BOOK REVIEW Japan's simple soldier of misfortune Private Yokoi's War and Life on Guam by Omi Hatashin
Reviewed by David Wilson
Imagine being driven into hiding and feeling on edge for 28 years. That
dreadful destiny befell poor Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese soldier and latter-day
Conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941, Yokoi was eventually
transferred to Guam. When American forces reconquered the western Pacific
island in the 1944 Battle of Guam, Private Yokoi went on the run, dodging
pursuers real and imagined.
Do not commit the easily made mistake of muddling this famous
fugitive who modestly deemed himself “good at hide-and-seek” with two other
high-profile imperial diehards who slightly outlasted him. One, Second
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, led a guerrilla task force on the Philippine island of
Lubang near Manila, and was repatriated in March 1974. The other, Private Teruo
Nakamura, from the Ami tribe of Taiwan, was found growing crops alone on the
Indonesian island of Morotai in December of the same year.
Onoda refused to give up until he received the order from his commanding
officer. Because Onoda perfectly jibed with the stereotype of the fervent
no-surrender patriot, on his return to his home country he was thoroughly well
received. In contrast, Nakamura and Yokoi faced accusations of cowardice. Yokoi
even received a razor with a note, which charmingly said: "You are the shame of
the Imperial Army. Die."
This book sets the record straight about the military minnow notable not for
shamefulness but "great intelligence, extreme resilience and formidable
self-composition", the introduction says. The first 17 chapters, which stretch
from his early life to the end of his paranoid jungle vigil, represent the full
English translation of his autobiography originally printed by Japanese
publisher Bungei Shunju in 1974. The introduction and three sections entitled
"Afterwards", which report how he adjusted to late 20th-century Japan, owe
their existence to Omi Hatashin, Yokoi's nephew by marriage turned piecemeal
The comprehensive portrait of one of 20th-century Japan's most remarkable
figures opens with disarming, fairytale simplicity. "I was born on 31 March
1915 to a tailor named Yamada in a village which was later annexed to Nagoya
City in central Japan," Yokoi writes, then reveals that his parents divorced
when he was three months old. He evolved into a lonely, introspective boy who
would later paint his childhood as hard.
Following his real father's trade, he trained to be a tailor and stoically
accepted having his career interrupted by the draft. His first army stint,
which only lasted a year at the start of the war when Japan was on the rise,
unfolded uneventfully at a Hong Kong provisions depot. His second, which began
in 1941, took him to the 29th Transport Regiment in Liaoyang, Mukden province,
"Manchuria". There, he served on guard duty as a "private superior", and later
as a lance corporal.
Yokoi divulges little about this period. Apparently little happened. Clearly,
he had little idea about the havoc that the Imperial Army was wreaking on the
mainland and beyond. He would soon find out just what chaos his side could
In 1944 at 26, redrafted, Yokoi wound up aboard the redoubtable Akimaru - one
of the most luxurious semi-cargo cruisers in Japan then - on a starvation
ration mystery voyage across the Pacific. Narrowly surviving a torpedo attack,
the Akimaru limped to Guam, which struck Yokoi as "fantastically beautiful".
But early one "disgracefully fine and clear" morning, the American forces
unleashed hell, bombing paradise ferociously and ending the Japanese three-year
occupation with brutal efficiency. Yokoi slipped into the jungle.
Bedeviled by diarrhea but determined to continue, Yokoi hunted mostly at night,
wearing clothes woven from native plants, hiding in a cave. If he fell into the
hands of the islanders, he might suffer reprisals, he feared - probably because
of the cruelty that his side inflicted during their occupation. Not that Yokoi,
who comes across as a good if brainwashed soldier prone to beating aberrant
subordinates, talks about that.
Instead, Yokoi focuses on how he ingeniously carved out his survival while his
comrades wandered off, were shot or succumbed to sickness - incidents described
in heartbreakingly understated asides. Venturing ever deeper into the jungle,
he racked up decades and refused to believe microphone broadcasts that the war
had ended. In his mind, they were a trap.
In January 1972, however, Yokoi was finally found by two fishermen out checking
their shrimp traps. The fishermen managed to surprise, subdue and extract the
scrawny, prematurely aged Robinson Crusoe from the jungle after a brief tussle
that inflicted minor bruising.
Fame and bewilderment followed. "Sortie after sortie of press squadrons were
flown from Japan to Guam for the sole purpose of interviewing me," Yokoi
writes. "I found myself suddenly ambushed by battalions of journalists for the
first time and a series of questions was fired at me like bursts of machine-gun
Following a media tour of Japan, Yokoi married and settled down to a quiet life
of pottery and organic gardening in rural Aichi Prefecture - at least after a
fashion. Because he had captured popular imagination, despite the cowardice
accusations he remained in demand and blossomed into a TV personality.
In 1991, Yokoi received an audience with Emperor Akihito. The greatest honor of
Yokoi's blighted life, the audience moved him so much that he could hardly
speak beyond saying that he had survived. Six years later, the old soldier
would die of a heart attack at 82.
Reminiscent of the true-life air crash survival thriller Alive, the core
of this book is Yokoi's jungle phase, which makes riveting reading. Just look
at his account of how he tackled cockroaches during a later underground stint.
"At night, about 150 cockroaches emerged, flew inside the hole and mated," he
writes. "I had no pesticide. I had no alternative but to crush them by hand one
by one. But there were simply too many in the hole to get rid of in this way.
An idea of keeping toads inside the hole came to my mind some time later. Toads
seemed to like eating cockroaches. When I caught a cockroach and showed it to a
toad, it eventually approached my hand and ate the cockroach. I was unable to
chat with toads, but toads were my only allies and friends."
This passage underscores Yokoi's confession that he metamorphosed into "a
half-wild animal". Forever foraging, the future advocate of austere living had
little time to daydream about women or stew in self-pity.
Some of the boldest observations the survivor makes illuminate the truth about
Japanese might. Despite conquering Asia, the Japanese military machine needed
work. Tell the line about supreme efficiency to the marines who invaded.
"I think that Japan's war plans were utterly reckless or too ignorant of the
power of their opponent," Yokoi writes. He recounts how Japanese tanks hid
behind foxtail grass, which grew tall on Guam but straight. Consequently, the
tanks were perfectly visible from the sky - a simple fact that even small
children could grasp, in Yokoi's view.
US airmen duly rumbled the deception and unleashed a rain of incendiary bombs.
As a result, the grass ignited. The fire spread, destroying all the tanks and
plentiful stored ammunition.
As if the tank charade was not absurd enough, on the roadside the Japanese
erected palm trees pointing towards the sky like anti-aircraft guns, and ringed
them with straw dolls dressed like soldiers. The mock-up meant to suggest
imposing defenses owed their inspiration to the tactics of an archaic
14th-century battle, pathetically enough.
"Our enemies did not bother about such childish disguise as the reality was
clearly visible from the air. Is there any explanation for this stupidity other
than that the Japanese officers were suffering from a retarded or arrested
development of imagination?" Yokoi asks.
His biographer drives home just how shoddy the Japanese war effort was,
describing the nation's capabilities as "hopeless and miserable". Kamikaze
aircraft were manufactured by malnourished teenage girls too weak to tighten-up
the rivets, resulting in many aircraft and, for that matter submarines, falling
After Yokoi's marathon posting on Guam was abruptly aborted, back home he had a
crack at politics and earned a reputation as a trenchant critic of wasteful
living. Live frugally. Make things rather than buy and discard, he urged and
campaigned for the environment. Pro electric trains rather than cars, he
complained that Japan was no longer the green arcadia that he and his displaced
imperial comrades dreamed about.
"Although many regarded Sho๏chi as a living fossil, it seems questionable
who saw the present problems more clearly, Sho๏chi or those who mocked
him and said he was anachronistic," his biographer writes.
Quite. Who is the fossil now?
For economic and environmental reasons, the outlook that Yokoi espoused has
gained ground. Just look at the scores of websites that advocate delayed
gratification, restraint and scrimping. Indeed, the gospel of frugality is so
popular that some news aggregation sites file stories under that heading and
treat it as a category like the environment, finance or fitness. Thrift is
At a pinch, Yokoi could be construed as a pioneer of the simple living
movement. That take makes this inherently gripping and noble if wretched yarn
timely too. May its semi-heroic protagonist rest in peace.
Private Yokoi's War and Life on Guam, 1944-72. The story of the Japanese
Imperial Army's longest WWII survivor in the field and later life by
Omi Hatashin. Global Oriental, February 2009. ISBN 978-1-905246-69-4. Price
US$75, 144 pages.
David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian recovering print journalist with a
special interest in Asia. His work has previously appeared everywhere from the
Malaysia Star to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald