“War criminal” is not the first expression that comes to mind when seeing white-haired Chou Ching-feng in his living room in central Taiwan, sipping tea with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
However, nearly 70 years ago, he worked for the Japanese army in what is now Malaysia, guarding Australian prisoners in one of the numerous prisoner-of-war (POW) camps that were scattered across occupied Southeast Asia.
“The Japanese officers told us to beat the prisoners, and beat them hard. They were very meticulous about that,” said Chou, now 86.
He is one of about 160 Taiwanese who were punished for their activities in World War II. Eleven were executed.
However, Chou sees himself as a victim and wants compensation from Japan, which he says took the best years of his life and turned them into a long march through the prison camps — on both sides of the barbed wire.
Japan is repeatedly pressed by its neighbors to do more to atone for its wartime actions.
For Chou, the Taiwan he grew up in was a Japanese colony and had been one for decades. He had gone to a Japanese school and even had a Japanese name — Okamoto Yoshiaki.
His family was poor, and when, in 1943, he saw an advertisement for Taiwanese volunteers to serve overseas in the Japanese armed forces, he signed up.
A former teacher of his, who was Japanese, was furious.
“Why do you want to get involved in that?” he asked, exasperated. “Stay at home.”
Chou did not listen to him. He needed the money.
After a short period of training in Taiwan, he was sent to northern Borneo, in what is now Malaysia, to serve in the prison camps.
The Japanese camps were among the worst horror stories of the war. More than 27 percent of all Western prisoners died, while in German-run camps in Europe, less than 3 percent of US and British POWs lost their lives.
Chou said he was immediately brought into a culture of brutality where beatings formed the main currency and where everyone, prisoners and guards alike, fit into a hierarchy of violence.
Chou witnessed what happened after an officer had grown impatient with a guard who was too “soft” on a prisoner.
The officer told the guard to come over and punched him straight in the face.
“This is how you hit a prisoner,” the officer said, rubbing his knuckles.
Chou and the other Taiwanese guards were issued simple Japanese uniforms without insignia — since they did not have any rank — but to outsiders they looked Japanese all the same.
So on the occasional trip to the nearest major city, Kuching, it took some work to connect with members of the local Chinese community.
“They’d be a little hesitant, until they realized that we were Chinese, too, and then they’d loosen up, but we couldn’t talk too much. The Japanese had strict rules against fraternizing with the local population,” he said.
Even before Chou arrived in Borneo, the war was going badly for the Japanese, and as the front drew nearer, the families back home were understandably worried. Chou wrote letters to put them at ease.
“We couldn’t write any details. So it was very general, ‘I’m fine, everything is quiet,’ and so on. Just to make sure they didn’t worry too much. But it took six months for a letter to reach home,” he said.
As the Allied forces closed in, food supplies became scarcer, and a meal for an emaciated prisoner consisted of a bowl of rice sprinkled with salt.