Japan’s present met its past met its present, four decades ago, by a river in a rainforest on the island of Lubang. The encounter took place late in the tropical dusk of 20 February 1974, as the breeze died and the air grew thick with flying insects. Representing the present was a college drop-out by the name of Norio Suzuki, 24 years old and clad in a T-shirt, dark blue trousers, socks, a pair of rubber sandals. He was stooping, making up a fire from a pile of twigs and branches, quite unaware that he was watched. The past, meanwhile, peered out from the cover of the jungle, wondering if the young man was some sort of trap. The man gazing from the forest fringe wore the remnants of an army uniform, and he carried a rifle. At the time of the encounter, he had been hiding in the interior of Lubang for almost 30 years, steadfastly continuing to wage a war that had ended with Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.
The past’s name was Hiroo Onoda. He was an intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, he was then just shy of his fifty-second birthday, and he was about to become famous.
Onoda had been on Lubang since 1944, a few months before the Americans invaded and retook the Philippines. The last instructions he had received from his immediate superior ordered him to retreat to the interior of the island – which was small and in truth of minimal importance – and harass the Allied occupying forces until the IJA eventually returned. “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand,” he was told. “It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him.
“You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.”
Onoda complied with such determination that he ignored repeated efforts to persuade him to surrender – by leaflet drop, by loudspeaker and by patrols on the ground – and continued to take the war to the local people. Over the course of three decades, he and a dwindling band of companions killed 30 Lubang islanders and wounded 100 more in a sporadic guerrilla campaign that saw the once-mighty Imperial Army reduced to the assassination of some cows and the occasional immolation of piles of harvested rice farmed close to the jungle’s edge. After the loss of the last of his four men in a firefight with the local police, Onoda soldiered on alone.
That shootout proved to be a transformative moment in Onoda’s life. The local Filipinos were, of course, perfectly aware that survivors of the old Japanese army of occupation were living somewhere on their island; so too was their government, and the government of Japan. But never before had the story been tangible enough to attract interest from the world’s press. Only now – with the discovery of indisputable proof of the stragglers’ existence in the form of the body of Onoda’s companion, Private Kinshichi Kozuka – did journalists begin to write extensively about the holdouts of Lubang. Increasingly, too, their stories focused on Onoda, and the likelihood that he had survived the skirmish to live on somewhere in the jungle.
It was this press coverage that attracted the attention of Norio Suzuki, who had recently returned from several years of wandering across Asia and was in search of another adventure. Few, if any, took him seriously when he announced his intention of going in search of “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order;” several substantial expeditions, after all, had already tried and failed to coax Onoda from his hiding place. But Suzuki had one substantial advantage over those who had preceded him: his one-man search party was so self-evidently eccentric and absurd that Onoda did not feel threatened when he stumbled across the young man in the jungle. Instead – after a careful reconnaissance had convinced him that there was no-one else lurking nearby – he emerged and confronted the intruder.
“If he had not been wearing socks,” Onoda would write later, “I might have shot him. But he had on these thick woollen socks, even though he was wearing sandals. The islanders would never do anything so incongruous.
He stood up and turned around. His eyes were round… he faced me and saluted. Then he saluted again. His hands were trembling, and I would have sworn his knees were too.
He asked, “Are you Onoda-san?”
“Yes, I’m Onoda.”
“Really, Lieutenant Onoda?”
I nodded, and he went on.
“I know you’ve had a long, hard time. The war’s over. Won’t you come back to Japan with me?”
His use of polite Japanese expressions convinced me that he must have been brought up in Japan, but he was rushing things too much. Did he think he could just make the simple statement that the war was over and I would go running back to Japan with him? After all those years, it made me angry.
“No, I won’t go back! For me, the war hasn’t ended!”
Of all the things that Onoda said that day – or would say, at considerable length, after Suzuki returned a few weeks later with formal orders from Japan for the lieutenant to lay down his arms – it was this last statement that resonated most strongly. It was a sentiment received more warmly by old soldier’s former enemies, who found that there was something to admire in his steadfastness and selflessness, than it was in his homeland, still then struggling to come to terms with wartime militarism, and profoundly suspicious of those who stood for loyalty to the old regime. (For most Japanese, Beatrice Trefalt points out, Onoda was “only admirable in the most acutely uncomfortable way.”) In the end, though, he won everybody over. Eloquent, a natural actor, and oddly comfortable in the spotlight, the former jungle-dweller had little difficulty in presenting himself as a man who stood for simplicity and self-reliance, not aggression and imperialism. Even his sceptical countrymen came to see in him things – important things – that they had lost.
There was little sympathy in the Japan of 1974, it’s safe to say, for the government, the armed forces, or the ideology responsible for the Rape of Nanking in 1937 or the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 – not even among those who grasped the lack of natural resources on the home islands that had helped to set the country on the path to war, or who otherwise subscribed to the avowedly anti-colonial aims for which it had – ostensibly – been fought. But a good deal of time had passed since 1945. Half of the country’s population had been born after the end of the war, and had no personal memory of its events, of wartime propaganda, or of the hideous way in which it had been ended by mushroom clouds. For many of them, the army stragglers of the postwar period were not only stark reminders of Japan’s aggressive recent past, but also standard bearers for an era of shared values. Embittered ex-soldiers were not the only people in the Japan of the mid-70s who saw the younger generations as spoiled, fixated on consumer goods, and tainted by the importation of western fashions and western music.
When it is remembered how Japan fought its war – pushing out the boundaries of its empire until it encompassed much of China, the whole of south-east Asia and Indonesia, and half the vast expanse of the Pacific, and then seeing that empire fall to pieces in a series of suicidal last stands, fought across tens of thousands of square miles of territory, which generally left barely any surviving witnesses – it is hardly surprising that the country experienced incredible difficulties in establishing who had lived and who had died during the last days of the conflict. Surrender left 3.5 million surviving Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen stranded overseas, just over a million of whom were stationed in the Philippines, in Indonesia and on various Pacific islands. It took three years to complete their repatriation, and, even then, thousands of those unfortunate enough to have been stranded behind the Iron or the Bamboo Curtains did not make it home until years later. Modern Japan still witnesses the return of a steady stream of 100 or so “war babies” each year – now-ageing adults who were born in China during the war years and grew to adulthood there in a country wracked by civil war and revolution.
The number of Japanese whose fates remained unknown in these chaotic circumstances makes for stark reading. The Navy alone posted the names of 720,000 “missing” in 1946, and although the post-war Bureau of Repatriate Welfare– established not only to return men stationed overseas to their homeland, but also to account for those who died – did heroic work in combing records and interviewing survivors, that number still stood at 561 in 1950, the year in which all those still unaccounted for were officially presumed dead.
It is scarcely surprising, then, that so-called “bone-collecting missions,” sent to scour the Pacific in search of remains that could be returned to families, stumbled occasionally upon small groups of stragglers. The first to be reported was a band of eight soldiers found living in the interior of New Guinea, who told their rescuers they had spent the four years since the end of the war living on “mice and potatoes.” By far the most notorious were the 21 imperial subjects rounded up on the little island of Anatahan in 1951. Like several other such groups, they had had the good fortune to be stationed on an island leapfrogged by the American advance, and survived the next six years almost entirely unmolested. The most interesting thing about them – at least in the eyes of a prurient press – was the presence among the group of a solitary woman, Higa Kazuko, who was widely said to have become the object of several violent struggles for her affections. According to the more highly-coloured accounts of the Anatahan story, 11 of the 30 navy sailors stranded on the island died as a result – four of whom had at one time or another considered themselves to be Kazuko’s “husband.”
On the whole, however, tales of the discovery of Japanese stragglers in the Pacific attracted remarkably little attention as late as the 1960s. There were several reasons for this. The most important, certainly at first, was was the more or less conscious desire of many Japanese to put their wartime experiences behind them. “The war dead,” notes Trehaft, “by virtue of their sacrifice and their absence, could be forgiven and commemorated to a degree, but those who came back, even much later, were far more ambiguous.” Not only had they taken part in the wrong war, and failed to win it; they had also failed to die. This attitude did soften over time; five more stragglers discovered in New Guinea in 1955 were briefly hailed as “living spirits of the war dead.” But it was not until as late as 1972 – the year that Onoda’s companion Kazuko was killed – that the return of a Japanese holdout first attracted worldwide attention.
It helped that, in this case, the circumstances were truly extraordinary. Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi had survived in the jungles of the American island of Guam by spending his days hiding in an elaborately-constructed hole in the ground. Undignified as this existence may have been, he had certainly been ingenious and resilient, and he was warmly welcomed on his eventual return to Japan. Indeed, it proved possible to make a virtue of the fact that Yokoi had done little more than simply stay alive, and the awkward circumstance that his capture was far from heroic – he was taken, half-starving, by a group of villagers who stumbled across him as he scrabbled for shrimps in a stream. Yokoi was lauded as someone who was self-evidently “special”; he had been a tailor before the war, and much praise was lavished on his ability to fashion buttons and shoes for himself, as well as on the self-taught skills that had enabled him to avoid eating any of the poisonous local plants and wildlife, which had proved fatal to two early companions. Emerging from the jungle as a pronounced critic of Japan’s wartime leadership (including the untouchable Emperor Hirohito), Yokoi could also be convincingly portrayed as a victim – of his own inadequate education, of his military training, of the deliberate ignorance of current affairs that was a prominent feature of IJA propaganda, and of wartime censorship and repression.
Sergeant Yokoi had one other lesson to teach, as well. His motive for not giving himself up years earlier – though he had been perfectly aware as early as 1952 that the war was over – had nothing to do with a desire to fight on for his emperor. Knowing that his army’s bushido code enjoined self-sacrifice or suicide, not self-preservation, he frankly admitted that he had feared he would be considered a deserter, court-martialled, and probably executed if he was ever repatriated.
It seems remarkable now – as it seemed peculiar then – that two such utterly different stragglers as Yokoi and Onoda emerged from two different jungles, on two different islands, within a few months of one other. Yokoi was a conscript, a non-commissioned officer, and a pacifist who had hidden in a hole in the ground, dined for years on snails and lizards, emerged from the jungle dirty and ill, with a rifle so corroded it was useless, and who was more than ready to admit that the entire war had been a mistake. Onoda was an officer who had been through the IJA’s elite Nakano School for commandos, who lived as he pleased in the interior of Lubang, kept his rifle gleaming, and who still took the war to the enemy whenever he could. Onoda had kept himself in peak condition for more than three decades; by the time he encountered Norio Suzuki he was far healthier and fitter than the average Japanese his age. It was easy to conclude (as many people did) that the difference between Onoda and Yokoi was “the difference between a samurai and a commoner.”
What is almost always forgotten, though, in contemplating the intriguing contrasts between the holdouts of Lubang and Guam, is that a third straggler emerged from the jungles only a few months after Onoda’s surrender – in fact, as a direct consequence of the immense burst of publicity that accompanied it. His name was Teruo Nakamura, he was the “last of the last” to return home of all the stragglers who fought on after 1945 – and he was as different to Onoda and Yokoi as they were to each other. Indeed, Nakamura has been so very forgotten, and was so very different, that it’s well worth considering his oddly problematic case in detail.
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Nakamura had grown up in Formosa (Taiwan) – then a Japanese possession that had been seized from China at the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Born in 1923, he was a member of the indigenous aboriginal peoples who by then comprised only a small minority of the island’s population. His real name, it appears, was Attun Palalin, but he adopted a Japanese one when he was conscripted (or volunteered; there seems to be no consensus here) and joined the war effort in 1943. After completing basic training, he was sent with his unit to the Indonesian island of Morotai a few months before it was attacked by the advancing Americans.
Nakamura, then, was not Japanese, and he and his comrades occupied an at best marginal position in the Imperial Army’s order of battle. One of his motives for joining up in the first place – to fight in a war that only about 8,500 Taiwanese took a direct part in – may have been to elevate his status; indigenous men who joined the Imperial forces ranked above the local Chinese in the eyes of the island’s administrators. But it was a decision that also placed him in a position of considerable danger. Taiwan’s “special volunteer soldiers” were earmarked by their Japanese superiors to spearhead dangerous missions, and expended as cannon fodder in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. As Trefalt points out, Nakamura’s very survival “thus inescapably brought into the public sphere the legacies of Japanese imperialism.”
The wartime choices forced on Nakamura’s unit were similar to those made by many other IJA troops confronting Allied landings on small islands. Forced to make the best of limited supplies, faced by overwhelming numbers, and lacking proper air support, they either sacrificed themselves in hopeless attempts at defence, or retreated into the interior. Morotai – an island of about 700 square miles, five times the size of Onoda’s Lubang – was large enough to make the latter option a realistic one, and Nakamura was fortunate that his unit was ordered to disperse and commence a guerilla campaign soon after the invasion happened. By the time the war actually ended, 11 months later, he was part of a dwindling group of soldiers that seems to have repeatedly dispersed and coalesced, breaking into ever smaller parties to hunt for food deep in the jungle, and regularly losing members to starvation and disease. According to the survivors of one of these small parties – nine men who were discovered and repatriated in 1956 – Nakamura possessed a high degree of self-sufficiency. He went off to live on his own in the jungle between 1946 and 1947, returned to the main group in 1950, and then disappeared again a few years later.
It was generally supposed by the other troops that Nakamura had died somewhere in the jungle. In fact he survived and lived on alone, catching fish in the rivers, maintaining his rifle (but not using it to hunt for fear of being heard and found by local people), and eventually settling down in a remote cleft in Morotai’s southern mountains. There he gradually hacked out a clearing in the rainforest in which he could cultivate red peppers, bananas, taro and paw-paw.
It is difficult to know quite how alone Nakamura was during these years. Some local testimony suggests that he continued to roam in search of food to supplement his diet, and was spotted in the jungle from time to time – a distant figure, all but naked on a hillside. Planes from an Indonesian air base on Morotai also overflew the jungle on occasion, and, over the years, their pilots logged evidence of human activity in some oddly remote areas. But knowledge of the possible existence of Japanese stragglers on the island remained confined to the base until the worldwide publicity that accompanied Onoda’s surrender in 1974 jogged some memories, and word of the pilots’ sightings at last reached the members of a Bureau of Repatriate Welfare bone-collecting mission that called at Morotai late in the same year.
Word was passed to the Japanese embassy in Jakarta, and thence to Tokyo, which formally requested the help of the Indonesian government. It proved to be not too difficult to pinpoint Nakamura’s position from the air, but actually reaching his clearing on foot was a different proposition. It took the men of an Indonesian army unit three days to trek through the jungle from the nearest road, and – confronted by an unknown adversary who was quite possibly armed – they chose to adopt some unorthodox tactics when approaching him.
The 11 soldiers who reached what would be dubbed “Nakamura City” on the morning of 18 December 1974 had made careful preparations for their encounter with the lonely soldier. They had memorised the words of the Japanese national anthem – which they sang in unison as they emerged from the jungle – and, in addition, had equipped themselves with a photo of a geisha. (They were not the only ones to assume that a man who had spent years alone in the jungle would be interested in women; Norio Suzuki had gone to Lubang equipped with a small stock of softcore pornography, which he attempted to share with Onoda – an offer that his quarry brusquely rejected.) As things turned out, however, there was no need for touches such as these. Nakamura – who was “painfully thin and plainly terrified” – offered no resistance, though, like Yokoi, he seems to have remained convinced for several days that he faced execution on his extraction from the jungle.
Nakamura was taken to Jakarta and hospitalised. Indonesians, meanwhile, woke to newspaper reports that made much of the ingenuity he had displayed in surviving for so long. He had built himself a sturdy shack, and carved a rough map of his surroundings on a stone; he had attempted to tame a wild boar and a moleyu bird for company. According to the people of Dehegila, the jungle village closest to his base, he had even made friends with a local hunter, who occasionally brought him gifts of salt and sugar. In time, the villagers would erect a statue to commemorate Nakamura’s life on Morotai, remembering him as “the good Japanese,” who, during his first weeks in the jungle, had rescued a local girl when she was attacked by other members of his unit.
For much of the rest of the world, however, Japan’s final straggler was something of a disappointment. Nakamura’s robust self-sufficiency was admirable in its own way, but it paled in contrast to Onoda’s nearly 30 years of active service, and he possessed nothing of the Japanese lieutenant’s flair for the dramatic, or his ease in front of the world’s press. It was even difficult to decide who, precisely, Nakamura was. By the time that he walked out of the jungle, history had rendered him effectively stateless. The Japanese empire that he had served was long defunct. Taiwan had become the seat of a Chinese nationalist government. And though he himself expressed a wish to be “repatriated” to Japan, he had never been there, and – it emerged – had no right to live there, either.
Of all the stragglers who staggered from bolt-holes across the Pacific in the years 1945-1974, then, Teruo Nakamura was the most marginal and the hardest to categorise. But if Hiroo Onoda was interesting largely for his dogged adherence to a state, a mindset and a way of life that had vanished in the 1940s, Nakamura stands as a sort of mirror image of him. His story is worth telling less for what he did during his long years in the jungle than for what his emergence meant for 1970s Japan.
Certainly the appearance of an indigenous soldier from Taiwan was a considerable embarrassment to a country as determined as Japan was to slough off its imperial past. Many Japanese felt that Nakamura deserved some sort of compensation for his years of loyalty to their nation, and there was consternation when it was discovered that the back pay due to him for his three decades of service was a mere 68,000 yen (about $230 then, $1,110 now). The testimony of Nakamura’s fellow Morotai veterans, brought out of the jungle in 1956, was also sought. It cast doubt on the reputation for ingenuity and self-sufficiency that Yokoi and Onoda had helped to bolster – “It was really good for the Japanese soldiers that we were there. When they were out of food, we helped them, over and over again.” The veterans also revealed an ugly side to the country’s treatment of its Taiwanese soldiers. Nakamura himself dropped angry hints that he had fled into the jungle because he feared that the Japanese survivors in his group were plotting his murder, and while his former comrades in arms had been permitted to settle in Japan, it emerged that they had had to pay their own hospital bills on reaching Tokyo, and had spent the past few decades labouring for low pay on road gangs: “Everyone was quite unfriendly. We really got done over, didn’t we?”
Some good did come of all these revelations. An Association for the Warm Welcome of Teruo Nakamura was formed, and its members not only organised the collection of 4.25 million yen from the government and the Japanese people (about $14,000 then, $62,000 now) but pressed for the a law that, passed belatedly in 1987, required the state to pay 2m yen to to every surviving Taiwanese veteran, and the same sum to the bereaved families of those killed in the war.
Nakamura’s own experiences of peace were problematic. Asked by one journalist how he felt about “wasting” three decades of his life on Morotai, he angrily replied that the years had not been wasted – he had been serving his country. But the country he returned to was Taiwan, and when he disembarked at Taipei, early in January 1975, it was to discover that his wife had had a son whom he had never met – and that, despairing that he would ever return to her, she had remarried a decade after he had been declared officially dead.
Nakamura went off to live with a daughter, but he did enjoy a happy ending of a sort. His wife reconsidered her position, and dropped her second husband to reoncile with him. The couple renewed their marriage vows and went off to start a new life in another town. Nakamura lived for four more years before succumbing to lung cancer in 1979.
Perhaps it can be left to Shoichi Yokoi to sum up something of what it mean to be a Japanese straggler, surviving alone for years in enemy territory. He had retained some faith, he said, in an eventual rescue; knowing as he did that Japan had lost the war he fought in, he nonetheless believed that it would fight again, and that eventually it would re-invade Guam. In anticipation of that day – which he at first estimated to be no more than 10 years’ hence – he had kept a sort of calendar, tracking the waxing and the waning of the moon. And, to keep himself occupied while he was waiting, he had reminisced; after bathing in a stream each night, he said, he had lain back to enjoy the cool breeze through the bamboos, and thought about his family.
Asked by a young nephew how he had lasted so long, on a small island on which his hideout was only a mile or two from a vast American air base, Yokoi answered very simply. “I was really good at hide and seek,” he said.
Norio Suzuki, the discover of Hiroo Onoda, enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and went on to achieve the second of his ambitions, locating a giant panda in the wild in China. Although he claimed to have sighted a group of no fewer than five Abominable Snowmen from a distance while exploring the Himalayas, he continued his quest in the hope of a much closer encounter. He died in the high mountains in an avalanche in 1986.
Higa Kazuko, the solitary woman on Anatahan, returned home to Okinawa and became a respected high school principal.
Shoichi Yokoi married on his return to Japan in 1972 and lived quietly in the city of Nagoya. In 1974, he stood unsuccessfully for a seat in Japan’s Lower House. He died in 1997, some time after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It was widely believed that he had deliberately starved himself to death rather than become a burden to his wife.
Hiroo Onoda became a celebrity. At the airport, on his return to Japan, his aged parents were thrust aside by a phalanx of policians eager to press their business cards into his hand. He published a book of ghostwritten memoirs and spent some time cattle-ranching in Brazil, but eventually returned to Japan, where he established a successful survival school.
Widely lauded and admired overseas, Onoda remained a divisive figure in his homeland. At one point, the father of his long-time companion Kinshichi Kozuka confronted him and accused him of responsibility for his son’s death. His ghostwriter, Shin Ikeda, later published his own version of events, titled Fantasy Hero, in which he stated that he saw Onoda as neither a hero nor a brave man.
He died, aged 91, in January 2014.
Appendix: Some notes on later holdouts
Teruo Nakamura was the last of the World War II stragglers who fought on, not knowing that the war was over, and survived to return home. But he may not have been the last of all Japanese holdouts. In the years since his discovery, a number of superficially credible reports concerning other possible survivors have popped up in the media and in personal accounts written by travellers to the region. At least one of these seem to have been a hoax; others may refer to soldiers who lived on after Nakamura’s surrender. If they did, these men are all surely now dead, but it does not seem utterly impossible that some survived for as long as 50 or even 60 years after the Japanese surrender – not in absolute isolation, most probably, but by integrating themselves into local societies. Here are brief summaries of their cases.
1960s-1970s. Vella Lavella, Solomon Islands. Vella Lavella is the northernmost island in the New Georgia group, midway along the Solomons chain; the same group also contains Kolombangara (see below). The island was strongly garrisoned by two Imperial Army regiments, together with support units, and was the scene of fierce fighting in July and August 1943.
As many as 300 Japanese may have fled into the interior, and rumours that several members of this group – “with long beards and wearing loin cloths” – continued to hold out on the island surfaced in 1959. Waterproofed leaflets were dropped in the interior in about 1965 an attempt to secure their surrender. Although it is occasionally reported that one man was located and repatriated, the reality is that no-one emerged from the jungle then or later. An account of a repatriation dated to 1978 and published in the 6th edition of Stanley’s The South Pacific Handbook appears to be a corrupted retelling of the 1965 search.
1980. Mindoro, Philippines. The news agency Agence France-Presse reported early in April that a Japanese soldier, Sergeant Fumio Nakahara, was continuing to hold out at Mount Halcon, on the island of Mindoro in the southern Philippines, about 100 miles south of Manila. Like Onoda, Nakahara was said to be a member of an IJN intelligence unit.
Reports of Nakahara’s supposed activities had reached Japan as early as 1957, and a former comrade by the name of Isao Mayazawa led several attempts to find him. He almost succeeded, an AFP dispatch said, in the spring of 1980 when, after trekking for a week “through thick forests and across rivers and deep ravines to find and bring back the straggler,” he located what he and his companions decided must be Nakahara’s hut. They waited a few days at the site, but saw no-one, so left notes urging the holdout to surrender.
It is unclear, in the available reports, how Mayazawa and his team reached the conclusion that they had located Nakahara’s base; my suspicion is that the identification may have been made by local guides rather than as a result of the discovery of any explicitly Japanese artefacts. If so, the suggestion should be treated with considerable scepticism, and certainly there is no firm evidence that Nakahara himself survived even as late as 1980, much less beyond that date.
1989. Malaysia. It would be perfectly possible to make the case that Shigeyuki Hashimoto and Kiyoaki Tanaka, not Teruo Nakamoto, were the last true Japanese holdouts from World War II. The two men returned to Japan in the first days of 1990 after belatedly laying down their arms at a jungle base on the Malaysian-Thai border on 2 December 1989. They had been fighting first the British and then the forces of the Malaysian government ever since the surrender of the Japanese forces in the Malay peninsula in August 1945.
There seem to be several reasons why Nakamoto – who was by then 71 – and Tanaka – 77 – are so poorly remembered and so seldom considered alongside the likes of Yokoi, Onoda and Nakamura. One is that neither man had been a soldier of IJA; they had been civilians, sent to Malaysia to work for a private company, who only took up arms after the end of the war. Another is that they had been perfectly aware at the time that Japan had surrendered; these men fought on not out of ignorance, but for an ideology. That made it hard, indeed pretty much impossible, to view them as unfortunate victims of Japanese militarism in the way that other Japanese holdouts were characterised.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the ideology that the two had dedicated nearly half a century to fighting for was an unpopular one. Hashimoto and Tanaka had joined forces with communist guerrillas dedicated to the overthrow of the Malaysian government. They had, certainly, fought long and hard – they were the sole survivors of a group of 15 who had gone into the jungle to continue the fight against European imperialism at the war’s end. But despite achieving considerable success during the 1950s, Malaysia’s communists had been unable to achieve their strategic aims; defeated by an innovative, if brutal, British counter-insurgency campaign, the cause that they fought for had faded into political irrelevance during the 1960s.
The two fighters’ return to Japan passed largely unnoticed; they were met by only a handful of reporters and some family friends. “In the case of Lt. Onoda and Sgt Yokoi,” the sociologist Eikoh Fukuda suggested, “I think Japanese in the early 1970s were still moved that men could sacrifice their lives to the emperor and to the war he sent them off to fight… Today, World War II is ancient history to most Japanese and such blind loyalty is considered foolish.” All of which probably came as a considerable disappointment; one of the two men, Bayly and Harper report in their book on the end of Britain’s Asian empire, left instructions in his will that his ashes should be scattered in the Malaysian jungle that had been his home for so many years, and the Chicago Tribune reported the fragile Hashimoto – who arrived at Tokyo International Airport in a wheelchair – as saying: “We are Japanese, so we never forgot about Japan, not even for one day.”
1992. Kolombangara, Solomon Islands. Writing to the online Japanese Holdouts Registry, a traveller named Rob Crawford reported: “I heard in 1992 several independent accounts of 2-3 surviving Japanese on Kolombangara. Several people on that island have vegetables stolen on a regular basis but do not object as they know the stragglers are just trying to survive. They were sighted several times but reluctant to stay around. The Japanese government has sent scouts to locate them but I am told they are fully aware the war is over and do not want to leave the island, so they hide. I have heard through a friend of mine (a few times since) that there are still sightings and missing clothes and food supplies from time to time. There are friends of mine connected to Agnes Lodge at Munda (opposite Kolombangara) that support such sightings.”
2001. Guadalcanal. Crawford adds: “I also have some friends on Guadalcanal that gave me approximate cordinates of several Japanese stragglers hiding near Mt. Makarakomburu [the highest peak in Solomon Islands, 2,447m]. I have heard little recently about stragglers the last time being 2001. A friend of mine who is a local customs authority claims some villagers had being supplying a straggler with medicine and clothes, blankets etc, but respect his wishes not to be found. Particularly by Japanese.”
2005. Mindanao, Philippines. Press reports published in the spring of this year suggested that two other Japanese soldiers, named as Tsuzuki Nakauchi and Yoshio Yamakawa, still lived in the interior of the large southerly Philippines island of Mindanao.
Both men had been members of the 30th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army, which suffered heavy casualties in the last days of the war; both had been declared dead, but were supposed to have survived for 60 or more years in the island’s most mountainous districts after one of them married into a local tribe; they would have been 85 and 87 respectively when the story broke. Initial excitement soon gave way to scepticism, however, after the pair failed to turn up at a meeting, arranged by a mysterious “mediator,” which they had apparently agreed to attend in a hotel in the port city of General Santos.
According to a report published in the Daily Telegraph, the story of the two men’s survival first gained purchase after a Filipina woman working for a logging group told her Japanese husband that she had seen two elderly Japanese in the island’s interior. A version of the same story published a few days later by CNN adds the intriguing details that the husband was the same man as the mediator who arranged for the two men to come out of the jungle, and notes that he subsequently told the Yomiuri newspaper that although he had tracked down the two men in the mountains, they were not Japanese.
Several other versions of events, however, suggest that reports of the soldiers’ survival may have been spread by guerrillas from MILF – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – in the hope of luring journalists into the interior in order to hold them for ransom.
2006. Ukraine. Uwano Ishinosuke was a Japanese soldier serving on Sakhalin when the war ended. The island – claimed by Japan in 1809 and partially or wholly occupied by it thereafter – was ceded to the USSR as part of the postwar peace process, leaving an estimated 300,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians stranded in what was now Soviet territory. Most of these were repatriated between 1945 and 1950, in many cases after serving for years as what amounted to slave labourers, but nearly a thousand unfortunates did not return to Japan until well after that date.
Of this latter group, Ishinosuke is perhaps the most interesting. Last reported alive, still on Sakhalin, in 1958, and officially declared dead by his own family in 2000, he unexpectedly reappeared in 2005 – by then 83 years old and living in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Ishinosuke had married a Ukrainian woman and had one son there. He made plans to visit his homeland, where he managed a few words in rusty Japanese and was reunited with a surviving younger brother.
The thing he remembered most vividly about his long-ago life in Japan, he recalled for the reporters who came to interview him, was the blooming of the cherry blossom.
It is Japanese convention, of course, to write names in the form “Family name – Given name.” The name of the most famous of the stragglers should really be written Onoda Hirō. Since, in the west, he is almost universally known as Hiroo Onoda, however – and since it’s arguable that Nakamura himself should properly be referred to by his Taiwanese name in any case – I have taken the decision to convert all the other names in the story to western forms, with the given name written first.
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BBC Witness: “Japanese soldier in hiding.” 24 January 2012 [On Shoichi Yokoi.]