East Gate has maintained its prominent isolation in the urban structure of Taipei (ibid., p. 79).

          The North Gate (北門), near Taipei Main Station. It was built in 1884, during the
          Qing Dynasty. It stands now completely isolated in the city landscape. A highway
          has been built right behind it.

          After the end of the Japanese era, the Guomindang government built on what the Japanese had left. The new Republican government not only occupied many administrative buildings left by the Japanese (after renaming them and avoiding any reference to their Japanese origin); they also maintained the general urban structure of Taipei. As a consequence, the government district revolves around the East Gate. Around the gate are grouped the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Guomindang Headquarters, National Taiwan University Hospital, the Ministry of Education, the Legislative Yuan, the Control Yuan and many other buildings (ibid., p. 77). The Republican government added a few other prominent buildings to this ensemble. The most famous are the monumental Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall with its square and adjacent park, and the National Central Library.


          Japanese Taipei 


          Taiwan was the very first Japanese colony. The Japanese were therefore determined to make Taiwan a model colony, to modernise it and transform its economy for the benefit of both Japanese colonialists and the Japanese Empire. 

          In its desire to catch up with the West and be treated as equal by the big powers, Japan embarked on a period of modernisation, both economically and culturally. One of the most fascinating results of the wave of ‘Westernisation’ that swept Japan in those decades was that Japan’s colonial architecture was, for the most part, a Japanised version of Western architecture. I like to compare Japanese colonial buildings with Japanese bread; if you see it from afar, it seems to be Western, but when you look at it closely, you can tell that it’s actually something different. 

          Before occupying Taiwan after the Sino-Japanese War, Japan had had no experience in how to administer a colony. Since the Taiwanese population resisted the Japanese occupation Japan established a military regime to pacify the island and put down all anti-Japanese movements. The Taiwanese fought for many years before Japan gained control of the colony. 

          In the first period of Japanese domination many “constructions were started with the aim of giving Japan’s first colony pride, purpose, and efficiency after the chaotic situation calmed down … [These constructions] were built to secure the ultimate goal of establishing an inalienable overseas colony” (Kikuchi 2007, p. 172).

          The Japanese built a series of towns and cities according to Western prototypes (ibid.). The construction of buildings and the economic modernisation of the island were two parallel and interdependent processes. By developing Taiwan’s infrastructure and economy, the Japanese integrated the island into the empire, made it useful to Japan, created jobs and improved the lives of the people; by erecting streets, modern cities, new government buildings and facilities, they made the change in the political status of Taiwan visible and at the same time created new symbols of power. 

          The architectonic and economic transformation of Taiwan was aimed at making it a model colony, a showcase of Japanese imperialism (ibid., p. 173). The kind of buildings the Japanese constructed epitomized their plan to modernise Taiwan: from the end of the 19th century onward, “schools, museums, post offices, hospitals, banks, railway stations, public halls, cinemas, parks, and large governmental buildings began to make their appearance” (ibid.). These buildings are more than just architecture. They are places that didn’t exist before in Taiwan. It is the modernisation of Taiwanese society and economy that creates the need for those places. They symbolize a new way of life: fast, efficient, healthy, advanced and ‘scientific’. 

          Taiwan was used as an experimental ground for architecture, where new styles and techniques could be tried out. For example, already in 1901 reinforced concrete was used to build the governor general’s residence in Taipei. At that time, the use of reinforced concrete as well as of steel rods were a pioneering method, both in Asia and in the West (ibid., p. 174).

          However, the Japanese also built many shinto shrines in traditional Japanese style. These buildings were aimed at reinforcing the imperial ideology among the Taiwanese and to maintain the spiritual connection between the Japanese colonists and their motherland. Little remains of these shrines, many of which were demolished by the Guomindang government. Nevertheless a few examples of this architecture have survived. One of them is the Taoyuan (Toen) shinto shrine from 1937.
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          2 replies »

          1. What is fascinating is the anachronism of the Japanese colonial architecture. It is often an assemblage of contemporary and classical designs, marrying Art Deco with Neoclassical, Baroque and Renaissance styles. It was, in essence, an expression of modernity through the reflection of the world's metropoles that had been built up over hundreds and even thousands of years. Under the Japanese administration, London, Paris and Berlin were the apex of modernity and therefore Japanese colonial construction should emulate the layered amalgam of those cities and their long architectural histories.

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          2. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree with you, it's very interesting how the Japanese mixed different styles. Honestly, these buildings sometimes look quite kitschy and tasteless. On the other hand, it is fascinating how the Japanese adapted Western styles for their own purposes. I can't really decide if I like this architecture or not. The only thing I know is that I find it fascinating.

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