Television, cinema and, more generally, the media have been an extremely powerful tool of propaganda since their invention, deeply shaping the world of the last two centuries as we know it. Unlike literature, movies do not require an advanced education to be understood; the ideological message can be conveyed in a direct and immediate way.
After the colonization of Taiwan in 1895, Japan had to deal with a society that had different traditions, cultures and religions. Incorporating cultural difference into a fragile society was a dangerous risk: after the violent uprisings of native Taiwanese in 1930, it became clear that the colony had to go through a process of “Japanisation” and become a real part of the Japanese empire, instead of a dangerous periphery. Therefore, the real question to face was: how can a foreign culture be imposed on a population? Japan proved to be very aware of the importance of the media as an extraordinary mean of communication with the masses; to build a powerful narrative, however, Japanese authorities needed a symbol, a hero that the Taiwanese population could identify with.
In 1939, a 17-year-old Atayal girl called Sayun Hayun from Nan’ao village, Giran district, Taihoku Prefecture, Taiwan went missing. After some research, the police concluded that she had drowned while she was helping her Japanese teacher Masaki Takita, who was departing for the Chinese Front, to carry his luggage.
The story created a lot of empathy and commotion amongst both Taiwanese natives and Japanese colonizers, who interpreted Sayon’s death as an act of devotion toward her Japanese teacher, and therefore towards Japan itself. The Governor General in Taipei ordered to build a magnificent bell in her home village, and to inscribe it with her name. The story inspired songs, novels and movies.
This is the English translation of a song released in October 1941, by the popular singer Watanabe Hamako. The original song in Japanese can be listened to at the following link:
“Stormy winds blow at the foot of the mountain,
The rapid-flowing river is dangerous, under a long bridge
Who is the one crossing the river? The beautiful maiden
The red lips, ah! Sayon.
Going to the glorious war,
Your dear mentor looks brave and resolute,
You shoulder his luggage, singing cheerfully,
The rains incessantly fall, ah! Sayon.
A flower falls into the stormy winds,
Your disappearance is sad, the river is misty.
The birds are chirping in the aboriginal village,
Why did you not return, ah! Sayon.
The sincerity of a pure maiden,
In whose tears will she be remembered?
The dusk of the Southern island deepens,
The bell begins to toll, ah! Sayon.”
As can be easily noticed by looking at the lyrics, Sayon is depicted as a pure and innocent maiden, whose beauty and sincerity are praised. She is not described as a political figure: she is the personification of innocence.
The song was not the only artistic product generated from the sad story of Sayon: novels, movies and poems were produced. Some, similarly to Hamako’s hit song, described Sayon as an innocent maiden in love with her Japanese professor; others made the young victim a real pro-Japanese patriot.
In 1943, the film Sayon’s bell (Sayon No Kane) by Shimizu Hiroshi was released. The setting is Sayon’s village, while Taiwanese and Japanese soldiers are being recruited for the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese occupying forces stand out for their geniality, benevolence and braveness: nevertheless, they are clearly kept apart from the hordes of militing locals, who appear wholeheartedly patriotic and willing to fight for Japan. In the movie, Sayon appears as the heart of the Japanese armed forces: her braveness is praised, and she is openly patriotic towards Japan. In one of the most dramatic scenes, the young girl leads the choir of Taiwanese Soldiers singing the Song of the Taiwan Army of Japan.
The same song is the soundtrack of one of the final scenes: the departure of her beloved Japanese teacher. Sayon follows him to the river, climbing the unsafe bridge despite the storm; when she falls in the water, the heroic soldier tries to save her, in vain. The last scene represents Sayon’s bell ringing in the village.
Why was Sayon’s story so powerful? The Government wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous people had been fully converted to imperial subjects. At the same time, they needed to convince natives to fight for Japan against the Chinese army: for this purpose, they needed to give them a heroic, self-sacrificing example, and to reassure them showing that Taiwanese martyrs would be remembered and honoured as much as Japanese martyrs.
The propaganda based on Sayon’s death was so successful that her story is still famous in today’s Taiwan.