Taiwan as a Key Partner and Friend: An Interview with Diplomat Ikeda Tadashi (2022)

As a young diplomat, Ikeda Tadashi witnessed the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations and the resultant severing of diplomatic relations between Taipei and Tokyo. Ikeda later headed the China Division and Asian Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Here he talks about the half-century since the end of official Japan-Taiwan relations.

INTERVIEWER As a young diplomat you witnessed rapprochement between the United States and China, the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, and the severing of official Japan-Taiwan relations. Could you speak about that time?

IKEDA TADASHI In July 1971, when US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was announced, I was an administrative officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Later, in the fall of 1972, immediately before the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, I was transferred to the Japan-China Memorandum Trade Office. This period left a lasting impact on me both professionally and personally.

President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1971 had a tremendous impact on Japanese diplomacy. The announcement of Nixon’s visit to China was a surprise to everyone. It was only just before the announcement that the US secretary of state notified our ambassador in Washington DC, Ushiba Nobuhiko. Japan’s inability to anticipate such a major geopolitical shift resulted in what some have referred to as a “diplomatic nightmare” for Japan.

In July 1972, Tanaka Kakuei became Japan’s prime minister. In September the same year, Prime Minister Tanaka signed the Japan-China Joint Communiqué normalizing relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Tokyo disengaged from Taipei soon after. I recall some suggestions that Tokyo rushed too quickly to sever relations with Taiwan. Certainly, after having absorbed the first shock from Nixon, Tokyo was determined not be caught off guard again by the United States. However, a full six years passed between Nixon’s visit and the cessation of official relations between Taipei and Washington. Japan, however, virtually immediately cut off official links with the Taipei authorities.

Neither “Approval” Nor “Agreement”

INTERVIEWER Nevertheless, Japan did seem to exercise wisdom when drafting the Japan-China Joint Communiqué.

IKEDA Regarding Taiwan’s status, Japan expressed its “respect” and “full understanding” of Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. Nevertheless, Tokyo purposefully avoided using words like “recognize” or “agree.” Furthermore, Tokyo had already renounced any claim to Taiwan by signing the San Francisco Treaty, negating the need to take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty. The narrative that Japan recognized all of China’s claims to Taiwan has been spread by Beijing, but it is simply not true.

INTERVIEWER Nevertheless, China’s propaganda regarding Taiwan is noticeable in Japan and there seems to be some general acceptance of the so-called “One-China Principle.”

IKEDA In the three US-China joint communiqués, the United States used the English word “acknowledge” in describing the American government’s attitude toward China’s stance on Taiwan. This term is not as definitive as “recognize” or “agree,” though, and is in fact rather ambiguous.

INTERVIEWER Wasn’t the Sino-Japanese communiqué used as the basis for later US-China communiqués?

IKEDA Given Cold War tensions, it makes sense that the United States took into full consideration the language of the Sino-Japanese communiqué. However, the source of “strategic ambiguity” in the US-China relationship has more to do with the dynamic of “Same Bed, Different Dreams” that has characterized Sino-American relations ever since the communiqués.

INTERVIEWER It is still pretty remarkable that the so-called “1972 System” has persisted for fifty years.

IKEDA When dealing with China, Japan needs to make sure that its alliance with the United States is on solid ground. We still need to be very cognizant of the possibility that the United States will make geopolitical moves that Japan cannot predict.


Shiina Etsusaburō, Liberal Democratic Party vice president, visited Taiwan as a government envoy to explain Japan’s intentions on Sino-Japanese normalization. Protesting citizens surrounded Shiina’s vehicle in front of the airport in Taipei in September 1972. (© Jiji)

Japan-Taiwan Relations and Lee Teng-hui

INTERVIEWER Beginning with Lee Teng-hui, Taiwanese president from 1988 to 2000, there is a trend toward more impartial evaluations of Japan’s colonial rule in Taiwan, with both positives and negatives openly discussed.

IKEDA In 1997, a junior high school textbook called Knowing Taiwan was published in Taiwan. This was during the Lee administration, which coincided with Taiwan’s democratization and expanding freedoms after thirty-eight years of martial law.

The textbook notes that the Japanese authorities severely suppressed anti-Japan resistance movements in Taiwan during Japan’s fifty years of colonial rule. For example, it describes the “Musha Incident” of 1930 as an act of armed resistance against Japan undertaken by “courageous citizens.”

On the other hand, it lists several examples of Japan’s “active promotion of economic reforms and construction,” which it connects to Taiwan’s subsequent modernization. It notes the construction of railroads, roads, ports, agricultural irrigation, the development of the sugar industry, the maintenance of public order, and the cultivation of hygiene practices. This was quite a change compared to the evaluation of Japan as having brutally ruled over Taiwan that was prominent during Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, which lasted through 1975.

INTERVIEWER Generally speaking, Japan’s relations with its neighbors are poor. However, in contrast with South Korea and China, there are mutually positive feelings between Taiwan and Japan. Given your long experience in East Asian diplomacy, what do you think about this?

IKEDA More than a decade ago, when I was in charge of the Taipei office of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, a friend of mine in Taiwan’s diplomatic corps told me something that I have not since forgotten. He said, “recently there was a public opinion poll asking Taiwanese citizens which country they liked best. Japan ranked first, slightly ahead of the United States. China was far behind in third place, followed by South Korea.” My friend thought it was a big deal that Japan had overtaken the United States in favorability.

So did I. Frankly speaking, the United States has the Taiwan Relations Act on its books, and is committed to Taiwan’s security. If we look at the number of Taiwanese students going overseas, the United States remains far in the lead as the favored destination. I had also thought myself that it would be natural if the number of Taiwanese with affinity for the United States was higher than for Japan.

However, ever since my friend told me this, the gap in affinity between Japan and the United States has only widened. Public opinion is changeable, so we cannot rest on our laurels, but I am very happy and grateful that Japan has become the most favored nation in Taiwan, however it has happened.

Furthermore, after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, direct donations from Taiwanese residents amounted to more than 20 billion yen. The Japanese people were thrilled by such generosity from just 23 million people, especially given the lack of formal diplomatic relations. This played a big role in bringing the two countries closer together than ever.

INTERVIEWER Starting with Lee Teng-hui, historical awareness in Taiwan overall has gradually shifted from a “Republic of China” focus to greater emphasis being placed on “Taiwanese” historical memory. It seems that the people of Taiwan have come to appreciate their relations with Japan as a continuous whole, including adopting a more impartial view on the colonial period.

IKEDA I was also at one stage Japan’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, and I am reminded of Cornelis Johannes van Doorn. Van Doorn was a Dutch civil engineer and an eminent foreign expert brought to Japan in the Meiji era [1868–1912]. Van Doorn oversaw the Asaka Canal project in Fukushima Prefecture. Completed in 1882, this project involved cutting through land to create waterways to drain water from Lake Inawashiro into the Kōriyama Basin for land reclamation and irrigation. Local farmers erected a statue of van Doorn in gratitude for the enrichment of what had previously been written off as barren land.

At the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese government issued an ordinance for the collection of metal objects that could be recast as ammunition. However, the local farmers hid the bronze statue of Van Doorn in the mountains, only bringing it back out after the war. This story is similar to that of Hatta Yoichi and his hydraulic engineering feats as designer of the Wushantou Reservoir in Tainan, southern Taiwan. A statue dedicated to Hatta was also hidden by local farmers to protect it during Chiang Kai-shek’s regime.

The inscription in honor of van Doorn purportedly reads: “Life may be short, but public works last—this can be seen in the life of van Doorn.” The statues dedicated to these two figures reflect the common desire among locals to cherish those who have made their lives better.


Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, at right, meets with the LDP’s Furuya Keiji in Taiwan in August 23. Furuya is a member of the House of Representatives and chairman of the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council. (Courtesy of the Office of the President, ROC)

Senkaku Tensions and Japan-Taiwan Communications

INTERVIEWER From 2005 to 2008, you served as the head of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. Near the end of your tenure, Ma Ying-jeou replaced Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan. The relationship between Japan and Taiwan was not as stable during Ma’s tenure as it is today. I remember there were even tensions over the Senkaku Islands.

IKEDA During my time at the Exchange Association, I experienced two difficult situations regarding the Senkaku Islands. In 2008, shortly after the Ma administration took over, a collision occurred between a Japanese Coast Guard vessel and a Taiwanese fishing boat, the Lianhebao, near the Senkaku Islands. The decision-making process of the new administration was opaque, and there was a debate in Taiwan’s parliament where some worrisome sentiments were expressed—including hawkish statements like “we will not hesitate to fight a war with Japan.” Furthermore, immediately after the collision, several Taiwanese boats entered the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands as a protest against Japan, which was highly unusual for Taipei.

Because of the urgency of the situation, I had a phone call with Minister of Foreign Affairs Francisco Ou [Ou-Hung-lian] in the middle of the night. I still vividly remember Ou’s words: “We want to avoid a collision with Japan,” and “Taiwanese ships will not come any closer to the islands.” The minister stated his position that the Senkakus were Taiwanese territory, to which I responded by reiterating that the Senkakus are legally and historically an inherent part of Japanese territory, and that Japan was exercising effective control.

In fact, something similar happened in 2005 during the Chen Shui-bian administration, only two weeks into my post. In what was described as a countermeasure to Japan’s tightening of security around the Senkaku Islands, a Taiwanese ship came very close to the territorial waters of islands. One evening when tensions were high, I received a short private phone call from President Chen Shui-bian’s secretary informing me that the ship would not be approaching the islands any closer. I naturally assumed that the statement was in accordance with the instructions of President Chen. The situation has subsequently been stabilized with the signing of the Japan-Taiwan Fisheries Agreement in 2013, which also made progress on the issue of fishing rights.

An Important Partner and Friend

INTERVIEWER What is Taiwan’s importance to Japan?

IKEDA Although we do not have diplomatic relations, Taiwan is a valuable partner and friend of Japan. Considering the importance of Taiwan’s security and its economy for the Asia-Pacific region, Japan should actively support and assist the expansion the space available for Taipei to participate in the international community.

Another issue is the institutionalization of dialogue between Japan and Taiwan. During my tenure in Taiwan, I was able to meet directly with the president and discuss any issue that arose. However, Taiwanese representatives in Japan cannot do this, which must be extremely frustrating. I hope Japan will consider a law like the United States’ Taiwan Travel Act, passed in 2018, which paved the way for high-level American and Taiwanese officials to travel between the two countries.

Finally, if military conflict occurs around or in Taiwan in the future, and American forces in Japan are deployed to defend Taiwan, Japan will also need to act. Japan’s 2015 Peace and Security Legislation allows it to deploy the Self-Defense Forces to support American operations. While it is important for Japan to think carefully about what actions it would take in various Taiwan-related scenarios, the reality is that a “Taiwan contingency” should be thought of as a “US-Japan contingency.”

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Ikeda Tadashi speaks on Japan’s relationship with Taiwan. © Nippon.com.)

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