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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Put entrenched narratives to the test of evidence or risk a debacle

On 15 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional capitulation after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ordering all Japanese forces to cease hostilities and surrender to Allied troops. And that is how World War II ended for the world. But not for ‘holdouts.’ These were Japanese soldiers scattered in the Philippines islands who continued fighting despite Japan’s surrender, the most notable being a soldier called Hirro Onoda.

Second Lieutenant Hirro Onoda was deployed in Lubang Island and ordered to battle relentlessly until the Japanese Army launched a counter-offensive to oust Allied troops. And he did exactly that. When Allied troops arrived in Lubang, most Japanese soldiers either died fighting or surrendered, but Onoda hightailed to the hills with three soldiers and continued guerilla warfare. His group lived off the jungles, raiding villages, killing dozens of innocent villagers and skirmishing with local police. He kept at it for 29 years after the war was over!

There were innumerable attempts to draw out holdouts from the islands by communicating over radio broadcasts, loudspeakers and air-dropped leaflets proclaiming that the war had ended. Many Japanese soldiers came out and surrendered. But not Onoda. He was convinced that these were American ruses to beguile him into surrendering. Even leaflets signed by senior military generals commanding Onoda to lay down arms were rubbished by him. His logic was as simple as his indoctrination. He had been taught that the Japanese would fight to the last man, woman and child, and die before surrendering, thus obeying an emperor who Japanese culture held as a direct descendant of God. So, to his brainwashed mind, those leaflets had to be fake.

Onoda was an exceptional soldier and his ability to strike at will and melt into the jungles thwarted attempts by police and Philippine soldiers to capture or kill him. However, these constant battles took their toll and one by one Onoda’s comrades were killed until he was alone. Nonetheless, he kept fighting, inflicting deaths, burning crops and villages. The frustrated Japanese government brought Onoda’s brother to the jungles where he was hiding. Using a megaphone, the brother called upon him to appreciate that the war was over and surrender. He even sang a childhood nursery rhyme with names of their relatives to convince Onoda who he was. But the soldier dismissed even this as enemy propaganda. Years later, he admitted that he did see his brother and hear his singing and while every instinct told him that it was indeed his brother, a slight change of pitch at the end of the song convinced him that an imposter had been sent.

In 1974, a Japanese ‘hippie’ explorer Norio Suzuki, who set out to travel the world looking for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Yeti—in that order—visited Lubang island and found Onoda within a week and convinced him to surrender. After three decades of his private war, Onoda returned to a grandiose reception in Japan. His saga gave much succour to a proud and humiliated Japan, whose people saw Onoda’s defiance as the undefeated Samurai spirit. He attained celebrity status. He was feted at public events, received many marriage proposals and was even asked to join politics. But Onoda was quickly disillusioned when he realized that he had wasted three decades of his life for a non-existent cause and what he considered to be the decay of Japanese values. While his autobiography No surrender detailed his 30-year war, he left out the murder of innocent villagers in his accounts. Unhappy and disenchanted, Onoda left Japan for Brazil.

We all have a bit of Hirro Onoda within us. We believe in causes, ideologies and leaders whose narratives have outlived their usefulness or were specious to begin with. And yet we hold onto those narratives because we have committed acts, forged alliances, made enemies and taken stands—based on those very narratives. If we now open ourselves to the possibility of our narratives being incorrect, they could shatter our core beliefs. Psychologists profiling Onoda’s behaviour observed that his insistence on holding onto a belief which was proven false by his own commanding officer and brother, was necessary for him to reconcile the murders and damage he’d perpetrated for three decades. How else could he live with those acts on his conscience if he allowed his patently false beliefs to be destroyed? Onoda needed his false narrative and therefore stubbornly rejected all evidence to the contrary. But fallacious narratives have a shelf life and when they are exposed as outdated or patently false, it takes a person of character and conscience to admit a mistake, repent and make amends, because that is a much tougher thing to do than to simply continue believing and defending an unjust cause.

Hirro Onoda lived in Brazil in a self-imposed exile for a decade before returning to Japan and establishing an NGO to educate the youth, continuing his national service until he died in 2014, aged 92. As for Norio Suzuki, he did find a panda after locating Onoda, but died in an avalanche in 1986 while searching for the Yeti in the Dhaulagiri range of the Himalayas.

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Updated: 18 Sep 2023, 11:19 PM IST
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