Mayor Ma Goes to Tokyo

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 20

From July 10-13, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou visited Yokohama and Tokyo on a trip that his advisors billed as an opportunity to “completely and clearly explain his positions toward his Japanese friends” [1]. This opportunity marked Ma’s first visit to Japan since being elected as the chairman of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), a position that makes Ma the frontrunner for the 2008 presidential election.

Furthermore, the trip was also advisable as an effort to re-introduce Ma, who has earned a reputation for being “anti-Japanese and close to China” (hannichi, shinchu) among Japan’s Taiwan hands; such a reputation could undermine his ability to work with Tokyo, if he were to become president.

A July visit also had the advantage of preceding the Liberal Democratic Party’s own presidential election. The modalities of Taiwan-Japanese relations dictate that while sitting members of the Taiwanese government have extremely limited access to Japanese officials, party leaders are allowed high level meetings—but not with the prime minister. This summer was thus Ma’s best—and perhaps last—chance to meet the man who would be his counterpart after 2008.

Ma’s trip and its aftermath, however, have revealed just how troubled his relationship with Japan is.

Mayor Ma’s Japan Problem

Mayor Ma faces an odd dilemma in Japan. He is well known—as he is throughout much of Asia—for being a handsome, intelligent and articulate politician. There is even a website, the “Handsome Ma Ying-jeou Photo Gallery,” maintained by one (avowedly apolitical) Japanese fan that includes pictures of him in various outfits, including his cover photo for the Taiwanese edition of GQ and (really) in the nude [2].

In Japan’s political circles, however, Ma is also a target of criticism for his longstanding role as an activist on the Taiwan-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands. One recent broadside was launched by historian Naoko Mizutani, who published an article titled, “Ma Ying-jeou: Sexier and More Anti-Japanese than Hu Jintao” in the conservative monthly, Shokun!. Mizutani traces Ma’s negative attitude toward Japan from his student days as a flag-burning, anti-Japanese demonstration organizer to a prominent critic of Tokyo today [3].

Likewise, in a Chunichi Shimbun op-ed coinciding with Ma’s visit, political commentator Sakoda Katsudoshi worried about the “Day That Taiwan Turns against Japan.” He points out that since Ma Ying-jeou has taken over as chairman of the party, KMT headquarters has put up posters commemorating anti-Japanese resistance leaders during Japan’s colonization of the island, and that one KMT country magistrate has moved to abolish a memorial to the Taiwanese who died fighting in Japan’s imperial army and navy during the Pacific War [4].

Ma’s statements leading up to his visit did little to alleviate Tokyo’s concerns about the direction in which he would lead Taiwan. At a series of celebrations last year surrounding the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Ma declared that Japan was “stealing” the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands (Taipei Times, October 26, 2005). In addition, he delivered speeches in honor of anti-Japanese activists on Taiwan and donated US$3,000 in cash to support a delegation that was planning to petition the United Nations to criticize Japan’s treatment of Taiwan’s indigenous people’s during the colonial era (Xinhua, October 26, 2005; CNA, September 15).

Ma’s statements on the disputed islands and Japan’s history of colonization are significant not simply because they risk alienating Japan, but also because they are central to Taiwan’s ongoing, highly partisan struggle to define the island’s “identity.” Although the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) share a common history of resistance against the Japanese in World War II, many ethnic Taiwanese recall the period under Japanese colonization as a relatively peaceful and prosperous interlude before the KMT fled to the island and established a military dictatorship in the wake of its defeat in China’s Civil War. For example, some of the activists that Ma praised for their anti-Japanese activities were actually murdered by the KMT in a 1947 massacre of Taiwanese dissidents (CNA, August 21, 2005).

As Taiwan reasserts its own distinctive cultural and political identity, the KMT has struggled to demonstrate the party’s Taiwanese roots. Anti-Japanese positions, such as on the issue of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands, help distinguish the KMT from President Chen Shui-bian and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) while affirming the KMT’s own brand of Taiwanese nationalism. Ma’s criticisms of Japan are thus usually vehicles to criticize President Chen, such as when he recently called on the president to “use a battle to force a peace” in a fisheries dispute involving the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands (Taipei Times, June 24).

Given this history, Ma’s July trip to Japan was a unique opportunity to set the record straight on his seemingly anti-Japanese positions—and to hopefully start building a new relationship with Taiwan’s most important democratic neighbor.

(Re)Introducing Ma Ying-jeou

When Ma announced that he would visit Japan, the Taiwanese media was rife with speculation about the objectives and prospects of his trip. Almost all observers agreed that he sought to bolster his position in the upcoming 2008 presidential election by garnering international headlines, much as he had done during earlier tours of the United States and Europe. The second question was in regard to the measures that he would take to roll back his anti-Japanese image in Tokyo.

Like any good political fight, this one was first waged by proxy as senior party officials from President Chen’s DPP and the KMT traded rhetorical blows on the right strategic approach toward Japan. First, in a policy piece titled “U.S.-Japanese Strategic Clarity—Is Ma Still Fuzzy?”, Director of the DPP’s Office of China Affairs Office Lai I-Chung argued that both U.S. President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have taken major steps toward “strategic clarity” in support of embattled democratic countries like Taiwan [5].

According to Dr. Lai, Washington’s shift from “strategic ambiguity” toward a clearer commitment to defend Taiwan has been matched by Tokyo’s shift from “ambiguous support” to “clear support” of the U.S. position. The consequence of this “double clarification,” Lai concludes, is that Taipei must now cooperate with the U.S.-Japanese alliance to help “build a regional alliance more conducive to guiding China towards democracy and building peace in the Taiwan Strait.” Ma Ying-jeou’s statements supporting “friendly but strategically ambiguous” (lianghao guanxi-de “zhanlue mohu”) relations with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo will needlessly spurn Taiwan’s closest friends and court disaster.

KMT spokesperson and high-profile Ma advisor Cheng Li-wen responded to Lai’s article with a piece in which she dismissed Lai’s argument as “Cold War strategic thinking” (lengzhan-de zhanlue siwei). The greater risk, she argues, lies in building closer ties to the U.S.-Japanese alliance: doing so would only send the People’s Republic of China the dangerous message that “Taiwan is the mainland’s enemy,” thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy [6].

Cheng’s larger argument was that while the United States and Japan can afford to hedge by simultaneously engaging with and balancing against China, a small country such as Taiwan does not possess the ability to pursue both strategies simultaneously. She concludes that if Taiwan is to avoid becoming the frontline sacrifice in a struggle between China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other, it is necessary for Taipei to focus its energies on developing political relations with Beijing.

It was in light of this strategic debate in Taipei—and its tremendous consequence for Taiwan’s future relationship with Japan—that Ma arrived in Tokyo on July 10.

Although there was a slight dispute at the airport when Japanese officials denied the same courtesy immigration clearance for Taipei city officials that they offered to the KMT component of Ma’s delegation (a spat that foreshadowed a debate in the Taipei City Council about Ma’s use of city funds to pay for de facto KMT diplomacy), the public diplomacy portion of his trip was characterized by his successful meeting with Yokohama mayor Hiroshi Nakada (CNA, July 11; Taipei Times, July 24). The two agreed to organize a “Mandarin-Japanese Speech Contest” in which they will deliver speeches in the other’s language, with the loser donating $10,000 to support bilateral student exchanges (Taipei Times, July 17).

Yet Ma ran into difficulty in his more substantive meetings. At a gathering with Japan’s parliamentary Taiwan caucus, he was asked questions such as whether or not the 2005 visit of then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan to Beijing presaged a “Third United Front” (daisanji kokkyou gassaku), a reference to the World War II-era alliances between the KMT and CCP against Japan. Ma was warned by another legislator that “if Taiwan’s leaders do not respond to the anti-Japanese movement, an anti-Taiwan movement will arise in Japan” [7]. He reportedly concluded his largest meeting with Japanese parliamentarians by uttering that “it is natural to have different opinions between democratic societies,” without suggesting how to bridge those differences [8].

The Meeting that Wasn’t

Oddly enough, the defining moment of Ma’s Tokyo trip never happened. The day after Ma’s return to Taipei, the China Times carried a report divulging the details of a hush-hush meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. According to the report, Abe took advantage of the opportunity to “personally express his firm stance against Taiwan independence” (dangmian biaoshu jianding fandui dulichang) and bemoaned the influence of politicians such as Lee Teng-hui who had led the Japanese to believe that the Taiwanese people seek independence [9].

The article continued by noting that Ma sought to assuage Abe’s concern by producing the results of the 2004 constitutional referendum in which the Taiwanese supposedly demonstrated that they shared Abe’s opposition to independence and supported the maintenance of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. “I breathed a sigh of relief,” Abe is said to have responded [10].

Returning to Japanese misperceptions on Taiwan, the article reported that Abe then reiterated the harmful consequences of the “Lee Teng-hui effect” (xiaoguo) on young Japanese parliamentarians and expressed his deep hope that a “Ma Ying-jeou effect” would exert itself in the future [11].

For over two weeks, the China Times report rattled Taiwan’s political circles. Was Abe, who was almost certain to be elected Japan’s next prime minister, signaling a shift in Japan’s policies toward the island? Was Japan now opposed to Taiwan’s independence—a move from its longstanding policy of not supporting independence? If so, a major strategic shift in Asia was underway—one that indicated the KMT had picked the right strategy for dealing with Japan.

On August 3, the conservative Japanese daily, Sankei Shimbun, finally carried a counter-leak by Abe’s confidants that the China Times report was “factually baseless.” Not only had the two not held a face-to-face meeting while Ma was in Tokyo, but half of their 10-minute telephone discussion, during which Abe “gave Ma a welcome to Japan greeting, was spent on consecutive interpretation” [12]. The Sankei report also noted that Abe was annoyed with the fabrications that originated from Ma’s camp, especially since the sensitive nature of the Taiwan-Japanese relationship dictated that his office not issue an official rebuttal.

It’s Our Problem, Too

When Ma ended his discordant meeting with the parliamentarians, his staff reportedly emphasized that “further dialogue would be forthcoming” [13]. Ma’s decision to cut short his July stay in Japan and return to prepare Taipei for an incoming typhoon provides the perfect pretext for him to return early next year and do just that. The confusion that emerged from Ma’s last trip to Japan needs to be rectified, and a clearer, more strategically sound understanding between Tokyo and Taipei developed, no matter the results of the 2008 presidential election.

The fratricidal politics that have overtaken Taiwan in recent years are already harming the island’s ability to defend itself and now threaten the prospects for trilateral cooperation with Tokyo and Washington. As the U.S.-Japanese alliance moves forward to enhance regional strategic cooperation, the strategically ambiguous position advocated by Cheng, Mayor Ma and other KMT leaders indicates that Taipei risks being left behind if the KMT candidate wins the 2008 presidential election.

A return trip to Tokyo will provide Mayor Ma with the perfect opportunity to engage Japanese strategists on how they view the developments of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and its implications for Taiwan’s security, economic and political future.

Also, he owes Mayor Nakada that speech contest.


1. Cheng Li-wen, “Shenme shi taiwan-de anquan xingsiwei?” [What is Taiwan’s New Security Thinking?], Zhongguo Shibao (China Times), July 10; available online at

2. Ba eikyu otokomae shashinkan, [Handsome Ma Ying-jeou Photo Gallery]; online gallery available at; accessed on September 16.

3. Naoko Mizutani, “Fu Jintao yori irootoko-de hannichi-no ba eikyu,” [Ma Ying-jeou: Sexier and More Anti-Japanese than Hu Jintao], Shokun! 38, no. 3 (March 2006), 211-217.

4. Sakoda Katsudoshi, “Taiwan ga hannichi-ni naru hi” [The Day Taiwan Becomes Anti-Japanese], Chunnichi Shimbun, June 28; available online at

5. Lai I-chung, “Meiri zhanlue qingxi ma haimohu?” [U.S.-Japanese Strategic Clarity—Is Ma Still Fuzzy?”], Zhongguo Shibao [China Times], July 3, 2006; available from

6. Cheng Li-wen, op. cit.

7. Hayato Hasegawa, “Taiwan no Ba Eikyu taiwankokumintoushuseki hounichi seika-ha, “hannichi, shinchuu” fusshoku-ni-ha torazu” [Taiwan’s KMT Chairman Ma Ying Jeou: The Results of His Trip are an Inclusive Sweeping Away of “Anti-Japan, Close to China”], Sankei Shimbun, July 14, 2006; available online at

8. Ibid.

9. Hso Hsu-ts’en and He Po-wen, “Anbei jinsan hemian pan ma ying-jeou xiaoguo” [Abe Shinzo Meeting Hopes for a “Ma Ying-jeou Effect”], Zhongguo Shibao [China Times], July 14, 2006; available online from

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Sankei Shimbun, “‘Abe, aso-shi-ga ba-shi shiji’ jjitsu muken no houdo…ryoshi henshu konwaku,” [“Abe and Aso Support for Ma,” A Factually Baseless Report… Both Are Perplexed”], August 3, 2006.

13. Hasegawa, op. cit.