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To endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable

Last month the last Japanese soldier to surrender years after the end of the Second World War, Hiroo Onoda, died at the age of ninety-one. Ninety-one is an incredibly impressive age to live to, especially as he’d previously spent 20 years fighting a war that didn’t exist and living off of coconuts in the dense jungle.

This man had been in charge of a small troop of soldiers who were dropped off in the Pilipino jungle during the war and was ordered to continue fighting until their commanding officer told them to stop. Taking this order literally, the troop continued to stage attacks on the surrounding population long after Japan’s 1945 surrender, not having heard the original announcement and believing all other attempts to reach them to be enemy propaganda. The small group decreased in size over the years, eventually leaving the lone solider to be persuaded out of the jungle in the 1970s by his aging original commanding officer who, by this time, ran a bookshop.

He was not alone in his experience; this ragtag band of soldiers was one among many Japanese soldiers who continued to fight beyond their designated conscription. Just a few months later the last Japanese soldier, or so it was hoped, was found and reintegrated into society. He was the end of a long line of men who had continued to fight into the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s hard to imagine any other culture that would commit so to their nation’s army – to continue fighting and refuse to surrender, trusting that if their superiors wanted them to stop they would tell them themselves. This is something that, as a Western culture, we have begun to expect from the Japanese. Told stories of the Kamikaze and the Samurai, we accept that this is a culture devoted to the concept of national pride and personal sacrifice. Have we ever wondered how this was developed?

Japan was not a Communist state or a dictatorship, as many of the other countries that demand such commitment from its citizens are. After being forced to open its doors to the wider world in the late 19th century, Japan was exposed to the culture of the West. Unlike the Chinese, who soon suffered the humiliation of becoming part of Britain’s informal empire, Japan adapted quickly and soon wielded capitalism as skilfully as the Western world, whilst at the same time retaining its traditions and emperor.

The Great Depression had a devastating effect on Japan and caused many to question the capitalist state. Doubting the new world, the inhabitants of Japan turned more wholeheartedly towards the old culture and began to embrace again the tales of the Samurai. Ancient warriors who famously would commit suicide to avoid capture, the Japanese tales are full of their brave exploits.

Coupled with the increasing militarisation of the state, as democracy became as tenuous as capitalism, reverence of the emperor from an early age meant war began to be seen as a means of purification for the world. Consequently, self-sacrifice began to be seen as the ultimate in purification and loyalty to your nation state. This eventually all boiled down to a group of lone soldiers in the forest, fighting off villagers for 29 years in their belief that they were still fighting the great war of Japan.

However, lauded historian John Dower claims that a determination to keep on going was not just a reflection of a country committed to its fight, but also because the Japanese soldiers genuinely felt they had no choice. For those who witnessed the vitriolic reaction of many in the USA after the September 11 attacks, you’ll have seen the dramatic and animalistic reaction to the nations of those who had orchestrated the terror. Civilians were recorded as lashing out with their tongues, claiming that all those sharing the same religion and skin colour as the terrorists should be wiped off the face of the earth.

The response to the attack on Pearl Harbor was no less emotional. Public opinion polls shows 10-13% of Americans wanted the Japanese completely exterminated and Admiral William Halsley, the Commander of the South Pacific Force, adopted the slogan of ‘Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs’. These were angry people, and the Japanese soldiers still fighting were often exposed in isolated areas. What other choice, combined with the teachings of their youth, did they seem to have?

At 91, Onoda will probably beat many in terms of lifespan. Upon learning that the war was over, he laid down the rifle he had carried and cleaned religiously since the 1940s and questioned the past 29 years of his existence. Having fought alongside others who had died for a cause long since passed, it took him a while to fathom the waste of lives and years. He had been spurred on by fear, and by the encouragement of Japanese culture to embrace bushido, the Samurai teaching.

Whilst the Kamikazi pilots had committed their lives in the 1940s in one orchestrated burst of fire and flame to the cause of their country, so Onoda had continued to fight in the way he knew how. The concept is so bizarre, that someone would keep going for so long. But, as young men, they were taught to be courageous, self-sacrificing, frugal, loyal and honourable until death, to revere war as the ultimate purifier and to perceive surrendering to the enemy as ‘enduring the unendurable’.

Combined with a fear of the enemy who seemed more barbaric in their actions as time went on, who can question the decision to keep on going despite signs that the war was finished? It’s frankly the most fascinating and impressive feat of endurance that most of us will ever see.