In the last days of May, news reached Japan that two former soldiers in the Imperial Army had been found in the Philippines. Apparently the two men, who had been hiding during the entire postwar period in an area around the town of General Santos close to the southern tip of the island of Mindanao, now wanted to come home.
In the week that followed, approximately 100 Japanese reporters traveled to the Philippines to get the story of these two stubborn wartime stragglers. For a while it seemed as if the entire nation was waiting, with bated breath, to welcome their repatriation. After all, isn’t Japan where they belong?
It all brought back memories of two other very similar cases.
In the summer of 1972, an ex-sergeant named Shoichi Yokoi emerged from his dugout hiding place on Guam. He had survived for the 27 years since the end of World War II by eating berries, coconuts, breadfruit, snails, frogs and rodents (perhaps a healthier diet than that of your average Japanese today). Yokoi’s training as a tailor before he was drafted in 1941 and sent off to China stood him in good stead: He made his own clothes out of the bark of local trees.
When Yokoi came out of the airplane upon his arrival in Japan, he was seated in a wheelchair and a certain object was thrust into his hand. He held up this object and waved it in the air. To me, who watched this spectacle on television in that hot summer of 1972, the picture of the ex-soldier finally on home soil remains one of the most indelible images I have of this country. Yokoi, a man from a past age — at least as far as the national ethic was concerned — now held in his fist not a sword, the symbol of his era, but a crisp 10,000 yen bill, the symbol of the new Japan. Yokoi was treated like a hero. He married and lived a life in a dim spotlight of celebrity until his death, at age 82, in September 1997.
Then, not two years after Yokoi’s repatriation, another ex-soldier came in from the cold. Second Lt. Hiroo Onoda had been sent to the Philippines in 1944 and had been told, as had all his comrades, never to surrender. During his 30 years on the island of Lubang, Lt. Onoda, unlike Sgt. Yokoi, had terrorized the locals, pillaging their villages and, it is said, killing some of their number. Search parties had been sent out over the years to “bring him home,” but he had always evaded these parties, whom he considered enemies. I recall him saying, once he was back in Japan, that radio broadcasts of news from the war in Vietnam had considerably lifted his spirits. The Americans were finally losing the war and it wouldn’t be long before the invincible Japanese Imperial Army would retake the Philippines. His motto would certainly have been: “I shall return!”
Onoda was only persuaded to turn over his weapons after his former commanding officer was flown over to give him the order to surrender in person. (Yokoi, by contrast, had no working firearms and came out of his dugout on Guam without much argument.) President Ferdinand Marcos officially pardoned Onoda of his crimes and he returned to Japan as a hero. In what could only be seen as an ironic snub to the hero-worshippers of Japan, however, Onoda soon moved to Brazil and bought a cattle ranch.
It is understandable that a country that has sent young men to fight a brutal war of aggression should feel guilty about their fate. The blame lies substantially with the nation that lied to them. So, tea and sympathy for these anachronistic holdouts, yes. But hero-worship, definitely no. The turning of Yokoi, and particularly Onoda, into heroes signifies just the kind of whitewash that nations nostalgic for lost pride pour out, painting a picture of naive intention to cover over what are in fact despicable deeds.
Which brings us back to the two soldiers who apparently have been discovered on Mindanao.
After every war fought on foreign soil, thousands of soldiers decide to remain there rather than return home. The reasons are varied: guilt and shame, fear of reprisal, trauma from the carnage, the finding of romance — even a realization that a more profound happiness can be created there than in their native land. Many Japanese soldiers remained in the Asian countries that their nation’s forces had invaded. Americans stayed on in Europe after the war; countless Russians were reluctant to return to the U.S.S.R., and wouldn’t have, had they not been forcibly repatriated.
Isn’t there an assumption in Japan that all Japanese would be more content living here than in a developing country? After all, we’ve got spanking new hologrammed 10,000 yen bills now, and American chain coffeeshops. Besides, which Japanese wants to spend their life never being able to speak their native language, living in the primitive lap of nature? Where could you recharge your mobile phone?
People in many countries are now free to travel overseas, to come and go when they wish. If the spirit had moved the two ex-soldiers on Mindanao, they could have picked themselves up and moved on home years ago. No one was stopping them. To attribute the motives of their actions to some guilt-ridden wartime instruction to never surrender is to wallow in a kind of pernicious postwar nostalgia about Japanese as poor solitary victims.
It is not known who the two are, though some sources in the media have made a stab at their identity. But it is quite possible that they, or ex-soldiers like them, are simply quite content with their lives in the Philippines.
The feverish media interest in these two stragglers, and the national awaiting of their return as sadsack heroes, is a sign that Japanese people — when it comes to the war and its aftermath — have yet to free themselves from the grip of “woe is me” nationalism, ethnic misconception and misplaced pride.
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