In 1997, I was in Tokyo to direct the opera Chushingura. Shigeaki Saegusa, the composer, had long pressed me to take on the world premiere of this work. Chushingura is the most Japanese of all Japanese stories: there is a religious ceremony impending; the preparations are in hand; in the course of these, a feudal lord is provoked and insulted; he draws his sword. As punishment for his sacrilege, he is made to commit ritual suicide, seppuku. Two years later, forty-seven of his retainers avenge him by ambushing and killing the man who insulted their master. They know that they must themselves die for such an action. That same day, all forty-seven kill themselves.
Saegusa is a widely respected composer in Japan. At the time of the production, he had his own TV show, and people knew about the work we were doing. In the evening, some of us would have dinner together at a long table. Saegusa came late one day, and in a state of high excitement. ÒHerzog-san,Ó he said. His Highness, the Emperor had indicated he would receive me to a private audience, if I wasnÕt too busy with the upcoming premiere. I replied: ÒMy goodness, I have no idea what I would talk about with the Emperor; it would be nothing but banalities.Ó I could feel my wife LenaÕs nails digging into my palm, but it was too late. I had declined.
It was a faux pas, so awful, so catastrophic that I wish to this day that the earth had swallowed me up. Around the table, everyone present froze. No one breathed. All eyes were fixed on their plates, no one looked at me, a protracted silence made the room shudder. It felt to me as though the whole of Japan had stopped breathing. Just then, into the silence, a voice inquired: ÒWell, if not the Emperor, whom would you like to meet?Ó I instantly replied: ÒOnoda.Ó
"Yes," I replied. "Hiroo Onoda." And a week later, I met him.
Lubang, a Path in the Jungle
February 20, 1974
The night coils in fever dreams. No sooner awake than with an awful shudder, the landscape reveals itself as a durable daytime version of the same nightmare, crackling and flickering like loosely connected neon tubes. From daybreak the jungle has twitched in the ritual tortures of electricity. Rain. The storm is so distant that its thunder is not yet audible. A dream? Is it a dream? A wide path, on either side dense underbrush, rotting mulch on the ground, the leaves dripping. The jungle remains stiff, patient, humble, until the office of the rain has been celebrated.
Then this, as though I'd been there myself. Sounds of voices in the distance; happy cries coming ever nearer. From the bodiless mist of the jungle a body acquires form. A young Filipino man comes hurrying along the path, down the slight incline. Curious, as he runs, in one hand he holds up over his head the remnants of an umbrella, now nothing but a wire skeleton and shreds of cloth, in the other a bolo knife. Close behind him is a woman with an infant on her arm, followed by seven or eight other villagers. What has provoked the joyous excitement is not evident. They hurry by, then nothing happens. The steady drip, drip from the trees, the quiet path.
A path, just a jungle footpath. And yet, immediately in front of me, on the right-hand side, a stir passes through a few of the moldering leaves. What was that? Another moment of stillness. Then a section of the wall of leaves at eye level in front of me, that too begins to move. Slowly, terribly slowly, a green man takes form. Is it a ghost? The thing I have been watching all along without recognizing it is a Japanese soldier. Hiroo Onoda. Even if I had known exactly where he was standing, I would not have seen him, so consummate is his camouflage. He peels the wet leaves off his legs, then the green twigs he has carefully fastened to his body. He reaches into the thicket for his rifle, beside which he has concealed his camouflaged rucksack. I see a military man in his early fifties; a wiry build; every movement exaggeratedly circumspect. His uniform is made of sewn together scraps; the butt of his rifle is wound around with tree bark. He listens intently, then disappears silently after the villagers. Ahead of me is the clay path, still the same, but new now, different, full of secrets. Was it a dream?
The path, a little lower now, has widened out at this point. The rain is no more than a trickle. Onoda studies the footprints in the clay, listening all the time, constantly on the alert. His lively eyes swivel in every direction. The birds have struck up, calmly, as though to assure him that danger is a word in a dictionary now, a mysterious condition of the landscape. The humming of the insects is regular. I start to hear with Onoda's ears that their humming is not aggressive, is not troubled. From afar the pouring of a stream, even though I have yet to see a stream, as though I were, like Onoda, beginning to translate sounds.
Lubang, Wakayama Tributary
February 21, 1974
At this point, the clerestory of the forest has overgrown a narrow rivulet. Clear water pours over flat stones. A second stream joins it from the left, descending from steep wooded hills. Past the confluence of the two, the landscape widens out, flattens. Bamboo, palms, tall rushes. At the confluence itself there is a flat sandbank. Onoda crosses the sand walking backward, leaving traces to mislead a possible pursuer. Through the slowly swaying rushes he can make out a small Japanese flag. Onoda cautiously raises his field glasses, worn and marked by so many years in the jungle. Are they in fact still field glasses? Weren't the prisms long ago attacked by a mold? Or is Onoda impossible to imagine without his field glasses? The flag flaps a little in the afternoon breeze. Its fabric is so new that the creases where it was folded are still clearly discernible.
There is a tent beside the flag, it, too, fresh from the factory, the sort of tent trippers might use for a weekend outing. Onoda cautiously straightens up. He sees a young man squatting on the ground, facing away, trying to get a fire going in a camp stove. Apparently alone. A nylon rucksack in the mouth of the tent. When the young man turns to reach for it to make a windbreak next to the cooker, his face shows: it is Norio Suzuki.
Onoda leaps forth from his ambush. Suzuki is rigid with terror, sees the rifle pointing at him. It takes him a moment to recover the power of speech.
"I'm Japanese," he says, "I'm Japanese."
"On your knees," commands Onoda. Suzuki slowly gets down on his knees.
"Take your shoes off. Throw them away as far as you can."
Suzuki follows the command, he is trembling so hard he has trouble with the laces.
"I'm unarmed," he says. "This is just a kitchen knife."
Onoda pays no regard to the knife on the ground. Suzuki carefully pushes it away.
"Are you Onoda? Hiroo Onoda?"
"Yes. Lieutenant Onoda. That's me."
Onoda points his rifle at the middle of Suzuki's chest, stoical, opaque. Now animation comes over Suzuki's features.
"Am I dreaming? Am I really seeing what I'm seeing?"
Daylight has given way to evening. Onoda and Suzuki are squatting by the fire a little way away from SuzukiÕs tent. Nocturnal crickets start their thrumming. Onoda has taken up a position from where he is able to survey the surroundings with his continually swiveling regard. He is suspicious, alert, his rifle still pointed in the general direction of Suzuki. It seems they must have been speaking for a while. After a pause, Suzuki takes up the conversation.
"How could I be an American agent? I'm only twenty-two years old."
Onoda is not impressed. "When I came here at the beginning of the War, I was one year older than you. Any effort to deflect me from my mission was the work of enemy agents."
"I am not your enemy. My only purpose was to meet you."
"Men in civilian clothes came ashore on the island. Men in disguise. They all wanted the same thing: to kill me or take me prisoner. I have survived a hundred and eleven ambushes. I have been repeatedly attacked. I can no longer count how many times I was fired upon. Every human being on this island is my enemy."
Suzuki has no answer. Onoda looks off in the direction of the last light in the sky.
"Do you know what a fired bullet looks like, in light like this?"
"No. I can't say I do."
"It has a bluish glow, almost like tracer."
"You can see it coming toward you, if it's fired from far enough away."
"And you weren't hit?" Suzuki asks, in perplexity.
"I would have been hit. I turned aside, and the bullet went past me."
"Do bullets whistle as they fly?"
"No, but they make a sort of vibration. A low buzz."
Suzuki is impressed.
Another voice joins in. There's a distant flickering in the night sky. The new voice is singing something.
"Who's there?" Suzuki can't make anyone out.
"That would be Shimada, Corporal Shimada. He died here."
"But wasn't that in the middle fifties? I read about it. Everyone in Japan knows about it."
"He died nineteen years, nine months, and fourteen days ago. We were ambushed here, by the Wakayama tributary."
"Wakayama?" asks Suzuki. "Sounds Japanese."
"Right at the beginning of our mission on Lubang, my battalion chose this name for the tributary, in honor of my native prefecture, Wakayama."
The crickets are louder, filling the scene with their noise. The conversation is all theirs now. Suzuki thinks for a long time. Finally, all the crickets scream out at once, in some collective indignation.
"Lieutenant, we seem to be going around in circles."
Suzuki is silent. Onoda prods Suzuki in the chest with the rifle, not threateningly, but to make sure he keeps the fire going.
"If you're no enemy agent, who are you?"
"My name is Norio Suzuki. I used to be a student at Tokyo University."
"Used to be?"
"No student at the best university in the country quits."
"I was bothered because I could see my whole future mapped out ahead of me, every step of the way to retirement and pension."
"Well?" Onoda doesn't understand.
"I wanted a couple of years of freedom, before I sacrificed my life to being a businessman."
"I started to travel. I hitchhiked. I've been to forty countries."
"What is this-hitchhiking?"
"Waving to cars, hoping they pick you up, and take you wherever they're going. No special destination. Until I got there."
"Truly, I had three aims. The first one was to find you, Lieutenant Onoda."
"No one finds me. In twenty-nine years no one has found me."
Suzuki feels encouraged.
"I have been here for under two days, and I have found you."
"I stumbled upon you, I found you. You didn't find me. If you hadn't been so reckless with regard to danger, I would probably have killed you."
Suzuki has not expected this. He is silent.
"And what were your two other objectives?"
"Sometimes called the abominable snowman. A terrible creature in the Himalayas, covered in fur. They have found traces of him, he does exist. And then the giant panda in its natural habitat in the mountains in China. In that order: Onoda, yeti, panda."
For the first time, there's a flicker of amusement on Onoda's face. He nods to Suzuki, go on, don't stop.
Suzuki feels encouraged. "The War ended twenty-nine years ago."
Utter expressionless incomprehension from Onoda.
"That can't be."
"Japan capitulated in August 1945."
"The War is not over. A couple of days ago, I saw an American aircraft carrier, accompanied by a destroyer and a frigate."
"Heading East, I expect," says Suzuki.
"Don't try to trick me. I see what I see."
Suzuki remains insistent. "Lieutenant, the Americans have their biggest naval base in Subic Bay. All their navy ships are refitted and equipped there."
"The Bay of Manila? That's only ninety kilometers away."
"That base existed at the beginning of the War. How do American ships now come and use it?"
"The US and the Philippines are allies."
"What about the planes, the fighters and bombers, I see them all the time?"
"They're headed for Clark Air Base, North of the Bay of Manila. With such huge forces, Lieutenant, why wouldn't the enemy simply overrun Lubang? After all, Lubang controls access to the Bay of Manila."
"I'm not privy to the enemy's plans."
"There are no more plans, the War is over."
Onoda struggles with himself for a moment. Then slowly he gets to his feet, takes a step toward Suzuki, and presses the muzzle of his rifle against his forehead.
"All right, tell me the truth. The time has come."
"Lieutenant, I am not afraid of dying. But it would be miserable to be killed for telling the truth."
The night becomes the longest night, a shock for Onoda, who is torn this way and that between doubt and acceptance. There is no visible sign of this, his face remains stony. Atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities, a hundred thousand dead just like that? Something about the energy released from the splitting of atoms, made into a weapon. How? Suzuki lacks the technological understanding to explain it. Other countries had by now also acquired this thing, this atomic bomb. The existing arsenal was so great that it could kill every inhabitant of the earth not just once or twice, but 1,240 times. For Onoda, this is not compatible with the logic of any war he can conceive of, not even in the future.
What had happened after-allegedly-the two bombs had fallen on Japan is what Onoda wants to know. It was August 1945. Japan had capitulated unconditionally. The Emperor had addressed his people over the wireless. No one had ever heard his voice before. He had taken the opportunity to declare that he was not a god. Such a pronouncement is so inconceivable to Onoda that he takes it as final proof that Suzuki has come on a mission to deceive him. He drills the muzzle of the rifle between Suzuki's eyes.
"No. The truth is that the War has gone on. Perhaps it just carried on elsewhere."
But Suzuki remains adamant. "In the West, Germany lost. They surrendered before the Japanese did."
"No," says Onoda, "the War went on, and it went on in the West as well. What I saw is proof."