The empire smiles back: Taiwan's Japanese cherry festival

Taiwan loves cherry blossoms.

In fact, it loves almost everything Japanese. For a nation that ruled the island for 50 years, often with an iron fist, Japan has left a very favourable impression.

In the latest triumph of Japanese soft power in its former colony, tens of thousands of Taiwanese have taken up planting cherry trees to revel in their colourful bloom for a few precious moments each spring -- just like in Japan.

"When you see the flowers, you almost feel as if you're in Japan," 50-year-old businesswoman Susan Wu said as she walked up a hilly road flanked by white and pink cherry blossoms in Beitou, a Taipei suburb.

In an annual routine that has become increasingly popular over the past two to three years, Taiwanese flock to remote sightseeing spots at the risk of being trapped in huge traffic jams -- only to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms, known as "sakura" in Japan.

The mountainous Beitou area has become a particular visitor magnet after a local official started a campaign urging locals to plant cherry blossom trees, which has so far caught the imagination of more than 400 households.

"Not many people knew this place in the past, but now it's famous because people associate it with cherry blossoms," said Ching Rong-hui, an official who oversees the daily administration of Beitou's cherry blossom area.

Other parts of Taiwan have joined the trend, putting money in the pockets of farmers in Sanchih, a rural area outside Taipei that now supplies up to 600,000 cherry tree saplings a year.

"Lots of our cherry tree farmers have benefited from the booming demand," said Chou Zheng-nan, an official at the Sanchih Farmers Association, but declined to provide figures.

Japan is known to use cherry trees as a gesture of goodwill, and in Washington DC, one beneficiary of Tokyo's flower power diplomacy, the blossom season is an annual party highlight.

But in Taiwan, it is more than that. Analysts say the obsession with sakura -- a key symbol of Japanese civilization -- is a measure of the enormous cultural clout Japan wields on the island, second only to China in its impact.

"Japan's influence has been huge, ranging from infrastructure to local people's mindsets and behaviour," said Lee Shiao-feng, a professor at the Taiwan culture graduate school of National Taipei University of Education.

China's last weak imperial dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after a brief but disastrous war, and the island did not return to mainland rule until 1945 following the surrender of Japan at the end of the Second World War.

The first years under the Japanese around the turn of the last century were harsh, and scattered resistance was crushed brutally, but then the new pith-helmeted administrators went on to develop Taiwan economically.

They built a railroad linking the south and north, constructed harbours and power plants, eradicated disease and boosted literacy rates, while also passing on their own cultural habits such as baseball.

"Japan's development projects laid the foundation for Taiwan to move into a pre-modern society," Lee said.

"In the process, Taiwan people gradually learned to play baseball as well as appreciate cherry blossoms and revel in hot springs, as they tried to imitate their rulers."

Since 1945, the Japanese influence has gone on nearly unabated and has been embraced by Taiwan's younger generations, exposed to Japanese soap operas, pop music and TV programmes featuring Japanese cuisine and sightseeing spots, he said.

This is entirely different from the Korean peninsula, which was ruled as a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945 and is still haunted by memories of how brutal and harsh life was under the banner of the Rising Sun.

The Japanese did promote cherry blossoms, too, and South Korea has kept that particular tradition, but in a telling twist, it has replaced the Japanese trees with indigenous ones.

The contrast with Taiwan is obvious, and yet academics on the island say it may take the island's cherry blossom lovers some time to digest the philosophical connotation of the cherry blossoms in the Japanese culture.

"When Taiwanese people appreciate cherry blossoms, they are simply impressed by the beauty of the flowers. That's it," Maa Yaw-huei, the director of the Department of Japanese at Taipei's Tamkang University.

"But in the eyes of their Japanese counterparts, there's a sense of sadness associated with the transient beauty. Watching the fading of such pretty flowers is associated with mortality."

The people of Taiwan may behave like the Japanese, but not think like them, according to observers.

Chinese culture, first introduced from the mainland more than three centuries ago, survived Japan's colonisation despite policies aimed to turn the Taiwanese into loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor.

"Although the Japanese have added new cultural elements to Taiwan, the structure of Chinese culture has remained intact," Lee said.

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