Sugiura Shigemine: The Japanese Pilot Who Became a God in TaiwanSociety
An Act of Compassion
Worshipers at Zhenan Temple in Taiwan pay homage to an unusual hero. Located on the outskirts of the historic southern city of Tainan, the sanctuary enshrines Sugiura Shigemine, a young Japanese fighter pilot whose courageous act during a fierce air battle led to his recognition as the deity Feihu Jiangjun, or General Flying Tiger.
Taiwan’s blend of ancestor worship, reverence for nature, and rich history and culture has produced a diverse pantheon of gods, including deified war heroes, police officers, and missionaries. Shrines and monuments dedicated to Japanese are not unheard of, though none receive the level of devotion residents of this Tainan neighborhood award the tutelary General Flying Tiger.
Zhenan Temple is largely indistinguishable from other Taoist shrines that dot the Taiwanese landscape, save for a red banner proclaiming in Japanese: “Welcome to worshipers from Japan.” There was no banner when I first visited in 1997, but even then it was easy to sense the goodwill locals have toward Japan from the warm hospitality of the people I met.
In the center of the hall sit three elaborately decorated statues of the deified Sugiura: a main image flanked by two figures used for special occasions. Zhenan Temple is somewhat unusual for enshrining only one god. What really makes it a rarity, however, is that the deity used to be a Japanese fighter pilot.
A Crucial Decision
Sugiura was born in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, on November 9, 1923. As a youth he joined a pilot training program at the Imperial Navy’s Kasumigaura air base, where he learned the basics of flying. After graduating he was sent to Taiwan for advanced training.
During World War II Taiwan was a strategically important launch point and supply center for Japan’s southern campaigns. As Allied forces moved to retake the Philippines, they brought their firepower to bear on bases in Okinawa and Taiwan in a bid to cripple Japan’s air capabilities.
On the morning of October 12, 1944, aircraft of the US Third Fleet conducted a heavy attack on Japanese military facilities in southern Taiwan. Sugiura took to the sky as part of the outgunned Japanese defensive and was hit by Allied fire. Belching smoke and flames, his Model 32 Zero fighter hurtled toward a small coastal village. In a desperate attempt to avoid the settlement the young pilot pulled the nose of the plane up, crashing the crippled aircraft in a nearby field.
Zhuang Zhenghua, one of many locals who vividly recall the fierce air battle, saw the plane as it came down. By his account Sugiura could have saved himself by ejecting from the craft, but chose to save the village by remaining at the controls.
Wu Chengshou, a devout follower of General Flying Tiger, was also present that day and remembers seeing Sugiura’s body at the crash scene lying near his twisted aircraft. According to Wu, the remains had been mangled in the impact and bore bullet wounds from the battle. The only clue to the identity of the aviator was the name Sugiura written on his boots. The body of the 20-year old was recovered by the Japanese military and later honored in group services in Taiwan and his native Mito.
A Lingering Spirit
In the years following Japan’s defeat, people in the area began speaking of seeing a young soldier in a white hat standing over them in their dreams. Similarly, a youth dressed in what appeared to be a stark-white naval uniform was seen nightly near the community’s many fish-breeding ponds.
Seeking an answer to the sightings, residents went to the priest of Chaohuang Temple, the main shrine in the area dedicated to the revered god of medicine, Baosheng Dadi. When the apparition was identified as a fallen soldier, locals immediately thought of the brave pilot who saved the village from destruction.
Residents held tight to their memory of Sugiura through the authoritarian rule and anti-Japanese stance of the early postwar government. In 1971, villagers constructed a shrine to their hero on a small patch of land. As the sanctuary’s reputation spread, it began to draw worshippers from around Taiwan and further afield. The current structure was erected in 1993.
Growing Ties with Japan
Sugiura’s compelling tale has brought people in Japan and Taiwan closer together. The prominent Chaohuang Temple hosts numerous processions of deities from smaller shrines in the area. Zhenan Temple takes part in these rituals, but for years it lacked a vessel in which to ferry the figure of Sugiura. Wu Jinchi, the head of the temple’s managing committee, communed with the spirit of Sugiura to learn that he wished to be conveyed in a Japanese-made mikoshi, or portable shrine. These were not easy to come by in Taiwan, however, and for years General Flying Tiger’s request went unrequited.
The story eventually reached Nakamura Fumiaki, the head of Kurofune, a Japanese event production firm. He started a volunteer project to provide Zhenan Temple with a mikoshi. The finished portable shrine, tipped with a golden replica of the Zero fighter flown by Sugiura, was dedicated in March 2015 and has become a new symbol of the temple.
The mikoshi made its debut in the procession to Chaohuang Temple in April the same year. More than 200 Japanese moved by Sugiura’s story took part in the raucous festivities.
A Pillar of the Community
Worshipers flock to General Flying Tiger for his benevolence in granting requests, ensuring peace, helping find lost items, and providing life guidance. This generosity has created a deep trust of the deified Sugiura, as illustrated by a recent trend among students to leave photocopies of their test ID numbers at the temple in the hope that the Flying Tiger will help them pass their entrance exams.
Once in the morning, to the tune of the Japanese national anthem, and then again in the evening to the patriotic song “Umi Yukaba” (If I Should Go to Sea), worshipers light cigarettes and set them before the figures of Sugiura. This ritual offering has been carried out each day since 1993. Cigarettes are thought to have been the sole indulgence available to young fighter pilots, who smoked them to calm their nerves before flying into battle. The first time I witnessed this ceremony I was struck by the intense expressions of parishioners as they gazed upon the statues. It was then that I realized just how central General Flying Tiger is in the lives of local residents.
In his deification, Sugiura has blurred the border between Japanese and Taiwanese, having been embraced as a full member of the community. Students at a local elementary school study about him in history class and have staged a play based on his life during the school’s art festival. Wu Jinchi says he hopes that learning about Sugiura will teach children to be compassionate.
When word of Sugiura’s fame reached Fujita Kazuhisa, a fellow Mito native, he began orchestrating a trip home for the local hero. On September 21, 2016, an entourage of 26 parishioners accompanied the figure of Sugiura from Zhenan Temple to Mito. Not wanting to inflict on General Flying Tiger the indignity of flying in cargo, the group even arranged a seat for the returning dignitary.
Back home, Sugiura was honored with a memorial service. Rainy skies failed to dampen the spirits of those gathered for the ceremony, carried out at the Gokoku Shrine in Mito. Afterward, Japanese and Taiwanese attendees placed the figure of Sugiura aboard a mikoshi and together paraded it through the neighborhood. A branch of a local credit association now stands where Sugiura’s home was, but participants marked the spot by erecting a panel telling about the young man’s life.
The trip also included a visit to the elementary school Sugiura attended and the neighboring city of Naka, along with farther excursions to Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, to view Mount Fuji, and to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Guo Qiuyan, a Tainan restaurateur and hotel owner, summed up the visit: “Taking him home was of course wonderful. But we really wanted him to see Mount Fuji again, so it gives us a lot of pleasure to have accomplished that.”
As the group prepared to return home after the week-long trip, Guo said with a smile that he understood Sugiura might want to stay in his home country a little longer, but it was time to return. “The people of Tainan need General Flying Tiger to look after them.”
One episode from the journey was particularly memorable for the participants. After visiting Mito, the group was heading toward Tokyo when the express train they were traveling on was unexpectedly signaled to halt just shy of Arakawaoki Station in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture. After about a minute and a half they got underway again, but the conductor never announced what had caused the light to turn red.By coincidence, the area where they stopped was near the site of Sugiura’s old training grounds at the Kasumigaura air base. It is almost too fantastic to consider that the soul of the young man brought the train to a standstill, but Gou was pleased nonetheless. “He has many memories of the place and I’m thankful for each second he was able to spend there.” (Originally published in Japanese on November 12, 2016. Banner photo: Images of Sugiura Shigemine at Zhenan Temple in Tainan, Taiwan. Offerings of cigarettes are placed before the statues twice daily. All photos © Katakura Yoshifumi.)