Learning From 30 Years in the Jungle

L Steve Roberts color photo: sculpture of balanced stones representing a person amongst summer field growth

Life gets really intriguing when we presume that within every event is a lesson to help us understand ourselves better––and that the business of living includes discovering these lessons and allowing them to teach us.  No small task at times.  Take the story of Hiroo Onoda, according to his recent obituary in the New York Times.  Mr. Onoda, 91 when he died, was a Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post in the Philippines for three decades after the end of World War II because, so far as he knew, the war was not over.

His last order, received in 1945 as American forces landed on Lubang Island and most other Japanese soldiers fled or were killed, was to stay and fight.  “It may take three years,” his commanding officer told him, “it may take five, but whatever happens we’ll come back for you.”  The officer didn’t “come back,” so to speak, for 29 years.  So Lieutenant Onoda and a few of his enlisted men stayed and fought.  Leaflets dropped from airplanes proclaiming the war’s end were considered propaganda tricks.  In 1974, only Lieutenant Onoda remained alive––not knowing that, in the eyes of his government, he’d been officially dead since 1959.

An intelligence officer trained in guerrilla tactics and a student of philosophy, history, martial arts, propaganda and covert operations, Lieutenant Onoda and his men evaded search parties and attacked islanders they considered enemy guerrillas.  Some 30 Lubang inhabitants were killed in skirmishes over the years.  

Meanwhile, the men built bamboo huts; were tormented by tropical heat, rats and mosquitos; ate native bananas and coconuts; pilfered rice and other food from a village; killed cows for meat; patched their uniforms and kept their rifles in working order.

Lieutenant Onoda and the members of his tiny band were far from the only Japanese soldiers in their circumstance after Japan surrendered in 1945.  Thousands were scattered across China, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.  Many stragglers were captured or went home.  Hundreds went into hiding.  Many died of starvation or sickness.  Overshadowing their choices was a military code that taught death, even suicide, was preferable to surrender

The last holdout, Lieutenant Onoda was discovered in 1974 by a student, Norio Suzuki, who was actually looking for him.  Despite Mr. Suzuki’s entreaties, Lieutenant Onoda, then 52, refused to leave his post, insisting he was still awaiting orders.  So Mr. Suzuki left, returning with a delegation from the Japanese government.  The delegation included the lieutenant’s brother and his former commander, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who, by then, was retired and a bookseller, there at the request of his government to fulfill his promise.  Japan had lost the war, Major Taniguchi told Lieutenant Onoda, officially relieving him of duty.  Then, the Times’ narrative continues, “The ragged soldier saluted and wept.”  

The unfathomable part of this story to me is appreciating what it must have been like for Mr. Onoda to step from 1945 to 1974 in the proverbial blink of an eye––especially after three decades of his particular brand of isolation.  I’m stumped to think of any comparable experience, any way to put myself even remotely in his place.  

That said, it’s hardly surprising that Mr. Onoda, while feted with parades and speeches as a national hero, lauded as an exemplar of traditional values many Japanese found lacking in their nation’s post-war years of prosperity, found himself, in the words of the Times, “a stranger in a strange land, disillusioned with materialism and overwhelmed by changes.” 

It seems a pretty healthy decision that, a year after leaving the jungle, he moved to a Japanese colony in Brazil, where he raised cattle and married before returning to Japan in 1984 and founding the Onoda Nature School, a survival-skills youth camp.  Even then, for the rest of his life he lived in both Japan and Brazil, where he was made an honorary citizen in 2010. 

Perhaps the most notable part of this story is the part we can all relate to, if we choose, the part we can use as a mirror to examine the core of our being––our relationship with the question: Who will I be or die trying?  

What was it about Mr. Onoda’s interior life that allowed him to persevere for decades in the jungle with unrelenting loyalty to a cause, and do so without a shred of external affirmation from those whose orders he was honoring that the cause was still relevant?

Why, when Mr. Onoda was examined by doctors after his national welcome in Japan, did they find him in amazingly good condition?

How, during the remaining 40 years of his life, was he able to navigate with grace and dignity what, on some level, must surely have been a surreal world?

Which is to say: why was he not seriously disfigured, emotionally, psychologically, if not physically, by his experiences?

The answer may not be that big a mystery when you consider what it takes for any of us to truly make and honor a commitment to any noble aspiration––playing the piano, parenting, raising bees, healthy leadership, having a peaceful heart, storytelling, sobriety, citizenship, loving God….: a singleness of focus!  

And from such focus emerges the clarity of our duty to those principles and practices essential to what we are committed to accomplish.  Less and less room remains for blame, unforgiveness, being a victim, or seeing adversity as anything other than an opportunity to overcome.  

Asked what had been on his mind all those years in the jungle, Mr. Onoda said, “Nothing but accomplishing my duty.”  

How Mr. Onoda defined his duty may be interesting, but it’s not that important.  What’s important is how we define ours.




  1. Excellent post, Steve. In our world of a plethora of choices, it is easy to get distracted and off course. Thanks for the reminder of focus.

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