When Hiroo Onoda died at a Tokyo hospital at age 91 on Thursday, the world was once again reminded of the incredible story of a Japanese soldier who refused to believe that World War II was over and remained in hiding in the Philippine jungle for nearly three decades before finally surrendering in 1974, returning to a barely recognizable world of shoulder-long hair, rock’n roll and recreational drug use.
In fact, he was far from the only one. Numerous former members of Hirohito’s armies were holed up in outposts across the emperor’s sprawling Pacific empire for years or decades after the Japanese capitulation. Some had never heard about the end of hostilities. Others believed that the talk of peace was just an elaborate American hoax to get the soldiers of Japan to surrender without a fight. Yet others thought that regardless of Tokyo’s decision to give in, they must fight on to fulfill their duty as soldiers.
In China, too, a large number of Japanese soldiers lingered on long after the war had ended in 1945, although the circumstances differed from Southeast Asia. The Chinese mainland was, after all, far too densely populated to allow anyone to ignore the realities of the post-war world.
In Manchuria, the northeastern provinces of China, thousands of Japanese soldiers were holding out years after the war, as they were caught up in a new conflict, this time between the Chinese Communists and their Nationalist adversaries. The last of them were not able to surrender until the end of 1948, when they were mostly repatriated.
Others chose to stay behind because they found new causes to fight for. Sato Yasuyuki was 17 when he arrived in China in 1944 as a Japanese soldier. One year later, after Japan had surrendered, he and his comrades were unable to return to Japan and fully expected to be killed by the Chinese enemy. Instead they met members of the Communist rebel army who wanted to use them.
“Through a translator, they told us that those who launched the war were Japanese militarists; they were like, but ‘you are our friends. We need your help to liberate China, to fight against the troops led by Chiang Kai-shek,'” Sato told a Chinese newspaper late last year.
Sato started work at a military hospital and eventually became a team leader – a Japanese soldier in command of Chinese just years after the immensely bloody Sino-Japanese War. He did not return to Japan until 1953, four years after the Communist revolution.
It could be argued that Sato was a beneficiary of Chinese pragmatism. Why kill him if he could be useful?
The same was true for many of the former Japanese colonial masters of Taiwan, who stayed on years after the war had ended, simply because their services were still needed. As late as 1948, thousands of Japanese officials and police officers remained at work in the Taiwanese administration, performing their tasks as before because there was no one else around to do it.