29 June 2013

'Haikyo' - Abandoned Places

I have always had a fascination for abandoned places. I’m not exactly sure how or when this fascination first arose. There are plenty of places where my initial interest could have been piqued – the empty warehouses of London’s Docklands in the 1980s; a semi-derelict roadstone processing plant in Cornwall; an abandoned hospital near my grandparents’ cottage; a forgotten garage near my own house which was chock full of dusty old furniture … If I think about it, there are umpteen possible starting points. But it’s a fascination which has never waned.

Last Saturday I visited The Museum of London Docklands’ current ‘Estuary’ exhibition and found myself completely absorbed for an afternoon in a series of artworks (several of which were slideshows or video installations) which chart the flow of the River Thames to its lowest reaches where it meets the open sea. The exhibition is a fascinating meditation on machinery, mudflats, and the ever changing tides of time and history. One particular piece which hooked me was a 30 minute twin screen slideshow by the artist Stephen Turner, titled ‘Seafort Project, 2005’. During the late summer of that year he took up residence entirely alone on one of the old rusting towers of the Maunsell Fort at Shivering Sands for 36 days, photographing the place and penning a kind of diary of his ‘artistic exploration of isolation.’ His 36 days apparently paralleled the average length of a tour of duty on the seafort during the Second World War. Long since abandoned they now stand as strange, beguiling rusty metal boxes on legs, almost unworldly – like something out of a John Christopher novel or the stilled sentinels of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Clearly I’m not the only one with a fascination for these kinds of odd and abandoned relics.

Relics and ruins are certainly my thing – that’s how I ended up studying history and working in archaeology. My fascination with history started when I was young, my grandfather and I used to go out hunting for old abandoned Second World War ‘pillboxes.’ It’s a hobby I’ve not given up. I regularly find myself playing ‘I Spy’ out of car or train windows, spotting the squat little concrete buildings with their rifle peepholes hiding at the bends of roads or perched discretely beside bridges on railway embankments. I even found some in the hills around Taipei and nearly got into trouble when peeping into one I discovered evidence that Taiwanese soldiers were still actively using some!

There’s undoubtedly (for certain types of people) a kind of mesmeric allure surrounding ruins and relics – modern, industrial ruins in particular have a distinctive atmosphere – they are forlornly evocative of corroding past worlds, of global war, or past visions of nuclear fallout, and, as such, they might seem like sounding boards for the echoes of future dystopias brought on by impending environmental disasters. Such things – real or imagined – think of Chernobyl or Fukushima, the novels of J.G. Ballard or even Pixar’s Wall.E. What captivates the mind about these places is the lingering memory ghosts which seem to inhabit their former realities. We peer gingerly into them, wondering what kind of places they were, imagining what they were once like, trying to see the people within their empty and forsaken hollow shells. These are potent places, perhaps because they are not too far removed in time. They remain tangible to the imagination in a way which older, more distant ruins often aren’t – possibly because they are more often left largely intact. The connections are often more visceral. They are a kind of paradise for the rampant historical or futuristic imagination – which is to say nothing of the added frisson which might come from the fact that these sorts of places might not necessarily be open to proper public perusal.

A quick whiz around the internet will suffice to demonstrate that my own modest fascination with what the Japanese term as ‘haikyo’ (廃虚) – ‘ruins’, or ‘abandoned places’, has been elevated by some people into something more of a passionate calling rather than a mere idle hobby. There are many ‘UrbEx’ devotees of the art they term ‘Urban Exploration’, or its closely allied subterranean aspect, ‘Spelunking’*. These Urban Explorers abide by a simple code which encapsulates the ethos of their pursuits:  

“Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.”  

When I was living in Japan quite by chance I came across a book of photographs of a place which must surely be the embodiment of every dedicated ‘UrbEx’ adventurer’s El Dorado: Hashima (端島). Located around 9 miles off the coast of Nagasaki. Hashima is also known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島), ‘battleship island’, because it is a rocky outcrop which had once been completely urbanised by a mining community – every inch of the island had been built upon – and so when viewed on the horizon the island looks rather reminiscent of an old ironclad warship. The island is now completely uninhabited. Its apartment blocks stand empty, filled with decaying TV sets and rotting furniture; rusty bicycles still stand propped against peeling walls in weed infested, rubbish strewn streets. There was no disaster here, the place was simply abandoned when the mining operation closed down in 1974, but it now looks rather like a world abandoned in an unexplained rush. These days the odd tour party occasionally lands there and reconnoitres this derelict world – photos taken by these visitors are increasingly being disseminated via books, such as the one I stumbled upon, or websites. I suppose the Maunsell Forts are Britain’s equivalent of Gunkanjima, an abandoned and isolated world, lost somewhere out at sea.

It’s rather hard to capture or describe the fascination for finding and exploring these types of places. Photography does a good job, but really the fascination is a feeling. Halfway between inquisitive curiosity and the spooky, fearfulness of the unknown. I can see why it can become readily addictive for some people, but I’m more of an opportunist in these matters – not a dedicated ‘UrbEx’ adventurer who actively seeks to infiltrate the places which are deemed off-limits. I’ll certainly hunt out ‘tumuli’ marked on OS Maps, or try to peer through holes in boarded up windows – the historian in me will always be curious to know more. I can never pass holes dug as part of road or demolition works without nosily peering in to see what soil fills, cobbles, or old brickwork might have been exposed. I’ll always hunt around in local history books and sometimes archives, or ask locals who look old enough to know or possibly even remember what some particular place once was and why it might have been abandoned. These places are always worth photographing or noting down, it’s easy to see how things which are current and immediate can soon slip into unfathomable ruin and eventually become lost in dereliction. I recently read of an old Soviet military base in East Germany – Vogelsang – which is now gently being reclaimed by the surrounding forest. It was a base which had housed nuclear warheads during the cold war. The journalist seemed chilled by the possibilities of the obvious ‘what if’ scenario, yet I was further struck by the fact that this place was actually still occupied by the Red Army (and to some degree still operational) during my first visits to the former GDR in 1991 and 1993. I was struck by how quickly (at least in my reckoning of the years) such a place could fall into such decay. What was vaguely sinister in the remnants of such dereliction to the reporting journalist was to some degree a living memory for me. It can be a shock how quickly some things can become ‘history.’

These pockets of forgotten time which such places embody appeal to an aesthetic sense of desolation too. Discovering and exploring such places is often a quest for empty presences. Rachel Lichtenstein and Ian Sinclair’s chronicle and meditation on the abandoned room of David Rodinsky (first published in 1999) is a masterful and moving example. 

Cities are endless labyrinths for the inquisitive individual. For me, urban exploration is a natural extension of my historical, anthropological, and archaeological curiosity. It’s all about seeking out the unseen and the forgotten, a process of re-finding and re-informing.

These are a selection of related websites with interesting and artistic images, or more information:

* See: Steve Duncan ‘Urban Spelunking’ in Geographical Magazine, (July 2012), pp. 65-68.

The photos accompanying this post were taken by me in various places between 1999-2009: Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington, London; Butler’s Wharf, London; Collapsed building and an abandoned fairground in Dajeon, South Korea; Concrete Tunnel, near Taipei; Dilapidated building, Macao (n.b. - NOT Gunkanjima!); Overgrown house, Osaka.

UPDATE: If you fancy trying the ultimate in "armchair urban exploring" here's a link to get truly lost in: Hashima/Gunkanjima on Google Streetview - hours of fun  行きましょう!

18 June 2013

The Voyage of 'The Clove' - Japan 400 Years Ago

Yesterday I attended a fascinating and compelling talk given by Professor Timon Screech. The talk, which was organised by the Japan Society and given in the wonderful 1920s lecture hall at the Swedenborg Society, marked the 400th anniversary of the first English diplomatic mission to Japan (400 years and one week to the very day today to be precise). The mission was a success and officially established the first bilateral trade agreement between the two nations.

Organised by the East India Company, then headed by Sir Thomas Smythe (c.1588-1625), the mission consisted of three ships – lead by The Clove – setting out in the spring of 1611. The East India Company itself had only been established around a decade before. At the time trade links had already been established as far away as ‘the spice islands’ of modern day Indonesia, but this was by far the furthest trip from England yet attempted. The Clove left its sister ships at Java and continued on alone to Japan, where it arrived in 1613. The Company was hoping to set up trade links by which it could sell England’s perhaps most prodigious commodity – wool. But there were far more interesting things on board besides wool. As the mission was the first of its kind they also took expensive gifts as well as letters of friendship from King James I (1566-1625) to the Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), and his retired father, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). These gifts included such innovative scientific instruments as a telescope and a ‘burning glass’ – remarkably the telescope itself had only been invented in 1608, and this is said almost certainly to have been the first telescope sent from Europe to Asia.

The mission, lead by Captain John Saris (c.1580-1643), landed in the southern islands of Japan near Kyushu and was allowed to proceed overland to meet with the Shogunate where they exchanged gifts and letters. It seems the Japanese were impressed and not a little curious about the foreign newcomers who seemed to be quite different to those whom they’d encountered before. The discussions were mediated by ‘Samurai William’ which no doubt helped their cause. ‘Samurai William,’ as he was later styled in the West, or ‘Anjin Miura’ (三浦按針 The Pilot of Miura), as he is remembered in Japan, was a British Sailor named William Adams (1564-1620), who had sailed with a Dutch vessel that eventually sank off the coast of Japan. Subsequently, rather than returning home when the opportunity arose, he chose to settle in Japan. En route to Edo, the Japanese capital (now present day Tokyo), the party from The Clove passed through Kamakura, where (as with almost all first time visitors to Kamakura even today) they visited the famous Daibutsu (大仏) – an enormous bronze statue of the Buddha, sitting in mediation. I won’t say too much here about the Daibutsu as, having visited it several times myself, I intend to write a Waymarks post about the statue at some point in the near future (see here) – but, as with most visitors today, the English party from The Clove were shown inside the hollow statue. In their accounts of the expedition the sailors tell of how they ‘scratched their names’ inside the hollow interior – this may seem like an act of desecration to us today, however, at the time this was possibly encouraged as a pious and reverent act duly undertaken at a place of sacred pilgrimage. As yet modern researchers have not found any evidence of the signatures scratched into the bronze by the English sailors from The Clove. It’s possible that they may eventually be found, but also quite likely that their signatures have been erased over the centuries by the palimpsest of subsequent graffiti.

Having met with the Shogunate, and passed on the letters from King James I, the Tokugawa’s reciprocated with wonderful gifts of their own – most notably two suits of armour and ten pairs of painted folding screens (屏風, Byōbu), but most importantly they responded with letters of friendship and granted permission for the English Company to reside and trade in Japan. These items were all duly returned to London in 1614, the mission having left  a member of their party, Richard Cocks (1566-1624), in charge of a small trading post established at the southern port of Hirado. Despite the warm wishes of the Tokugawa’s letters – which famously stated that “though separated by ten thousand leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are as it were close to each other” – the English trading post was warily placed at a far distance from the centres of power in Japan at the southern end of Kyushu, much to Richard Cocks’ chagrin as the trading post ultimately could not be sustained. Despite the vast cultural differences many close parallels were found between the two nations – much was made of the fact that each country was an island nation ruled by a single, divinely appointed monarch, and significant parallels were perceived between similar events of divine favour bestowed upon each nation by the miraculous intervention of the elements which helped decide battles against Mongol and Spanish would-be invaders in the form of the ‘Kamikaze’ (神風, divine wind) in 1274 and 1281, and the gale which scattered the Spanish Armada in 1588. The East India Company sought to set up a different (and they hoped more logical and less arduous) route via the fabled ‘Northeast Passage’ over the top of Russia, setting up the necessary diplomatic agreements with the Russian Tsar, but ultimately – aside from the unrealistic navigational difficulties which opposed using such a route – it simply became easier to procure Japanese commodities in the ports of Holland and the East Indies where Dutch traders were already successfully established in sourcing such goods. 

The Clove returned to London in 1614, where it was moored at Blackwall and its unusual cargo unloaded. The gifts from the Shogun were duly passed to the King, but the rest of the cargo was put up for auction – this apparently being the first recorded auction exclusively consisting of East Asian art to be held in London. Timon Screech told us how the ten original folding screens sent by the Tokugawas to James I were not all deemed appropriate or worthy gifts for his Majesty (perhaps because they’d been damaged in the course of the return voyage or their subject matter or artistic qualities were perhaps not thought fit) and so other screens collected in Japan made up the ten which were actually given to the King. Those which were deemed unsuitable, along with a number of other artworks, were then put up for auction amongst the East India Company employees. Three were purchased by Sir Thomas Smythe himself, and one, I noted, was bought by a namesake of mine – Abraham Chamberlain (presumably a ‘well-to-do’ merchant of the East India Company). The prices these artworks fetched were not inconsiderable and ranked alongside the prices then commanded by noted Western artists such as Caravaggio, indicating the quality and the esteem which such Japanese works of art were first received. Apparently the Captain, John Saris, had reserved for himself a set of erotic artworks (春画, Shunga) which caused quite a stir, prompting Smythe to compel Saris to either surrender the artworks or forfeit his position in the company. Saris chose to give the illicit artworks (presumably paintings) to Smythe who immediately threw the lot of them on the fire. Presumably some of the other artworks brought back by The Clove survive in various different collections – certainly the suits of armour given to King James remain in the royal collection housed at the Tower of London, and the original ‘vermillion seal’ letter (朱印状, Shuinjō) from Tokugawa Ieyasu granting the Company the rights to reside and trade in Japan, which at one time was thought lost, resurfaced in the collections of the Bodleian Library.

The talk was an intriguing one and certainly captivated the audience. Several very good questions were asked at the end – in which we discovered that the fate of the telescope is sadly unknown, it has been sought but is thought to have been lost in a palace fire in Japan. Timon Screech, an Art Historian who teaches at SOAS, certainly brought this little known but significant episode in the history of British and Japanese relations vividly to life (and I believe this will be the subject of a forthcoming book too). It must have been a mutually intriguing encounter between the two cultures, and one which happily seems to have succeeded in its peaceful aim – even if the links established eventually failed to hold due mainly to the extreme distance involved. Various events are being held to commemorate the several further significant dates of the 400th anniversary of the mission over the coming year both in the UK and in Japan. For more information see the Japan 400 website.

15 June 2013

Obsidian Mirror - Mexico

Souvenir Series #4

On a recent trip to Mexico I found this modern obsidian mirror in a craft market in Mexico City. Obsidian mirrors were made and prized by the Aztecs (Mexica) for their supposed healing and divination properties. They are still made today, mainly for the tourist market. I visited an obsidian workshop near Teotihuacan and saw how the black volcanic glass is cut and polished. Obsidian is commonly black but it can also occur with red or green hues depending on its mineral content, and it fractures much like flint, meaning it can be knapped into tools and ornaments – it was commonly used in this way by many Mesoamerican cultures.

In Aztec times obsidian mirrors, much the same shape as this one, were associated with the God Tezcatlipoca, who had many associations – notably with the night sky and with sorcery. His name can be translated as “Smoking Mirror.” Contemporary Spanish chroniclers have described how such mirrors were used by the Aztecs in rituals to communicate with the underworld and also to foretell future events. It was said that the last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II (c.1466-1520), predicted the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors and the destruction of his empire from an omen which he witnessed in a mirror.

Many of these magical obsidian mirrors were sent or brought back to Europe during the 16th Century and became highly prized artefacts amongst the learned aristocracy. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Aztec mirror which made its way into the possession of the English Elizabethan Magus, Dr John Dee (1527-1609), now in the British Museum.

Dr Dee is perhaps most commonly remembered for his mystical dabblings in alchemy, sacred geometry, and, in particular, for his efforts to communicate with angels. He is also thought to have been the possible inspiration for the character of Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Dee used his obsidian mirror, along with other occult implements which he described as his “scrying stones” to perform séances which he believed would help him to achieve a deeper and more enlightened understanding of the manifold and mysterious workings of the universe. Scrying, as perceived by Dee, was in this sense an ‘optical science’ – which, if conducted piously and devoutly, was a sacred act not to be confused with the dark arts of the common conjuror or a ‘caller of devils.’ Indeed, the historian Frances Yates (1899-1981) has described Dee as a ‘Christian Cabbalist.’ A learned and scholarly man devoutly seeking to understand the truth of God’s manifest will codified and hidden in the wonders of creation. To this end he mixed the fundamental tenets of astronomy, astrology, alchemy, magic, mathematics, mechanics, and other methods of scientific mysticism or critical enquiry to achieve a higher knowledge, yet it was a dangerous vocation, and so Dee – although a familiar and close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I herself – prudently sought to veil his potentially blasphemous and heretical activities in secrecy. 

Dr Dee is a truly fascinating figure who has variously been painted as a deluded or duped, superstitious old wizard, as well as an accomplished mathematician and an enlightened philosopher, a genuine ‘Renaissance man’ or proto-scientist. Benjamin Woolley’s The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr Dee (2001) provides an interesting analysis of Dee’s life and work, which I highly recommend; along with the many scholarly works of Frances Yates, but in particular her highly respected overview of The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979).
I’ve yet to see any angels, devils, or portents of future fortune or ills in my own obsidian mirror. Although its highly polished surface, jet black but speckled with white flecks and faintly discernable seams, is highly reflective; as you can judge by the following photographs which show the reflection of my Shandley Williams’ Totem carving placed alongside the mirror (the modern North-West meets modern Central Mesoamerica!). The mirror, which is polished on both faces and along its edge, is approximately circular with a diameter measuring between 13 and 13.2cms, and is roughly 1.1cms thick.

Looking at the strange illusion of depth offered by its dark polished surface it’s not difficult to see how the Aztecs and Dr Dee could have perceived such an unusual natural material as obsidian possessing mysterious and magical properties, offering a view into another realm of time or space. Simply seeing your own reflection in the same polished surface which you know Dr Dee and countless Aztec priests saw their own reflections is a magical sensation in and of itself. For any historian engaged in contemplating the past through the study of artefacts such as Dr Dee’s mirror - there is, it can safely be admitted, a certain affinity to be felt with our ancient forbears in this particular accord.

You can see Dr Dee’s “scrying stones” and other magical implements (as well as your own reflection in Dr Dee’s obsidian mirror) in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) at The British Museum.

4 June 2013

Empty Spaces - Remembering June 4th 1989

I may well be a simplistic idealist, but I have never understood how any government can think it is justified in using tanks and guns against unarmed civilians. 1989, as I’ve written here before, was a year which affected me deeply. Coming of age at the end of the Cold War is what has made me such an idealist. I remember feeling buoyed by a tremendous sense of hope for a better future. Those events lit a spark which has never since expired.

Power and politics are all part and parcel of human society. ‘Progress’ is a word with nuanced meaning. Good times follow bad, and bad times follow good. Tyrants only last a single lifetime (however long or short that might be). Dynasties and military juntas likewise fall or are superseded. But thankfully the one constant seems to be memory.

Modern news media can seek to channel our views. Particular governments can try to censor or erase certain references to certain events. But overall people will not forget, nor will they cease to draw their own conclusions. Often an empty space is much more noticeable than one which is let to stand by itself. Our individual acts do matter. We may well stand alone. But if we seek to know and understand for ourselves we will be stronger and wiser. And if we seek to share our knowledge and discuss our different viewpoints openly we can work better together.

My fascination for history and current affairs often disheartens me. I am confounded at how frequently ‘we’ can collectively be corralled and set up in conflicts great and small. I know I’ll never truly understand the workings of the world, nor even my own idealism perhaps, as my jumbled thoughts tumble out here and seem so inadequately and incoherently expressed. Yet, happily, I do know one thing for certain – which is that all my travels so far have only ever given me a genuine affirmation of that spark which I felt first lit in 1989. Consequently – my hopes will always remain rooted in that simple idealism.

1 June 2013

M.I.A. - Second World War Japanese 'Hold Outs'

When did the Second World War end?

August 15th 1945? …

September 2nd 1945? …

These are the dates on which Japan capitulated and then formally surrendered. Consequently September 2nd 1945 is commonly seen as the date which marks the official end of the war, yet it is a contested point for history is rarely so neat and tidy. It took time for word to filter through the decimated ranks of Japanese troops scattered across the far flung battle arenas in the Asia-Pacific region. In some places the soldiers continued to fight – either because they had not heard that hostilities were officially at an end, or because they did not believe that this information was true. It took time for these isolated areas to cease combat either through continued armed suppression or eventual surrender.

Some have argued though that the war never truly ended; or, if it did, they may even extend the date to other events decades later – for example, November 9th 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or, December 25th 1991, when President Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union was dissolved – dates which effectively mark the end of the Cold War. Yet, whether we choose to set our historical chronometer by dint of plain facts – say, by the dates of certain treaties, or we choose to frame our chronicles according to more elaborate or nuanced perspectives, such as those favouring the longue durée approach, history is perhaps philosophically as much as historiographically speaking a matter of relative perception.

There is a Japanese writer (Wakaichi Kōji) who maintains that the very last shot which was fired as part of the Second World War was a fatal one; and it occurred not in 1945 or in the years immediately after, but rather decades later – early in the morning of October 5th 1972. The soldier who died that morning was named Kozuka Kinshichi and he died on the island of Lubang in the Philippines. He and a fellow Japanese soldier had been startled whilst attempting to steal provisions from some Filipino farmers and subsequently Kozuka was fatally wounded in a shoot out with local Police. His companion managed to escape and by all accounts seemed to simply melt into thin air like a ghost.

The two men were indeed like ghosts. Spectral apparitions left-over, haunting the island from an altogether wholly ‘other’ era – for the war they still seemed to be fighting had officially ended nearly thirty years previously. At the time newspapers and TV media all around the world reported the story in equally fantastical terms. The perceived exoticism of lonely Japanese soldiers doggedly ‘holding out’ in the jungles of East Asia were fast becoming a standard trope. A stereotyped image of the stoical national character typical of the Japanese which has since set fast in the West as a cultural commonplace, an image which now seems almost impossible to override in the popular imagination. TV comedy shows have cashed in on laughs wrung out of this familiar-but-seemingly-fanciful idea (the reality for the islanders of Lubang however was far from laughable). There are even sporadic yet highly newsworthy occasions remarkably occurring right up until recent times where serious claims of newly discovered ‘hold outs’ are announced wherein the headlines proclaim that: “Japanese Officials are seeking to confirm recent claims that ...” (for example: in 1980, see here and here; and in 2005, see here, here, and here; plus 2006, see here and here).

But these stories often miss the subtle nuance between the designation of a ‘straggler’ and a ‘hold out’ – which, in my opinion, signify two very different categories – though perhaps this is only natural (journalistically speaking), because there is far more exoticism and shock-value in one over the other. A ‘straggler’ is a defeated soldier who has missed repatriation at the end of hostilities for any of a variety of reasons, either by choice or by compulsion. He may fear death or punishment in his home country, or he may simply feel too ashamed to return; similarly he may not be permitted to return if he remains held in a POW camp, or is caught in another conflict zone (such as those interned in the Soviet gulag system, or those caught up in the civil war which resumed in China at the close of the Second World War); he may voluntarily or otherwise decide to join another army (for instance, the independence fighters in Indonesia or Vietnam). Many of the Japanese soldiers who were taken prisoner in North Korea and the Soviet Union are still to this day slowly filtering back to Japan (figures show that even as late as 1995 some 369 repatriates returned to Japan from China*). ‘Hold outs’, however, are stragglers of a wholly different kind. These are the men who refused to surrender – either because the deep indoctrination of their upbringing or their military training meant that they believed it was their duty to resist and fight to the death rather than surrender, or that they distrusted the veracity of information claiming that the war had ended, viewing it suspiciously as enemy propaganda or simple subterfuge – and, consequently, in some cases (such as Lubang) they even continued to fight on; whilst others who in time came to accept the fact that Japan had indeed been defeated maintained their refusal to surrender because they genuinely feared they would be executed by ‘the enemy’ if they were caught, and so, consequently, they hid.


These ‘stragglers’ and ‘hold outs’ continued to surface in the immediate post-war years and were subsequently returned to Japan well into the 1950s. The reactions they received at home were mixed and can be read over time as a barometer of national feeling as the Japanese nation as a whole sought to contend with the social realities of defeat and the subsequent and deliberate re-moulding of their collective consciousness which was socially engineered by the occupying US forces who supervised the restructuring of the nation and the re-writing of its constitution. The deep psychological shocks and traumas of the war period permeated the immediate post-war era in many different ways across the different levels of society. But as Japan began to rebuild and re-emerge as a changed, and eventually as a highly prosperous, modern nation these ghosts of the past still managed to resurface. The most remarkable of these ‘hold outs’ were undoubtedly the ‘final’ three, who also made the biggest impact in the media when they emerged in the early to mid-1970s.

The first was Sergeant Yokoi Shoichi (1915-1997), who held out in Guam until he was discovered quite by chance in 1972. As with many of the ‘hold outs’ Yokoi had not been alone until the last few years before he finally emerged from hiding. He said he’d hidden out of fear for his life when Guam had been recaptured by the US Army in 1944. The Battle of Guam had been intense and the Japanese mostly fought to the death, such that there were relatively few prisoners taken. Dispersed groups of Japanese soldiers hid and continued to fight long after the island was deemed to have been secured by the American Forces. Yokoi was initially part of such a group. Later he said that he had come to realise that Japan had lost the war, but his fear of harsh reprisal from the local inhabitants (who had been brutally and viciously treated by the occupying Japanese Imperial Army) had been so strong that he thought it better to hide indefinitely. Although careful to hide all traces of his existence on the island, living alone in a tiny, cramped dug-out or self-made ‘cave’ and emerging mostly by night, he was eventually taken unawares by two local men, who, realising he was a Japanese soldier, captured him as humanely as they could manage. Yokoi was then hospitalised and treated for malnutrition. 

He was eventually repatriated to Japan – expressing his ‘deep shame’ that he had not succeeded in laying down his life for his country in the conflict. His homecoming was to turn him into a minor celebrity worldwide, but particularly in Japan – which after nearly three decades Yokoi found a totally transformed place. However, it seems the Japanese media chose to shy away from the unanswered questions which clearly remained surrounding public discussion of the wartime era, focussing instead on the more personal side of Yokoi’s story. His ‘weird’ (奇妙 kimyō) otherness or the exoticism of his extreme survival skills, noting how in his profound isolation he had managed to weave his own clothes from bark fibre and whittling his own buttons, whilst contending with bugs and lizards, were a source of wonder and fascination. Yokoi was still a man of his time though – his request to meet the Emperor for whom he had fought, raised the awkward issue of Japan’s reconciliation with its past and was quietly passed over. As far as we know, Yokoi never officially met Emperor Hirohito.

These awkward issues however would resurface far more pointedly after the incident in Lubang which resulted in the death of Private Kozuka Kinshichi (1922-1972). The unfortunate incident was confirmation, as had long been suspected, that Yokoi was not a singular oddity – there were in fact other Japanese soldiers still out there, unaware or unable to conceive that hostilities had given way to peace. It was now known beyond doubt that one soldier was still fighting on. His name was known too – he was Second Lieutenant Onoda Hirō (1922-2014). His family and various other official search groups travelled to Lubang to try to ‘rescue’ Onoda – trying to contact him in order to persuade him to come out from hiding. But despite these efforts Onoda still managed to convince himself that these were again the advanced subterfuge tactics of the enemy, designed specifically to entrap him. He had been given orders never to surrender, nor to take his own life, but rather to continue his mission to the end, and he was determined to do this; hence his continued harassment of the local Filipino population – pilfering their provisions and stealing their supplies and livestock, setting fire to their fields in order to survive and ‘do the enemy harm’ whilst gathering ‘intelligence’ which would be useful once the Imperial Army returned. There still is, and was even then, some doubts as to what degree Onoda was actually convinced that the war was not over. It was later discovered that he had a transistor radio amongst his personal effects (and he had apparently heard of Yokoi’s ‘surrender’). Yet he had been trained as an intelligence officer at the elite Nakano Military Academy and it was noted at the time by some in the Press at home that his indoctrination had either run very deeply indeed, or, (somewhat sarcastically) that he was perhaps not a very intelligent intelligence officer if after so many decades he still hadn’t worked out for himself that the war was actually at an end. Either way he was eventually persuaded that the war was in fact over, and thereby he set out the terms under which he would finally give himself up.

The unlikely events which lead up to Onoda’s highly publicised surrender in 1974 began with an equally unlikely encounter between Onoda and a Japanese student ‘drop out’ who had idly gone to look for him. The backpacking ‘drop out’ was a young man named Suzuki Norio (1949-1986), who had famously told his friends that he was setting out in search of adventure, hoping to find ‘a panda, a yeti, or Onoda.’ Consequently, it was not without a little trepidation that one morning, as he sat by his tent whilst camping solo on Lubang, he saw Onoda emerge from the undergrowth holding a rifle. When Suzuki told him that the war was over Onoda’s reply was reportedly: ‘It isn’t over for me.’ In the ensuing conversation Onoda stated that he was willing to surrender but only if he was officially relieved of his duty and told to stand down by his commanding officer. Suzuki later managed to convey this demand to the relevant authorities (Onoda having permitted Suzuki to photograph him as a way of demonstrating actual proof that their meeting had taken place), and amazingly enough the necessary arrangements were made. Onoda emerged from the jungle and was ordered to stand down by his former commander, Major Taniguchi Yoshimi (who since the end of the war had been living quietly as a bookseller in Tokyo). 

Much fanfare surrounded the theatrical ‘surrender’ of Lieutenant Onoda some thirty years after Japan’s defeat – a ragged and unshaven Onoda was even photographed publicly handing over his sword to Ferdinand Marcos, the then President of the Philippines (who also pardoned Onoda of various crimes and misdemeanours, not least of which was his participation in the deaths of around thirty individuals who came into contact with Onoda’s band of ‘hold-outs’ during those intervening years). 

Yet, remarkably, Onoda was not the last of these confirmed World War Two ‘hold outs’ to emerge, nor the last of which that prompted yet further awkward issues in Japan concerning its unresolved past. Later that same year a group of Indonesian soldiers, who had taken several days to reach their objective, surrounded a small hut deep in a remote and highly inaccessible region of the island of Morotai and gently began to sing the Japanese national anthem. The naked man who emerged from the little hut froze to the spot – petrified – and thus apparently offered no resistance to his subsequent ‘arrest.’ He was Nakamura Teruo (1919-1979), a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army but of ethnically aboriginal Taiwanese descent. Even more ‘a man out-of-time’ than either Yokoi or Onoda, Private Nakamura was a colonial subject from an Empire which no longer existed. Moreover, he had spent the last twenty years entirely alone. Initially he had difficulty answering the questions posed to him, or had difficulty articulating the concepts which informed his answers given his dislocated and temporally disjointed world view, particularly in light of the new realities which his military captors attempted to explain to him. He apparently thought of himself as Japanese and yet he (quite naturally) wished to return to his native Taiwan – he seemed unable to grasp the complications that this simple wish now entailed given the fact that his homeland was now administered by the Government of the Republic of China. His repatriation proved even more problematic due to the political contretemps surrounding the very delicate issue that Japan was then in the process of shifting its formal diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-Shek on Taiwan, to that of the Peoples’ Republic, led by Mao Tse-tung on the Chinese mainland. Eventually though Nakamura was repatriated directly to Taiwan, by-passing Japan altogether.

The resurfacing of these ghosts of a formerly militaristic nation, like men stepping out of a time-machine almost, confronted by a world utterly transformed and a society they no longer recognised was a disconcerting and polarising experience for both parties. Overwhelmed and disorientated by the rampant materialism of modern day Japan the ‘hold outs’ seemed unfathomably odd and even quaint in the baffled gaze of a generation who had never known the war. Yokoi, Onoda, and Nakamura were admired for their self-reliance and their extreme survivalist skills. Yokoi’s fear of death or harsh reprisal compounded by his intense personal ‘shame’ at even being alive were at first rationalised, recasting him as a ‘victim’ of an impersonal and dehumanising system of intense indoctrination. Onoda however presented an altogether different and somewhat more complicated case; his intense and avowedly maintained militaristic demeanour was harder to explain away, and yet his stoicism and his exemplary attitude towards service and above all to duty were in some ways seen as admirable (much was made of the fact that when he surrendered Onoda’s rifle was still in pristine working order and he still had a cache of live ammunition). Yet Nakamura’s outright rejection of the invitation which resulted from an intense popular up swelling of calls for him to be allowed to settle in Japan arguably reawakened old and unresolved issues concerning post-colonial guilt (which arguably helped to push Japan to officially redress the issue of more appropriate compensation for non-Japanese veterans who had served in the Imperial Army as late as the 1990s). 

Certainly questions continued to bubble away as to the extent to which the Japanese Government was guilty of wilful negligence in mounting proper searches for ‘stragglers’ and ‘hold outs’ as well as returning the remains of fallen soldiers from the battlefields of the Asia-Pacific region. To what extent could the general population be exonerated of guilt if blame was placed entirely on the Japanese military when ordinary members of the population had served in that very same military? The resulting ambiguity of being both guilty and innocent on the personal level was arguably just as hard to reconcile collectively. And to what extent can the phenomenon of the ‘straggler’ or ‘hold out’ be viewed as a peculiarly Japanese one? Certainly stragglers of other nationalities were known – there is even the example of Liu Lianren, a Chinese national who was forcibly taken from Shandong in China and transported to Hokkaido (northern Japan) in 1944, who was forced to work in a mine but who managed to escape before the end of the war and continued to survive in the mountains for thirteen years unaware of the end of the conflict. When he was discovered in 1958 the Japanese government were highly suspicious of his story due to Cold War tensions, but he was later repatriated to China and the question of his compensation rumbles on and still awaits a final settlement to this day (see here, here, and here). It’s also arguable that the trope of the Japanese ‘hold out’ – a kind of latter day exotic ‘orientalism’ perhaps – which has become somewhat fixed in the popular culture of the West in part fed into the continuing US national fixation with its own M.I.A.s (“Missing in Action”) and the widespread belief in, and the search for, missing military personnel left in Viet Cong prison camps at the close of the Vietnam War (a conflict which was contemporary with the emergence of Yokoi, Onoda, and Nakamura) – and stories of which continue to surface to this day (see here and here).

For those people who actually fought in the war the date of its actual end is likely to have been much more personal, and could perhaps even be graded on an individually unique scale, for instance: of the eventual cessation of combat at the site where they fought; of their discharge from service or de-mobilisation; of their return to their home country; or their return to their actual family home – or perhaps even the day their medals arrived. Some may even go so far as to say a war is not over until the last soldier who partook has peacefully passed away in old age, or even when the last person with a living memory of those events has finally passed. All are perhaps equally relevant terminal points in the continuum of such a momentous event in world history. Whether taken together as a whole or looked at in isolation, these different end points define what continues as the sum total of collective and individual social memory.

There is little doubt that issues concerning the reconciliation of the Japanese state to its role in the Asia-Pacific region during its period of colonial expansion and the Second World War continue to taint or inform current foreign policy and regional news agendas, particularly in Japan’s relations with its near neighbours, Russia, Korea, and China, in the form of diplomatic and territorial disputes, or the controversial visits of Japanese Prime Ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo which enshrines the nation’s war dead. But this does not make them unique. The respective nations of the Europe from time to time are also reminded of the bitterness of a violent and adversarial shared past. The European Union was instituted in order to unite and so help allay the repetition of such animosities as much as to promote trade and mutual economic benefits, even though such deep divisions definitely do persist beneath the surface. Our modern world of nation states may well have been forged out of the era of colonial expansion which arguably brought about the two cataclysmic conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, but the collective and enduring legacy of those wars continues to affect us all on a personal level. Questions of nationality and social rank feed into our notions of identity and serve to place us into context – how we remember either connects or disconnects us to the questions raised by our shared past in ways both seen and unseen. This is why history matters. Why the signing of a treaty is just as important an end point as the day our grandfather received his medals (or perhaps didn’t as the case may be). Reconciliation is the key to a better future – reconciling the personal and the collective legacies of war, reconciling the victors with the defeated, and the defeated with the victors, is something which historiography can help inform and open up. Better that we discuss and describe in textbooks openly and honestly rather than seek to conceal or shy away from the past for the sake of pain or politics, or out of fear, shame, regret, or anger. Differences matter, but they should not be allowed to divide us. Acknowledging our differences and our diversities whilst working together as one is surely the best of all solutions. If we can actually claim to say that wars do eventually come to an end, it is certainly true that their influences continue to be felt long after the last bullet has been fired and even after the last soldier has surrendered his sword. But this does not mean we should forget, or, perhaps worse still, cease to examine the history which has made our world what it is today.

For a full and excellent scholarly examination of Japan and its Imperial Army stragglers, see: Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-1975 by Beatrice Trefalt (Routledge Curzon, London & New York: 2003).

Yokoi Shoichi and Onoda Hirō have both written memoirs which have recently been translated and published in English. 

See also:  No Surrender – Japanese holdouts

An Australian TV interview film about Onoda Hirō, plus a film & a BBC World Service radio programme about  Yokoi Shoichi on Guam.

[Footnote* this statistic is cited in a table given in the Appendix of Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-1975 by Beatrice Trefalt (Routledge Curzon, London & New York: 2003)]
All of the photos illustrating this article are confirmed as being in the public domain, or are assumed to be in the public domain given the age of the events they depict and their general prevalence on the world wide web; wherever possible I have sought to ascertain and credit their original provenance with the relevant links embedded and as such any infringements of rights therein or consequent to their assumed fair use in this article is wholly unintended. The colour photographs accompanying this piece were taken by me personally during my own trip to Guam in 2009. Many remarkable images and videos of WW2 military wreckage and ruins in the Pacific region can be found across the web, but these are a couple of very good examples: here, here, and here.

UPDATE: A BBC News report today (January 17th 2014) says that Onoda Hirō has passed away at the age of 91 in Tokyo. The report contains archive film footage of his return to Japan in 1974. (The main text above has been updated accordingly)