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

Japanese Holdouts

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