Analysis of Taiwan’s Change under Japanese rule through an Outsider


Figure 1: Cover of Book (Owen 2014)

While the two main parties in this research are Taiwan and Japan, there were many western operators who also traveled to Taiwan, documenting their observations and impressions. Owen Rutter, a British Historian, novelist and traveler is one of these individuals who documented not only what changed in Taiwan’s economy, infrastructure and policies, but also his impression of the relationship between Taiwanese and Japanese people. Analyzing his documentary revealed many important details that perhaps could be later traced in urban plans or planning policies.

According to Owen, the Japanese still held themselves in positions of power as Owen stated that they kept power in “their own hands”, with “not a single formosan” in a decent official position. They even refused many Taiwanese’s petition of the Japanese proposed diet, sometimes “dismissing” them from positions of subjecting them to “financial pressures”. Even newspapers were supposedly restricted, with one needing to “subscribe to a newspaper published in Japan” to know what was going on (Owen 1923). As such, despite many affectionate feelings to the Japanese, the Japanese still largely maintained their hold and status of domination.

Prior to the occupation, Owen described “Qing Dynasty” Taipei to have “lots of resources”. However, he explained that there were ”few civilized institutions”, with a “corrupt government”. Healthcare also wasn’t ideal with “epidemics being common” and the sanitation being “typical of the Chinese” with “filthy conditions”. “Education was no less primitive” and “only 62 miles of badly constructed railway line existed” with “earth roads” that were hard to use in wet weather. Even the economy was devoid of efforts, with “no efforts” given to harbours and “agricultural, mineral and forest resources” not being exploited with “modern machinery” (Owen 1923). Clearly, Owen saw that there was much wrong with the maintenance of Taiwan and under utilization of its resources.

Despite this, Owen explains that “Formosa was a ewe lamb, Japan had for many years longed to have a colony of her own, as a childless woman longs to have a baby”. Owen highlights that “Taihoku is undoubtedly laid out on a finer scale than any other city in the Japanese Empire, with wide streets, spacious parks and public building” (Owen 1923). Calling it “what a colonial city should be” and that he felt the Japanese “intend to foster the development of the country in every way possible”, Owen’s own view of the colony is one that has clearly been reinvigorated with Japanese intervention.

In terms of law, “courts of justice” were established, “modern prisons were built”, police stations were built all over the island and” crime was dealt with” (Owen 1923).

Likewise, “streets and town sanitary was improved”, with “$50,000 spent on hospitals” along with the construction of “waterworks, artesian wells, and reservoirs”. Malaria also was reduced with the “drainage of swamps” and removal of slums. As seen sanitation has been added, an action rectifying the dirt Owen so often complained of (Owen 1923).

In regards to infrastructure and communication, a “system of telegraphs” was established, with “now over 3000 miles of line” on the island, alongside telephone usage and wireless communication between Keelung and Japan (Owen 1923). Additionally, railways and roads were constructed in higher quantities, despite the Japanese “not excelling” as road makers.

To further Taiwan’s economy and trade, “large sums were spent on making the existing harbours possible for ocean-going steamers to enter”. Ultimately, this investment was beneficial as imports rose from “1,500,00 pounds in 1897 to 13,000,00 pounds, and exports from 1,500,000 pounds to 15,000,000 pounds.”(Owen 1923).

From the above observations, despite the Japanese having certain conflicts and tensions in their initial relationships with the Taiwanese, it’s interesting to see that they changed much of the infrastructure of Taiwan, from what was described as a place with few muddy roads, to a colonial city of trade, telecommunication and good health care. The author ends by stating that “hardly a yen has been spent in vain” and that there was a “natural increase in the standard of living of all classes” as “as wages increased, farmers found they could obtain almost double for their products”. He even compares Taipei to Borneo, stating that if Japan hadn’t colonized Taihoku or Taipei, perhaps Taipei would be in a state similar to Borneo at the time, which had “no more than forty miles of state road” (Owen 1923). From the above, it appears that Taiwan didn’t have much infrastructure or much of a concrete urban plan to begin with. Given the rather positive effects of the colonial era, perhaps there wasn’t as big of an issue with the Japanese implementing their policies in the city from the 1900s onward.

Having documented Owen’s observations of Taiwan under Japanese rule, it would be interesting to see how these attitudes hold true on an urban scale. As more analysis is covered, one key element would be to look at how Japan implements its strategies and policies into the urban fabric of Taiwan. Specifically, to what extent were its policies considerate of the existing conditions and people? At the same time, Owen’s observations imply that the Japanese invested lots of money into Taiwan. Perhaps there are certain resources or points of interests that have led to the large investment.

Figure 2: Plan of Taipei in 1906 with photos showing programs (Center for GIS)

Figure 3: Legend of Plan showing landscape and terrain with translated program annotations (Center for GIS)

Figure 4: Zoom in of bottom left of plan with translated program annotations (Center for GIS)

Figure 5: Zoom in of bottom right of plan with translated program annotations (Center for GIS)


1. Owen Rutter. Through Formosa : an account of Japan’s island colony. London : Unwin. 1923.
2. Owen Rutter. Through Formosa : an account of Japan’s island colony. London : Unwin. 2014
3. Center for GIS, RCHSS, Acadenia sinica. Plans. 中央研究院人社中心地理資訊科學研究專題中心. n.d.

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