Hiroo Onoda died on 16th January 2014. Onoda was a time-traveller of a sort. He went into the Philippines jungle in February 1945 where he remained for thirty years, convinced that WW2 was continuing. And he was equally convinced that Japan would prevail and win the war. When he surrendered in March 1974, he must have felt that he stepped out of 1945 and into the 1970s.
In hindsight, we can scoff at Onoda’s optimism. The Allies defeated Japan, therefore, his optimism was misplaced. We could also take the nationalistic view (if we come from one of the former Allied nations) that our natural superiority (as champions of liberal democracy and freedom) made the Allied victory inevitable. But this is simply a form of syllogism. ‘We won the war. We fought for liberal democracy against the forces of fascism and oppression. Therefore, our liberal democratic values made our victory inevitable’ (Don’t laugh. Some people actually believe this. The possession by the Allies of overwhelming economic and population resources, mostly safely out of range of direct enemy attack, also played significant contributing roles).
Yet Japan’s situation in February 1945 was not unlike that of the Western Allies in February 1942. The belief in the natural superiority of Western Colonial powers had been shattered by the swift victories by the Japanese over the Allies during the early months of the Pacific War from December 1941. Despair hung in the air as the Allied forces desperately retreated to places from which they could recover – to India in the West, Australia and New Zealand in the South, and to the scattered island chains of the central Pacific in the East. Behind them, the Allied forces left tens of thousands of their comrades (and tens of millions of civilians) under Japanese control. But the Allies found the will to continue the war. As did the individual Allied soldiers and civilians in Malaya, the Philippines and elsewhere who retreated to the hills to continue the struggle under Japanese occupation. They did not know when the Allied victory would come, but they were confident that there would be an Allied victory. Most Allied holdouts who survived the war resisted for (only) up to three and half years. Onoda held out for nearly 30 years.
Onoda was a time traveller, of a sort. While he held out in the jungle, Japan moved on. He missed the Atomic bombs of August 1945 and the subsequent Japanese surrender. He missed the Allied occupation. He missed the War Crime Trials. He missed Japan’s adoption of a liberal democratic constitution. He missed Japan’s acceptance as a member of the United Nations in 1965. He missed the post-war economic recovery than began in 1960s that made Japan one of the leading world economies.
When Onoda returned to Japan in 1974, he was a man out of time. He belonged to a Japan of 1945 while the calendar said it was now 1974. The Philippines jungle had acted as a time capsule.
To read more about the life of Hiroo Onoda, go to his Wikipedia page or read his autobiography (‘Never Surrender!’).
Some readers might question my choice of WW2 figures to discuss – a soldier of a brutal fascism regime whose ultimate defeat was a triumph for freedom. However, liberal democratic societies do not have a monopoly on courage, determination and personal honour. These are universal human qualities, and I’m in awe of anyone who embodies such virtues to the extent that Hiroo Onoda embodied. May he rest in peace.
Photo Copyright Details:
|Title: Hiroo Onoda Description: Hiroo Onoda as a young officer Date: 1944-1945 Source: Wikipedia Commons This photographic image was published before December 31st 1956, or photographed before 1946, under jurisdiction of the Government of Japan. Thus this photographic image is considered to be public domain according to article 23 of old copyright law of Japan (English translation) and article 2 of supplemental provision of copyright law of Japan.|