TAIPEI – Toward the end of World War II, following a series of military defeats, and faced with a rapidly deteriorating ability to defend the homeland, Japan began launching aerial suicide attacks on Allied forces in the Pacific.
These were called kamikaze attacks, which had a dramatic effect in the closing months of the war, sinking or badly damaging more than 300 Allied vessels and terrifying the crews of countless more as aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service became pilot-guided missiles.
The most significant effect of the kamikaze program was to convince the United States that Japan was willing to continue the fight whatever the cost, and that drastic measures — including the use of atomic weapons — were needed to end the war.
Casualties among kamikaze pilots were heavy — nearly 4,000 died between October 1944 and the end of the war in August 1945 — and today there remain few survivors.
One who is still very much alive is 89-year-old Taipei resident Liu Shu-fa, who along with thousands of Taiwanese and residents of other Japanese-occupied areas in Asia enlisted in Japan’s war effort.
Born in 1925 in Nantou County, central Taiwan, Liu was the oldest of six children. His father was a public servant employed at a sugar plant and his mother a housewife.
At 15, Liu became a “young boy pilot,” one of 192 recruited from Taiwan in 1940 by the Imperial Japanese Army after a series of stringent examinations.
Following a three-year basic training program, recruits were assigned to one of three schools, depending on their aptitude: aviation, maintenance or communications.
Liu was the only Taiwanese recruit to receive flight training, which at the Army Aviation School usually took about two years.
However, with the Pacific War going badly for Japan, pilots were in high demand. So in 1944, after only 18 months of training, a 19-year-old Liu was graduated and assigned to Cambodia, where he instructed pilots recruited for the Imperial Navy’s new kamikaze program.
Several months later, with war conditions continuing to worsen, Liu himself joined those pilots slated to fly suicide missions.
Kamikaze service was not part of official operations by either the army or navy.
Liu was vague about his reasons for joining. But coercion and peer pressure is said to have played a role in convincing many to “volunteer,” and pilots who did not risked being stigmatized inside and outside the military.
There were positive incentives as well, such as the honor of dying for the emperor and defending the homeland against invasion. Taiwan had been ceded to Japan in 1895 after China lost the First Sino-Japanese War.
In the weeks after his decision, Liu performed rituals that prepared him for the sacrifice to come, including writing a final message to his parents in his own blood, asking them to remember him as a fearless “special attack” warrior.
“I felt more proud to die for the emperor god than sorry to lose my own life,” he said at his Taipei home.
Yet Liu did not lose his life. The Japanese surrendered before a mission could be arranged, and rather than a kamikaze, Liu became a prisoner of war in Cambodia. He said he did hard labor there for nearly a year before being sent to Japan.
At his parents’ request, Liu returned to Taiwan in 1947.
Home meant new problems, however, such as the brutality and corruption of the Nationalist troops who had retreated to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party.
Instead of pursuing higher education, Liu went to work, first as a teacher, then as a technician for the Taiwan Railways Administration.
Liu was not what his employer would call an “ideal employee.” While it was common for soldiers, teachers and public servants to join the Kuomintang, as the Nationalist party was called, to greatly improve their prospects for advancement, Liu declined.
He still regards the Kuomintang as a bad influence on Taiwanese life, reflecting the stubbornness and political conviction that made him a soldier unafraid to die for a cause.
In 1980, Liu applied for early retirement. He could not wait to be free to do as he pleased, including visiting his former comrades in arms in Japan.
Today he likes to attend campaign rallies, mainly in southern Taiwan, where anti-Kuomintang sentiment is widespread.
Liu is a quiet man. His oldest son, Liu Yi-chen, says his father said nothing about his military past, including the often brutal training received in the Imperial Navy Air Service or the two years he spent in Cambodia as a kamikaze instructor, pilot and prisoner of war.
Only in high school did Yi-chen begin to hear stories from his grandparents and others. Even now these strike him as fantastic, though he has long known his father possessed remarkable gifts.
An accountant by trade, Yi-chen says he inherited his mathematical ability from his father, who in the years following the war also taught himself law and architecture. Liu Shu-fa designed the family’s house.
About his war experiences, the elder Liu has mixed feelings.
On one hand, he is proud that he stood up when the call came to do so. He keeps memorabilia of the time in a cookie tin behind his office desk. Among the items it contains is a small white cloth that bears the message he wrote in blood to his parents.
On the other hand, he feels embarrassed.
“They are old stories,” he said. “Nobody is interested.”
He is particularly sensitive about the younger generation, which he says has very different ideas about the past and about people who were raised as Japanese subjects.
Young people think fidelity to the mother country is old-fashioned, Liu’s wife commented, and to sacrifice one’s life to a foreign emperor is foolish.
“They don’t think we deserve their respect,” he said. “But it was a different time.”