Taiwan and Japan have an awkward relationship that is compromised and complicated by various intractable issues - namely, Mainland China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory and has compelled most nations of the earth to deny diplomatic recognition of the island.
Beijing has continually threatened any country that shows even miniscule support for the Taiwanese government (formally known as the Republic of China, or ROC). Under such overwhelming pressures from China, Japan labors to remain its distance with Taiwan.
However, Japan (which served as Taiwan's colonial ruler for a half-century until 1945) maintains a deep, special relationship with Taiwan, which falls just short of formal political ties between Tokyo and Taipei.
Nevertheless, just as Japan cannot afford to offend China, it similarly cannot afford to completely relinquish its ties with Taiwan.
Taiwan plays a strategic role in the East Asian politics, which has become increasingly murky and complex as rising superpower China increasingly seeks to stamp its huge footprints across all of East Asia.
With China investing in the modernization and expansion of its military, tensions in the Asia-Pacific have risen beneath a seemingly placid surface of diplomatic cooperation and niceties.
Japan (ensnared in a deep economic malaise that has resulted in its second-class status to China as a regional power) is trapped in a tug-of-war with China by maintaining a strong trading relationship with Taiwan.
Treading a fine line between maintaining its sovereign status by refusing to be a puppet of Beijing's Communist regime and maintaining a friendly relationship with its much-too-powerful neighbor, Japan interacts with Taiwan only non-officially in economic and cultural cooperation endeavors.
Thus, Japan moves alone a delicate and dangerous high-wire with respect to its relations with both China and Taiwan.
After severing its diplomatic relations with the ROC in 1972 (following U.S. President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China), Japan has since then referred to the ROC with the politically neutral name of "Taiwan." On paper, Japan has declared that it respects China's claim of authority over Taiwan and has repeatedly emphasized this position.
The United States, Japan's long-term military ally since a 1960 treaty, also influences Taiwan-Japan relations significantly.
Balancing against China's regional hegemony, the U.S. has purposely obscured its position on the difficult Beijing-Taipei relations.
While recognizing the PRC as the real and only China, the U.S. passed a law in 1972 that declared its intention to aid Taiwan militarily if a Chinese invasion were to occur on the island. Deeming the spread of democracy as its mission, the U.S. wished to see Taiwan, an island state with its own President and a democratic government, act as an inspirational model for China to reform its one-party political system.
Japan, unwilling to offend the first and the second most powerful nations in the world, takes a far more judicious stance -- remaining carefully within its permissible boundary of friendliness towards Taiwan.
Taiwan and Japan share a convoluted history that began as early as 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China ceded the island to Japan after losing the Sino-Japanese war. Japanese officials took control over the citizens, despite the Taiwanese people's strong resistance and their attempt to declare independence under the name Republic of Formosa (a nickname of the island).
This period of colonization by Japan has often been portrayed in Taiwan's history textbooks as brutal and inhumane; however, as many critics began to focus on Japanese influence in recent decades, more and more people in Taiwan have come to appreciate the tremendous improvements Japanese officials made on the island's infrastructure, technology, education and art.
Indeed, the resentful voices of the older Taiwanese generation began to be washed out by the admiration of Japan from the younger generation.
Japan's control of Taiwan gradually weakened during the Second World War.
Japan's defeat resulted in its eventual renunciation of sovereignty over Taiwan. Japanese officials returned from Taiwan to Japan, while about two million Chinese citizens, including Kuomintang (KMT) party leaders, fled from mainland China to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
The shift in population and the shift in power left the island in complete chaos, as well as its political identity unclear -- even to the present day.
After signing a peace treaty in 1952, Japan and Taiwan began a strong trading relationship. Japan even played a key financial role in issuing government loans to the KMT-led government for ROC's economic development.
During this period, Taiwan and China ceased all high-level communications, slowly transitioning from a military stalemate to a diplomatic war.
Under Beijing's One China Policy (which forbids countries from recognizing both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China simultaneously), Japan severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1972, one year after the PRC took the ROC's seat in the United Nations and the UN Security Council. That was a pivotal year when the number of countries recognizing PRC exceeded the number of those recognizing ROC as the sole legitimate government of China.
Since then, Japan has ceased all government-level interactions with the ROC, abolishing embassies and ambassadors. Nevertheless, the two neighboring states have hardly been estranged from each other.
From the increasingly high volume of economic trade (in 2011, Taiwan exported $182 billion to Japan, while importing $522 billion) to the large number of tourists (2.5 million travelers going from one nation to the other per year), Taiwan and Japan have continued to interact in nearly all non-governmental ways possible.
The Japanese government has instituted "de facto" embassies in Taiwan, and vice versa.
Taiwan-Japan relations go even beyond the economic scope, as their cultural exchanges are just as vibrant as their trading relations, especially among the younger generations.
As a major trendsetter in Asian pop culture, Japan has been an obsession with many Taiwanese youths.
Young people in both countries pay great attention to the other's entertainment industries, celebrating pop idols regardless of nationality or political considerations.
Moreover, in the past few years, the people in both states have had an unusual dialogue of friendly support as a result of a few major devastating natural disasters.
Shortly after the devastating Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou expressed condolences to Japan and provided $3.3 million in aid.
Describing Japan as a "friend," President Ma urged the public that a "true friend gives help in the most needed time."
Unconcerned with the strained diplomatic politics between the two states, the Taiwanese people raised $190 million for disaster relief, topping all other nations in the world as the largest donor. With a population of only about 23 million people, Taiwan shocked the people in Japan.
The Japanese government, however, refrained from making overly friendly gestures in response.
One month after the disaster, when the Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda expressed his gratitude for the support Japan received from the international community by publicizing thankful messages on major international newspapers, including one in the U.S., England, South Korea and China, Taiwan didn't receive similar treatment despite its outsized donations.
In addition, on the one-year commemoration of the Japanese Earthquake in Tokyo, Taiwan was snubbed by Prime Minister Noda, as the representative from Taipei was not invited to present bouquets at the ceremony. (Noda subsequently apologized for this gaffe after complaints were raised by both the Japanese opposition in parliament and Taiwan itself).
Thus, with respect to Japan-Taiwan relations, there always seems to be a sense of disconnection between the government and the people.
When the Japanese government turns a cold shoulder to Taiwan, the Japanese people became more active in demonstrating their fondness for their poorly-treated neighbor to the south.
Many Japanese people expressed their anger regarding their government's ingratitude on the internet, and some even raised money to post messages of thanks on Taiwan's major newspapers and in TV news channels.
But China looms heavily over both nations.
As China has grown both economically and politically over the past three decades, Taiwan has become more and more isolated.
Often referred to as the "orphan in the international arena" by its own media, Taiwan is now recognized by only 23 countries in the entire world as a sovereign state.
In 2008, after Ma Ying-jeou was elected President of Taiwan, Taiwan and China resumed high-level communication. Within a few short years, China has replaced the U.S. as Taiwan's largest trading partner, encompassing 29 percent of Taiwan's total trade.
Although military threats from China have ceased to be a major concern of national security, Taiwan has found itself in an increasingly dangerous position. Its heavy reliance upon China as a major trading partner puts the nation's economy at great danger. Yet, with China's growing military and economic power, Taiwanese officials are left with very few options to maneuver its way out of such threats.
In essence, Taiwan has found itself in a kind of diplomatic 'Twilight Zone' - it needs China for its economic sustenance, but lives under the threat of military attack.
Moreover, under a structured constitutional democracy, the Taiwanese people enjoy many rights that their counterparts in mainland China do not enjoy - most important of all are the right to free speech and the right to elect their own government. These ideological differences cannot easily be reconciled by the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, despite recent improvements in cross-strait relations.
As a close neighbor that will most likely be caught in the cross-fire if China and Taiwan decide to go to war, Japan will try whatever it can do to maintain the status quo, pulling the United States along with it to pacify the tense relationships in East Asia.
But the relationship between the governments of Japan and Taiwan will likely remain ambiguously distant, but paradoxically close-knit between their respective peoples. As for now, both countries prefer the status quo for fear of antagonizing the PRC into taking threatening and provocative actions.
Both Japan and the U.S. have vested interests in supporting Taiwan, while maintaining "unofficial" diplomatic ties.
Through trades in commodities and arms with Tokyo and Washington, the Taiwanese government can enjoy some limited leverage in maintaining a status quo with Beijing.