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Fighting for Japan: The Korean and Formosan soldiers during WWII

When a soldier serves in a war for his country, it is out of patriotism. But what happens when soldiers fight in a war for a country that colonised them?

After World War II (WWII), many Korean and Taiwanese (Formosan) soldiers were convicted for war crimes alongside Japanese troops.

How did they end up fighting for a nation who conquered their home countries in the first place? Was it voluntary? What happen to them after the war has ended?

The recruitment of Taiwanese Imperial Japan Service

Taiwan and the Penghu Islands were under the Japanese empire between 1895 and 1945.

It started when China’s Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan province in the Treaty of Shimonoseki after Japanese victory in the First Sino-Japanese War.

At first under Japanese rule, the Taiwanese were not allowed to serve in combat and they were working mostly as translators for the Japanese army operating in China.

When the United States joined the war in 1942, Japan started to recruit Taiwanese in combat capacities.

Many Taiwanese joined the service for the sake of their families. Those who served were given extra food for their loved ones.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Formosa was a short-lived republic that existed in Taiwan from May 23 to Oct 21, 1895.

Even though the republic only lasted a few months, many Taiwanese who served during WWII were called Formosan soldiers.

Officially, they were Taiwanese Imperial Japan Servicemen referring to any Taiwanese person who served in the Imperial Japanese Army or Navy during WWII.

Overall, it is estimated a total of 207,182 Taiwanese served in the military of Imperial Japan in both the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII.

Taiwanese servicemen in the Imperial Japanese Army. Credits: Public Domain.

The recruitment of Korean Voluntary Unit

Meanwhile, Korea was officially under the Japanese empire when Japan formally annexed the Korean empire in 1910 in the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910.

Starting from 1938, Japan started to enlist Koreans into the Japanese military as the first Korean Voluntary unit.

By 1944, all Korean males were drafted to either join the Imperial Japanese army or work in military-related industry.

According to Utsumi Aiko of Keisen University, many of these men feared they would be shipped to Japan as indentured servants if they did not join the army.

Others were perhaps attracted by the high pay rates offered, about 50 yen per month, an amount that was considered a large amount at that time.

Korean and Formosan soldiers as Prisoners-of-wars (POWs) camp guards

According to Yuki Tanaka in his book Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, after the Japanese army decided to employ Korean and Formosan soldiers as POW camp guards, they came up with a set of instructions.

Entitled “Outline for Dealing with POWs”, the instruction detailed two principal reasons for the use of non-Japanese guards in prison camps.

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Yuki stated:

“One reason was to destroy the lingering sense of superiority attached to white people by many Asian societies that had been colonised and consequently to elevate the Japanese as ‘white substitutes’. By having Koreans and Formosans guard white prisoners under Japanese command, the Japanese military hoped that the old ‘pecking order’ would be reversed- that non-Japanese Asians would come to see whites as inferior, subjugated people and the Japanese as the ‘natural’ leaders of Asia. The other, more mundane purpose was to free up more Japanese men to be sent to the front line. On May 15, 1942, 10 days after the outline had been distributed, the recruitment of Korean and Formosan guards began.”

These non-Japanese soldiers were trained in Japanese and forbidden to use their native language. They were also given Japanese names.

The Formosan guards were sent mostly to Southeast Asia including Borneo while the Koreans were scattered around the world including the Central Pacific.

The cruelty of Korean and Formosan soldiers

POWs who survived the war claimed that the troops from Japan’s colonies such as Korea and Taiwan were the most vicious abusers of prisoners.

One of them, Arthur Lane told The Telegraph in 2014, “ The Japanese guards were bad, but the Koreans and the Formosans were the worst. These were men who the Japanese looked down on as colonials, so they needed to show they were as good as the Japanese. And they had no one else to take it out on other than us POWs.”

Lane was one of the 180,000 to 250,000 Allied POWs who was sent to work on the infamous Death Railway. In the end, about 102,000 Allied prisoners died.

In another example case of mistreatment of POWs by Korean guards took place in North Sumatra.

Around February 1945, there were 12 Korean guards assigned for approximately 1,500 t o 1,600 prisoners as they were tasked to build a military road.

While it was fortunate that there were no deaths reported during the construction, the guards frequently beat the prisoners who fell out of line to make them keep walking.

This is not the only example of Korean and Formosan soldier’s brutality. Survivors of Batu Lintang POWs camp as well as Sandakan POWs camp had all claimed Formosan soldiers were worse than the Japanese.

Justice Bert Rolling who represented the Netherlands at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal once stated, “Many of the commanders and guards in POW camps were Koreans and it is said that they were sometimes far more cruel than the Japanese.”

Explaining the cruelty of Korean and Formosan soldiers

So why were the Korean and Formosan soldiers cruel towards the POWs?

In the book The Routledge History of Genocide, Cathie Carmichael and Richard C. Maguire stated that the Germans did the much the same in the death camp system, where brutal Ukrainian auxiliaries worked under SS supervision.

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“Japanese officers and soldiers routinely treated Korean and Formosan soldiers with utter contempt, beating and humiliating them even though they were ostensibly allies. In turn, Allied POWs consistently noted that Korean and Formosan guards were among the most brutal of their captors as these humiliated underdogs of the Japanese war machine worked off their shame and loss of face on POWS,” they stated.

Carmichael and Maguire gave an example of Sandakan POW Camp in North Borneo (present-day Sabah). The Australian POWs noticed a dramatic changed in the level of brutality once a large party of Formosan guards arrived in April 1943.

They noted, “The Japanese treated the Formosans as their inferiors and the Formosans took to delivering mass beatings of POW work details under the flimsiest of pretext.”

Meanwhile, Yuki explained there is no coincidence that was why the Korean guards on the Burma-Thailand railway and the Formosan guards in Borneo were capable of great cruelty.

“It was an effect of the power structure that operated within the prison camp system.”

The retaliation of Korean and Formosan guards

There were many instances when these Korean and Formosan guards went against the Japanese soldiers.

In Sandakan, there was a Japanese officer who was murdered by a Formosan guard. According to Michele Cunningham in Hell on Earth: Sandakan-Australia’s greatest war tragedy, the guard was angry because Captain Takakuwa and Lieutenant Suzuki had beaten him for having a dirty rifle.

The beating was a trigger point for him as he was also discontent generally with the way the Japanese treated the non-Japanese guard.

The guard took a rifle and fired at Takakuwa, wounding him in the soldier and then killed Suzuki with a shot right in the head.

He also wounded a couple more soldiers before throwing a grenade that failed to explode. The Formosan guard then committed suicide by shooting himself.

There were cases of Korean and Formosan soldiers, however, who did not abuse the POWs over whom they were left in-charge.

One guard, who went by the name Toyoda Kokichi, would reportedly cook chicken, rice and fish for the POWs with supplies he had bought from local villagers using his own money. Moreover, he would allow the POWs under him to take it easy and work at their own pace.

In most cases, retaliating against the Japanese resulted in severe punishments (sometimes execution) upon the Korean and Formosan soldiers themselves.

Military police guard four Japanese officers of the Borneo Prisoners of War and Internees Guard Unit, outside the Australian 9th Division Headquarters where they were to appear at a war crimes trial, Labuan Island, December 1945. AWM 123170

What happened to the Korean and Formosan soldiers after World War II?

After the Japanese surrendered marking the end of WWII, it also marked the end of Japanese rule over Korea on Aug 15, 1945 as well as over Taiwan.

In total, there were 5,379 Japanese, 173 Formosans and 148 Koreans who were tried.

Of these number, 984 were sentenced to death, 476 to life imprisonment and 2,944 to some of punishments.

As for the Korean and Formosan soldiers, 23 Korean and 26 Formosan were sentenced to death.

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Those who went home alive did not carry on living a normal life.

In 1995, Joan Kwek the daughter of Hugh Waring, one of the Australian officers in Sandakan and Kuching came across a Japanese language book in the National Library of Australia.

The book, the title of which was translated as Cry of the Colonial Soldiers Imprisoned as War Criminals, was written by a former Formosan guard in Kuching named Okabayashi Takemitsu.

Kwek, who was proficient in the Japanese language stated, “The book was a cry of resentment against the Japanese who taught him to be a guard, the Australians who convicted him as a war criminal with a sentence of 15 years, the Australians who mistreated him while a prisoner himself for ten years on remote island prisons near Borneo and New Guinea, the Japanese who said he was no longer Japanese after he finally finished his sentence (Taiwan was by then no longer a Japanese colony), and the Japanese who continue to deny him any form of compensation or pension for his sacrifice in the name of the Emperor.”

Like Okabayashi Takemitsu, many non-Japanese soldiers sought for pension and compensation from the Japanese government after the war.

Some were granted some kind of compensation after battling their pleas in courts, but in most cases the amount was much less than what the Japanese soldiers received.

Not all were happy with the Korean and Formosan soldiers seeking for compensation

Of course, not everyone was happy with the fact that these veterans were seeking for Japanese compensation after the war.

Lane, who had witnessed many atrocities as an Allied POW, was one of them.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Lane said, “These men volunteered and they all knew exactly what they were doing. And they mistreated us because they wanted to please their masters and knew they could get away with it. They joined up for kicks, when Japan was winning the war, and they took advantage of that for their own enjoyment.”

For Lane, instead of getting compensation or apology from the Japanese government, he believed a more fitting result would be to have them taken out and whipped for what they did to the POWs.

In the end, a total of 207,183 Taiwanese served in the Imperial Japanese Army and 30,304 of them were declared killed or missing in action.

It is unsure how many Koreans were missing or killed in action during WWII as they fought for the Japanese. However in 1944, the total number of Korean military personnel was estimated at 242,341.

What do you think KajoReaders? Do you think the Korean and Formosan soldiers deserve apology or compensation from the Japanese government? Let us know in the comment box.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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