Golden Age: Japanese Colonial Rule in Taiwan
1895 – 1945
During the Qing Dynasty, despite there being various rush products, such as bags, gloves, and seat cushions, a large proportion of manufactured rush products were still straw mats. However, at the beginning of the Japanese colonial rule, the handicraft industry of straw hats began to grow.
There are two theories regarding the origin of rush straw hats. The first theory is that in the 30th year of the Japanese Emperor Meiji’s Reign (1897), the Magistrate of Hsinchu County, Tsutomu Sakurai, believed that rush straw hats could become highly popular due to widespread knowledge of the fine design and practicality of rush straw mats. So, he asked Asai, the head of the Yuanli Management Office, to look for Yang Hung (1853-1941), who would know how to make such hats and could lead a project of designing and making straw hats.
People tried to make other products beyond just mats and hats, including prayer mats, tobacco bags and clog soles. Thousands of households joined in the rush weaving industry, exporting products to Japan, and selling over 10 million rush straw hats a year. In Yuanli, women learnt the skill as a result of Ms. Yang Hung’s deep influence, where the local people had proclaimed her “the pioneer of rush weaving”.
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Promotion and Export by the Governor-General’s Office
In maintaining social stability and securing the people’s economic livelihoods, the Japanese Governor-General’s officebegan encouraging those predominantly in agriculture to engage in side jobs. In the downstream area of the Daan River, where rush cultivation was easy and popular, locals began take make hats and mats to earn a supplementary income. “Taiwanese hats”, as rush straw hats were named, were advertised through newspapers and magazines, and were exported to overseas markets.
It was during the early Japanese colonial era that, besides the highly praised straw hats and mats, rush products made in Yuanli also included tobacco bags, prayer mats, and clog soles. Most of these products were exported to Japan, were the local people of cities like Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka appreciated such practicality and quality.
Rush weaving became Taiwan’s third largest local export, with Taichung Prefecture’s hat manufacturing industry accounting for 60% of all the rush products in the world by the fourth year of Emperor Hirohito’s reign (1929). The popular of rush products was evident, and since manufacturing was widespread among different populations, it also had a greater influence in people’s lives than sugar or tea products. It was one of the most important industries in the coastal area of central Taiwan.
In the late 1930s, as the Japanese Empire invaded China during the Second World War, rush straw hats found new markets in newly acquired cities on the Chinese coast. In Shanghai, rush straw hats became bedding accessories and fashion products, kicking off a boom in rush weaving.
By the end of Japanese colonial rule, the office of the Governor-General started heavily marketing rush straw hats in order to increase foreign currency reserves and as part of wider attempts to cover war expenses. Laws required people in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia to wear hats, taking the industry to a peak.