Towards the end of 1944, after a lengthy war that had stretched the Japanese economy to breaking point, Japan’s defeat seemed the most likely outcome.
Their forces were stretched across the Pacific and Southeast Asia, which resulted in the territories they had conquered falling rapidly to the USA.
They were staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat.
Despite this, the Japanese showed no sign of giving up. On 26 December 1944, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was deployed to the small Philippine island of Lubang.
His mission was to slow down the US forces as much as possible. He was to do all he could to stop their assault and under no circumstances was he to surrender or back down.
It was a suicide mission.
American and Commonwealth forces landed on 28 February 1945 and took the island with a minimum of fuss. All but Onoda and three other soldiers had either died or surrendered.
Onoda was the highest-ranking official remaining. What he decided to do next was extraordinary, and provides us with many important insights into the human psyche.
Instead of surrendering in the face of defeat, Onoda obeyed his commands and took to the jungle, where he and the other soldiers hid out.
It was from here that they waged a guerrilla warfare campaign against the local population, which included numerous shootouts with the police.
A few months into their holdout, they came across leaflets declaring that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
They ignored the leaflet, believing it to be Allied propaganda.
They continued to wage their guerrilla war.
The leaflets continued to fall, and even when they stumbled across one containing a surrender order from General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Fourteenth Area Army, they decided it was a fake, and refused to surrender.
Five years passed and the leaflets had stopped. Yet, Onoda and his men were still present in the jungle waging their campaign against the locals.
One of the men, Yuichi Akatsu, left the group later on, and eventually surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950 after six months by himself.
Letters and family pictures were dropped on the island in 1952, to persuade the men to surrender.
Again, they deemed it to be a trick and stuck to their guns.
In 1954, the group was whittled down to two, when Shōichi Shimada was shot by a search party looking for the men.
The group remained as two, until Onoda’s comrade, Kinshichi Kozuka was killed by police in 1972 after he and Onoda had been burning rice collected by local farmers.
After 27 years of guerrilla warfare, Onoda was now by himself, but still, he would not surrender.
The War Is Over
News of Kozuka’s death caused a stir in Japan.
It was believed the remaining holdouts from the war had either been killed or found.
Inevitability, thoughts turned to Onoda. If Kozuka was still hiding out after all these years, what were the odds there were still others out there?
A search party was organised to look for the Lieutenant, who was slowly turning into a celebrity in his native Japan.
He wasn’t found.
A few years later, a Japanese explorer Norio Suzuki heard about the story and decided to try and locate Onoda.
Within four days of landing on the island, Suzuki had located Onoda and befriended him.
When Suzuki first encountered Onoda, he stated he was “travelling the world looking for Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Despite this interloper from the outside world finding him, Onoda still refused to surrender. He was waiting for orders from a superior officer before he turned himself over.
Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of his encounter Onoda. The Japanese government located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had become a bookseller following the end of the war.
He flew to Lubang on 9 March 1974, met with Onoda, and issued him with an order to surrender.
29 years after the end of the war, Onoda had finally surrendered.
What compelled this Japanese soldier to remain so resolute in his determination to obey orders and not surrender?
Onoda was a popular figure upon his return to Japan.
He became a regular fixture on talk shows, radio stations, and politicians were eager to meet him.
He published a book detailing his time in Lubang, and some Japanese people even encouraged him to run for government.
However, Onoda was dismayed by what he saw on his return to Japan.
The values of honour and sacrifice which had marked his generation were replaced by a consumerist, capitalist and superficial culture, which he struggled to identify with.
Onoda tried to use his new-found influence to hammer home the values of Old Japan, but he was ignored.
He was seen more as a figure from a bygone era. An exhibit to be marvelled at, not listened to.
Onoda was confronted with the realisation that his 29 years in the jungle had been for nothing.
He was unhappier in Japan than he had been in the jungle. All the suffering, the pain he had experienced was nothing in comparison to the depression he felt about the society he had stumbled into.
By 1980, Onoda had had enough and moved to Brazil, a foreign man in his own country.
As humans, we live our lives based upon our own unique set of values.
We might value our belongings above all else.
We might value our work above all else.
Or, we might value our adherence to a moral code, or religion, above all else.
However, the problem with values, as Onoda found, is that if you pick poor ones, you are likely to end up miserable in the end.
Onoda spent close to 30 years in the jungle, fighting on after the war had ended because he valued his orders above all else.
Onoda stated later he regretted nothing. He was proud of his choices, and his time on the island. He was more than happy to have devoted a sizeable chunk of his life to an empire which no longer existed.
We have a remarkable aptitude for dedicating our lives to pursuits which are either useless or destructive in nature.
I have spent the past five months working in an office. The job I’m doing is utterly mundane, and will actually cease to exist next year.
In 5, 10 years, what I have spent the past five months doing will not matter one little bit.
It’s completely pointless.
Yet, five days a week, I’m in the office for eight hours a day, working.
The money from this job, will allow me to invest in my blog, and help me become self-employed in the long-run.
I am suffering in the short-term for gain in the long-term.
Our values dictate what we are willing to suffer for in life.
Onoda suffered in the jungle for 30 years, because he valued the importance of the Japanese empire above all, even though it no longer existed.
In life, it is often what you are willing to suffer for, that determines how your life pans out.
As Freud stated:
“One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
Suffering is inevitable, and it’s often as a result of our values.
For your suffering to be worthwhile, you need to choose your values carefully, or you might experience your own 30 years in the jungle.