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May 26, 2017

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Hatta statue beheading is lesson for history lessons

Like the Taiwan Chia-Nan Irrigation Association member who thought their eyes were deceiving them when they spotted a man and women posing for selfies with the head of a decapitated statue of Yoichi Hatta, a Japanese engineer during Taiwan's colonial occupation, we and many others were shocked by the crime.

The main culprit, former Taipei City Councilor and Chinese Unionist Party member Lee Cheng-lung, appeared to be proud of his feat, both when posting about it on Facebook and when confessing the crime to police.

On Facebook, Lee also appeared to be appalled by the lack of comments praising his act, which he said he had been planning for years.

It would be easy to brush off Lee's actions and attitude as simply those of a man seeking fame or notoriety. But the issues behind the crime — and the reaction to it — are much larger.

Both the public and pundits were riled by the incident, with many saying that Taiwan should commemorate Hatta's contributions, the greatest of which was designing the Chia-Nan irrigation network. Some wrote heartfelt Facebook posts urging the public to remember Hatta for his individual achievements rather than the historical context in which he worked.

Some, including readers of this paper, have compared the decapitation to the vandalism carried out on statues and busts of late leader Chiang Kai-shek. The differing public reactions, they say, point to a double standard, with the Chiang destruction supported but the Hatta beheading condemned. This in turn points to misplaced adoration for the 50-year Japanese colonial period, one reader wrote.

However, this implies that Hatta's beheading should be applauded, as Lee had hoped it would be, as native residents suffered greatly under Japanese colonial rule despite the advancements it brought.

President Tsai Ing-wen's administration has made pursuing transitional justice a top priority, seeking to uncover and right these wrongs done to the Taiwanese people and Aboriginals under martial law.

The anger and adoration expressed over the vandalism of such controversial historical statues is not necessarily misplaced; rather, the view of either response being unacceptable is what is really inappropriate. The so-called double standard reflects only the complexity of this island's history and our muddled, ever-changing relationship to our authoritarian and colonial past.

Uncovering historical wrongs and truths through the transitional justice push is only one piece of a greater puzzle. What the Hatta incident most clearly demonstrates is that history lessons' overarching aim should not be finger pointing but rather understanding. A Taiwan where people can look at the past with a clear mind is one where no statues will lose their heads.

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