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'Too Much Concrete and Cleanliness Makes for Weak Children' : Last Japanese to Surrender Offers Lessons of 29 Years in Jungle

December 29, 1985|RICHARD WADDINGTON | Reuters

CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil — Three decades of dodging others in the jungle may not be everyone's idea of the way to health and happiness, but Lt. Hiroo Onoda, late of the Japanese Imperial Army, believes it taught him a thing or two.

Onoda walked out of the jungle on the Philippine island of Lubang in March, 1974, to become the last Japanese soldier to lay down his sword from World War II, almost 29 years after the conflict ended.

Now 63 years old and as fighting-fit as in his jungle days, Onoda owns a cattle farm in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul and spends six months in Japan each year lecturing schoolchildren on health and nature.

He is also writing a book on his ideas that includes advice to mothers to allow their children more contact with the soil and dirt--even in the rain.

"Too much concrete and cleanliness makes for weak children," he says.

Onoda said he only once suffered a slight fever during his years on the run and has not known a day of illness since.

"Knowing I could never have any medicines or seek a doctor's help made me strong and self-reliant," he said. "I was pushed to the limits of human endurance and now I want to use what I learned to help others."

Onoda arrived in the Philippines in December, 1944, with 250 men under his command. By the time the war ended eight months later, 200 of them were dead. Most of the survivors surrendered after U.S. troops dropped pamphlets saying the fighting was over, but Onoda did not believe them.

"I thought it was a trick," he said.

Less Staying Power

With four companions, he retreated deep into the jungle. After six years, one of the group gave himself up and revealed the fugitives' names to the Philippine authorities.

Messages continued to be sent, but there was always some mistake, such as a misspelled name, so Onoda remained suspicious. Later, the sound of warplanes flying to battles in Vietnam strengthened his doubts.

One by one his companions died in clashes with Philippine patrols, the last one in 1973.

Onoda kept on the move, never spending more than one night in any place. He lived on bananas and coconuts and the cattle he would kill once every two months, storing the smoke-cured meat in small caches around the island.

Then, one day in early 1974, a Japanese, whom he knows as Mr. Suzuki, found him. At first Onoda thought Suzuki was Filipino and was ready to kill him until the newcomer said in Japanese: "I came to look for you."

Even then, Onoda only agreed to leave the jungle after the Japanese army sent a written order commanding him to surrender.

"I don't regret what I did," Onoda said. "My orders were to fight to the finish. I am only sorry for those that died."

He found that he was no longer suited to the hustle and bustle of modern Japan and decided to live in Brazil, where the lush tropical vegetation and tranquility of rural life were more akin to what he had known during his years on the run.

He received no back pay from the Japanese government but with the earnings from a book of memoirs he bought a 2,780-acre farm with 1,700 head of cattle--but no coconuts or bananas. "I can't stand the sight of them," he said.

He still needed a wife, which was a problem. The local Japanese-Brazilians appeared to be afraid of him, he said. The city women in Japan knew nothing of farming and the farm girls were ignorant of how to receive visitors.

Finally, an army friend put him in touch with his present wife, Matie, a beaming 48-year-old former teacher of ikebana , the Japanese art of flower arranging. She said she agreed to come to Brazil to marry him because she felt sorry for him.

"I didn't think he would find anyone else," she said.

Onoda says he intends to continue his teaching until he dies.

"I want to remind the young that they must never forget nature," he said. "It is not just a source of food.

"People are also too selfish and egoistic today. We must never forget others because man does not live alone--I should know."

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