Japan stunned as soldiers come out of the jungle 60 years after end of war

It is an astonishing story - if it is true. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, two Japanese veterans have reportedly emerged from the Philippines jungle, declaring that they wish to go home but are afraid of a court martial.

According to one version, the pair - in their mid-eighties - had no idea the war was over until they came down from the thickly forested mountains near General Santos, a city on the southern island of Mindanao.

While the Japanese media were in a frenzy yesterday, diplomats in the Philippines were expressing caution. Officials from the Japanese embassy in Manila flew south to meet the men, but as night fell the two octogenarians had yet to show up at a designated hotel.

"We are playing a waiting game," said Shuhei Ogawa, the Japanese press attaché, speaking by telephone from Mindanao. "We have not yet confirmed whether these people even exist - and if they do exist, whether they really are Second World War veterans."

It seems barely conceivable that the men could have spent six decades in hiding, possibly unaware of Japan's defeat. Yet in 1974 a former Imperial Army intelligence officer, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, was discovered in the rainforests of Lubang island in the Philippines, 30 years after being assigned there.

Mr Onoda, now 83, refused to believe that the war had ended, and it was only when his former commanding officer was flown over from Japan that he agreed to leave the jungle. In 1975 he emigrated to Brazil. Another Japanese ex-soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, was found on the North Pacific island of Guam in 1972. He came home, and died in 1977.

The latest reports have been greeted with excitement in Japan. "What a surprise it would be, if it's true," the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, said.

Government sources in Tokyo named the men as Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 85, of the 30th Division of the Imperial Army. Both were registered as war dead, having last lived in the Osaka and Kochi areas respectively.

Diplomats in Manila were alerted to their existence by a Japanese businessman, who went to Mindanao to collect the remains of war dead. The businessman has not, however, met the men himself. A long-term Philippines resident, he arranged yesterday's abortive meeting at the East Asia Royale Hotel in General Santos.

Mr Ogawa, the press attaché, said - somewhat wearily - that the mediator, whom he declined to name, had not been in touch. "We are awaiting further information," he said. "All we know is that they may be Japanese veterans, and obviously we want to check this. I don't want to say whether I think it's true or not, because really I don't know. All of Japan is waiting to find out."

Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941, shortly after bombing Pearl Harbour, and set up a puppet government. The country was the scene of fierce fighting at the end of the war, as Japanese soldiers took on US troops across the sprawling archipelago. The brutal occupation is believed to have left up to one million Filipinos dead.

Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper said the two men had probably belonged to the Panther division, which was virtually wiped out as the war drew to a close. It said that the pair ended up in the mountains after becoming separated from their comrades. The newspaper quoted an unidentified source as claiming that as many as 40 Japanese soldiers were still in the Philippines, all yearning to return home.

Mindanao is a lawless region that harbours separatist rebels locked in a decades-old struggle for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines. Local media reported that the two men had been living in the mountainous Columbio area, which is controlled by guerrillas, and that one had married a local woman and had children.

According to some reports, the pair have documents attesting to their connection with the Imperial Army as well as equipment suggesting that they are former soldiers.

Amid the general scepticism, some observers suggested yesterday that while the two men might have fought for the Imperial Army, they probably knew hostilities ceased some time ago and had decided to stay on for their own reasons.