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.
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,''
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.
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.
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?"