Photo/Illutration Lee Teng-hui, left, and Ryotaro Shiba in Taipei in March 1994 (Provided by Shukan Asahi)

TAIPEI--Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui built deep connections in Japan with not only people in politics but also in intellectual circles, stemming from his university days in Kyoto. 

Lee died on July 30. He was 97.

Lee was born in Taiwan, which was under Japanese colonial rule, in 1923.

He entered Kyoto Imperial University, today’s Kyoto University, in 1943 to study agriculture.

But his university days were cut short as Lee joined the Imperial Japanese Army under the student mobilization order the following year.

After leaving the president’s post in 2000, Lee frequently visited Japan to rekindle old friendships with teachers and cohorts at his alma mater.

“When Lee was reunited with his mentors, he repeatedly called out ‘sensei,’ as if he went back in time to when he was a student,” said Kazuhiro Ota, 72, a doctor and Kyoto University graduate.

Ota served as a guide when Lee visited Kyoto in late December 2004. The former Taiwanese president stayed until early January 2005.

Ota remembers Lee visiting one of his mentors, Sukekata Kashiwa, a professor emeritus in agriculture at the university, at his home on a cold snowy day.

Lee straightened up as he sat next to Kashiwa, who died in 2007, and said to his mentor coyly, “It has been more than 60 years already.”

Kashiwa laughed and replied, “Once you become my student, you are forever my student,” Ota recalled.

Lee also visited Ginkakuji temple and the “philosopher’s path” while staying in Kyoto.

He was also eager to visit the grave of Ryotaro Shiba (1923–1996) in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward.

Shiba, a famed writer and historian, visited Taiwan in 1993 for his serial essay in a magazine and met Lee, who was the sitting president then.

The two met again and had a conversation the following year.

Shigetoshi Murai, 62, the editor of the magazine who traveled to Taiwan with Shiba, said, “I felt the two were touching a chord with each other inside their hearts.”

Lee and Shiba were born the same year. Both received their higher education under the old educational system and were mobilized to join the army.

They engage in a lively conversation and apparently could not wait to see each other again in Taiwan.

“Where do you want to go the next time?” Lee asked Shiba, and added, “OK, I’ll take you then.”

During their discussion, Lee explained about the complex history of Taiwan with the expression, “sorrows of being born Taiwanese.”

“Shiba understood Lee well as his contemporary and fostered sympathy for Taiwan’s situation," Murai said. "Lee knew that and trusted that Shiba would understand Taiwan.”

Lee named Shiba as a Japanese he respected when he gave a lecture in Taipei in 2018.

Famed architect Tadao Ando who designed the Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, also had a conversation with Lee.

“He was a big person with a big smile and always put us at ease," Ando said. "He invested energy in building friendly relations between Taiwan and Japan. He continued to think about the future of Asia and the world.”

Lee was well-versed in Japanese culture and philosophy, Ando said.

“I was impressed that when we talked, he, with a friendly smile, spoke eloquently about Shiba’s literature and the philosophies of Tetsuro Watsuji and Kitaro Nishida,” Ando said.

(Yohei Kobayakawa contributed to this article.)