In 1972, while hunting near the Talofofo River in Guam, two cousins from the village of Talofofo were startled by rustling sounds emanating from the tall reeds. Initially, they assumed it was an animal or a hidden child, but to their surprise, they came face to face with an elderly and disheveled man clutching a shrimp trap. This unexpected encounter took aback the hunters, and after some initial confusion, they captured the man and escorted him back to their makeshift jungle home, about an hour’s walk away. The old man pleaded with the cousins to end his life.
That fugitive turned out to be Shoichi Yokoi, a Japanese soldier. During the latter stages of World War II, Yokoi served in the supply corps of the Japanese army stationed on the island of Guam. In 1944, when General Douglas MacArthur’s troops invaded and reclaimed control of the island, Yokoi retreated into the dense jungle. There, he sought refuge in an underground cave and remained hidden for 28 years, living as a determined survivor under harsh conditions.
Yokoi sustained himself by inhabiting a tunnel-like cave he had carved amidst the thick foliage, relying on a diet of nuts, fruits, shrimp, frogs, and rats. He fashioned his clothing by skillfully weaving tree bark strips and using the moon’s phases to track time. In 1952, he chanced upon a leaflet announcing the war’s end, but he and his fellow soldiers dismissed it as enemy propaganda, choosing not to surrender. Over time, all of Yokoi’s comrades perished due to starvation or illness, or were captured.
Loyalty Without a Glance Can Shroud the Mind in Ignorance
Yokoi remained firmly convinced that his fellow soldiers would eventually come to rescue him, and he clung tenaciously to this belief. Surrender was out of the question, as he later explained, “We Japanese soldiers were taught to choose death over the shame of being taken alive.” (Additionally, stragglers like him believed that returning to Japan was impossible, fearing they would be branded as deserters and face the death penalty.)
In 1972, Yokoi finally returned to Japan, where he was hailed as a national hero. Upon his arrival in Tokyo, he famously declared, “It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive,” echoing the indoctrination he had received before the war. For the older generation, he symbolized greatness, embodying the prewar values of diligence. However, for the younger generation, he represented an awkward reminder of outdated ideals. Being captured and surviving was deemed cowardly, as the ideal soldier made the ultimate sacrifice for the divine emperor, even at the cost of his own life.
Yokoi’s remarkable story of surviving in the jungle captured the imagination of the Japanese people. The country was undergoing an industrial boom, and many were fascinated by his ability to endure on a meager diet and his resourcefulness in creating clothing from tree bark. Yokoi even returned his army-issued rifle to “the honorable emperor,” expressing his embarrassment at having returned alive rather than dying in service to the emperor. He regretted not having served his majesty to the fullest.
However, Yokoi never quite felt at home in modern society. Before his conscription in 1941, he had been an apprentice tailor, and now, he found himself overwhelmed by the changes that had occurred during his absence. He subsequently led a quiet life as a hermit, becoming a popular television personality and advocating for a simple way of life. He traveled across the country, delivering public lectures criticizing Japan’s “wasteful modern lifestyle” and championing values of thrift and self-reliance. He was deeply admired for his unwavering determination, his spirit of ganbaru (“enduring adversity without giving in,”) and his unwavering commitment to traditional values.
Embrace the Gifts That Doubt Can Bring. Let Enlightenment Take Flight.
Overall, Yokoi spent 27 years in isolation in the jungles of Guam, stubbornly holding onto his identity as a Japanese soldier long after the war had ended. In doing so, he squandered his life by adhering to ideals that held no significance for anyone else, sacrificing his relationships, career, and personal happiness to pursue the Japanese principle of ganbaru, or unwavering perseverance.
There reaches a point where virtue, taken to the extreme, can transform into a vice. Shoichi Yokoi personified this fallacy. We often admire the act of unwavering commitment, but we tend to lose sight of the underlying reasons behind it due to the blinding effects of rigid adherence.
Beware of blind devotion to any ideology that promotes rigid and restrictive beliefs. Do not overestimate the value of your morals beyond their practical utility, and be receptive to changing your perspective when circumstances demand it. This requires reevaluating your priorities and recognizing that what you once cherished may no longer align with your desires or aspirations. When faced with new information or situations, consider the possibility of altering your stance. There is a difference between sticking to your principles and being imprudent.