Japanese PM Kishida’s family links to Taiwan raise hopes of deeper ties

Tseng Hsin-yi passes by the two-storey brick building on the corner of Yier Street in Keelung every morning on her way to buying breakfast. But on a recent Saturday she stopped and took a selfie in front of the house.

The building, with its stucco ornaments and arcades, gained sudden fame when Fumio Kishida was named Japan’s 100th prime minister this month. More than a century ago, his great-grandfather ran a business from the site in the city north-east of Taipei.

“I didn’t know the history of this house, and I certainly would never have imagined that we are neighbours with the prime minister of Japan, so to say,” said Tseng, an accountant who lives nearby.

Kishida’s elevation — and the revelation that his family has a history in Keelung — has caused a stir, highlighting Taiwan’s special relationship with its former colonial master and the ruling Democratic Progressive party’s hopes to deepen ties with Tokyo.

“Japan has had 100 prime ministers, so it is really rare for one of them to have this kind of background. For us, that represents a very special bond,” said Tsai Shih-ying, a DPP lawmaker from Keelung who serves on the legislature’s foreign affairs and defence committee and wants to run to be mayor of the city next year.

Japan and Taiwan do not have diplomatic relations but growing concerns of a more assertive China have drawn the countries closer, with Tokyo directly linking Taipei’s security with its own in a recent defence white paper.

In 1895, after China’s Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan following its defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, Ikutaro Kishida landed in Keelung, like thousands of other Japanese who would pour into Taiwan, attracted by economic opportunity.

He opened the Kishida Kimono Shop and later the Kishida Coffee Club next door, which he ran for at least four years, according to the Keelung city government. Masaki, the prime minister’s grandfather, spent the first few years of his life in the city.

Tsai Shih-Ying, a lawmaker for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive party, stands in front of the building in Keelung where Ikutaro Kishida, great-grandfather of Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, opened a kimono shop in 1895 © Kathrin Hille/FT

It is unclear when the family left Keelung and why. But Taiwanese politicians believe his background offers an opportunity.

“We hope that we will have the opportunity to invite the Kishida family to visit in the future, and I will issue such an invitation to him,” said Tsai, who has spearheaded efforts to strengthen ties with Japan by co-organising the first security talks between the DPP and Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party in August.

“We understand that as Japanese prime minister, it would be difficult for him to visit Taiwan, but maybe through his family there could be a chance.”

Unlike other countries in the region that suffered under Japanese invasion and occupation in the second world war, Taiwan has mostly positive memories. Japan ruled the island for 50 years and laid the foundations for a modern economy by building critical infrastructure and introducing the rule of law.

After taking over, the Japanese government started expanding and modernising the port of Keelung. The area east of the harbour where the former Kishida shop was located was built up into Taiwan’s most modern shopping district and became widely known as the “Ginza of Keelung”, a nod to the famous commercial area of Tokyo.

Kishida’s appointment as prime minister has encouraged Taipei that Tokyo will continue to see Taiwan’s relevance to its own security.

“Looking at the [former prime minister Shinzo] Abe faction’s support for Kishida and at the people he has appointed, it seems likely that he will continue down the path of closer relations with Taiwan,” said a senior Taiwanese government official.

Taku Otsuka, an LDP parliamentarian in charge of defence issues who took part in the party-level security talks, also said an incident in the Taiwan Strait could have implications for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces because it directly affects the country’s own security. “In that sense, it is essential to have a channel of communication with Taiwan,” he added.

US warships with Japan maritime forces last month after a spate of Chinese military flights off Taiwan heightened military tensions in the region
US warships with Japan maritime forces last month after a spate of Chinese military flights off Taiwan heightened military tensions in the region © Haydn N. Smith/U.S. Navy via AP

Taiwanese officials are also hopeful that Japan will back its bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Kishida has cautiously endorsed Taipei’s bid, while questioning whether China would meet the trading bloc’s requirements.

During recent questioning at the lower house of parliament, Kishida described Taiwan as “a critical partner and important friend”, adding: “We hope to further strengthen co-operation and exchanges between Japan and Taiwan.”

But beyond the rhetoric, it remains to be seen how much Japan can actually do to support Taiwan since China is Tokyo’s largest trading partner and economic ties run deep.

Komeito, the LDP’s long-term coalition partner, is also reluctant to antagonise China, even though the party adopted unusually tough language to criticise Beijing’s human rights record in its manifesto for the upcoming general election.

Even as pro-Taiwan members within the LDP have called for joint drills by the coast guards of both nations for maritime accidents, Tokyo will maintain its longstanding policy of not forging a direct military relationship with Taipei.

“When it comes to our ties with Taiwan, we need to create a fait accompli little by little,” Keiji Furuya, chair of an association of lawmakers promoting relations with Taiwan, said. “It’s unrealistic to carry out military drills with [Japan’s] Self-Defense Forces, but no one can dispute cultural exchanges.”

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