As a young man, Teng Sheng spent his days toiling under a tropical sun, growing pumpkins, eggplants and cucumbers on a remote South Pacific island to help feed the Japanese Imperial Navy.

On Aug. 11, 1944, the sky suddenly darkened as a formation of American warplanes roared overhead, he recalled recently, and he fell among the emerald fields in a hail of machine-gun bullets.

Teng lost an arm, an eye and the hearing in one ear in that encounter and, today, his body carries enough shrapnel to set off a metal detector. Now 61 and a wizened farmer in his native Taiwan, he is bitter, he said, because the Japanese government has refused him compensation for his wartime injuries and the resulting hardships.

He is one of 210,000 Taiwanese who, as the emperor's then-colonial subjects, were sent to the Pacific front to serve as civilian laborers or troops. Of those, 31,000 were killed in action, and Tokyo, throughout the postwar era, has stepped back from offering aid to the surviving family members or the disabled veterans themselves.

After three decades without relief, Teng said he decided to sue the Japanese government in 1977, helped by lawyers affiliated with the Japanese Civil Liberties Union, in hopes of forcing the issue.

Teng's suit, involving 12 other Taiwanese plaintiffs each claiming roughly $23,000 in damages, has been widely viewed here as a test case that could pave the way for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other Taiwanese claimants.

A Tokyo district court ruling against the plaintiffs several weeks ago, however, dimmed those prospects and touched off a controversy here over the question of Japan's lingering liabilities for World War II.

In announcing the district court's decision, Judge Ichiji Makiyama said that he could not "help but sympathize" with the plight of the plaintiffs. But he rejected their bid on the ground that they lost their eligibility for pensions and disability payments under Japanese law when Taiwan, a colony of 50 years, was returned to China after World War II and they lost their Japanese citizenship. The decision is now on appeal to a higher Japanese court.

Like his fellow plaintiffs, Teng was educated in the Japanese language by teachers sent from Japan who taught him, he said in an interview in Tokyo, the "glorious history of the Japanese empire. No one was happy about going to war. . . . But we were told all the time about the duty of Japanese subjects toward the nation and the emperor, and I considered myself a native Japanese."

To counter charges of coldheartedness, a group of Japanese parliamentarians, with the support of the country's ruling Liberal Democrats, has pledged to push ahead with legislation to honor Taiwanese war victims' claims.

Sakonshiro Inamura, who heads the group, told reporters recently, "This is a humanitarian problem, and . . . the entire nation must rise to solve it . It is important that the Japanese show their sincerity."

A senior Japanese government official asserted that "the problem is a very difficult one" because of the fact that Japan has had no diplomatic ties with the government in Taipei since it normalized relations with mainland China in 1972. He also suggested that the national treasury's bulging deficits and Tokyo's current fiscal austerity drive could further complicate the issue.

Hideo Akimoto, who heads the public-interest lawyers' group representing Teng and his colleagues, expressed exasperation with what he interprets as government foot-dragging: "It was the Japanese nation that had them go to the front and got them injured. It's a matter of responsibility. If Japan had no material wherewithal, it would be different story. But Japan is a rich country."

Teng, acting as the spokesman for five plaintiffs in Tokyo for the reading of the verdict, said the struggle for compensation began in earnest in 1952 with the San Francisco peace treaty that formally ended the Pacific war.

Under a separate agreement between Japan and the Chinese nationalist government in Taipei, which fled the Chinese mainland after the communist takeover in 1949, the issue of compensation was, in principle, left open to further negotiations.

But Japanese officials now maintain that agreement became void in 1972 when Japan broke diplomatic relations with Taipei. At that time, 61,000 cases involving Taiwanese war claims were reportedly under review by Tokyo, but they have since been dropped.

Caught in the crosscurrent of postwar diplomacy, Teng and his friends--most of whom are missing arms, legs, eyes or fingers--said they were encouraged to press their claims further in 1974 when Teuo Nakamura, a Taiwanese in Japan's imperial Army, stumbled naked out of the jungles in Indonesia after hiding out for nearly three decades. He was unaware that the war was over.

The Japanese ultimately paid the straggler $12,000 in "sympathy" money and pension payments, although Tokyo originally intended to give him only $350 in back pay.

Teng said, "We thought if Nakamura could get money, those of us who sacrificed parts of our bodies surely deserved it." After repeated rejections by the Japanese welfare bureaucracy, Teng and his colleagues finally went to court in 1977.

It was early in 1943, he remembered, that he was summoned to his local town office where Japanese colonial authorities told him that he had the "great honor" to have been selected as a "volunteer" for an agricultural development team in the South Pacific.

In July, he shipped out for Rabaul, a major Japanese military staging area on the eastern tip of New Britain Island, now a part of Papua New Guinea. Above his vegetable patch ranged some of the most ferocious air combat of the Pacific war as American warplanes battered away almost daily at the faltering Japanese stronghold.

After he was wounded, Teng left Rabaul with other heavily injured Taiwanese who had been told they were being sent to Japan for medical treatment. When their troopship put in at a Taiwanese port, however, they were ordered ashore.

In Taiwan, "life was very hard," Teng said. "I wanted to work, but my physical condition meant that no one wanted to hire me."

He was also viewed as "one of the former enemies of China" and suggested he suffered discrimination from Taiwan's new Chinese nationalist government, which refused to provide for disability or medical treatment, charging that it was Japan's responsibility.

"For the Japanese who were returned to Japan, they were treated warmly, both spiritually and materially. But the Japanese told us that we weren't Japanese anymore. That was intolerable," Teng said bitterly. "Japan has no morals, humanity or sense of justice."

At the same time, Teng and his colleagues said they were deeply touched by an outpouring of sympathy and encouragement from private Japanese citizens and former Japanese imperial military officers following the recent district court decision, which has included unsolicited cash donations of more than $6,000.

The group plans to drop its court appeal if Japanese parliamentarians make good on their pledge to legislate a settlement to the issue. But "I'm afraid we can't put too much trust in the Japanese government," Teng said.

Editorials in Japanese newspapers, meanwhile, drew attention to what they viewed as the dramatic contrast between Japan's treatment of Taiwanese war victims and a group of 60 Japanese war "orphans" now living in mainland China who visited Japan this month. Amid fanfare and press coverage, they came here to seek out the parents and relatives who were forced to abandon them as infants while fleeing from advancing Russian troops at the end of World War II in China.

"This showed the feeling among Japanese," said Takao Tokuoka, a senior writer for a major daily, "that once a Japanese, always a Japanese" and that they should make great efforts to return the orphans to their proper place, which is, of course, Japan."

The Japanese, who tend to picture themselves as a flawlessly homogeneous nation, think in terms of "us" and "them," according to Tokuoka, and "if someone has Japanese blood, then they become 'us,' like the orphans. But the Taiwanese are seen as outsiders."