Sun, Aug 13, 2000 - Page 17 News List

Fighting for the Empire

It's been 55 years since Japan surrendered, ending World War II. But in Taiwan, feelings about the war still run deep -- especially among the surviving members of the 200,000 Taiwanese who served in the Japanese Imperial Army

By Dan Nystedt  /  STAFF REPORTER

Lee Teng-chin in a picture from the Japanese Navy volunteer soldier training center at Tsuoyin, southern Taiwan.

Photo: courtesy of li shen-chang

Private Yoyama sat low in the foxhole, his tan, sweat-soaked uniform weighing heavy on his shoulders. He barely noticed the mosquitoes pricking his neck because of the sight coming into view down the barrel of his rifle, a battalion of Chinese soldiers.

"This was war," he says, excited, "and they didn't know I was Chinese -- from Taiwan. They could only see my Japanese uniform and the Rising Sun flag behind me. To them I was just another Japanese regular and they wanted to kill me."

Yoyama had been trying for years to resolve what to do if his service in the Japanese army brought him to this. Should he shoot at the ground, into the air, or to the side? The decision, however, exploded on him with the first mortar shells that landed.

"I didn't know what to do," recalls Yoyama, "I didn't want to shoot the Chinese soldiers, but when the shells started bursting around me, I pulled the trigger and I didn't stop until it was over. I was shooting for my life.

The Japanese government drafted Yoyama, or known better today by his Chinese name, Yeh, into the Imperial Army as the war waned into 1944. Things were going badly for Japan by then, and sending him to China was a desperate measure.

Troops from the Japanese colony of Taiwan were not supposed to fight in China, Yeh says; they were usually sent to Southeast Asia -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia. Sending Taiwanese troops to China was considered risky because they might refuse to fight, or even worse, turn spy.

"But if I knew what they [the Chinese army] were going to do when they came to Taiwan [after the war], I would have aimed more carefully," he says, trembling with rage.

Many elderly Taiwanese men share Yeh's sentiment, especially those who remember the good times under Japanese rule and the horror of the 2-28 massacre following the Nationalist (KMT) government's arrival on Taiwan.

According to historians, during their 50-year rule of Taiwan, 1895-1945, the Japanese hoisted the island into the modern world, laying hundreds of miles of railroad tracks, building modern harbors and roads, and in 1903, the first hydro electric generators in Asia outside of Japan.

The level of development prompted one scholar to remark, "the average citizen in Taiwan lived far better than people in any province of China at the time."

"The Japanese government was very good to people here," says Yeh. "They gave us a good education, jobs were easy to find, they built roads and other infrastructure. ... So when they ordered me to war, I went."

Yeh didn't go alone. In all, more than 200,000 Taiwanese served in the Japanese Imperial Army or Navy, though only half that number were actually packed off into warships and sent to battle. The other half worked as hospital attendants, laborers or at other non-combat jobs.

Of the ones who did go, some 30,000 died fighting to maintain the Empire of the Rising Sun, including former President Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) brother, Lee Teng-chin (李登欽), a navy sailor whose ship was destroyed in Manila Bay by US planes.

And Japan has honored those who fell. Every one of His Emperor's Taiwan forces killed in battle was given a ceremonial burial in Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, a Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead.

Yasukuni shrine also holds the remains of the 30 Taiwanese convicted and hung for war crimes. Historian John Copper notes that some Taiwanese did serve in "units that committed atrocities against Chinese in Nanking and elsewhere."

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