Robinson Crusoe of the War
Hiding out on an island for 28 years
An exclusive interview with Yokoi Shoichi
– You spent 28 years living on a tiny island, cut off from the rest of the word. Please tell us how you got there.
– I was called up for military service in the infantry when I was 27 years old. I was sent first to the Manchurian front and then, after some tough battles there, to the Micronesian island of Guam along with 20 other soldiers. At that time I had no idea that a mission planned to last a couple of months would last so long, and that I would spend most of my life in the jungle on an island 2500 km from Tokyo.
– So you went behind enemy lines together with 20 other soldiers in order to prepare the land for Japanese occupying forces. How did you start these preparations?
– First of all we were divided into teams of seven to eight people so that our movements around enemy territory would not be conspicuous. We investigated strategic landing points and prepared everything for the invasion. But when our people had not yet arrived after many long months, we started to suspect that something must have happened in the war situation and that we had been forgotten. We eventually ran out of basic supplies and had to decide on a matter of vital importance: how to go on? We had such different opinions on this question that heated arguments broke out within the group. I was also at loggerheads with those dreamers who spent their days just thinking of rescue. I insisted that we would have to take charge of our own lives if we didn’t want to starve to death. However, lacking any real experience of the jungle, we couldn’t even agree on how to find food. I sided with those of us who thought we should eat whatever organic material the animals ate. Even primitive people knew instinctively what was fit to eat and what was not, so I felt we should trust our instincts.
– So what did Yokoi cuisine consist of?
– I ate snails, frogs and mice by the thousand. I caught fish and crabs with my hidden fish baskets. Game was considered a real treat, and it was a feast day when I managed to catch a rat or a crow. I found out that you can even eat snakes if you remove the venom. But it’s impossible to eat your fill in the jungle – you can barely survive if you are lucky. It was vital for me to fill my stomach every day, with anything I could get. Even so, I was sometimes just a shadow of my former self!
– Some years ago you were seen on TV with the competitors in the Japanese all-in wrestling competition. You took them to the jungle of Guam to see if they could survive there as well as you had once done.
– Yes, that’s right! (He laughs.) They were very strong (and good-looking as well), and could take a lot for the sake of shooting the film. However, when I started to mince a bat into a cauldron, they couldn’t take it! But I still get letters from them.
– Coming back to our story, what happened to your mates?
– Once we had scattered, we had no idea what happened to the others. Because of the nature of our situation, there were only three of us in a group. Just think, the other two were 10 years younger than me and often disappeared, just the two of them … I used to worry about them, but they always came back, only to disappear again. After twenty years, the next time they disappeared, they didn’t come back.
– How did you spend your lonely days?
– Looking for food and hiding occupied all my time. Wherever I went, I took great care to cover my tracks. If I could, I waded in the river or at least crossed the same stream many times. I did my best to obliterate any signs that someone was living there.
– Did you know the war had ended?
– I didn’t know for sure, but I guessed. Suddenly there were no more Japanese planes overhead – only American ones. Japan is a small country, so I assumed we had lost the war. But I would not have expected outright defeat – I thought of something like compromise rather. It would have suited our mentality better. And then when the Vietnam war began, I could see the modern B-52 bombers and I thought a new Japanese-American war had started. But I couldn’t understand why America would exert itself to obtain such a small country as Japan.
– Twenty-eight years in the jungle, eight of them entirely alone. Most people would have gone crazy.
– Well, to be honest, I did often think I was going crazy, but my stubbornness always saw me through. I vowed to myself that I would return to my motherland one day, hale and hearty.
– How did your hermit’s life come to an end?
– An emotionally disturbed girl went into the jungle from a small American village. The people who were looking for her found my hiding place by accident. We were all equally surprised, and stared at one another for several minutes, completely taken aback.
– And how did you feel at that moment?
– I’ve been asked this question by journalists many times, but in the end they always make up their own answers. I hope you won’t do the same! I am honest, so I have to tell you the truth: I WAS AFRAID! I was afraid because I hadn’t seen anyone for eight years and suddenly found myself standing among strangers, weak and defenceless. I was a captive in enemy territory.
– What were your first words to your captors?
– When I was taken to an official, he asked me ‘nihonjin?’ (Japanese) and I said ‘Hai!’ (yes). That was the full extent of our conversation.
– How did the news of defeat affect you?
– It was very painful – I had suffered for 28 years in an attempt not to lose the war, or not in this way at any rate. When I returned to Japan, I said at Haneda Airport: ‘Although I am shamefaced, I have returned.’ These words were then disseminated by the media and became famous.
– Rumour has it that your first meeting with your compatriots was not entirely cordial.
– Not at all! When the news broke that such an oddball had been found on the island of Guam, the major Japanese newspapers sent their closest reporters there. They came straight from their beds in Hawaii, wearing aloha shirts, and didn’t want to understand that I wanted to sleep at night, not tell them stories. And they couldn’t stop panting, wheezing and complaining about the heat. In the end I snarled at them: ‘Damn it, are you Japanese men or American?’ Hearing this, they felt ashamed and calmed down.
– When you got back to Japan, were you surprised by the level of technological development there?
– When I was called up for military service, the telephone had already come into general use and we also had TV. The ‘wonders of technology’ on my return did not amaze me at all – as a matter of fact, I had expected to find much greater development.
– How did you manage to return to everyday life in Japan?
– It happened more quickly and easily than I would have hoped. The government gave me a medium-sized grant of 900.000 Yen which I used to buy a house, and I got married shortly afterwards. We live in a small village in Nagoya prefecture. Mihiko, my wife, is my only treasure! We grow our own vegetables and eat meat only once a week (150g for the two of us) and use half as much electricity as other people. I have tried my hand at pottery, but these days my main concern is self-sufficiency.
– Some years ago you stood as a candidate in the election of representatives. What were the results?
– I was told it would cost a lot of money, and I thought it was unfair that you can’t take part if you are poor. I thought patriotism and my program would be enough. Well, I didn’t succeed. It seems to me that Japan has become a country where only money matters.
– It is said that you have met Emperor Akihito.
– It happened not so long ago. He asked me: ‘When was it that we met on the train?’ He was referring to an accidental meeting between us 18 years ago. The fact that he remembered me so well made my heart flutter so much that I even forgot my waist-ache. You know, before the war we were taught that the Emperor was divine. That’s no longer the case, but there’s still an unusual atmosphere around the Imperial Palace.
– A military command sent you to an island where you held out for 28 years. Do you think you are a good soldier?
– Call me proud, but the enemy has never seen my back. I couldn’t even imagine being captured or killed. When I was in hiding, I couldn’t imagine I would die, either. I still think that we were, and are, Japanese men rather than soldiers. This spirit of endurance has been always instilled into us.
– Finally: If you got into the same situation, would you do the same as you did then?
– Thank God, our country’s economy and its role in the world mean that the question doesn’t even arise. But if it happened … I wouldn’t give up 28 years of my life. After all, we only have one life!!!
The report above was written in 1992, in hospital, where Yokoi Shoichi was being treated for Parkinson’s disease. He seemed to be a man with a strong character and a good sense of humour, and his illness did not depress him at all. He said with a smile that after his return to Japan, scientists had asked the authorities in Guam for samples of the snake and frog species he had eaten before, for purposes of analysis. They replied that in the area around his blockhouse, covering a few square kilometres, they hadn’t been able to find any snakes or frogs, not even for a sample.
When his wife had to travel away from home for a couple of days in 1997, the old trooper was sent to a hospital to be looked after during that time. On her way, his wife had an accident, and was taken to another hospital. The prolonged trauma and the fear of not seeing her again were too much for Yokoi’s weakened body, and he died of a heart attack on 22nd September, at the age of 88.
‘In the last 15 years I have done everything I wanted to do and everything I had to do,’ he said.
That’s not entirely true – we could go on listening to his stories for ages.
Yokoi Mihoko moved to an old people’s home in Kyoto some years ago. I still get New Year’s cards from her with her best wishes. She is proud to have been the wife of a strong-willed, patriotic man.