In December 1959, Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese army intelligence officer, was officially declared dead.
15 years prior, Onoda had been deployed to the small island of Lubang in the Philippines to prevent enemy attacks from the United States.
After a six-month extensive search organized by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare in early 1959, found no trace of Onoda, the world concluded that he died from wounds sustained during a shootout with Philippine troops.
Onoda became an urban legend in Japan—a war hero and a myth.
But in 1972, a Japanese university dropout, Norio Suzuki—a traveller who had hitchhiked across fifty countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, slept on park benches, and in stranger’s cars—left Japan, and told his friends and family that he was on a mission to find three things: Lieutenant Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.
Suzuki was confident that despite the failed attempts of search parties conducted by the Japanese, Philippine, and American governments for nearly thirty years, he’d be the one to finally find Onoda and bring him home.
In just four days, Suzuki found Onoda.
And, in March of 1974, 29 years after World War II was over, the urban legend, Hiroo Onoda, came back from the dead.
He was relieved of his duty, flown out of the jungle of Lubang Island, received a hero’s welcome back home in Japan—parades, roaring crowds and formal greetings—and became a national celebrity.
Why did Onoda keep fighting nearly thirty years after the war had ended? And why would Suzuki dropout of University to travel the world and search for Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman?
Most importantly, what can we learn from their stories to help us find our life purpose?
In August 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered in the closing chapters of the bloodiest war in human history.
But, a few Japanese soldiers—including Onoda and three of his men—still hid in the islands, completely unaware that the war was over.
Onoda and his men continued their guerilla warfare against the United states, and often attacked the islanders, who they feared would report their hidden locations.
In response to this chaos, the Japanese, Philippine and United States military, dropped thousands of leaflets, and sent photographs and notes from family members, to inform Onoda and his men that the war was over, and plead with them to surrender.
One of his soldiers surrendered, but Onoda refused to do so.
Onoda and two of his remaining men continued to attack the local population, burn their farms and disrupt the community.
Sick and tired of the “mountain devils,” the local people of Lubang armed themselves, fired back and killed another one of his men.
Several years later, in a shootout with the local police, Onoda’s right hand man and last standing soldier, Kozuka, was killed, and Onoda was left all alone.
For the next five years, despite losing his comrades, Onoda would continue to fight on and refuse to surrender.
“When I became a soldier, I accepted my country’s goals. I vowed that I would do anything within my power to achieve those goals. When my brother Tadao came to see me there, he asked me whether I was prepared to die for my country. I told him I was. I had kept my vow rigidly during those fifteen years.”
Onoda was prepared to die for his country, and refused to surrender until he was personally discharged by the Lieutenant general, who had given him orders to fight in Lubang.
Likewise, Suzuki was prepared to die for his mission of finding Onoda, a panda and the Abominable Snowman.
As if it were written in the stars, both Suzuki and Onoda crossed paths with one another, whilst living for the most important question on life purpose:
What are you willing to die for?
Death and Purpose
Whether it’s religious leaders like Jesus Christ, Civil Rights Leaders like Martin Luther King, or scientists like Galileo, the figures who’ve changed the course of history—for better or worse—shared one thing in common: they all lived for something they were willing to die for.
In today’s world, however, we live for fleeting pleasures and the pursuit of happiness.
We incessantly search for a life purpose that will give us good feelings: happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment.
But the truth is, ones life purpose, suffering and death are one and the same.
Onoda chose to suffer and spend thirty years fighting in a jungle, with little food and barely any clothes, for a cause he was willing to die for.
When he returned back home to Tokyo, Onoda no longer had a cause to die for, and longed-for his old days fighting in the jungles of Lubang. “I was fortunate that I could devote myself to my duty in my young and vigorous years,” he said.
Onoda felt like a stranger at home, and was shocked by the extreme consumerism, loss of traditional values, and materialistic culture that had emerged in Japan: “There are so many tall buildings and automobiles in Tokyo…Television might be convenient, but it has no influence on my life here.”
Disillusioned by the comfort and fame, Onoda left Japan, moved to Brazil and became a cattle rancher.
Meanwhile, Suzuki continued his quest to find the two remaining things on his list: a panda and the Abominable Snowman.
He found a wild panda and married shortly afterwards, but did not give on his mission.
In November 1986, whilst searching for a yeti in the Himalayas, Suzuki was killed by an avalanche. 1
Both Suzuki and Onoda discovered their life’s purpose, not by looking for what would make them happiest, but by seeking what they were willing to suffer and die for.
When in doubt about your purpose in life, ask yourself this question:
What am I willing to die for?
1. Sydney Morning Herald, October 8, 1987. “Yeti Hunter Dies“.
2. Onoda and his men primarily ate bananas to survive during the thirty years in Lubang. Their clothes were always rotting, and during the rainy seasons, they’d sleep crowded in a little tent, wake up soaked to the bone, and nearly shiver to death from the cold in the morning.