Obituary: Shoichi Yokoi

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Shoichi Yokoi, soldier and tailor: born Nagoya, Japan 1915; married; died Naka-ku, Japan 22 September 1997.

"The Robinson Crusoe of Japan" was what his countrymen called him. But children at once recognised in Shoichi Yokoi the popular hero of one of their favourite folk tales, Urashima Taro, a mythological figure first mentioned in the seventh-century historical chronicle Nihon shoki (completed in 720 AD).

A poor fisherman visited the dragon kingdom at the bottom of the sea, where he was regally entertained for many years by a beautiful princess. When he became homesick for Japan, she allowed him to leave her palace and gave him a parting gift of a magic box containing a mirror and a crane's feather. She warned him never to open the box unless in an emergency, but when he got home again, Taro could not recognise his old village or any of the people living there. So he opened the box, and at once he became a very old man with a long beard. When he looked in the mirror he was terrified by what he saw, so putting the crane's feather on his back he flew away into eternity. Lafcadio Hearn, after hearing this tale, introduced to the Japanese the similar story told by Washington Irving in "Rip van Winkle".

In fact, folk-tale scholars tell us this is a tale known world-wide. There is something in human nature that is attracted by stories of survival in a primitive environment, so Shoichi Yokoi provided the Japanese with an enthralling modern version of their ancient myth.

Yokoi was a Japanese army sergeant who managed to survive in the jungles of Guam for 28 years after the end of the Second World War. At first there were a few other members of his company with him after the United States overran the island and either killed or captured most of the Japanese troops. But his companions gradually died and for the last eight years of his existence there Yokoi was all alone, living on a diet of roots, wild berries, breadfruit, nuts, mangoes, papayas, snails, rats and frogs. He also made nets to catch shrimp and fish.

After he left school in Nagoya, he was apprenticed to a tailor and did so well that in 1936 he was able to open his own tailoring business in his native city. But in August 1941 he was conscripted and after training was sent with the army to Manchuria. As Japan's fortunes in war began to deteriorate, he was sent with 22,000 troops to defend Guam, which had been occupied by the Japanese. Most of them perished, but Yokoi and his few surviving companions honoured the Emperor Hirohito's command never to surrender.

They did not know that the war in the Pacific had ended, and refused to believe news broadcast by American planes that it was now safe for them to surrender. so he was reported "supposed dead".

Then, one day in 1972, two local men who were out hunting spotted him setting fish traps in the Talofofo River, and after much persuasion he allowed himself to be repatriated.

He created an even greater sensation on his arrival in Japan. He at once became a national hero. Many people were moved to tears when they heard his first words: "It is a terrible shame for me - I came back, still alive, without having won the war." He apologised to Emperor Hirohito for having surrendered.

It was a time when Japan's "economic miracle" was transforming the whole land, and as he drove from the airport Yokoi could not believe his eyes at the sight of immense new skyscrapers and blocks of apartments, and the huge factories surrounding Nagoya. It was the story of Urashima Taro all over again. Shoichi's story filled all the newspapers and he made many appearances on television, an invention quite new to him. He touched the hearts of the Japanese people, who felt a new kind of pride in having discovered such an unaffected hero.

At first, there was worry in case he could not adapt to contemporary life. But a wife was soon found for him, Mihoko, whom he married in November 1972. There had been many candidates, for women were fascinated by his story and wanted to take care of him and to offer him the comforts of a modern home to help him forget his lonely sufferings on Guam. But the tailor who had managed to survive so long in adverse circumstances was not dismayed by the new Japan he found in Nagoya. He had learned in the jungle to be self-sufficient, and to lead a self- supporting existence. So he began lecturing all over Japan, drawing large audiences of admirers.

He led a very simple life with Mihoko, who was devoted to him. The main theme of his talks on television was a critique of modern life, and an advocacy of austerity, which he truly practised in his own mode of living. He advised the rich consumer society of Japan to give up unnecessary expenses, to stop eating unnecessary and harmful foods, to stop arraying themselves in useless fashions. He was a natural ecologist, who had learned these truths the hard way.

He led an active life to the end. In 1974, he stood for election to the Diet, with a typical and for the Japanese very unusual slogan: "Elections Without Cash". Naturally, he lived up to this quaintly honest proposal, and lost. So he turned to making pottery, self-taught, after building his own kiln in the garden. He wrote a best-seller about his experiences: Road for Tomorrow - the entire story of my 28 years in Guam (1976).

But in 1985 cancer was detected and two-thirds of his stomach had to cut out. He also suffered from osteoporosis and had to stop making pottery. He took up calligraphy, and many were the demands for examples of his art. He developed Parkinson's disease. His legs were paralysed and he had constant pain in his back. But he went on taking care of the plants in his garden: he planted lovingly every kind of vegetable.

In 1995, the unusually severe summer heat and humidity caused him to lose appetite and his weight dropped until he weighed less than he had in the jungle. In the same year, there were plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. But Shoichi declared: "For one soldier who was sent to the war, just a fraction of humanity, it is a matter of indifference whether the celebration is for 50 or for 100 years. For this one soldier ordered to the front, the end of the war came only 23 years ago."

The simple sergeant who had lived in a cave in a jungle infested with poisonous snakes and wild beasts enjoyed fairly good health there. But on returning to "civilisation" his health began to decline. His wife Mihoko was involved in a car crash and this gave him a terrible shock. He was hospitalised and died of heart failure at the age of 82.

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