SIDOMULYO VILLAGE, Indonesia — Rahmat Shigeru Ono enjoyed his dinner of fried noodles, mixed sauteed vegetables and a spicy boiled egg.
For most of his life he has eaten Indonesian dishes and he’s used to it, except that it must be accompanied by an “umeboshi” (pickled plum).
“Papi always wants to eat this,” his youngest daughter said while putting some umeboshi on his plate, referring to Ono by the name his family and neighbors call him.
“I miss Japanese food sometimes,” he said at his modest house in the village of Sidomulyo, near the hilly resort town of Batu in East Java Province. Umeboshi, at least, can cure his longing for Japanese food.
Ono, whose Indonesian name is Rahmat, is one of the estimated 1,000 Japanese soldiers who deserted and stayed behind in the Dutch East Indies, mostly on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali, after the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces on Aug. 15, 1945.
They fought alongside rebels fighting for an independent state of Indonesia against the returning Dutch. After the war, some of the Japanese never returned home.
“Some stayed by choice, either because they already had local girlfriends or wives, and just tried to survive and other reasons,” said Eiichi Hayashi, who wrote “Zanryuu Nihon-hei no Shinjitsu” (“The True Story of a Japanese Soldier Who Stayed Behind”), a book telling Ono’s story.
Many of them also feared being court-martialed or tried as war criminals if they let their whereabouts be known.
“They heard rumors that soon after boarding the ship returning to Japan, they would be thrown into the sea,” said Hayashi, who visited Ono more than 80 times for his book.
The Japanese soldiers are nowadays known as “zanryu Nihon-hei” (Japanese soldiers who stayed behind). But at one time, they were also labeled “dasso Nihon-hei” (Japanese soldiers who deserted).
Hayashi said, however, that among those fighting for Indonesia’s independence, only a few were really inspired by the country’s burgeoning nationalist movement. And Ono was among that few.
Born on Sept. 26, 1918, in Hokkaido, Ono is now almost blind and hard of hearing. He also lost his left arm in the war. But he is still eager to tell his story for hours, from morning to evening, to anyone who asks.
Ono was only in his early 20s when as an Imperial Japanese Army soldier he was sent to the Dutch East Indies. During his deployment he personally interacted with soldiers fighting for an independent state.
From them he heard many stories of how badly Japanese soldiers had treated Indonesians and how the Indonesian soldiers felt that Japan might break its promise to grant independence.
That became a turning point in his life, motivating him to join the rapidly forming nationalist forces.
“I was motivated to be a fighter alongside Indonesian soldiers because in my view Indonesia deserved to be defended. And I’ve proven my commitment,” Ono said in his living room, the walls of which are covered with photographs of his family and his military days.
Ono married an Indonesian woman whom he said “didn’t see my physical defect, but my quality as a human being.” His wife died in 1982.
Ono joined the Special Guerrilla Forces led by another Japanese former soldier, Tatsuo “Abdul Rachman” Ichiki, fighting for Indonesia’s independence in East Java’s South Semeru Province.
They also provided tactical leadership, weapons and training to the ramshackle revolutionary forces.
“This guerrilla force was really special. The Dutch troops were very much afraid of us,” Ono recalled proudly.
Even so, the vital role of Ono and other Japanese veterans in the postwar independence struggle is a largely overlooked chapter of Indonesia’s history.
“Their contribution doesn’t appear in either Japanese or Indonesian history textbooks,” said Hayashi.
The permanent display at the Proclamation Museum in Central Jakarta, the historic site of the country’s proclamation of independence, details the role of the Japanese colonialists in the events leading up to Aug. 17, 1945.
The museum also covers the 1945-1950 guerrilla war, but the display does not mention the Japanese soldiers who provided the rebels with arms, training and military strategy.
The war against the Dutch ended Dec. 27, 1949, when The Hague withdrew all Dutch forces and recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty.