The last Japanese soldier to officially surrender after the country’s defeat in World War II was Hiroo Onoda.
Lieutenant Onoda finally surrendered his sword on March 9, 1974. He had resisted in the Philippine jungle for 29 years. In interviews and writing after returning to Japan, Lt Onoda said he could not accept that Japan had surrendered.
To many foreigners, Onoda looked like a fanatic. But in Imperial Japan, his actions made perfect sense. Onoda had sworn never to surrender, to die for the emperor. He believed the rest of his countrymen and women would do the same.
Of course they hadn’t. On August 15, 1945, Japan’s supreme divine being, Emperor Hirohito, did something that no emperor had done before: he was broadcast on the radio. The atomic bombs had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the day the second bomb was dropped, Joseph Stalin declared war on Japan. Soviet forces were already sweeping Manchuria. In a few weeks, they would land on the northern island of Hokkaido. Hirohito admitted surrendering to the Americans was his best bet.
Even so, the Emperor’s surrender speech hardly took place. On the morning of August 15, a group of young officers led their troops into the grounds of the Imperial Palace. They were trying to capture the recording of this speech. They believed the war was far from lost. The original islands of Japan had not yet been invaded. His vast army in China was still largely undefeated.
The officers were little concerned about the massive civilian casualties inflicted by the US bombardment of Japanese cities. Instead, they focused on one thing: the survival of the imperial system. Japan must not claim peace until the emperor is insured.
The young officers failed to stop the show. But they got their wish – after the surrender, the United States decided that Hirohito would not be tried as a war criminal after all. Instead, he would remain on the throne, effectively an American puppet.
Perhaps it was a wise move by Douglas MacArthur, the American general who ruled Japan until 1949. MacArthur used the emperor to push his own agenda – to turn conservative Japan into a modern democracy with a constitution American style.
The victorious allies tried 28 members of the Japanese leadership in wartime. Seven, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, were hanged. But others have never been charged. Among them, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, the emperor’s uncle, and the man who led Japanese troops in the infamous rape of the Chinese capital, Nanjing.
Sparing them was seen by MacArthur as a necessary evil. But his decision allowed, if not encouraged, Japan to avoid deep recognition of its past.
Another man who escaped trial was Nobusuke Kishi. Kishi had played a leading role in the occupation of Manchuria and was a close ally of warlord Hideki Tojo. The Americans decided not to charge him. Instead, in 1948, Kishi was released. He was banned from politics while the American occupation lasted.
But in 1955, Kishi conceived the formation of a new political force – the Liberal Democratic Party. Soon he would be its leader and prime minister of Japan. His rehabilitation was complete, and the party he helped create ruled Japan for most of the 65 years that followed.
Nobusuke Kishi’s daughter married the son of another powerful political dynasty – a man named Shintaro Abe. He was to become Japanese Foreign Minister and father his own son, named Shinzo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is far from unique in his family history. Japanese political dynasties have proved remarkably resilient.
Shinzo Abe was known to be close to his grandfather. The old man had a profound influence on the political views of young Shinzo. Like many of his right-wing allies, Nobusuke Kishi believed that the war crimes trials he narrowly escaped were victorious justice. His lifelong goal has remained the scrapping of the post-war pacifist constitution.
In a 1965 speech, Kishi called for the rearmament of Japan as “a way to completely eradicate the consequences of the defeat of Japan and the American occupation”.
When Japan’s critics in China and Korea say the country never properly apologized for what it did in World War II, they are wrong. Japan has repeatedly apologized. The problem is the other words and actions of leading Japanese politicians. They suggest that this apology is not completely sincere.
In 1997, a new group was formed by the Japanese political elite. His name is Nippon Kaigi. It is not a secret society, but many Japanese are unaware of its existence or its objectives.
These objectives are to “revive the Japanese national pride and identity, based around the imperial family”, to abolish the pacifist constitution, to institute respect for the national flag, the national anthem and the national history. , and strengthen Japan’s military strength.
Among the 38,000 members of Nippon Kaigi are Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
Another member of Nippon Kaigi, until his death, was Hiroo Onoda. He didn’t like the Japan Lieutenant Onoda had returned to in the mid-1970s. He believed that the post-war generation had become slack. For a while he moved to Brazil and lived on a cattle farm. He later returned to Japan and opened a school to train young Japanese people in skills that had helped him survive his three decades in the jungle.
When Hiroo Onoda died in 2014 at the age of 91, Prime Minister Abe’s spokesperson was effusive in his eulogy. He gave no allusion to the futility of his lonely war, nor any mention of the Filipino villagers he had killed long after Japan’s surrender. Instead, he described Hiroo Onoda as a Japanese hero.