A few weeks before I went to Taiwan, I was sitting in a noodle shop in Nanjing, China when a young man started a conversation with me about how much he hated Japan. China had held a heavy-handed military parade a few months before to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II, and Nanjing was the site of one of the worst brutalities in the Pacific theatre. The Kuomintang (KMT) government that remains in charge of Taiwan until May 2016 instructed schools to teach that Nanjing to be the legitimate capital of the Republic of China (Taiwan), according to a 2013 Taipei Times article.
In the crowd at the Japan vs. Mexico baseball game (part of the WBSC Premier12) in Taiwan’s functioning capital, Taipei, it felt more like I was in Japan. Down 0-1 in the bottom of the second, Japan hit a home run with a man on first to take the lead, and the crowd stood as one and cheered. Some waved Japanese flags. Many wore jerseys of Japanese teams. A few groups in the bleachers even chanted in Japanese. If you want to see the difference between Taiwan and China, a baseball game isn’t a bad place to look.
Earlier that week, I watched as Taiwanese independence activists protested Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeuo’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was the first such meeting of KMT and Communist leaders since the end of the Chinese Civil War. “Japan is better than China,” more than one protester told me. Even the Kuomintang’s occupation, which included 38 years of martial law and more than 10,000 dead in the February 28 Incident, after fleeing the mainland at the end of the civil war, was worse than Japan’s, some said. “The Kuomintang brought the army,” a Taiwanese scientist who has held low-level government posts summarized to me on a trip to the U.S.
Back in China, I showed some of the pictures of the Taiwanese baseball fans holding Japanese flags to Chinese people at a hostel who cringed in disgust. It is true that some of the fans, goaded by me, brought a political consciousness to baseball. When I asked a group of young men who were standing and cheering, “Who did you think is worse, the KMT or Japan?” He Jiahui, said, “When Japan was here, the country was developed. When the KMT came, everything was crazy again.”
There is no need to worry about offending KMT supporters, one of his friends joked, because, “KMT people don’t watch baseball since it was brought here by the Japanese. They just watch basketball.”
Underlying the posturing about history is a dispute about the status of Taiwan’s sovereignty. The KMT broadly supports eventual reunification with China, as they believe in a version of the “One China” principle and hold fast to the idea that the Republic of China remains the one legitimate China. The opposition, led by the DPP, believes that Taiwan ought to be independent in an of itself, not reunited with China, and that having good relations with Japan could maybe, hopefully, on the wings of a prayer, help them achieve their goal.
However, many people supported Japan just because Japanese baseball is so strong. The Japanese baseball team is perennially one of the best in the world, and the Japanese baseball league is more exciting than Taiwan’s, many fans said.
Indeed, Wu Jumei, a woman who was wearing a Tokyo Swallows jersey, said, “I like Japanese baseball, not the Japanese national team.”
Japan lead until Mexico’s Torres hit a two-out single in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 5. But Japan came back in the bottom of the ninth, loaded the bases, and drove in the winning run with a hit. After the game, the Japanese players bowed to the fans.
Namura Makoto came all the way from Japan to watch his team play and found unexpected welcome amongst the Taiwanese fans of Team Japan. In fact, he ended up leading the cheering in his section, teaching the surrounding spectators some Japanese chants. They sang a song—“So oh oh oh ley…”—and shouted “Gambari!” (which means “Go!” or “Jia you!”).
It was his first time in Taiwan, and he said, “I’m very surprised so many Taiwanese support Japan.”
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.