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How Did Japan React to Taiwan’s Elections?

What is happening?

The January 13th elections in Taiwan resonated strongly also with Japan, one of Taiwan’s closest allies in the region. The outcome has been viewed as good news for both sides. Having described his win as a “victory for the community of democracies,” President-elect William Lai (Ching-te Lai; 賴清德) will likely further deepen ties with Japan, the largest democracy in Taiwan’s neighborhood. Just a day after his election, Lai met with Mitsuo Ohashi, chairman of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, which serves as the de facto Japanese Embassy in Taiwan. Also on January 14, the current President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met with a delegation led by Japanese House of Representatives Member and Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council Chairman Keiji Furuya, who was accompanied by House of Representatives Member Yasushi Kaneko. They came to observe the general elections and express their congratulations to the president-elect and vice president-elect. Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association Taipei Office Chief Representative Kazuyuki Katayama, de facto Japanese Ambassador to Taiwan, also attended the meeting.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa congratulated “Mr. Lai on his victory” and acknowledged “the smooth implementation of the democratic election” in an official statement while referring to Taiwan as “an extremely crucial partner and an important friend.” This angered the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo which called the statement “a serious interference in China’s internal affairs,” and lodged a protest with the Japanese side. After all, the China threat is one of the catalysts in the expansion of Japan-Taiwan relations.

What is the broader picture?

The relationship between Japan and Taiwan is quite unique within the regional context. Since Imperial Japan ruled over Taiwan between the years 1895 and 1945, it had a large influence on the island nation’s development. This also contravenes China’s claims of its continued rule over the island. While Tokyo subjected Indigenous people of Taiwan to forced assimilation, Japanese colonization of Taiwan was overall not as harsh as in other parts of Asia, because Taiwan was Japan’s first colony and the imperial government sought to turn it into a model for other territories. This facilitated modernization of Taiwan, infrastructural development, and an overall increase in quality of life. As a result, Taiwanese people do not bear many historical grudges towards Japan; on the contrary, they embrace many aspects of Japanese culture and show a strong overall fondness for Japan.

At a news conference following the Taiwan elections, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi stressed that Taiwan is an extremely important partner for Japan, with whom they share fundamental values and close economic and personal relationships, and that the government intends to further deepen cooperation and exchanges in a nongovernmental format. That is because Japan had to terminate its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972 in favor of the People’s Republic of China. The former Japanese Embassy in Taipei was replaced by the Japan–Taiwan Exchange Association, a Japanese government-sponsored nonprofit, established under the auspices of the Japanese government to serve its interests in Taiwan. Tokyo kept maintaining the relations with Taipei unofficially, which became known as the “Japanese model” or “Japanese formula” – later adopted by Washington as it established the American Institute in Taiwan.

Why does it matter?

Not only do Japan and Taiwan share past legacies but also face similar present challenges and possible future threats. As the Taiwanese president-elect said, both neighbors are “concerned about regional peace and stability.” Japan is worried about China’s joint patrols with Russia around its territory as well as about Beijing’s increased incursions around the disputed Senkaku Islands that are administrated by Japan. Taiwan is concerned about the direct threat from the People’s Republic of China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory despite never having ruled it. As Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed in his 2024 New Year Address: “China will surely be unified” – Beijing does not renounce the use of force “if necessary” to annex sovereign Taiwan. A potential contingency in the Taiwan Strait would mean a direct security threat for Japan, too. “If Taiwan is invaded by China and the Taiwan Strait becomes an inland sea of China’s, that would inevitably also pose a threat to Japan,” Lai said in an interview last Fall. This corresponds with remarks by former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso in early January that any war between China and Taiwan would “definitely be an existential crisis” for Tokyo and that Japan would join the fight.

In reaction to the “no limits” friendship between Russia and China and the ongoing Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine, Tokyo started to invest heavily in its defense spending while strengthening partnerships with like-minded allies such as the U.S., Taiwan, the Philippines or even South Korea, although the relations with the latter one are still fragile due to Japan’s colonial past. At the same time, Japan seeks to prevent an open military conflict in East Asia. In her statement, Foreign Minister Kamikawa stressed Japan’s expectation that “the issue surrounding Taiwan will be resolved peacefully through dialogue, thereby contributing to the peace and stability in the region.”

Japan’s active approach around the Taiwanese elections stands in clear contrast with the silence in Brussels before the elections and lukewarm reactions afterward.