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The Story Behind the Japanese Holdouts of World War II

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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The samurai warriors ceased to exist when Japan opened itself to modernization. But their legacy went on, with the beliefs and philosophies being adopted and practiced in modern Japan. But during the Second World War, the code of Bushido took on a rather brutal incarnation. Originally formulated in the early 18th century as a code of conduct for the samurai, this way of the warrior demanded respect, loyalty, bravery and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, a form of Bushido was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Army, and when combined with military trainings and indoctrinated reverence to the emperor, it resulted to soldiers’ willingness to fight to the death and refusal to give up. So much so, that there are reports of fanaticism and abuses within the soldier’s ranks. Up in the air, Japanese pilots put on the ultimate sacrifice when they partook in Kamikaze suicide missions.

A soldier’s lack of regards to self-preservation made him more dangerous indeed. Noticeably, the form of Bushido being practiced in World War II Japan were more demanding than its feudal counterpart. Nevertheless, it also pushed some soldiers to continue fighting, even after the war ended. And such feat inspired a mix of respect, astonishments, fascinations and shock to observers anywhere.

The Code of the Warrior

One of the surviving photos of samurai warriors.

One of the surviving photos of samurai warriors.

To the western world, the code of Bushido is steeped with mysticism, and oftentimes it is compared with knightly chivalry of the west. Though various ethical codes were formulated in the end of the Heian, and the start of the shogunate period of the Kamakura (1185–1333), it wasn’t until the Tokugawa period when it was formally defined. As a whole, Bushido is a set of moral codes dictating a samurai lifestyle and behavior. And as defined by Nitobe Inazo in the Meiji Period, it emphasized righteousness, heroic courage, honesty, compassion, respect, honesty, respect, honor, loyalty and self-control.

With the loss of the samurai as a social class, Bushido is still practiced today in some form particularly in businesses and martial arts. But the said warrior code was also adopted back in the days of Imperial Japanese Army.

Do note that there were former samurai serving in the Meiji government, while Prince Yamagata Aritomo, regarded as the father of Japanese militarism came from a samurai background. And now that we speak of Japanese militarism, with former samurai helping to run the new government, it’s no surprise that the Bushido codes found its way in the modernized military of conscripts. And Bushido found new life after the Japanese victory over China in 1894-1895 war. Bushido became the reflection of the rising militarism and nationalism of Imperial Japan, and the Japanese Army indoctrinated its soldiers with modified warrior values. Soldiers were trained to show courage under fire, utmost loyalty and with the preference of death over surrender. In short, soldiers were expected to die fighting.

And this form of Bushido also had an addition.

Divinity of the Emperor

A depiction of the Amaterasu.

A depiction of the Amaterasu.

This form of Bushido included a form of worship, this time to the Emperor of Japan. Going back in the Meiji Era, the Emperor experienced a renewed influence as the power of the Bakufu fell. It started in the Sonnō jōi movement (Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians) that sought to overthrow the shogunate in the Bakumatsu period, which had basis in Neo-Confucianism and Japanese nativism. It was then replaced by Fukoku kyōhei ("Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces”) slogan, which reflects the rising militarism and nationalism. But during the Second World war, part of this patriotism became a reverence to the emperor’s divinity, with a belief that the emperor was the direct descendant Sun Goddess Amaterasu. This form of so-called worship is more rooted in patriotism, and not in theology, and soldiers were indoctrinated to show loyalty to the demi-god emperor. And a god among men made him worthy of self-sacrifice

The Pressure of Being a Soldier

Officers of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Officers of the Imperial Japanese Army.

A soldier indoctrinated to show utmost loyalty, nationalism, courage and sacrifice was a fearsome one. Simply, he had no regards to survival or self-preservation, and all that mattered was bravery under fire. In fact, during the Boxer’s Rebellion, the British military observers noted the aggressiveness and willingness to attack of the Japanese troops, as they charge in densely packed formation, resulting to heavy casualties.

But returning soldiers, freed from being prisoners of war, as in the cases during the Russo-Japanese War were treated as outcasts. Simply, they violated some important tenets of being a warrior, like avoiding surrender, thus becoming a shame to their family, to the nation and most importantly to the emperor. The strong warrior culture also made life in the military harsh. As what the diaries of Japanese conscripts revealed during the Second World War, beatings were common, and punishments were given to a slightest of offense. With that said, we could say that warrior dedication wasn’t the only driving force for a Japanese soldier. Pressure was another thing.

And as the Second World War ended, a mix of Bushido, and pressure among the troops resulted in a somewhat strange, but amazing stories of soldiers resisting surrender and fighting for years, long after the war ended.

The Japanese Holdouts

Imperial Japanese Army Gunto.

Imperial Japanese Army Gunto.

The soldiers were driven to fight to the death by a deep warrior culture, while fear and pressure gave some little choice but to comply. In addition, was the war propaganda, which portrayed the Allies as cruel enemies. And thanks to Pearl Harbor attack, anti-Japanese sentiments were high among the Americans, which gave the Japanese no option but to fight.

The battlegrounds of Guam, Saipan, Midway and Philippines, nations that provided strategic grounds for the Allies, and important targets for Japan also provided a lot of mountainous and forested hiding places. The usual tactics for Japan was to deploy as much troops as possible, and flood the places with defender. As the defenses fell, the remaining troops headed into the wilderness, refusing to surrender and staging guerilla warfare. They are the Japanese holdouts, or stragglers.

The strong Bushido code running in their minds, the pressure of being a warrior and the remoteness of the place made some of the remaining stragglers hard to track. This enabled them to fight long after the war ended.

Notable Examples

Hiroo Onoda surrendering to the Filipino authorities.

Hiroo Onoda surrendering to the Filipino authorities.

There were various cases of Japanese holdouts in these Pacific Islands, one famous case was that of that of the Japanese Army Intelligence Officer Hiroo Onoda. He spent 29 years hiding in the forest of Philippines, staging guerilla activities and living off the land. Although they were informed of the war’s end through leaflets, they decided to continue fighting, dismissing the leaflets as propaganda materials. And 29 years later, he only surrendered upon the orders of his former officer.

However, the case of another holdout, Shōichi Yokoi was different. For years, he evaded capture, surviving through hunting, and hid in a cave, until he was discovered in 24 January 1972. Unlike Onoda, which had no idea that the war ended, Yokoi was perfectly aware that the war was over. Only, the pressure of heroic sacrifice over capture got the best of him, and the shame of surrender pushed him to go into hiding. In fact, he never staged guerilla raids like Onoda, and expressed embarrassment upon his return to Japan.

References

1. Powers, David (17 February 2011). “Japan: No Surrender in World War Two”. BBC.

2. Clark, Josh (n.d.). “Why were some Japanese soldiers still fighting decades after World War II?” Howstuffworks.

3. Drea, Edward J. (2003). "The Imperial Japanese Army (1868–1945): Origins, Evolution, Legacy". War in the Modern World Since 1815. Routledge.

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