On June 6 every year since the end of the World War II, ceremonies have been held on the beaches of Normandy, where heads of state and war veterans gather and mourn the thousands of soldiers who fell on that fateful day in 1944 and during the entire war.
In similar ceremonies the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilians and politicians also pay tribute to those who perished in the Allied Forces’ atomic bombings on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, which ended the war with Japan.
While more than 200,000 Taiwanese men and women participated in some of the largest military campaigns in history — as Japanese imperial military personnel because Taiwan part of the Japanese empire — no such ceremonies are held to remember them.
Worse yet, not only is the majority of young Taiwanese unaware of that history, some of them have an incorrect perception of the war altogether, thinking that Japan was the enemy and that it was Japan, not the U.S., that bombed major cities across Taiwan toward the end of the war in 1945.
The wrong idea of the war and the lack of understanding of history is the result of strict education system and propaganda promoted by Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalist government, which retreated to Taiwan in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War.
Because of that education, the role of Taiwanese in past wars remains, by and large, unknown.
According to statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare,
207,183 Taiwanese — 126,750 military personnel (1937-1945) and 80,433 soldiers (1942-1945) — fought in the Sino-Japanese and the Pacific wars in the Japanese Imperial army. A total of 30,304 were killed in action, and more than 15,000 were listed as missing.
Casualty rates among Taiwanese were around 15 percent, much higher than those for Japanese troops.
Many Taiwanese men volunteered because they were taught that fighting for the Japanese emperor was an honor and that they would receive better payment as soldiers. Approximately 20,000 of them were Aborigines.
Elite Aboriginal soldiers, known as the Takasago Volunteers, were reputed for their supreme jungle survival skills and were fearless and fearsome. Most of them (there were between 4,000 and 8,000 in total) were sent to Papua New Guinea and suffered some of the highest casualty rates. According to post-war estimates, 90 percent of the Aboriginal soldiers who saw combat duty there were killed.
Meanwhile, more than 8,000 Taiwanese children between the age of 12 and 20, known as shonenko, manufactured fighter planes at a naval factory in Japan between 1943 and 1945. Some of them died in Allied bombings.
Many Taiwanese women were also recruited as nurses.
After the war, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) tried 173 Taiwanese soldiers in 1946. Of them, 26 were sentenced to death.
While the majority of those who survived the war returned home, some were unable to do so due to post-war chaos. Some WWII veterans joined Chiang’s Nationalist troops after failing to find work after the war, while others had to find ways to survive amid the crackdown that followed the 228 Massacre.
The incident occurred on Feb. 27, 1947, after an argument between a cigarette vendor and Tobacco Monopoly Bureau agents escalated into an anti-government uprising. The Nationalist Army launched a crackdown the next day, killing tens of thousands of people and almost wiping out an entire generation of Taiwanese elite.
The volunteers and a large number of Taiwanese youth who were abducted by Chiang’s army were sent to China to fight the communists. Some of them died, and those who surrendered as prisoners of war were quickly forced to fight on the side of the Chinese Communist Party.
After the Korean War broke out, many of them were sent to North Korea to fight South Koreans and Americans.
One of the pioneers in gathering information and promoting veteran rights is Khou Chiau-eng (許昭榮), a veteran who fought in the Pacific in the Japanese Navy and joined the Chinese Civil War as a sailor in the Nationalist navy.
Khou, who was blacklisted by the KMT regime in the 1980s due to his background as Japanese soldier and his advocacy for democracy, visited China on several occasions to collect information about his fellow Taiwanese soldiers who were unable to return home, and came up with his own estimates.
According to him, about 15,000 Taiwanese soldiers had participated in the Chinese Civil War; of them, 12,000 were killed or went missing. However, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense says that its records show there were only 2,000 or so.
In his autobiography Better to Burn Out than Rust Away, Khou said that 700 of the Taiwanese soldiers who survived the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution managed to return to Taiwan, while about 200 stayed back in China.
After conducting several interviews in China, Khou concluded that those who remained in China were probably the most unfortunate: They fought in the Pacific War, the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War, and subsequently went through the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, where they were tortured and scolded for their background as Japanese soldiers.
The Forgotten Ones
The facts and stories related to the war were not gathered and documented until recently. However, the history and tragedy barely gets mentioned in Taiwanese school textbooks, and literally nobody in the government has paid tribute to the dead and the veterans because Japan, currently a diplomatic ally of Taiwan, is still regarded as the enemy of the Republic of China (ROC) during WWII. And naturally, people tend not to commemorate the enemy.
Now in their eighties, those veterans, who sacrificed their lives, youth, families and innocence for the wrong country — Japan — are the Forgotten Ones. Not even their grandchildren know of what they did in their youth, of the courage that should be a source of pride.
Approximately 28,000 Taiwanese are enshrined at Yasukuni in Tokyo. One of them is Lee Teng-chin (李登欽), the elder brother of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). A Japanese Imperial Navy sailor, Lee Teng-chin was killed in action on Feb. 15, 1945, in Manila.
The soldiers’ memorial tablets are also enshrined at the Chih-hua Temple (濟化宮) in Beipu (北埔), Hsinchu County, and Pao-chueh Temple (寶覺禪寺) in Greater Taichung. Both constitute efforts by society to show respect for the veterans.
No national ceremony has ever been held to salute the fallen Taiwanese soldiers. Nor is there a national shrine or memorial for the war dead.
The Taiwanese government does have a shrine — the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine — for dead soldiers and those who were recognized as martyrs, such as firemen and police officers who died in WWII and during the Chinese Civil War. But since Taiwanese soldiers were labeled as Japanese soldiers, they do not “qualify” to have their places in the shrine.
When it comes to financial compensation, after years of negotiation with the Japanese government, Tokyo agreed in 1987 to give out a mere 2 million yen (NT$430,000) per Taiwanese soldier, and 120 times the unpaid salaries and military insurance during the war — a lot less than the 7,000 times the government paid to Japanese soldiers.
Back home, the welfare provided by the Taiwanese government to mainlander veterans, who arrived in Taiwan between 1945-1949 with the Nationalist regime, has been much better than that for the Taiwanese veterans. When Taiwan first lifted its ban on veterans’ visit to their hometowns in China in 1987, each of them received a subsidy of NT$20,000 for the trip. At the same time, Taiwanese soldiers in China were not allowed to return to Taiwan until they were over 75 years old, and they did not receive any government subsidy.
Having worked for promoting the rights and welfare of Taiwanese soldiers for decades, Khou became so frustrated with government indifference — KMT and Democratic Progressive Party administrations alike — that he committed suicide by setting himself ablaze on May 20, 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office. This was his final, silent protest.
“What people do not realize is that many remains of Taiwanese soldiers are yet to be found, from North Korea to the Philippines and from the jungles of New Papua New Guinea to the small islands off China’s southeast coast,” said Wu Chu-jung (吳祝榮), president of the Taiwan Extrapatriot Veterans Association and Friends of Khou Chiau-eng (高雄市關懷台籍老兵暨許昭榮文化協會).
“Of all the governments, only the ROC government would leave the remains buried thousands of miles away from home, uncollected,” said Wu, who was Khou’s foster child and vowed to keep promoting veterans’ rights after Khou’s death.
The association is one of the few organizations in Taiwan that continue to work to bring those who were killed in the war home and to look after the welfare of the survivors and those who returned.
In 1998, the government gave the association a 3,800 ping (1.26 hectare) plot of land in the coastal district of Cijin (旗津) in the southern port city of Greater Kaohsiung. This was where, 70 years ago, many Taiwanese soldiers had boarded the vessels that took them to the battleground of Southeast Asia.
The location is now known as the War and Peace Memorial Park and is operated by the association. However, due to lack of funding and donations, the park ceased operations in 2006. A monument and a memorial exhibition center are all that remains for the tens of thousands of forgotten souls.
To pay tribute to the Takasago Volunteers and to complete the Aboriginal tradition of bringing the souls of the dead back home, sculptor Siki Sufin of the Amis tribe, one of the 16 Aboriginal tribes in Taiwan, visited the Papua New Guinea city of Wewak, the site of Japan’s largest airbase in the country during WWII, last year. There he erected a wooden statue, which he named Takasago Wings. The statue faces in the direction of Taiwan, so that symbolically the souls can now fly back to their homeland.
More than six years after Khou’s death, this is about as much as the veterans and the dead can hope for from the government. Everything else, from gathering records of the war, interviewing veterans for oral history, and paying tribute for their sacrifices, comes from the private sector.
Why They Fought, and Who They Fought For
What troubles the veterans is a lot more than the lack of official recognition, the difficulties they faced in finding jobs, or the cruelty they witnessed and experienced during the war.
Like many war veterans in other parts of the world, they rarely talked about their war experiences after their returned home to their families. After all, it is extremely difficult to confess to anyone, even family members, that they killed people and to describe what the war was all about.
More importantly, their background as Japanese soldiers could very well have gotten them into trouble. Chiu Chin-chun (邱錦春), a pilot in a Japanese bomber squadron, said during an interview with the BBC in 2005 that he was warned by his relatives against revealing his military background after the war.
Hatred for the Japanese, brought to Taiwan by the KMT and instilled into the Taiwanese people for decades afterwards, as well as the miserable experiences in war zones — which included watching Taiwanese comrades being killed — created an identity crisis among veterans.
They were told to fight for the Emperor of Japan and to help establish the Great East Asia Coprosperity Sphere (大東亞共榮圈). Then they were told to fight the communists and for peace in the “Motherland.” Some of them, who were “fortunate” enough to wear three different uniforms in 10 years, were asked to fight for the unification of the Korea Peninsula. They never fought for themselves or their homeland.
After the war, the veterans found out that they had been abandoned by the Japanese government, which said that Taiwanese soldiers were no longer Japanese nationals. Returning home, they were criticized for being Japanized and wearing the “enemy’s” uniform.
The atmosphere that engulfed the veterans was, in fact, the essence of society at the time, in which Taiwanese were viewed as having been “poisoned” by the Japanese empire and the colonial period. The 228 uprising and massacre occurred in that context.
Many veterans, including Khou, wrote in their memoirs that they did not know where they belonged and which country they came from — Taiwan, Japan, or the ROC. While they believed they were doing the right thing when they joined the military and showed their loyalty to Japan, post-war developments forced them second-guess their sacrifices. Those doubts became even more serious when the ROC government displayed more interest in retaking the “mainland” than developing Taiwan.
“Most of us, including me, did not know who we fought for and why we fought,” Khou wrote in his autobiography.
Former president Lee Teng-hui summed up the general feeling shared by many Taiwanese in an interview in 1994 with Japanese writer Ryotaro Shiba, which he described as “the sadness of being Taiwanese.”
Some could argue that sadness is no longer the fate of the Taiwanese, as Taiwan has become a de facto sovereign and independent country, and the world’s 19th largest economy. In some ways, however, Taiwan needs to reconcile itself with its past before it can move on.
This includes a complete re-examination and representation of the role that was played by Taiwanese during the many wars that occurred in the past 400 years. What happened and why it happened must be part of the material found in the nation’s textbooks. Moreover, a national war museum, as well as an annual national commemoration ceremony, should be set up so that the forgotten souls can finally return home after 70 long years.
Chris Wang is a former journalist with the Central News Agency and the Taipei Times.