“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.
But 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 the Second World War. Eleven were executed.
Chou, however, 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 neighbours to do more to atone for its wartime actions. Bitter disputes, such as that currently flaring around East China sea islands are seen by many to illustrate Asia’s struggle to sort out the aftermath of the conflict.
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 three percent of American and British POWs lost their lives.
Chou 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.
Like the Koreans — also a colonised people — the Taiwanese were second-class members of the Japanese army. The Japanese would ridicule them as uncivilised country bumpkins that could never rise to their own level.
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 realised that we were Chinese too, and then they’d loosen up,” he said. “But we couldn’t talk too much. The Japanese had strict rules against fraternising with the local population.”
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.
In the end, to reduce the number of mouths they had to feed, the Japanese resorted to killing their prisoners, according to Lee Chan-ping, a Taiwanese historian who has studied the island’s camp guards in detail.
Chou said he himself did not take part in the executions, but he knew other Taiwanese who were forced to shoot unarmed men under the threat of being killed themselves if they did not carry out their orders.
When the war ended in the summer of 1945, the captors became the captives. Chou moved into the primitive huts he had been guarding for many months.
Shortly afterwards, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Nearly seven decades later he said he did not abuse any prisoners — a claim that is almost impossible to verify.
Over the following years, Chou moved from one Asian prison camp to another, until 1953, when he was taken to a Japan emerging from American occupation.
He was in a group of convicts, Japanese and Taiwanese, who were placed in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison, a facility specifically used to incarcerate war criminals.
While the Japanese were allowed to go home, only reporting back to the prison authorities every month, the Taiwanese were made to stay, Chou said.
It would be three and a half years before his own sentence was reduced and he was allowed to return to Taiwan.
“Everything was so different, so developed,” said Chou, who had left the island as a boy of 18 and now returned as a man of 31.
He soon found work, and he has lived more than half a century in relative comfort. But he would like the Japanese government to make up for the youth he says he never got to enjoy.
His view is echoed by Lee Chan-ping, the local historian, who said people like Chou should be compensated for the extra years spent in jail in Tokyo.
He compared the situation to that in Europe, where the fall of the Berlin Wall proved closure of sorts for Europe’s post-war division.
“Germany is apologising left and right for its behaviour during the war. Japan is not like that,” said Lee.
When asked if he is optimistic he will see compensation, even today when only a couple of guards are left, Chou’s reply is straightforward: “Not too optimistic.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]