AP — Hiroo Onoda, wearing his 30-year-old imperial army uniform, heads for a helicopter after he emerges from a jungle in the Philippines.
Before he approached the tent where his commanding officer waited on March 9th 1974, Hiroo Onoda did two things. First, he inspected his rifle. (The Arisaka 99 still worked perfectly; over almost 30 years he had treated it as tenderly as a baby.) Then he retied his boots. Nothing must be slipshod. A soldier of the god-emperor had to be pure, prepared and spiritually invincible.
He had taken elaborate care to get this far. All his guerrilla training had been employed in case, as he suspected, he was walking into a trap. He had planned the meeting for the evening, when there would be just enough light to recognise a face but not enough to hinder his escape, if necessary. Palm and bosa trees hid him as he crept down from the mountains. To cross clearings, he camouflaged his threadbare army uniform — more neatly sewn patches than uniform — with sticks and leaves. Wherever it was safe, he rested.
It was helpful that, after three decades living off the land, he was familiar with every inch of Lubang Island in the Philippines. He knew when local farmers would be about, and where, because he stole coconuts and mangoes from them and shot their cattle in order to survive. Sometimes he killed the farmers, too. After all, this was war, and he had his orders. The orders were that, though the rest of the Japanese army had withdrawn from the island in February 1945 when the Americans invaded, he, as an intelligence officer, should stay, spy on the enemy and wait for his colleagues to return. So he had waited.
In the beginning he commanded a unit of three men, but they had died at various points, two shot by the Philippine police. The war had gone very quiet, so quiet that in 1964, to his surprise, America and Japan competed in apparent amity at the Olympic games. But the island still crawled with American agents and spies, who kept dropping leaflets urging him to surrender. All of it was trickery, he thought. He told the young Japanese hiker who eventually found him that he would not stop fighting until his commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, ordered him to cease in person. So on that day in 1974 the elderly major, now a bookseller, especially summoned from Japan, gave him his new orders. Mr Onoda at once laid down his rifle, 500 rounds, his ceremonial sword and sword-belt and his dagger in its white case, and saluted the flag of the rising sun.
If it was not a surrender, it still felt crushingly like one. For Major Taniguchi informed him not only that the war was over, but that Japan had lost. Mr Onoda’s first thought was: how could they be so sloppy? Rather than lose, rather than lay down arms like this, a Japanese soldier was supposed to die. And he felt like dying. “Do not live in shame,” General Tojo had written; “leave no ignominious crime behind you.” His mother had given him his dagger, as he left for active service, to kill himself with if he was captured.
She meant it, for when he behaved uncontrollably at the age of six she had taken him to the family shrine to commit harakiri then and there. Of course he hadn’t been able to cut his small, quaking belly. Who could, at six? Later, it would have been almost easy. But in fact his orders in 1945 had been to stay alive, not to die. Intelligence officers were more useful that way. It meant he risked being an outcast when he returned to Japan, simply because he had not made the supreme sacrifice and added his name to the divinities honour ed at the Yasukuni shrine. His duty, however, was to spend every moment serving his country in exactly the way he had been told.
That civic imperative was what mattered, he said later; nothing personal or individual. But pride entered the equation, too. He was fiercely competitive, honed with kendo and swimming — though also with a 50-a-day cigarette habit before he went into hiding — and loved to show off how well he could fend for himself. The man who kept neat and trim for years in the jungle had also cut quite a figure at 18 in central China, as a travelling salesman for a lacquer ware company, driving a 1936 Studebaker and wearing English tailored suits. He had style and stubbornness as well as self-discipline. Outside reports said he wept uncontrollably as he laid his rifle down. He merely wrote that, in the course of delivering a night-long field report that covered 29 years, he faltered once or twice.
Returning to Japan as a hero, he did not know what had become of the place. He found it cowed, drowsy, and denuded of self-confidence. Japan was blamed for the East Asian war when, in his view, it had had no choice but to fight in order to survive. The Americans, who had stripped the country of its military power and made the emperor a cypher, also seemed to have drained away the national will. After barely a year at home, loudly on the right of politics, Mr. Onoda left for Brazil to be a cattle-rancher and take a wife. He eventually came back to establish a school where modern Japanese children could learn to survive in the wild, like him.
In 2007 he offered his “words to live by” to the Japan Times. Almost all were to do with civic duty and self-reliance. One thought stood out: “There are some dreams from which it is better not to wake.” By which he meant, he explained, his long dream of war.
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