Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why were some Japanese soldiers still fighting decades after World War II?

The Most Famous Holdouts: Onoda and Yokoi
Lieut. Hiroo Onoda, upon his return to Japan in 1975.
Lieut. Hiroo Onoda, upon his return to Japan in 1975.
Keystone/Getty Images

The Japanese holdouts of World War II had much reason to continue fighting. Following the war, some of the efforts to root them out were brutal. The Philippines in particular were a dangerous place for a Japanese soldier to be caught. Japan had created a puppet government after it took over the island. At the hands of the Japanese-backed leadership, the Filipinos suffered tremendously. Once it was liberated by Allied forces, any Japanese soldier sighted on the island "was hunted down and killed like a poisonous snake" [source: Triplet].

So it's understandable that the most famous Japanese holdout was reluctant to believe the war was over. Lt. Hiroo Onoda remained a combatant on the Filipino island of Lubang until 1974. Two years earlier, a fellow Japanese holdout, Shoichi Yokoi, had been discovered fishing along a riverbank in Guam. Yokoi was wearing a shirt he'd made from tree bark and pants made of burlap. The aging soldier admitted he was aware that the war was over; he'd simply been too humiliated to return home [source: Reuters]. Upon his arrival in Japan, Yokoi uttered his famous first words: "I am ashamed that I have returned alive" [source: New York Times].

Unlike Yokoi, Lt. Onoda was unaware or unwilling to accept that the war was over. After the Philippines were captured by the Allies, Onoda became an inadvertent member of a four-man band of stragglers surviving in the jungles of the Philippines as guerrillas.

In 1950, one member of the holdouts surrendered. Within days, he wrote a note to his comrades, telling them the war was over. This note was copied and dropped over the jungle. More leaflets were dropped later and announcements that the war had concluded were broadcasted over loudspeakers aimed into the dense jungle. The holdouts thought it was propaganda. Onoda later became separated from his remaining two comrades, both of whom were later killed. Each of the three holdouts truly continued the war, staging raids on Filipino campsites and search parties and engaging in firefights with Filipino soldiers [source: BBC].

Onoda simply didn't believe World War II had ended; he later said he assumed the attempts at contact were American efforts at tricking him into surrendering [source: Onoda]. His presence as a combatant still fighting in the Philippines known, Onoda became a legendary figure in Japan. It ultimately took a wandering Japanese student who embarked on the hunt for Onoda to bring him out of hiding. In 1974, Norio Suzuki entered the Lubang jungle in search of Lt. Onoda. Suzuki found him and convinced Onoda that he'd been fighting a war for 29 years after its completion [source: Terry].

Onoda ultimately trusted Suzuki and followed him out of the jungle. He returned to Japan a national hero, yet an odd one. As part of Japan's post-war demilitarization, the army to which Onoda had belonged was disbanded. Japan spent the last 29 years distancing itself from accusations of wartime atrocities it committed and reminders of its recent past. Yet, here was Onoda, emerging from the jungle after clinging intractably to the now-archaic concept of bushido.

This culture shock took a toll on the soldier. In his memoir, Lt. Hiroo Onoda remembered his thoughts when he realized he'd been fighting a war that had ended 29 years earlier. He thought of his two dead comrades, alongside whom he'd fought as guerrillas in the jungles of the Philippines: "wouldn't it have been better if I had died with them?" Onoda wrote.


More to Explore