Hidden in the jungle for 30 years

As is emphasised in Harari’s film, Onoda was still a very young man – only 23 years old – at the time of his homeland’s surrender, and likely heavily indoctrinated by the ideologies perpetuated by Japan during the war. “Soldiers were supposed to die for the cause,” Onoda writes in his memoir (a truth underpinned by the country producing up to 5,000 kamikaze fighters in World War Two), and the repercussions for a soldier abandoning certain duties, or failing to adhere to traditional standards, were severe: Even if the death penalty was not carried out, [a disgraced soldier] was so thoroughly ostracised by others that he might as well have been dead.” To complicate matters further, Onoda’s secret orders to survive using any means necessary and hold the territory until the imperial army’s return effectively isolated him from his comrades. And it would have weighed heavily on him that he had already failed in his mission to destroy Lubang’s pier and airfield.

“The ideology of no-surrender during the war was powerful,” Beatrice Trefalt, senior lecturer in Japanese Studies at Australia’s Monash University, tells BBC Culture, but this hardly explains the extent of Onoda’s commitment. “There are, of course, lots of people who killed themselves, or ran into hopeless battles as a last-ditch effort, knowing they would die. But if wartime ideology was so powerful, and everyone was fanatical, how did they stop being fanatical in 1945? The answer is that it wasn’t, and they weren’t, and so the surrender was very welcome for most people.” She concludes that Onoda was likely “a very uncompromising person” who refused to abandon his principles. “This refusal cost the lives of not only two of his comrades/friends, but of many civilians on Lubang. Therefore, when faced with the end, Onoda might have found it easier to convince himself that he didn’t know [the war was over], rather than to face up to the destruction engendered by his own, stupid pride.”

Onoda wasn’t the only soldier who found it difficult to believe that the war had ended. In fact, many Japanese groups continued fighting long after the country’s surrender. Twenty-one soldiers were rounded up on the island of Anatahan in 1951. Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwanese-Japanese soldier, endured 29 years in the jungle after the end of World War Two, on Morotai, in present-day Indonesia. And Shoichi Yokoi remained hidden in the Guam jungle until 1972. The latter revealed that he knew the war had been over for 20 years – but had been too frightened to give himself up. The key difference, says Seriu, is that many other Japanese holdouts “found ways to live in the formerly occupied country,” and even started families in some cases. Onoda, on the other hand, “refused to live in collaboration with the inhabitants [of Lubang].”

A hero’s welcome?

When Onoda landed back in Japan in 1974, he was cheered by a crowd of up to 8,000 people – a moment that was played out live on NHK, the country’s national broadcaster. At that time, Japan was facing its worst economic performance in two decades, while more progressive views of the war, which included atonement for crimes, were becoming more widely held. Onoda offered a timely reminder of the traditional and positive Japanese virtues of bravery, loyalty, pride and commitment that had been widespread during wartime. His re-emergence offered a useful propaganda tool for the country’s powerful conservatives – or at the very least, a good distraction. “He aligned himself with the powerful faction, and played the role that would allow him the most benefit,” Trefalt says. “The money he made from the media frenzy was always going to be better than the measly veterans’ pension.”

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