Then 56, Yokoi had spent the past 27 years eking out a meager existence in the jungles of Guam, where he’d fled to evade capture following American forces’ seizure of the island in August 1944. According to historian Robert Rogers, Yokoi was one of around 5,000 Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender to the Allies after the Battle of Guam, preferring life on the lam to the shame of being detained as a prisoner of war. Though the Allies captured or killed the majority of these holdouts within a few months, some 130 remained in hiding by the end of World War II in September 1945. Yokoi, who only rejoined society after being overpowered by two local fishermen in January 1972, was one of the last stragglers to surrender, offering an extreme example of the Japanese Bushidō philosophy’s emphasis on honor and self-sacrifice.
“He was the epitome of prewar values of diligence, loyalty to the emperor and ganbaru, a ubiquitous Japanese word that roughly means to slog on tenaciously through tough times,” wrote Nicholas D. Kristof for the New York Times in 1997, when Yokoi died of a heart attack at age 82. Upon his return to Japan, “he stirred widespread soul-searching … about whether he represented the best impulses of the national spirit or the silliest.”
Born in the Aichi Prefecture of Japan in 1915, Yokoi worked as a tailor before being drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941. Per Wanpela.com, which maintains a registry of Japanese World War II holdouts, he was stationed in China until February 1943, when he was transferred to Guam. After American forces nearly annihilated Yokoi’s regiment in the summer of 1944, he and a group of nine or ten comrades escaped into the jungle.
“From the outset they took enormous care not to be detected, erasing their footprints as they moved through the undergrowth,” Yokoi’s nephew, Omi Hatashin, told BBC News’ Mike Lanchin in 2012.
Initially, the holdouts survived by eating locals’ cattle. But as their numbers shrank and the likelihood of discovery grew, they retreated to increasingly remote sections of the island, living in caves or makeshift underground shelters and dining on coconuts, papaya, shrimp, frogs, toads, eels and rats. Per the Washington Post, Yokoi drew on his tailoring skills to weave clothing out of tree bark and marked the passage of time by observing phases of the moon. He eventually parted ways with his companions, who either surrendered, fell victim to enemy soldiers on patrol or died as a result of their spartan lifestyle. Yokoi stayed in sporadic contact with two other stragglers, but after they died during flooding in 1964, he spent his last eight years in hiding in total isolation.
Fifty years ago, on January 24, 1972, fishermen Jesus M. Duenas and Manuel D. Garcia spotted Yokoi checking a bamboo fish trap in a part of the Talofofo River about four miles away from the nearest village. As the Associated Press (AP) reported at the time, Yokoi attempted to charge at the men, who easily overpowered him in his weakened state. (Doctors later deemed him slightly anemic but otherwise in relatively good health.)
“He really panicked” after encountering humans for the first time in years, Hatashin explains to BBC News. “He feared they would take him as a prisoner of war—that would have been the greatest shame for a Japanese soldier and for his family back home.”
After hearing Yokoi’s story, officials in Guam arranged to repatriate him to Japan. Though he’d found leaflets and newspapers detailing the conflict’s end two decades earlier, he viewed these reports as American propaganda and continued to resist surrendering. “We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive,” the soldier later said, per Wyatt Olson of Stars and Stripes.
Yokoi arrived back home in February 1972, receiving a hero’s welcome by a crowd of 5,000. “I have returned with the rifle the emperor gave me,” he told the New York Times upon his return. “I am sorry I could not serve him to my satisfaction.”
The subject of fascination both at home and abroad, Yokoi divided public opinion, with older residents of Japan interpreting his actions as an inspirational reminder of a bygone era and younger people more often viewing his refusal to surrender as “pointless and symbolic of an age that taught children to stick to what they were doing rather than to think about where they were going,” as Kristof wrote.
Yokoi attempted to assimilate into a “world [that had] passed him by,” in the words of one contemporary columnist, but grew nostalgic for the past, sometimes criticizing the innovations of modern life, according to Hatashin. He entered into an arranged marriage in November 1972, unsuccessfully ran for Parliament in 1974, and detailed his experiences in a best-selling book and lectures delivered across the country. Still, noted Lanchin for BBC News, he “never quite felt at home in modern society,” and prior to his death in 1997, he made several trips back to Guam.
Two years after Yokoi’s return to Japan, another wartime holdout, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, resurfaced on the Philippines’ Lubang Island after 29 years in hiding. Like Yokoi, he maintained that he’d received orders to fight to the death rather than surrender. He refused to leave the island until March 1974, when his commanding officer traveled to Lubang and formally relieved him of duty.