Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda and the important of strong beliefs

It is one of those strange footnotes to history that there were still Japanese soldiers fighting World War Two up until the mid-1970s. It seems almost farcical and would doubtless make the subject of a great comic tragedy, a cross between Blackadder Goes Forth and Letters from Iwo Jima. This bizarre occurrence is back in the public’s perception with the death of 91 year old Hiroo Onoda.

Hiroo Onoda was a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War 2. He was ordered not to surrender and was cut off from the main Japanese army when they surrendered on 15 the August 1945. Lieutenant Onoda continued to hold out on the jungle island of Lubang, part of The Philippines, until 1974 when his elderly former superior officer was dispatched to rescind the orders he had been carrying out for three decades. 

It is easy to mock Lieutenant Onoda as someone who ignored the blindingly obvious truth that Japan had been defeated and that continued resistance was futile. It seems logical that after ten years with no word and no one sent to relieve his position Lieutenant Onoda would give up, which makes it is easy to dismiss him as crazy, deluded or fanatical but I admire his strength of will and refusal to give up despite very difficult circumstances.

This not to say that I condone the killing of up to 30 other inhabitants of Lubang through raids and skirmishes with Lieutenant Onoda over the 29 years where he kept fighting the Second World War but his circumstances are clearly extraordinary, which is why The Philippine government pardoned him when he finally did surrender to Philippines President Marcos in 1974.

The story of Lieutenant Onoda, and the humour which usually accompanies it, is a reminder that it is easy to scorn and mock people of strong, sometimes unmovable, beliefs. Many people believe that an ideological flexibility is superior to the petty squabbles of politics and look down on those who identify as belonging to either side of the spectrum. A lot of the time this is just aggressive centrism and a healthy sense of self-superiority but it indicates a marked distain for anyone with strong principals. I for one prefer identifying as belonging to an ideology and having a set of principals which I can be held to. It makes it easier to tell who has genuine principals and whose beliefs are mutable to whatever is fashionable.

In my life I have been accused of a certain ideological Onodaism; not changing course, denying plain evidence and refusing to accept when I have been proved wrong. I believe having strong beliefs is not a character weakness, I believe it shows strength of character and courage of conviction. Having strong beliefs gives people courage during hard and testing times; as I am sure Lieutenant Onoda’s belief in Japan gave him the strength to continue to carry out his orders. Sometimes it seems easier to flip-flop in the face of great opposition, but the most interesting and courageous people are the ones who stand by what they believe in.

This is not to say that it is acceptable to be aggressive towards people who have less strong or different convictions to yourself; just as it was not acceptable for Lieutenant Onoda to kill those people. However it should be remembered that what is a plain and obvious truth to one person can be opaque to a different person in different context. We can see that in the leaflets dropped on Lubang to encourage Lieutenant Onoda to surrender. He later said in an interview: "The leaflets they dropped were filled with mistakes so I judged it was a plot by the Americans". A simple fact can be viewed differently by different people. This is why we need a spectrum of political debate to ensure that different interpretations are taken into account. Ideological flexibility or aggressive centrism can be bywords for letting the majority always have their way.

It is easy to laugh at Lieutenant Onoda and his three decades of personal warfare but I feel it shows exceptional strength of character and determination to continue for so long. I hope these are characteristics we value as a society and aspire to individually. I hope we can all show some of the determination of Lieutenant Onoda.