Japanese veterans: 'We really don't have any idea if these two people exist'

Media frenzy in lawless hotbed of separatist rebels and kidnap gangs is based on fourth-hand information
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The Independent Online

Few foreigners venture to Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines notorious as a stronghold of Muslim separatist rebels and a hotbed of kidnap gangs. This weekend, however, Mindanao is crawling with Japanese media desperate to locate two Second World War veterans said to have strolled out of the jungle after 60 years in hiding.

Few foreigners venture to Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines notorious as a stronghold of Muslim separatist rebels and a hotbed of kidnap gangs. This weekend, however, Mindanao is crawling with Japanese media desperate to locate two Second World War veterans said to have strolled out of the jungle after 60 years in hiding.

Japanese diplomats faced two challenges yesterday: separating fact from fiction in the welter of stories about the former Imperial Army soldiers, while seeking to shield a gaggle of excitable journalists from danger in one of the world's most unpredictable troublespots.

The port city of General Santos, on Mindanao's southern tip, became a focus of frenzied attention last week following reports that two Japanese veterans had emerged from the nearby mountains. According to some accounts, the pair - now in their mid-80s - were unaware that the war had ended, but expressed the unequivocal wish to go home.

The Japanese embassy in Manila says it was alerted to their existence by a compatriot who is a businessman in the timber industry. Officials flew south to meet the men on Friday, but were still waiting in vain in their hotel in General Santos for the pair to turn up yesterday. As the hours ticked by, diplomats expressed mounting scepticism about the reports, which they admitted were, at best, fourth-hand.

The timber executive had not met the mystery men himself, they said; moreover, he had obtained his information from a Filipino contact, who heard about them from another Filipino.

The embassy's press attaché, Shuhei Ogawa, said attempts were still being made to organise a meeting with the elderly veterans, believed to have been living in rebel-held territory in the thickly forested mountains outside General Santos. But he added that they might be deterred by the presence of large crowds of journalists in the city.

Mr Ogawa played down the reports, saying: "This type of information comes in all the time. We really have no idea if these two people exist." Asked why the case was being given more credence than most, he said it was "more concrete", but declined to elaborate.

The Japanese media have speculated that the pair are Yoshio Yamakawa, a former corporal, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, a first lieutenant, both from the 30th Division of the Imperial Army. If alive, they would be aged 87 and 85 respectively.

Japan occupied the Philippines from 1941. In the final months of the war, soldiers of the 30th Division fought fierce battles against invading US troops.

Some Japanese did not surrender until 1948. In 1974 a former intelligence officer, Lieutenant Hiroo Onada, was discovered on Lubang island, carrying a rusty rifle. He refused to leave the jungle until ordered to do so by his former commanding officer. That case was remarkable enough; if two men have indeed spent the past six decades hiding out in Mindanao, possibly convinced that hostilities were continuing, it would be one of the most extraordinary stories to emerge from the region in years.

What seems more likely - if the pair indeed exist - is that they knew the war was over, but decided to stay on in the Philippines for their own reasons. It is quite conceivable, though, that they managed to evade the attention of the authorities. Mindanao is a lawless place, fought over by warring clans and competing Islamist guerrilla groups. According to one Japanese newspaper, one of the veterans married a local woman and had children with her.

More than 100 Japanese journalists have converged on General Santos, some chartering planes from the capital, Manila. Embassy officials have posted notices warning them not to leave town in search of the octogenarians, and to decline offers from would-be guides. Police have issued similar advice, noting that kidnapping for ransom is rife in the area.

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