What’s In a Name?—The Unexpected Charms of Japanese-Era Train Stations

(photo by Kent Chuang)

(photo by Kent Chuang)

When Japan’s postwar economy took off in the 1960s, young people began traveling overseas. When they arrived in nearby Taiwan, they discovered that many Taiwanese, young and old, could speak fluent Japan­ese. Even more surprising was that in Taiwan they could see the same models of steam trains as in Japan and many railway stations with seemingly identical names to ones at home, for they are written with the same Chinese characters, though their Japanese and Chinese pronunciations are often very different.


Virtually all the railway stations in Taiwan, except for those on the North Link Line and the South Link Line, were first built in the era of Japanese rule (1895-1945), and the names of 32 of them are written with the same Chinese characters as the names of stations in Japan. For this report, we visit the train stations in Zhutian, Guanshan, and Ruisui, where one can see Japanese-era historic sites nearby and find old people who still remember those days. We follow local historians to learn about local history and the rise and decline of these stations.

(photo by Kent Chuang)

(photo by Kent Chuang)

Zhutian (竹田) Station, Pingtung

Timeline: Built in 1919 as Dunwu Station; renamed Takeda (Zhutian) Station in 1920. There are Takeda Stations in both Kyoto and Hyogo Prefectures in Japan.

Architecture: Japanese-style structure. Hipped roof, wood-frame sliding doors, wattle-and-daub walls built with woven bamboo lattices and covered with clapboard siding. Outside the station are an oil depot, well, and bathhouse for the use of station personnel who back in the day loaded the coal used as locomotive fuel.

Zhutian is located in Pingtung County, with the Ai­liao River to the north and the Donggang River to the south. Every summer when the waters of the Donggang River ran high, the little boats that used to transport rice had to deposit their cargo here, waiting for the water to recede before they could travel further, and for this reason Zhutian was formerly named Dunwu (literally “deposit goods”). In 1919 the Japanese built Dunwu Station. The following year, the colonial government decided to cultivate bamboo here, and there happened to be places in Japan named Takeda, meaning “bamboo fields,” so the place and the station were renamed Takeda—today’s Zhutian, according to the Mandarin pronunciation of the same Chinese characters.

Tseng Kuo-feng, the head of Zhutian Township’s Culture and Tourism Office, says that the construction of Zhutian Station changed the way goods were shipped. Originally rice would first be transported to Dada Wharf in Zhutian, and then transshipped to Donggang. But after the rail line opened, the wharf gradually fell into disuse, and today it has become a tourist attraction. As more and more goods were stockpiled in the town, a warehouse area developed in front of the train station, driving the develop­ment of the rice milling and animal feed industries. “These two industries were headed by the Zhang family and the Lin family, who became two of the wealthiest families in the area.” Zeng points to the Yamato Coffee Roasters coffee shop in front of the station and says: “In the past that was the Dexing Rice Mill, and the people living across the street are descendants of the Zhang family.”

The Dexing Rice Mill, built in 1941, was later purchased by Paul Lai, manager of the Yamato Hotel, who invited architect Huang Cho-jen and designer Pa Li to renovate the building. They retained the steel beam and brick wall structure of the rice mill, and created two glass-walled rooms and a garden, allowing sunlight to reach into every inch of space in the coffee shop. Patrons sitting inside feel as if they are in a sunlit wood.

Although the old wooden station building is no longer in operation, it remains an important local hub, and a small weekend farmers’ market is held here. Tourists who come to Zhutian can not only have a coffee at Ya­mato Coffee Roasters and buy locally grown lemons, they can also try Hakka cuisine in the town and immerse themselves in the multicultural environment.

The old Guanshan Station was the main transshipment point for goods for the Guanshan, Chishang, and Luye area. In its heyday it had 16 employees working in shifts to keep the goods moving day and night. (photo by Kent Chuang)

The old Guanshan Station was the main transshipment point for goods for the Guanshan, Chishang, and Luye area. In its heyday it had 16 employees working in shifts to keep the goods moving day and night. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Guanshan (關山) Station, Taitung

Timeline: Built in 1922 as Riran (Lilong) Station; renamed Kanzan (Guanshan) Station in 1937. Its Japanese namesake is Sekiyama Station in Niigata Prefecture.

Architecture: Mixed Japanese and Western, in the Western-­influenced style of farmhouses in northern ­Japan. The main structure is in Western-style brick, with a mansard roof (with two angles of slope on each side), and wooden structures to either side. Mansard roofs also appear on other Japanese-era buildings, such as the Taihoku Prefecture Office building (now the Control Yuan building) in Taipei, the Taichu Prefecture Office building (which later became Taichung City Hall), and the Tainan Prefecture Office building (now the National Museum of Taiwan Literature).

Compared with the neighboring town of Chishang, Guanshan seems quiet. It is only when you enter old houses near the train station and hear local people talk about the town’s history that you learn that this was a very prosperous place in the old days.

In order to bring back the stories of the old houses, a group of young people, both locals and outsiders, conducted field research and pored over historical documents with the aim of depicting what Guanshan looked like in days gone by. One of these young people, Chen Jiachien, who returned to his hometown about ten years ago, not only has founded his own brand of rice, Yomanden, he and his wife Huang Huiwen have set up a place called “Living in the Valley” to serve as a base for ­placemaking, while also selling their own rice and products from other small farmers there.

Lilong, the old name of Guanshan, comes from the language of the Amis indigenous people. It may be derived from terateran, meaning a place where many nettles grow, or from lilan, meaning chiggers. After the Japanese entered Lilong, in 1916 they set up a police station there (today’s Guanshan Police Precinct) to bring the indigenous peoples under the control of the colonial government. The police were ordered to confiscate firearms from indigenous people, and they constructed a rampart along which they erected an electrified metal fence and a telephone line exclusively for police use. Chen Jiachien says: “Under Japanese rule, there were a lot of police in Guanshan, more than 400 at the peak! A police officer also served as mayor of the town.”

With the outbreak of war with China in 1937, the Japan­ese began to proactively develop Eastern Taiwan to meet demand for war materials. Lilong (Japanese Riran) was renamed and upgraded to Kanzan Prefecture, and it was only then that governing authority was transferred from the police to the civil administration and more attention was paid to social issues. At this time, construction began on government buildings and staff quarters, and the main place names in the area were changed to names with a more Japanese style. These gave farmers who came from Japan to cultivate newly cleared land there a sense of familiarity with the place.

Today’s Zhongshan Road, located between the Guanshan Police Precinct and the old railway station, was quite a prosperous street back in the day, because a lot of people moved into Guanshan in the later years of Japanese rule, giving rise to various shops, pharmacies, and hotels.

Merely walking down Zhongshan Road is like seeing a period drama on TV. If we hadn’t gone with Chen Jiachien into the old houses near the train station, we would have forever missed out on a page in Guanshan’s history. His enthusiasm for the old houses is perhaps like his perseverance in growing Kao­hsiung 139 rice. Although this rice variety has a long storage life and is aromatic and pleasantly firm to the bite, its yield per hectare is only about 70% that of ordinary rice. Despite this, Chen has carried on the tradition of his forefathers, and has even switched over to organic cultivation and created his own brand. Who says that old things will inevitably be discarded with the passage of time? Chen Jiachien and Huang Huiwen use creative packaging to enable every­one to see the value of “something old.”

Ruisui (瑞穗) Station, Hualien

Timeline: Built in 1914 as Mizuo (Shuiwei) Station; renamed Mizuho (Ruisui) Station in 1917. Replaced in 1968 with a concrete structure. Japan’s Mizuho Station is in Shibetsu, Hokkaido.

Architecture: Modern structure with contours that suggest the old name, Shuiwei (“water tail”).

During the Japanese colonial era, there were 50 to 80 tobacco curing barns here, with the highest production volume of any place in Taiwan. After the Japanese left and Taiwan came under the rule of the Republic of China following the end of World War II, local industry changed and the structures of the old days were abandoned and became overgrown with weeds. If not for local historian Huang Chia-jung, an expert in local culture and history, whose curiosity about Shinto shrines led him to research Hualien’s history under Japanese rule, the events of that time might not be known to the public at large.

The Ruisui hot springs, like the Arima hot springs in Japan, are categorized as “gold water,” rich in iron oxide. Meanwhile the water of the Hongye hot springs in neighbor­ing Wanrong Township is clear and colorless. Early on a Japanese doctor came to survey the area and discovered monkeys soaking in the water. The place was de­veloped as a rest and recuperation site for military personnel and injured police officers. Only later was it opened to the general public, and became today’s Hongye hot springs.

Huang Chia-jung also takes us to the Hutoushan Trail; this path, now covered in weeds, was formerly the road taken to visit the local Shinto shrine. Walking up several steps with heads lowered, we see a piece of flat ground in front of us and to the right. At this moment Huang shows us a yellowed old black-and-white photograph. It was taken on the occasion of a sumo wrestling competition held here to celebrate the year 2600 since the founding of the Japanese nation. In the photo, the steps around the sumo stage are crowded with people, marking a sharp contrast with today’s desolate scene.

On the way down the mountain, Huang talks about the origins of the place name Ruisui. Back in the day, the Japanese often changed place names in Taiwan to Japan­ese names with a similar pronunciation. The charac­ters of the Chinese name Shuiwei (水尾, pronounced Shuimui in the local Hakka dialect), are pronounced “Mizuo” in Japanese. This was changed to “Mizuho” (瑞穗), in part because of an ancient Shinto myth mentioning “the land of Mizuho” (i.e., Japan). In Mandarin Chinese, the charac­ters of the new name are pronounced “Ruisui.”

There are still many tobacco barns in Ruixiang ­Village, at the foot of the Hutoushan Trail. One of them has a tai­zi­lou (a superstructure open on all sides for ventilation or to serve as a chimney) and a tiled roof, with family dwellings built close by. Although the barn looks a little dilapid­ated, this does not detract from its impressive appearance. In the era of Japanese rule, usually only the wealthy could afford to buy tobacco barns, and the owner of the barn we are looking at was Yang Chaozhi, father of the Eastern Taiwan educator Yang Shouu-chyuan (1931-2013).

By about 2000 Ruisui’s tobacco industry had completely disappeared, and the Yang family tobacco barn was abandoned, leaving only a few tobacco plants in front of the door. Fortunately, however, Yang Shouu-chyuan’s descendants have preserved the old residence, and today these descendants, who are artists, use the old house as an exhibi­tion space to introduce Yang’s life and display their own ceramic art. Sometimes they roast their own homegrown coffee beans and the old house is filled with a light coffee fragrance.

On the street next to the Yang family tobacco barn there happen to be a few coffee plants, and Huang Chia-jung plucks a coffee bean and puts it directly in his mouth to chew on as he explains: “Japanese in the later period copied Western culture and began to drink coffee. The Office of the Governor-General, aiming to give Japanese military person­nel a chance to join in the trend, began cultivating coffee plants in Ruisui and Wuhe, growing coffee on 500 hectares of land at the peak.” However, Taiwanese were not in the habit of drinking coffee, and after the Japanese left farmers switched over to using the land for pineapple and cassava.

Walking through the checkerboard streets of Ruixiang Village, there is virtually not a sound to be heard; even the dogs are quiet. What catches our eye is the wild flowers showing out from behind low walls, setting off the old houses. We ask Huang, “Do travelers normally know this place?” He laughs and says no. Only people who are willing to learn about history have a chance to glimpse this little-­known location.