As Harari’s film points out, Onoda was still a very young man – only 23 – at the time of his homeland’s surrender, and likely heavily indoctrinated by the ideologies perpetuated by Japan during the war. “Soldiers were meant to die for the cause,” Onoda writes in his memoirs (a truth supported by the fact that the country produced as many as 5,000 suicide fighters during World War II), and the repercussions for a soldier abandoning some functions or not respecting traditional norms, were severe: “Even if the death sentence has not been carried out, [a disgraced soldier] was so deeply ostracized by others that he might as well have been dead. To complicate matters further, Onoda’s secret orders to survive by any means necessary and to hold the territory until the return of the Imperial Army effectively isolated him from his comrades. that he had already failed in his mission to destroy the pier and airfield at Lubang.
“The ideology of non-surrender during the war was powerful,” Beatrice Trefalt, lecturer in Japanese studies at Australia’s Monash University, told BBC Culture, but that does little to explain the extent of the Onoda’s commitment. “There are, of course, many people who committed suicide or who went into hopeless battles as a last resort, knowing that they would die. But if the ideology of war was so powerful and everyone world was bigoted, how did they stop being bigoted in 1945?The answer is that they weren’t, and they weren’t, and so the surrender was welcome for most people. She concludes that Onoda was probably “a very intransigent person” who refused to abandon his principles. “This refusal cost the lives of not only two of his comrades/friends, but many civilians on Lubang. Therefore, facing the end, Onoda might have found it easier to convince himself that he didn’t know. [the war was over]rather than face the destruction wrought by his own foolish pride.”
Onoda wasn’t the only soldier who had trouble believing the war was over. In fact, many Japanese groups continued to fight long after the country’s surrender. Twenty-one soldiers were arrested on Anatahan Island in 1951. Teruo Nakamura, a Taiwanese-Japanese soldier, endured 29 years in the jungle after the end of World War II, in Morotai, in present-day Indonesia . And Shoichi Yokoi hid in the jungles of Guam until 1972. The latter revealed he had known the war had been over for 20 years – but had been too scared to surrender. The main difference, Seriu says, is that many other Japanese resisters “found ways to live in the formerly occupied country” and in some cases even started families. Onoda, on the other hand, “refused to live together with the locals [of Lubang].”
Welcome as a hero?
When Onoda landed in Japan in 1974, he was cheered on by a crowd of up to 8,000 – a moment that was broadcast live on NHK, the country’s national broadcaster. At this time, Japan was facing its worst economic performance in two decades, while more progressive visions of war, which included atonement for crimes, became more widespread. Onoda offered a timely reminder of the traditional, positive Japanese virtues of bravery, loyalty, pride and commitment that had been prevalent during wartime. Its re-emergence offered a useful propaganda tool for the country’s powerful conservatives – or at the very least, a good distraction. “He aligned himself with the powerful faction and played the role that would give him the most advantage,” Trefalt said. “The money he made from the media frenzy was always going to be better than the meager veterans’ pension.”