Hawaii Court's $22B Ruling on the Legendary Yamashita Treasure

Jhemmylrut Teng

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The Marcoses (L-R): President Ferdinand Marcos, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, and son Bongbong Marcos(Bilyonaryo Business News)

I cannot give what I do not have,” this was Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.'s repetitive statement whenever he was being grilled about the legendary Yamahista Gold. Bongbong Marcos is the only son of the infamous Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, and his mother is the world-renowned first lady with over 3,000 designer-shoes collections. Currently, Marcos junior is running for the presidential seat in the Philippines this coming May 2022 election.

Bongbong wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. With the new generation of voters armed with the new age of social media campaigning, Bongbong is striving hard to revise his father’s dictatorship; he also believes that he will finally regain his family’s lost glory.

Unfortunately, many Filipinos never forget the ill-gotten wealth the Marcos family stole from the public fund. For two decades, they controlled the nation. Although their followers, the Marcos’ loyalists believed otherwise.

Yet, when it comes to the narrative of the Yamashita Treasure, both loyalists and detractors agree that the Marcoses possessed it, hid it, and kept it all these years. The loyalists argue that Bongbong is the solution to the ballooning debt of the Philippines and the Yamashita Gold is enough to alleviate the country’s poverty. On the other hand, the opposition merely wants him and his family to return the treasure to the Filipino people.

However, as Bongbong Marcos said, these accusations about the lost treasure relating to his family were simply a myth. But history and the Hawaii State Court in the U.S. tell otherwise.

Yamashita and the World War 2 Treasure

Dubbed as the “Tiger of Malaya” during the Second World War, Japanese General Yamashita Tomoyuki successfully conquered the Thai and Malay peninsulas in 1941–1942. He managed to defeat the British naval base in Singapore through his leadership, which Winston Churchill considered the “worst disaster” in British military history.

Towards the latter part of the war, Yamashita was assigned to safeguard the Philippines from the advancing Allied forces. He was able to hold on to the northern part of Manila until after the formal surrender of Japan in August 1945.

Yamashita was tried for war crimes. Though he denied knowing of atrocities committed under his command, he was convicted and eventually hanged.

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Headline about General Yamashita’s death sentence(University of Kansas)

Yamashita and the hidden wealth

When the Japanese occupied most of East Asia during the war, they also looted these countries under their rule. According to the Pacific Atrocities Education, the Japanese formed a special task force assigned for the looting operation, and they were called the “Golden Lily.”

Imperial Japan confiscated so much loot that it became a predicament for them to transport all this stolen wealth to their country. Therefore, the Japanese used the Philippines as a layover spot where the looted treasure would be loaded onto ships for the last leg of the trip.

According to History.com, when the Allied forces started regaining their power in Southeast Asia against the Japanese, Emperor Hirohito’s family decided to hide the Philippines’ fortune. General Yamashita was tasked with organizing and carrying out the plans to dig tunnels and find caves to hide all the gold and treasures. Several Japanese soldiers and prisoners of war dug tunnels and moved the stash into the caves.

When the treasures were transferred and hoarded into the cave, the Imperial Army bombed the doorways, leaving the laborers trapped inside to death.

The Marcoses of the Philippines

Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was elected as the 10th president of the Republic of the Philippines. He won the seat two decades after the Second World War ended. During the Second World War, Ferdinand joined the military, and he was captured by the Japanese in April 1942 but was released four months later.

In 1986, Washington Post reported that Ferdinand was released from prison because his father, Mariano Marcos, committed treason. Mariano collaborated with the Japanese and their became propagandist.

After the war, Ferdinand became a politician; he reinvented himself by creating the moniker of the “most decorated” Filipino war hero. Even though these accolades were baseless, however, at that time, no one questioned if his claims then were legit. His charismatic nature, eloquence in public speaking, conviction, and intelligence were enough tools to con his way to the presidency.

During Ferdinand’s reign, his family lived a luxurious life. He was also infamous for his declaration of Martial Law in the country, which made him rule in power for twenty years.

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Ferdinand Marcos declaration of Martial Law, ca. 1972(Panaynews.net)

However, the Marcoses era ended because of the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. The first family fled the country, and Ferdinand was exiled in Hawaii. During their stay in Hawaii, Ferdinand Marcos faced a lawsuit filed by an amateur treasure hunter and a former Japanese interpreter Rogelio “Roger” Roxas.

Roger filed the case to the Hawaiian State Court, accusing Marcos of theft and human rights abuse. Roger, a former locksmith, claimed that the impeached president stole the Yamashita Treasures from him, and the hidden wealth he discovered.

Rogelio Roxas’ Account on Yamahista Gold

After World War Two, the Yamashita Treasure hidden in the caves of the Philippines became widespread talk locally and internationally. Several “Indiana Jones” traveled to the country to search for the legendary treasure.

However, many of them failed to unravel its location. The undiscoverable wealth through the years turned into folklore. However, one Filipino, Roger Roxas, declared that the looted treasure concealed in the Philippines was no myth, and it is accurate.

Roger claimed that he found out about the treasure because of his friend, Albert Fuchigami, a son of a Japanese soldier. Albert informed Roger that his father had shown him a treasure map, which he believed was the hidden treasures’ exact location.

The two began to excavate near Baguio. After a few weeks, they located a tunnel system that had apparently been sealed off with an explosion.

After more digging, they busted through the tunnel and found a complex network completed with train tracks. Roger was the first to enter: “To my surprise, I found several Japanese skeletons, and there must have been more than 10.”

These were the unfortunate men entombed by Yamashita when he ordered to seal the vaults in 1945.

The golden Buddha

Apart from the skeletons, Roger made a more exciting discovery — a giant gold statue of Buddha that weighed, literally, a ton. Venturing further inside, they found boxes upon boxes of gold nuggets.

Roxas also claimed that the Buddha’s head was removable, and it concealed a hollowed-out portion within the statue that contained at least two handfuls of uncut diamonds.

They planned to remove and sell the Buddha and use the money to hire trucks and equipment to extract the rest of the treasure. Unfortunately, news of Roger’s discovery reached the office of the kleptocratic Philippine President, Ferdinand Marcos.

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Rogelio Roxas with the Golden Buddha(History.com)

Ferdinand Marcos and the Yamashita Gold

Ferdinand Marcos sent soldiers to Roger’s place, and they ransacked his home and stole the Buddha. On April 19, 1971, the military deposited a Buddha statue at the Baguio City Court; however, Roger proclaimed that it was not the same golden statue taken from him.

Opposition leaders sensed a chance to embarrass Marcos and grabbed Roger’s allegations.

According to the article released by the Philippine Lifestyle:

“An inquiry into the golden Buddha affair was called by the Senate, where much evidence about the theft and Marcos’ corruption was presented to the court. The president was furious and vowed revenge.

This came in the form of martial law when Marcos had his opponents rounded up and jailed. Democracy in the Philippines had died, and Marcos had tightened his grip on the country.”

Roger was arrested in Cabanatuan City, where he was tortured every day. But the former locksmith didn’t spill where the other treasures hid. However, when his teeth were forcibly removed one by one, Roger’s dear friend, Olympia Magbanua, revealed the location.

More treasures found

Over the next year, Ferdinand Marcos’ troops extracted an estimated 10,000 gold bars from the tunnels. These were worth tens of billions of dollars, helping build the family’s scandalous fortune, which later became a predicament for them.

Ferdinand couldn’t sell plundered gold without its origins becoming obvious. He had to make it look like it was newly mined to enjoy such riches to himself.

By 1975, he hired an American engineer, Robert Curtis, who agreed to work with Ferdinand to find the rest of the Golden Lily’s vaults. Curtis found five more, but when greed started kicking in for the dictator president, he ordered his men to put a bullet in Curtis’s head.

Nevertheless, the American engineer managed to talk his way out of it. He claimed then that he had the complete map of all the hidden Yamashita Treasure, and if he were going to die, no one would be able to find it. His bluff saved his life. Curtis fled the Philippines as soon as he got the chance.

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American mining engineer Robert Curtis meets President Ferdinand Marcos, ca., 1975(Philippine Lifestyle.com)

Ousting of the Marcoses

While Marcos was still looking for the remaining treasures, his political popularity suffered. In 1986, a People’s Power Revolution occurred against him, and he and his family left the country and were exiled in Hawaii. When the Marcoses left the Philippines, the government changed its constitution and became the first democratic country in Asia.

Multi-billion dollar lawsuit in Hawaii

When the Filipinos ousted the dictator, Roger saw it as an opportunity to press his claims regarding the abuse he suffered from President Marcos. But instead of doing it all by himself, he signed over his rights to a company, the Golden Buddha Corporation, in return for company stock.

A series of legal actions followed about this case. But, it was in 1996 when the jury in Honolulu awarded the Golden Buddha Corporation a staggering $22 billion in compensation. Then, after the jury’s verdict, it increased with interest to over $40 billion.

The ruling was a vindication for Roger. Unfortunately, he did not witness it because he died in 1993 due to tuberculosis, while Ferdinand Marcos died in 1989.

The New York Post revisited the case about Roger Roxas vs. Ferdinand Marcos about the Yamashita Treasure. And it reported that the Hawaii court ruling was overturned because of the improper valuation of the wealth.

The ruling was overturned — not because there was doubt that the Marcos regime stole Roxas’ fortune, but rather over the treasure’s valuation. A retrial over the valuation is still being litigated in Hawaii, so Roxas’ kin have yet to see any of that money. Still, Imelda Marcos was rapped with a pair of court judgments in favor of Roger’s family for over $26 million — because she lied about her access to her late husband’s estate.

Imelda Marcos, who’s now over 90-years old, is facing a lawsuit in a New York court filed by Roger Roxas’s daughter, Jaena. The reason why in this city? Imelda stashed a substantial amount of wealth in the Big Apple.

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Imelda Marcos scrapes the outer layer of a statue of Buddha to allegedly show that it is not made of gold, ca. 1996(Honolulu Star Bulletin)

Where is the Treasure?

“I cannot give what I do not have,” going back to Bongbong Marcos’ statement about the Yamashita gold, does he have it or not? Arguably, history and records say that his family does, and even his mother, Imelda Marcos, claimed numerous times that they have it.

In 1992, in an interview with the Associated Press, Imelda, in response to allegations that the Marcoses embezzled funds from the Philippine government, the former First Lady countered these accusations. She said, her husband didn’t have to commit corruption because he collected so much gold from the Second World War, including Yamashita’s.

She emphasized that they did not disclose the gold to tax authorities because “the amount was so huge, ‘it would be embarrassing.’”

Mrs. Marcos said some of the gold came from the treasure that the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita looted from Southeast Asia, which was buried in the Philippines during the war. She said he hid the gold in several places, including the walls of their home in northern Luzon. She declined to say where the remaining gold was stored or to estimate its value.

In 1990, Kristina Luz, a journalist from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, interviewed 33-year-old Bongbong Marcos. When he was asked where the gold was, young Marcos confidently answered: “Ah, only I know where it is and how to get to it.”

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.

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