It’s always interesting when news stories that have clearly been written to elicit one set of emotions in its readers end up drawing me along in an entirely different direction from the one the reporter writing the article clearly intended. Did the reporter see something in the story at hand that I myself missed? Or is the opposite the case, and did the reporter simply miss some part of the story (or, more likely, some part of the back story) that seems crucial, or at least pertinent, to me in terms of what the larger story means or should mean? I suppose in different cases the answers to those questions will be different. But I know what I think with respect to the news story many of you may have noticed about the death last Thursday in Tokyo of Hiroo Onoda.
Onoda, whose fifteen minutes of fame came and went forty years ago, was the Japanese soldier who remained at his post in what he assumed was still the Japanese-occupied Philippines for twenty-nine years after the war ended. And there, presumably, would he have stayed for years into the future had he not been located by some enterprising Japanese student who set out to find him in 1974. (He had been declared officially “dead” in 1959, but this student, Norio Suzuki, felt the records relating to his death were so filled with inconsistencies and unlikely suppositions that he set out to see if he could locate either the man or his grave. He found the former and brought him back to Japan.) Onoda received a hero’s welcome when he arrived home, which is not that surprising, but also received a full pardon from then-Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, which really is quite surprising given that, in the course of his three decades in the jungle, Onoda had killed or participated in the killing of about thirty Philippine villagers who made the mistake of coming too close to his hiding place and whom Onoda or one of his colleagues took for enemy soldiers or agents. There had originally been four of them. One surrendered in 1950. Two others were shot and killed by Filipino police officers who were searching for them and who returned fire when they were fired upon, one in 1954 and one in 1972. Eventually, there was only Onoda. And he hung on for another two years until he was finally located by the student and brought back to Japan. He was fifty-two years old then and ninety-one when he died last week.
That motif—of the Japanese soldier who stays at his post for decades, either not having heard or not having believed that the war was over—is famous. There were others. Shoichi Yokoi, for example, remained hidden in the jungles of Guam for twenty-seven years rather than surrender to American forces. He was finally captured—not by American soldiers or the Guam police, but by two American hunters who surprised him while he was setting a fish trap in a river near his hiding place—and returned to Japan in 1972, at which time he made many of his co-citizens uncomfortable by speaking openly about his personal sense of shame at having returned home alive when so many of his fellow soldiers died attempting to prevent the American liberation of Guam. (The Japanese invaded Guam on December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and held control of the island until American forces prevailed at the Battle of Guam in July, 1944.) And he spoke without any hesitation about the fact that he was sustained during his decades of solitude not by the hope of seeing his family or his homeland again, but by his unwavering sense of duty to serve the Emperor of Japan, a concept that by 1972 seemed beyond alien to most of his co-citizens that lined the highway to give him a hero’s welcome upon his return home. It was, in fact, the story of his return from Guam that prompted the research that led to the search that eventually led to the discovery of Hiroo Onoda in the Philippines. Eventually, one final hold-out, a man named Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwanese who enlisted as a volunteer in the Japanese Army, was discovered on the Indonesian island of Morotai in 1974 by the Indonesian Air Force. He skipped, probably wisely, the whole “last-surviving hold-out to return to Japan” thing and instead chose to be repatriated to Taiwan, where he lived quietly until his death from lung cancer a few years later in 1979.
I grew up with these stories. Since the Professor too died last week—I mean, of course, Russell Johnson, the actor who played the Professor—it seems reasonable to start by remembering the famous episode of Gilligan’s Island aired in 1965 in the course of which the castaways come into contact with a Japanese soldier still at his post on some mini-submarine that washes ashore on “their” island. (The plot line sounds a bit strained in retrospect. But I was only twelve in 1965 and it was cogent enough for me!) But both before and after Gilligan, that motif of the Japanese soldier who hasn’t heard that the war was over, was a staple of the American entertainment industry. Whole movies were built around it. (I’m thinking primarily of The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark with Elliot Gould and Geneviève Bujold, but there were others.) Clearly, we were supposed to laugh. The notion, after all, that a soldier would still be obeying his last orders decades after the war was over was intended to be funny. (For the record, Onoda did find some of the leaflets dropped by American forces over the Philippines announcing that Japan had surrendered and the war was over, but he took them for propaganda and refused to believe that they were true. Hardy-har-har!) The whole concept of duty taking precedence over one’s personal wish to return home or to be reunited with one’s family—that one would keep one’s word no matter what and decline to abandon one’s post until ordered to do so by a superior officer, and not by some spurious leaflet dropped from the sky by the enemy—that was the part we were supposed to find amusing. It was funny on Ensign O’Toole!
But maybe it’s not actually that funny. We live in an age of conditional loyalties, an age in which people take promises as expressions of hope rather than iron-clad obligation. Even the pledge of fidelity to a spouse is considered by most to be more than elastic enough to stretch around the occasional act of infidelity without necessarily breaking. The promise of faithfulness to an employer, to a mentor, to a friend, to a sibling…all these are deemed today by most to constitute desirable but optional virtues rather than truly unbreakable bonds. When the congregation hears the Kol Nidre solemnly intoned aloud on the eve of Yom Kippur, it’s the rare congregant who truly feels devastated by the realization that, yet again, he or she has failed to live up commitments undertaken freely…and just as freely abandoned when the toast seemed more thickly buttered on the side of non-compliance. We mean it when we give our word…but we also don’t mean it, not in the way it could or should mean to people whose word truly is their bond. And then, when the news features someone who took an oath to serve and then spent decades on his own doing just that, we find ourselves more amused than impressed. He stuck it out for how long without abandoning his pledge to obey his orders? What a fool! At least the people on Gilligan’s Island had no choice….
When contemplating these hold-out soldiers, it would be easy—even satisfying—to focus on the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese during the course of the war: on the Rape of Nanking, on the Bataan Death March, on the thousands massacred at Pearl Harbor, on the Manila or the Kalagong Massacres, or on the countless thousands of women chosen for indescribable degradation as “comfort women” for the use and abuse of the Emperor’s troops. To focus the image of these soldiers hanging on in the jungle through mental images of Pearl Harbor or Nanking yields the sense of them as single cells of a malignant cancer that was almost entirely eradicated through chemotherapy and yet which someone managed to remain hidden in some lonely crevice of tissue until they were finally located by some enterprising oncologist who knew where to look. But there’s also the possibility of considering these hold-outs in terms of their unwavering dedication to duty, of their sworn obligation to serve their country until formally relieved of that obligation, of their willingness to subvert their own dreams to the single goal of keeping faith with a commitment they accepted and never felt free to step away from…even once it became clear that that commitment was going to entail not years but decades of their lives.
My sense is that very few Americans think of service to the nation as a sacred calling. We have no compulsory military service, so those who do serve are by definition volunteers. There is, therefore, a voluntary sort of feel to the whole enterprise of serving in the military, and that creates a strange sort of backdrop against which to read the story of Hiroo Onoda, a man who took an oath to serve his country and then kept it. Pledging loyalty to one’s nation is, most would say, a virtue. We even mean it when we say that, as we regularly do. But that we think it grist for the comedy mill when someone pays the big price for remaining true to that pledge does not speak well for us. Really, not very well at all!