Monday, January 28, 2013

The Fog of Peace


Remember the Gilligan's Island episode where Vito Scotti played a Japanese sailor who didn't know World War II had ended? Well, a few years after Gilligan went off the air, something like that happened in real life, though the poor, deluded fellow was an infantryman, not a sailor, and wasn't discovered on an uncharted island with only seven people, but a United States territory with a then-population of 85,000.

Shoichi Yokoi was a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army when the US military recaptured the island of Guam in August of 1944. But they didn't recapture Yokoi. He and about 10 other soldiers went into hiding in the jungle. Seven of those ten moved out of the area, and were either captured or died of starvation. The three others kept in touch with each other, until the two of them died in a flood in 1964 (the same year Tokyo hosted the Olympics), leaving Yokoi all by himself, and, according to one version of the story, still convinced the war was going on. Any leaflets Yokoi found that said otherwise, he dismissed as propaganda. For 28 years, Yokoi lived in his underground cave, surviving on a diet of fruits, nuts, fish, shrimp, frogs, rats, and snails. A tailor before the war, he made in his own clothes out of bark. I'm not sure where he got the needles.

Finally, in January 1972, a couple of local guys checking shrimp traps along a small river not far from the cave were attacked by Yokoi, who must have thought they were enemy spies or something. It was two against one, a middle-aged malnourished one at that, and Yokoi was quickly subdued. He was then forced by gunpoint out of the jungle and to a local police station, where he told his story. Now the desk sergeant had heard everything.


No charges were filed, and a few weeks later Yokoi returned to Japan in a chartered jet. Thousands greeted him at the airport, and he did the rounds of TV talk shows, presumably after someone  explained to him what a TV was in the first place. Some of the younger Japanese viewers with no memory of World War II found him a bit odd, though, especially when he said things like:

''I continued to live for the sake of the Emperor and believing in the Emperor and the Japanese spirit,''




There still was an emperor in Japan in 1972. In fact, the very same fellow who held the job in 1943: Hirohito. However, in Yokoi's long absence, Hirohito had gone from being regarded as a living god that his subjects bowed down to whenever he strode past them on his magnificent white stallion, to a constitutional monarch who often did typical head of state things like visit other countries' national institutions:


Once he got settled in, Yokoi visited his own country's national institution, the Imperial Palace--the grounds of the Palace, anyway--where he said, ''Your Majesties, I have returned home." He didn't actually say this to the majesties themselves, but rhetorically and to reporters following him around. The Emperor couldn't see him as he had other business to attend to that day.

Despite Hirohito's snub, Yokoi Shoichi remained a celebrity for the rest of his days, which lasted until 1997. Like celebrities everywhere, he had his own pet cause, in this case sustainable living, of which he had considerable experience:

''I can't understand why cities must burn garbage. My family [he got married six months after returning to Japan] does not produce garbage. We eat every last bite of food. Parts of food that are not edible are used as fertilizer in my garden.''

Once he got used to the idea of democracy, Yokai ran for office, but his proposal to turn Japan's golf courses into bean fields wasn't a vote-getter.

Amazingly, Shoichi Yokai wasn't the last Imperial soldier to come in from the wilderness. He was followed by two more in a space of only a couple of years.


Hiroo Onada was an Imperial Japanese Army intelligence officer sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944, which faced  possible invasion by the enemy (the USA.) Though suicidal behavior is one of the may stereotypes we Yanks have of the Japanese--swords to the gut and kamikaze attacks on battleships--Onado was given express orders not to take his own life. He was also ordered to evade capture. So, when the invasion happened as expected, and it didn't look like there was going to be any counter-attack anytime soon, Onado had no other choice but to head to the hills and take up the life of a guerrilla fighter, an occupation he held for 30 years, long after the fighting had stopped. He had three other men with him, everyone else having died or surrendered. As was the case with Shoichi Yokai, Onada refused to believe the flurry of leaflets dropped from above telling him the war was over and urging him to surrender.

Onada's exile from reality was much bloodier than Yokai's. He and his guerrillas killed some thirty Filipinos and had several shootouts with the cops. One of the guerrillas, tired of all the fighting and deciding all the leaflets might be genuine, sneaked off and surrendered. This increased the remaining three's paranoia, which led to more wild gunplay. A second guerrilla was killed in a shootout with the very search party that was looking for him and the others in 1954. Then there were two. And it remained that way until 1972--the same year Yokai was discovered alive--when police came upon the two of them burning a rice field as part of their guerrilla activity. Onada's companion was shot and killed, but he got away.

Finally, in 1974, a Japanese college dropout backpacking his way across the Phillipines came upon Onada. The two talked a bit, and had their picture taken together. I'm not sure who took it. Maybe it was one of those automatic cameras. Anyway, the dropout returned to Japan and informed the authorities Onada was still alive, and that he refused to give up until ordered so by a superior.


The Japanese government located Onada's former commanding officer, now a bookseller, and flew him to Lubang, where he personally relieved him of duty. Now convinced (and a bit disappointed) that the war was indeed over, he turned over his remaining weapons--his sword, dagger, Ariska Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades--to the authorities. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos pardoned him of all crimes due to mitigating circumstances, such as an inability to recognize peace when he saw it.

Hiroo Onada returned to Japan an even bigger celebrity than Shoichi Yokai, something he had mixed feelings about. After reading about a teenager who had killed his parents, Onada took up juvenile delinquency as his pet cause, establishing educational camps for young people around the country. Now 91, Onanda spends several months of the year in Brazil, and is a celebrity there as well. So all you readers out there who yearn to be famous, that's one way of doing it. Just lose a war and hide out for decades.

The latest and most likely final Japanese soldier to be discovered years after WWII ended wasn't even Japanese! Teruo Nakamura (Attun Palalin in his native tongue) was from Taiwanese when that island was still a colony of Japan. Conscripted into the Imperial Army, he was sent to the Indonesia island of Morotai, just in time to see that place overrun by the Allies in 1944. Like Yokai and Onada before him, he fled to the jungle. He mixed with other stragglers for awhile, but in the mid-1950s lit out on his own. He built his own hut, where he lived peacefully until 1974, when someone flying over his modest home spotted it. Nakamura was soon arrested by Indonesian soldiers, though that just may have been to get him out of the hut. Having forgotten what little Japanese he knew, Nakamura asked and received permission to expatriated right back to Taiwan, which in his absence had become mostly Chinese (which he couldn't speak, either.) While his capture/discovery made the generated a lot of media attention, Nakamura was never really a celebrity, certainly not among the Japanese, who didn't want to be reminded of their stint as a colonial power. Nakurama died of lung cancer in 1979 (did he manage to take a lot of cigarettes into the jungle with him?)

We've probably seen the last of Imperial Army holdouts. The world's much more developed now, and the jungles have shrunk. Plus, the mortality rate has risen for all WWII-era combatants, whether they're living in caves or Old Soldiers Homes.

Others who have written about these three have emphasized their courage, perseverance, and resourcefulness. All sterling qualities, true. But such sterling qualities came to the fore in total ignorance of what was going on around them. When Shoichi Yokai returned to Japan, he said,
 
"It is with much embarrassment, but I have returned".

It doesn't necessarily mean what you think. He could have been embarrassed about being caught. In researching this piece, I read several, sometimes contradictory, versions of his story. In one of those, Yokai actually did know of Japan's surrender, but stayed in hiding anyway, assuming that his subjugated homeland now would serve as a steady supplier of slave labor to the United States. Sitting in his cave munching on rats and snails, how was he to know that in ignominious defeat, his average countryman would soon have a much higher standard of living than they ever did before the war, that a building boom would transform bombed-out Tokyo into a modern metropolis of gleaming skyscrapers, that his homeland successfully would host both an Olympics and world's fair (Expo '70), and that Japan would undergo another kind of global expansion, this time not with guns, planes, ships, and tanks, but with names such as Sony, Toyota, Panasonic, and Mitsubishi? Once Yokai found out about all that, well, maybe he did feel a bit embarrassed.


 







 
 
As for Hiroo Onada, in his autobiography he minces no words: "A storm raged inside me. I felt like a
fool...what had I been doing for all these years?"
 
On reflection, maybe Yokai and Onada are being a bit too hard on themselves. Theirs may be an extreme case, but how many of us marry the wrong person, take the wrong job, major in the wrong subject, break the wrong rule, sign on the wrong dotted line, make the wrong purchase, hang around  the wrong people, run away from home when we should have stayed put, stayed put when we should have run away from home, lashed out when we should have held out tongue, held our tongue when we should have lashed out, partied when we should have studied, studied when we should have partied, followed our brain instead of our heart, followed our heart instead of our brain, jumped into bed instead of take a cold shower, took a cold shower instead of jumped into bed, rocked the boat when we should have left well enough alone, left well enough alone when we should have rocked the boat, ate until we got fat, smoked until we got sick, popped pills until we got addicted, drank until we got fat, sick, and addicted; so that at the end of a wasted day, wasted year, wasted life, we ask ourselves:
 
 "What the hell was I thinking?"



Welcome to the jungle.









 

 
  
    
 






 
  

10 comments:

  1. I have nothing to add, this is one of the best post I have read from you.
    Being I have one foot in Japan and another in the US this is really interesting to me. I can understand the collective thought of before the War to modern(?)thinking of today.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. Thank you, parsnip. I was hoping you'd comment.

      Interesting that you mentioned the modern thinking of today. These guys were all discovered in the early to mid-1970s. Less time had actually elapsed between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s than it has between the mid-1970s and the present day. Yet the 1970s seems, at least to me, much more like our era than it does to the 1940s. But maybe that's just because I have no first-hand experience with the 1940s. Looking at that Time cover, I'm guessing Japan is more like that today then back in Tojo's day.

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  2. Good all the way around but this is a great paragraph: "Theirs may be an extreme case, but how many of us marry the wrong person, take the wrong job, major in the wrong subject, break the wrong rule, sign on the wrong dotted line, make the wrong purchase, hang around the wrong people, run away from home when we should have stayed put, stayed put when we should have run away from home, lashed out when we should have held out tongue, held our tongue when we should have lashed out, partied when we should have studied, studied when we should have partied, followed our brain instead of our heart, followed our heart instead of our brain, jumped into bed instead of take a cold shower, took a cold shower instead of jumped into bed, didn't leave well enough alone when we should have, left well enough alone when we shouldn't have, ate until we got fat, smoked until we got sick, popped pills until we got addicted, drank until we got fat, sick, and addicted; so that at the end of a wasted day, wasted year, wasted life, we ask ourselves:

    "What the hell was I thinking?"

    Jill

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    1. Thank you, Jill. I didn't just want to write about Japanese soldiers who thought the war was still on and have people go, "Boy, were they dumb!" when, really, they were just typically and understandably human.

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  3. Interesting. Where do you find this stuff?

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    1. Adam, a couple of days ago I was on a Wikipedia page that shows all the historical stuff that happens on any given day. I saw a single sentence about Shoichi Yokoi and became intigued, and just looked into it some more and decided I'd like to write about it. I'm not the only one. Others have, too.

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  4. Great post. Really enjoyed it. The truth in that last paragraph, really hit home! Great work!

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