“They came to beat us into a splendid Japanese future, to conquer us” according to an interview in a small Taiwanese mountain village towards the end of the Nihon Documentarist Union’s Asia is One (アジアはひとつ, Asia wa Hitotsu). Having documented Okinawa on the brink of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty, the collective return to examine more widely its legacies of oppression and exploitation under Japanese imperialism venturing first to its smaller islands and then all the way out to Taiwan from which many migrant workers had come to work in harsh conditions in Okinawan mines during the colonial era.
One man describes himself as having been tricked in coming to the Marusan mine in 1933 in the mistaken belief he could work there for six months and then return home. “I thought it would be better to die than live there” he goes on, originally too afraid to attempt escape having seen others rounded up and punished but later managing to get away by blowing up a boat. A Japanese man who worked at the Noda mine in Iriomote, meanwhile, reveals that they were refused days off and sick workers were often cast out. Many simply died because they could not afford to pay for medical attention. Workers were paid in company script which could be spent only on the compound, the mine owners fearing workers would abscond if they were paid in cash. By his reckoning, however, the Taiwanese workers had it better because they were working on a contract basis and could get a better rate of pay. A third man, Masuda, meanwhile describes long days and early mornings, being unable to eat if they didn’t have money for the canteen, and the watchmen locking their bedroom doors at night to prevent them escaping. The conditions were so bad that one man took his own life by blowing himself up with dynamite tied around his waist.
Even so, the second man then living in a nursing home, does not blame the mine owner, Mr. Noda, describing him simply as a “capitalist” and remarking that he was often kind and generous giving workers money for medical treatment etc, blaming instead the foreman. “It’s the people working under the capitalists who are bad” he explains, bearing out the extent to which oppressed people will often oppress others like them in order to feel less oppressed but also letting the system off the hook in failing to acknowledge that if Mr Noda had really been good and kind he could have improved conditions in the mine while still remaining “a capitalist”. Hsieh King-Fu, known as Dr. Seh, whose father worked as a doctor at the mines recalls a mass outbreak of malaria among the Taiwanese migrant workers leading to a shortage of morphine. Having bought supplies from a local pharmacy himself a rumour later circulated he was injecting them deliberately to get them addicted so he could drag them away so endemic had the sense of betrayal and exploitation become.
Meanwhile since the reversion the islands have been fostering deeper connections with Taiwan which is after all geographically closer than the Japanese mainland. An older man explains that he’s instilling Taiwanese agricultural techniques in the local population and has successfully been cultivating pineapples on the island for the last 40 years. Fishermen too remark on how much easier it is to trade with Taiwan rather than the mainland because it’s simply closer meaning they can also trade live fish with a longer shelf life. Meanwhile an official details a potential agreement between the Ryukyu government and Taiwan to recruit workers developing new ties independently from those of mainland Japan.
Yet in travelling to Taiwan itself, the documentary collective encounter surprising reactions to the legacy of Japanese colonialism in a small village inhabited by the indigenous Atayal community who still play the Japanese national anthem every day at noon. Many of them can still speak fluent Japanese having been forced to learn it during the colonial era and have almost a fondness for Japanese rule. “We owe everything to Japan” one woman states, uncomfortably grateful for her “civilisation” and thankful that the Japanese educated them out of some of their more “barbaric” customs such as the admittedly oppressive practice of beheading. Like the Korean man who obtained three names during his travels through the Japanese empire, many of the villagers have names in their indigenous language, names in Mandarin, and names in Japanese. “I’m still terrified of imperialism and oppression” one man admits though adding “I guess imperialism is different now” in lamenting that the emperor has never visited him but observing that he looked “free” on his last tour to Taiwan before going on to talk about a seal he received from the emperor after executing prisoners, by beheading, as a conscript soldier during the war. Asia may indeed be one if ironically, united in the destructive legacy of Japanese imperialism, but perhaps also finding new ways to repair itself which take less account of concepts such as sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, or man-made borders.