Tainan Butokuden (台南武德殿)

Over the past few months I've posted a few times about some of the beautiful remnants of Taiwan's Japanese Colonial Period. The colonial era lasted only five decades but in the short time that the Japanese controlled Taiwan, they helped to develop the islands infrastructure and education and helped foster the importance of democratic governance all of which has had a lasting effect on the people of this tiny island nation.

It has been more than seven decades since the Colonial Era ended and while there are still quite a few well-preserved examples of Japanese architecture left in Taiwan, most of the remaining buildings are in a state of decay and are in desperate need of not only recognition for their historical significance but some much needed maintenance and renewal.

So far, I've posted blogs about the Longtan Martial Arts Hall (龍潭武德殿), the Daxi Martial Arts Hall (大溪武德殿), the Tongxiao Shinto Shrine (通宵神社), the beautifully renovated Taoyuan Shinto Shrine (桃園神社) as well as the decaying (but soon to be renovated and converted into a park) Japanese Police Dormitories (中壢警察局日式宿舍群) here in Zhongli. These martial arts academies, shrines and police dorms were quite common in almost every city in Taiwan during the colonial era but few are left remaining today and that is why their preservation and telling their story are so important.

Legacy Of Taiwan's Japanese Colonial Era (日治時期)

A lot can be said about the crimes committed by the Japanese Empire leading up to the Second World War. The bitter memory of that era is still felt today throughout Asia and a day doesn't go by that Japan isn't reminded of the horrific atrocities that were committed during that period.

Taiwan's experience under Japanese colonial rule is considered to be a bit tamer than that of neighbouring countries as the regime sought to transform the island into a "model colony" and develop the islands infrastructure and economy as well as provide a modern education to the people living here.

As Taiwan was Japan's first colony, the Japanese Empire wanted to show the world that being under Japanese control wasn't such a terrible thing and that the people of Taiwan would only benefit from becoming a part of the empire. Unfortunately history has shown that things didn't exactly turn out that way for some of Japan's other colonies.

The colonial period (1895-1945) which lasted for a half century had its fair share of resistance from the local people and the colonial power was guilty of a great many atrocities, however the general feeling today is that people of this country share a strong bond with the Japanese and enjoy a friendship that despite a troubled history is based off of mutual understanding and respect for each other.

When Japan surrendered to the allies at the end of the war, control of Taiwan was handed over to Chiang Kai-Shek and his Republic of China. The Sino-Japanese War which ravaged China for so many years before caused a lot of resentment for the Japanese among the Chinese population and leaders of the government in China had a hard time understanding why the people of Taiwan looked upon their period of Japanese control with so little disdain.

The government decided that it would force Chinese culture upon the people of Taiwan which meant that traces of Japanese culture would have to be destroyed. These policies became a problem however when the KMT and over two million refugees were forced to escape to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War and were faced with a major housing shortage.

While there are remnants of the colonial period visible throughout Taiwan today, most structures that were dedicated to Japanese culture (temples, shrines, etc.) were torn down and are few and far between. When the housing situation eventually settled down and Taiwan was in the midst of its economic miracle, a lot of the homes that were occupied by the refugees were abandoned and thus left to decay on their own.

Butokuden Halls (武德殿)

Butokuden Halls were established in 1895 under the authority of the Japanese government and with the endorsement of the Meiji Emperor (明治大帝). The halls were meant to help solidify and preserve Japan's martial arts disciplines where the virtues of the samurai-like warrior and noble Japanese heritage and dominance were promoted.

Budo basically refers to Japanese martial arts, but for more clarity I asked my Japanese friend for more information and she sent this definition: Budō is a compound of the root bu (武:ぶ), meaning "war" or "martial"; and dō (道:どう; Dao in Chinese), meaning "path" or "way. The term refers to the idea of formulating propositions, subjecting them to philosophical critique and then following a "path" to realize them. Dō signifies a "way of life". Dō in the Japanese context, is an experiential term, experiential in the sense that practice (the way of life) is the norm to verify the validity of the discipline cultivated through a given art form. Modern budō has no external enemy, only the internal enemy, one's ego that must be fought.

While martial arts dojos were common throughout Japan, the Butokuden Halls were different because they were part of a state sponsored attempt to standardize Japanese martial arts while at the same time fostering fervent nationalism as well as the idea of Japanese exceptionalism though samurai-spirit which helped stoke the fires of militarism in the early years of the 20th century.

The Halls were part of a large organizational structure called the "Dai Nippon Butoku Kai" (大日本武德會) which sought to promote Japanese martial arts throughout the Japanese empire.

Starting in 1900 the halls spread to Taiwan with large buildings constructed in Taipei, Taichung and Tainan. In 1906 the Taiwan Butokuden branch (大日本武德會臺灣支部) was established and oversaw the construction of around seventy smaller halls throughout the island.

In Taiwan, the Butokuden Halls initially served the purpose of training the police, military and prison guards in Japanese martial arts and discipline. Later on the halls opened up more to the public in an attempt to train the citizens of Taiwan in Japanese martial arts as well as instil "Japanese Spirit" which is better known as "Yamato-damashii" (大和魂).

When the Second World War ended and subsequently the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, there were over seventy Butokuden halls throughout the country. The fate of those halls however was similar to a lot of other Japanese constructed buildings after the arrival of the Chinese Nationalists at the end of the Chinese Civil War. The buildings were either repurposed, used for housing or destroyed.

Today only about a dozen of these halls continue to exist in Taiwan - Some of the halls have been recognized as National Historic Buildings and have either been repurposed or renovated while others are in a sad state of disrepair and are in desperate need of attention.

Likewise, the "Dai Nippon Butoku Kai" organization was dissolved and then reestablished after the war with a new philosophical vision of preserving Japan's martial arts heritage while at the same time contributing to "world peace, international goodwill, mutual understanding and respect and prosperity through Budo education."

Butoku Kai centres have since spread throughout the world with halls constructed in the US, Canada, UK, France, Russia, etc. Here in Taiwan however, the halls are under appreciated historical relics and while they are historically relevant their original purpose - the promotion of Japanese martial arts has all but disappeared.

Tainan Butokuden Hall (台南武德殿)

The Tainan Butokuden branch that we see today was constructed in 1936 (昭和11年) and is an exact almost replica (in both shape and design) of the original Tainan Butokuden which was built in 1910 (明治43年). While the original Martial Arts Hall was built entirely of wood the main difference between the original and the current version is that it was constructed with a combination of reinforced concrete and wood which helped to preserve it all these years.

Historians generally agree that the Daxi Butokuden is the most well-preserved martial arts hall remaining in Taiwan, but the Tainan Hall is the grandest and the most well restored. The hall is considerably larger than any of the other remaining Butokuden halls remaining in Taiwan today and its size is one of the main reasons why it escaped destruction like so many of its contemporaries.

Today the Tainan Butokuden is still used for practicing martial arts, it is open to the public on weekends but if you visit during the week you won't be able to see the interior. The reason for this is very simple - After Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War, the Martial Arts Hall was absorbed into the school grounds of neighbouring Zhongyi Elementary School (忠義國小) - originally Shiomichō Municipal Elementary School (汐見公學校) which was constructed four years after the completion of the Martial Arts Hall.

The hall, which was subject to a major restoration project in 2006 is used primarily by the school as an auditorium for performances, gym class and school activities. It also serves as a popular Tainan tourist attraction sitting next to the Taiwan's first Confucius Temple (台南孔子廟), the recently revitalized Hayashi Department Store (林百貨) and the hip Fuzhong European-style pedestrian street (府中街) that is full of cute little coffee shops and bistros as well as vendors selling local crafts.

Like the other Butokuden Halls that I've posted about thus far, the Tainan Hall was built with a combination of Japanese and Western construction techniques mixing brick, concrete and beautiful Taiwanese cypress. As what we consider traditional Japanese architecture was heavily influenced by the architectural style of the Tang Dynasty (唐朝), the building was designed to imitate that of a Tang palace.

The roof of the main building is very characteristic of Tang-style architecture and while some people may identify the building as one that is very 'Japanese' in design, its important to note that the architectural style is a nod to Japan's historic relationship with China in the early stages of its development. The wooden roof has four sides and rises to resemble a mountain-like structure known as a "hip-and-gable roof" (懸魚) with "owl's tail" (鴟尾) decorations on each end.

While both the Daxi and Longtan Butokuden Hall's are elevated off of the ground with offices to the sides, the Tainan Butokuden is different in that there are multiple levels to the building with the ground level dedicated to the offices and change rooms while the second floor was dedicated solely to martial arts which offered significantly more floor space for classes.

The Interior of the Butokuden

While travel websites say that the Butokuden opens to visitors on weekends, it is not very likely that you'll get a chance to explore the interior. I suppose what they might mean (but don't clarify) is that you are able to walk around the school grounds when school is not in session and get close to the hall, but not actually enter. I have heard that martial arts classes take place but on both of my visits to the hall entry wasn't permitted.

Luckily I'm adventurous and found a way in while the kiddies were having classes and made my way to the second floor of the hall to check out the interior of what is now the elementary school's auditorium. The space inside this hall trumps anything I've seen so far and from my best estimates has a floor space as big as six times that of the size of Daxi's Butokuden.

The ground level floor where the offices, changing rooms, bathrooms and showers would have been in the past have since been converted into classrooms and offices for the elementary school. While the exterior of the building was restored a few years ago, the interior shows signs of its age and the wooden stairs the lead you to the auditorium creak quite loudly (as you fail in your attempt to speak upstairs like a ninja) which is indicative of the over 80 years of usage.

The Tainan Butokuden is the largest and most impressive of all the Martial Arts Halls I have seen so far. Bigger isn't always better but I have to say that this one is my favourite of them all. Not only is it well preserved, but it continues to be used to this day and its usage pays homage to the people who built it by continuing to assist in the education of the people of Taiwan and training people in martial arts!

I still have plans to go see some of the others but for now I hope you've liked what you've seen and learned a little bit about a somewhat forgotten piece of Taiwan's history. If you're in Tainan, the Confucius Temple is probably a must-stop destination on your itinerary. Luckily a trip to Taiwan's most famous Confucius Temple also lets you enjoy a different aspect of Taiwan's storied history - Don't miss your chance to check it out!