Japan and Taiwan: Diplomacy Without Diplomats

Former Child Workers from Taiwan Preserve the Memory of Their Time in Japan

Politics Society

An invitation from a friend introduces Hitoto Tae, the daughter of a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother, to men from Taiwan who served as child workers in Japan’s wartime armament factories.

Invitation to a Reunion

In April this year I received a fax from a Taiwanese friend named Ran inviting me to an event to be held in May by a group called the Taiwan Kōza Kai (“Taiwan Kōza Club”). Ran said a lot of people would be attending from Taiwan. Judging from the name I thought it must be some sort of rakugo event, so I replied by e-mail that I was not really interested in traditional Japanese storytelling. Ran told me that the Taiwan Kōza Kai is a group made up of Taiwanese men who were sent to Japan as child workers to help build warplanes during World War II. This would be one of their periodic reunions.

Kōza is the name of an administrative district in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture. Although now much smaller, Kōza once covered an area that included the present-day cities of Sagamihara and Yamato, as well as Zama, where the reunion was to be held. The old Kōza district was home to many industrial facilities that played their part in the war effort conducted by the old Imperial Army and Navy. I arranged to accompany Ran to the reunion and decided I should find out a few things about the Taiwanese boy workers.

Summoning Boys to Build Warplanes

As the war was nearing an end, with most young Japanese men serving in battle zones overseas, Japan was left without a domestic labor force to build and outfit new aircraft for the war effort. It therefore recruited boys from Taiwan, which was then under Japanese control, to serve as laborers. The requirements were academic excellence, good health, strong moral fiber, and parental consent. For qualified recruits, it was an opportunity to earn the equivalent of a junior high school diploma and embark on the path to becoming an airplane mechanic. Not only that, the Japanese government covered all living expenses and even paid a salary. In light of these incentives, the recruiting effort was highly successful.

In 1943 the first contingent of child laborers, comprising about 1,800 boys around the age of 14, left Taiwan via the port of Kaohsiung and sailed to Yokohama. Over the next year or so 8,400 boys from Taiwan arrived at the Kōza Naval Arsenal.

The Taiwan Kōza Kai was organized in 1988, the year after martial law was finally lifted in Taiwan; it was later renamed the Taiwan Kōza Taiwan-Japan Exchange Association. Former Taiwanese child laborers were invited to Japan in 1993 to observe the fiftieth anniversary of their experience and again for the sixtieth anniversary in 2003. On May 9, 2013, a reunion was held to observe the seventieth anniversary.

Toil without the Tragedy

When the time came we rode the Odakyū Enoshima railway line to Minami-Rinkan Station. A crowd of former boy workers had gathered in front of the station by the time we arrived. I was unprepared for their boisterous enthusiasm. Although elderly, they seemed remarkably robust, as we all clambered aboard the shuttle buses that would take us to the reunion venue. There was quite a din inside the bus, too, amid all the quips being traded in fluent Japanese. The odd bit of wayward grammar was heard here and there, along with occasional admixtures of Taiwanese words.

Some of the men had come alone; others were accompanied by their children and grandchildren. Some were deep in conversation with old friends they hadn’t seen for many years. They spoke of those hard days long ago.

“I left home in Taiwan, where the weather is so mild, with such high hopes. I was amazed at how cold it was in Japan.”

“There was nothing to eat, so we went hungry.”

“I was nearly killed in an air raid.”

All this was said without the slightest hint of tragedy. On the contrary, the atmosphere was of lighthearted chitchat. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all.

Inside the hall the attendees were greeted by their Japanese hosts: “Welcome home.” Thunderous applause followed. A letter of appreciation from former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō was read, and finally Lee Hsueh-feng, head of the Taiwan Kōza Taiwan-Japan Exchange Association, addressed the crowd.

Serving a Nation Not Their Own

Lee Hsueh-feng recalled how, upon returning home following the Japanese defeat, he went on with his life while the Nationalist Party, to which he felt little attachment, assumed control of the Taiwanese government. In 1988, as Taiwan finally emerged from Nationalist rule, he devoted himself to establishing the Taiwan Kōza Kai. He spoke with pride of the reunion in 1993, when former Taiwanese boy laborers returned to Japan to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their initial stay, and concluded by saying “Japan is our second homeland.” This spring the Japanese government honored Lee Hsueh-feng with a decoration known as the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

During a break I had a chance to speak with one of the former boy workers. He told me that, although working in a foreign land amid the cold and hunger was certainly hard for him, the Japanese people seemed to take it all in their stride. People in Kōza shared what food they had and treated him like part of the family. “I spent the golden days of my youth in Japan, so it’s a very special place for me,” he said.

These former boy workers from Taiwan seemed to be born-again Japanese, proud of their service to their adopted homeland. They had caught the Japanese spirit, and even after the war, when they reverted to their original nationality, they held onto that pride and those beliefs. They have never forgotten the kindness they were shown, and they still cherish their bond with Japan.

The Inner Japan

During the period when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, from 1895 to 1945, Japanese culture was imported and the Japanese language was taught in schools. This is the essential historical background for any discussion of the relationship between the two countries. The former boy laborers, whose average age is 85, experienced this period firsthand.

My father is Taiwanese. Born in 1928, he lived through this period as well. I wrote about his life in a book called Watashi no shanzu (My Box); a translation was published in Taiwan in March this year. In writing about my father, I learned about the relationship between Taiwan and Japan, which had never interested me before. For the first time, I thought about the conundrum that must have haunted my father in those turbulent times—the question of identity. Was he Taiwanese or Japanese?

He continued to struggle with this question after the war, so much that he was unable to concentrate on work and succumbed to depression. It was as though I could see the face of my father, torn between two homelands, overlaid upon those of the former boy workers. Each may have his own different feelings toward it, but each of them has his own inner Japan whose existence cannot be denied.

Like Sisters, For More Than a Century

In Japan Taiwan is known mainly for its strenuous form of therapeutic massage and its delicious steamed buns, known in Japanese as shōronbō. Beyond that, however, all most people seem to know about Taiwan is that it is relatively pro-Japanese. After the Great East Japan Earthquake, when people learned that Taiwan was one of the top overseas donors of relief funding, many were amazed. I was one of them.

At the time, Taiwan’s generosity was merely seen as a byproduct of the fact that Taiwan tends to be pro-Japanese, which is a pity. Behind that gesture is a long history, not to mention the existence of a group like the Taiwan Kōza Kai. That history includes terrible times and cruel suffering, but with the passage of time people have absorbed and digested such things. That process, I’ve realized, has brought us to the present day.

It may be because I myself am the older of two sisters, but I think of the relationship between Japan and Taiwan, which goes back more than a century, as a bond between sisters. In the immediate aftermath of the March 11 disaster Taiwan assumed the big-sister role, virtually leading the world in providing relief to its stricken little sister, Japan. Back in 1999, when Taiwan was reeling from the impact of a major earthquake, it was Japan, the first country to send in rescue teams, who played the big sister.

Taiwan is sometimes the big sister, sometimes the little sister. As sisters do, Taiwan and Japan help each other out but also quarrel from time to time. But there is never any real estrangement. Whatever happens, they eventually end up on good terms with one another again.

Legacy of the Boy Workers

“Thousands of miles from home,” goes the song sung at this year’s Taiwan Kōza Kai reunion. Including the Japanese people in attendance, nearly 1,000 people had gathered for the event, and none sang more fervently than the former boy laborers from Taiwan. My friend Ran sang with tears in his eyes.

About 1,400 former boy laborers returned to Japan from Taiwan in 1993 for the fiftieth-anniversary reunion; 740 came back for the sixtieth anniversary. Only 250 were in attendance at this year’s event, and it is not hard to understand the declining numbers. By the time the eightieth anniversary is commemorated in 2023, the average age of the former boy laborers will be 95. No one knows how many will be able to attend that one. “The sad thing,” I heard someone say, “is that this could be our last reunion.”

I hope not. I hope the Taiwan Kōza Kai will go on down to the very last survivor, and even after none of the former boy workers are left, so that their dreams and determination can be handed down to the rest of us. Their lives should always be remembered as a symbol of the bond between Japan and Taiwan. I will do what I can to make it so.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 17, 2013.)

Top photograph: The author visits the town of Jiufen in northern Taiwan. (Photograph by Kumagai Toshiyuki.)

Great East Japan Earthquake Japan Taiwan Imperial Army Imperial Navy boy laborers Koza reunion Japanese rule