C&B Notes

Self-Deception & Authority Bias

For three decades following the official conclusion of World War II, a handful of Japanese soldiers remained in the Philippine hills unwilling to give up the fight. The final surviving holdout died this week at the age of 91.

For 30 years the villagers knew they were up there, in the hills, stealing bananas and cows and sometimes firing on locals who strayed too close.  The “mountain devils” were Japanese soldiers, convinced there was still a war on and that the little Philippine island of Lubang was still a battleground.  On Thursday, Hiroo Onoda, the last of the famed Japanese guerrilla holdouts from the Second World War, died aged 91.  He had spent nearly 30 years hiding on Lubang before a Japanese backpacker found him in 1974.  the end, he gave up his rifle — preserved with palm oil harvested from the jungle — only after his former commanding officer flew in with formal orders.

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Still, the image of the isolated jungle fighter remained a stubbornly Japanese one.  Onoda believed, like millions of his wartime compatriots, that the emperor was divine and Japan was “the invincible land of the gods”…  In the jungle, it was his self-respect as an officer that sustained him as much as anything, he wrote.  He was not alone at first: in the months after Japan’s surrender in August, 1945, most of the surviving Japanese on Lubang surrendered, but Onoda convinced three other soldiers to fight on.  It had been his mission to prepare the island’s garrison for a long guerrilla fight; the leaflets and radio broadcasts reporting Japan’s defeat were an enemy ruse, they decided.

The group was less cut off from the world than one might imagine.  Over the years, search parties dropped letters and photographs from their families for them to find, along with newspapers describing an increasingly unrecognizable world.  They discounted the photos as doctored and most of the news as misinformation, filling in the blanks themselves to create a convoluted global order: communist China was allied with Japan, they were sure, fighting the American and English devils.  “I constructed an imaginary world that would fit in with the oath I had taken,” Onoda wrote.  “In the days when I was completely alone, it seemed even more real than before.”

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But Onoda was full of regret, not pride.  “When finally I did see those thousands of cars in Tokyo, moving along the streets and the elevated expressways without a sign of war anywhere, I cursed myself,” he wrote later.  “For 30 years on Lubang I had polished my rifle every day.  For what?  For 30 years I thought I was doing something for my country, but now it looked as though I had just caused a lot of people a lot of trouble.”