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

A group of Japanese kamikaze pilots bow during a ceremony in 1945.
MPI/Getty Images

By 1944, the Japanese imperial military was aware that its air force was outgunned. The Allies had better planes that were more advanced and capable of traveling longer distances. The Japanese air fleet was growing outdated in the midst of the second World War.

In response, Vice Adm. Onishi Takijiro, a commander in the Imperial Navy, made a radical suggestion: Rather than update planes, they could turn some of the aging fleet into piloted bombs to be crashed into Allied ships. The pilots would carry out literal suicide missions. Takijiro's plan worked.


At the battle for the Gulf of Leyte, kamikaze ("divine wind") pilots made their debut with tremendous effect, taking out the USS St. Lo with 144 men aboard [source: PBS]. Kamikaze pilots made a much larger impression during the battle for Okinawa, when as many as 300 planes outfitted with 550-pound (250-kg) bombs were driven by their pilots into the Allied ships headed toward Japan [source: PBS].

The kamikaze proved to be an effective, unconventional tool in the Japanese arsenal during World War II. When the enemy's determination to survive a battle is taken out of the equation, that enemy becomes exponentially more dangerous. But this begs the question: How did the Japanese military convince thousands of pilots to purposely and knowingly sacrifice their lives?

That answer lies largely in the concept of bushido, a code developed in the early 18th century that governs the conduct of samurai warriors. It demands bravery and unflinching self-sacrifice [source: Friday]. Honor comes from death, disgrace from surrender.

Historians have a hard time reconciling the feudal concept of bushido with what the Japanese government sold its soldiers in World War II. When examined side by side, the modern version exacts a much higher toll on adherents. It worked nonetheless. Honor was bestowed on those true believers who willingly gave their lives, much like the suicide bombers today in the Middle East receive.

The concept of bushido wasn't reserved for Japanese pilots; it was extended to all of the Japanese military. This explains why some Japanese soldiers were still fighting decades after World War II ended.


Japanese Holdouts

Japanese solider Ishinosuke Uwano leaves Japan after visiting for the first time since he left to fight in World War II.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

It's a bit ironic that bushido was pushed by the Japanese government onto its troops during World War II. The idea was penned at a time when the samurai had created a place at the top of Japanese society after centuries of bravery, valor and military strength. Generations of these warriors had done too good a job, bringing Japan to decades of peace and effectively making the samurai obsolete. By the 18th century, the time bushido was conceptualized, the samurai were loafing.

Yet samurai remained revered as noble fighters centuries later, sources of national pride and figures to be imitated. Much of the Japanese military bought into a resurgence of bushido; just 5 percent of Japan's soldiers surrendered during the war. The rest were captured or killed.


Oftentimes, locales that seem inconsequential during times of peace become of vital strategic importance during war. Such was the case with some Pacific islands, like Guam, Saipan, Midway and islands in the Philippines. To the Japanese, keeping Allied forces off these islands meant protecting Japan. To the Allies, possession of these islands provided key locations for staging bombing raids on Japan. It's unsurprising that a number of Pacific islands saw some of the most intense fighting and highest casualty rates in the war.

A strategy the Japanese used to claim or defend these islands was to flood them with huge numbers of soldiers. Some of the hard-fought Pacific islands offered forested mountains as hiding places. Once Allied forces invaded and overtook a locale, search parties hunted and killed what came to be known as stragglers or holdouts -- soldiers who refused to surrender on account of upholding bushido.

In most cases, the search parties killed or captured Japanese soldiers. In Guam in 1944, a joint American-Guamanian force rooted out thousands of Japanese holdouts after the Marines took Guam. For months, this force killed as many as 80 Japanese soldiers on Guam per day, diminishing the thousands of holdouts down to just a few [source: Popernack]. As the number of Japanese alive or at large on the Pacific islands dwindled, those remaining proved the most elusive. And these soldiers' adherence to bushido, combined with the remoteness of some of these islands, left some holdouts still fighting World War II decades after the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered in August 1945.

Some of these holdouts simply chose to create a new life where they'd been left after the war ended. One soldier remained on an island off the coast of eastern Russia that he was charged with defending until 1958. He eventually settled in Ukraine and started a new family before returning to visit Japan in 2006 [source: IHT]. Sometimes the situations were less idyllic. One Japanese private reported upon surrender that he'd chosen to emerge because the group of holdouts to which he belonged had succumbed to cannibalism [source: Triplet].

Other groups got along a little better. A group of 30 Japanese soldiers and nationals, including one woman, were shipwrecked on Anatahan, a small island near Saipan. The group formed a microcosmic society, making their own clothes, hunting and foraging for food and making wine distilled from coconut milk. From 1944 to 1951, this group held out, finally emerging from the forest after a joint American-Japanese effort to convince the stragglers that the war was over [source: CNMI Guide].

Some would take more convincing than others.


The Most Famous Holdouts: Onoda and Yokoi

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.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Friday, Karl. "The historical foundations of bushido." E-Budo. 2001. http://www.koryu.com/library/kfriday2.html
  • Herskovitz, Jon. "Japanese WWII soldier who hid for decades dies." Reuters. September 23, 1997. http://www.wanpela.com/holdouts/profiles/yokoi/obituary.html
  • Kristoff, Nicholas D. "Shoichi Yokoi, 82, is dead; Japan soldier hid 27 years." New York Times. September 26, 1997. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE7D81F3BF935A1575AC0A961958260
  • Morrison, Samuel Eliot. "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II." University of Illinois Press. 2002. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=9AR7jpjL1TsC&dq=battle+of+leyte+gulf&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=cnM-toCrWz&sig=2MBZglKmEEZAV8y7Bn4ED-NZGzA&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA166,M1
  • Onoda, Hiroo. "No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War." Naval Institute Press. 1999. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=7tMt8Zr9Rp0C&dq=Hiroo+Onoda&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=AIqcfoGjsP&sig=rgm8hu5q8aAbqZxaqIBiGpqMhc8&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA8,M1
  • Popernack, Mike. "A Guam Garand." GCA Journal. Winter 2006. http://www.popernack.com/library/Winter06%20Featured%20Rifle.pdf
  • Powers, David. "Japan: No surrender in World War Two." BBC. January 6, 2001. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/japan_no_surrender_01.shtml
  • Trefalt, Beatrice. "Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-75." Routledge. 2003. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=kEsgyXpcXtoC&dq=japanese+stragglers&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=apVQW4HTry&sig=WthXrB9oEh7flSyP7khxuDpUKso&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=6&ct=result#PPA8,M1
  • Triplet, William S. and Ferrell, Robert H. "In the Philippines and Okinawa." University of Missouri Press. 2001. http://books.google.com/books?id=h5x7wobGXI0C&pg=RA1-PA53&lpg=RA1-PA53&dq=japanese+holdout&source=web&ots=3qZi1ppujP&sig=hZQAobNri2aN9WlQZ-6rMNlYNgU&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result#PRA1-PA53,M1
  • "'Japan soldiers' found in jungle." BBC. May 27, 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4585287.stm
  • "The last surrender of WWII, June 30, 1951." The CNMI Guide. http://www.cnmi-guide.com/history/ww2/5/main5.html
  • "The kamikaze threat." PBS. 2003. http://www.pbs.org/perilousfight/psychology/the_kamikaze_threat/
  • "60 years after the war, Japanese soldier returns." International Herald Tribune. April 19, 2006. http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/04/19/news/soldier.php