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Return of the Last Soldier

Takafumi Terui

Jul. 27, 2016

NHK has had a look at the behind-the-scenes negotiations that helped a Japanese soldier return from the Philippines, 30 years after World War Two.

The Philippines was a bloody battleground during the war. More than a million Filipinos were killed in fighting between the occupying Japanese and the liberating US forces.

Second Lt. Hiroo Onoda was sent to the Philippines as an intelligence officer in 1944, when he was 22 years old. In August 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army surrendered on all fronts.

But Onoda and 3 of his comrades, unaware that the war had ended, continued to wage a guerrilla campaign in the jungles of Lubang.

The Japanese government sent search teams to the islands for Onoda. They also distributed leaflets urging soldiers still in the field to surrender. Onoda and his companions didn’t believe the war had ended and did not comply.

Onoda finally surrendered in March 1974 -- almost 30 years after the end of the war -- at the age of 51. The former soldier received a hero's welcome upon returning to his homeland.

"What was on your mind during those 30 years?" Onoda was asked at the time.

"All I thought about was carrying out my duties. I’m grateful that I was able to throw myself into an important mission in the prime of my life," he replied.

The Japanese economy was booming in the 1970s after rapid postwar reconstruction. Onoda’s repatriation sparked a wave of excitement that swept the country. Anyone old enough almost certainly remembers the overwhelming reception he received in Japan.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Philippines. And a Japanese scholar recently acquired a secret diplomatic document on the repatriation of Onoda, which reveals that his “heroic” return was carefully orchestrated by the governments of both countries.

It's a 670-page volume, and this is the first time diplomatic papers concerning Onoda have been made public. The papers document the exchanges between Japan and the Philippines about Onoda’s repatriation.

After his existence was confirmed in 1972, the Japanese government first extracted a promise from the Philippines not to kill him.

"We asked the Philippine government to make every effort to rescue Onoda safely and they agreed to do so," the document says.

As for why it was necessary to extract that promise, the document sheds light on what happened:

"According to the Philippine government, former Japanese soldiers, including Onoda, have killed 30 people and injured approximately 100 on Lubang Island," it says.

Believing that the war was still going on, Onoda and his fellow soldiers had done a lot of harm to the inhabitants of Lubang Island, where they were hiding out.

Professor Hitoshi Nagai, of Hiroshima City University, studies the post-war history of Japan and the Philippines. He received the diplomatic documents through a freedom of information request.

"These documents show that rescuing Lt. Onoda was more than just a soldier’s return. Both Japanese and Filipino governments were handling the issue as an important political and diplomatic case," Nagai says.

Lubang Island lies at the mouth of Manila Bay. Islanders who were there at the time still remember Onoda and the other soldiers well.

"Onoda and the other soldiers burned my house. My field was set on fire too," one local resident says.

"Japanese soldiers shot people planting rice and collecting food in the mountains," says another.

Christina Delacruz lost her husband when she was 29. He was shot dead by the Japanese soldiers in 1970 -- a quarter of a century after the end of the war.

"I was told my husband was killed, and went to the chapel. His body was there. My life has been hard ever since. I had no relatives to depend on, I had to raise my children all by myself," Delacruz says.

Accounts like these are proof that the information in the papers is true.

"If Onoda comes across an islander, they might attack him. There is a danger Onoda might be killed," the document says.

The Japanese government feared for Onoda’s safety after the Philippines informed them of the death and injuries he had caused. The Japanese started work to ensure Onoda’s safe return. At the same time, the Philippine government had a request of its own.

"Will the Japanese government offer compensation for the human and material damage they caused?" the document says.

It was a difficult situation for the Japanese government. Japan had already signed a reparation treaty in 1956, and considered the matter closed. But the Japanese government was concerned victims would speak out and stoke anti-Japan sentiment.

Should the government pay compensation for acts carried out by private individuals? It finally decided on a response -- so-called gift money was to be paid.

"There is a fear that the Filipinos affected by Onoda will pursue civil legal claims against Onoda’s family for damages. ‘Gift Money’ from the Japanese government may help to stop such legal action," the document says.

The gift money amounted to 1 million dollars. It was described as a voluntary donation from Japan.

Former Japanese diplomat Yukio Takeuchi spoke about the issue for the first time. He said Onoda's safe return was necessary for Japan to accelerate bilateral ties with the Philippines.

"In the early 70s, Japan was trying to do business in South East Asia, but we met a lot of resistance here and there. The biggest challenge was how to turn that around for the better," Takeuchi says. "In that sense, the negotiations regarding Onoda's safe return were rather symbolic."

When Onoda was brought to Manila, he was welcomed by President Ferdinand Marcos. He offered his sword in surrender. Marcos praised Onoda as a model soldier who had never given up the fight. He also pardoned Onoda for any crimes committed after the war.

Onoda’s return to a now-prosperous Japan created an opportunity to develop a relationship with a nation it had harmed during the war. Around that time, Japan increased economic aid to the Philippines, and used that as a stepping-stone to improving relations with the whole of Southeast Asia.

Professor Nagai also sees another side to the story -- the Philippines also stood to gain from Onoda’s repatriation.

"You could say that Marcos gave Onoda special treatment because he benefitted from a stronger relationship with Japan in the form of financial aid and political benefits," Nagai says.

After Onoda’s return, the Japanese government paid out the gift money it had promised. At the time, Onoda's story was celebrated as a tale of bravery with a happy ending.

But, with the discovery of these documents, the story takes a different direction. It now appears to be more like a political and diplomatic deal that allowed the 2 countries to draw closer and move on from the past.

NHK World's Takafumi Terui joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: In 1974, crowds welcomed Onoda back to Japan, and his was the feel-good story of the year. But these papers show us that his return was well orchestrated by the 2 governments.

Terui:That's right. As we discovered, both the Japanese and Philippine governments were wary of how to handle the Onoda case. They were concerned that his return would open a Pandora’s Box of reparation payments.

Back in the 1970s, the scars of war were still part of life in the Philippines. Anti-Japanese feelings were common. Japan needed to heal those wounds if it was to establish a better relationship between the countries. There was also a fear that if the violence inflicted by Onoda and his colleagues was highlighted, it could make things even worse. And that was also the case for President Marcos, as he wanted to deepen economic ties with Japan. As Professor Nagai says, Onoda’s successful return to Japan benefited both Japan and the Philippines.

Shibuya: Governments aside, how do the people of Lubang feel now about the situation?

Terui: I talked with the islanders, including some whose loved ones were killed. Many of them said they had been living in fear before Onoda's surrender. But they also said that they no longer feel hatred toward the Japanese. Of course, it's an expression of their kindness. Most importantly, I learned that those who suffered most on Lubang Island never received a cent.

We found that the money was used to promote the relationship between Japan and the Philippines, such as building language schools, or providing scholarship to students who want to study in Japan. Those relations may have improved, but we cannot forget that the islanders. The people who suffered most received nothing.

Beppu: But the money was meant to be used for the islanders, wasn't it?

Terui: Exactly. That was the Japanese government's intention in the beginning. We learned that the 2 governments agreed to create a fund with that money. It was President Marcos's idea. While we now know the money was not used as intended, we don't know exactly how that happened because the papers we've seen all come from the Japanese side.

Professor Nagai says he hopes to shed some light on the Philippine side as well -- particularly on Marcos’s intentions. If he can do that, we might eventually discover what happened, and why the people who suffered most have been frozen out.