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The Last Missing Japanese Soldier to be found after World War 2

Welcome to House of History. Today I want to talk about one of the longest missing, presumed dead, Japanese soldiers that turned up alive. Now the aftermath of the Second World War was incredibly chaotic and missing Japanese soldiers that turned up years later weren’t that rare initially. One of the most curious cases must have been that of Hiroo Onoda, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender after the Second World War. He held out for close to another 30 years after the war ended and astonished the world by emerging in 1974, still wearing the uniform he wore during the war. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry: I’ll link my video about him in the description.

Ishinosuke Uwano

But today I want to talk about another bizarre case, one that arguably is more bizarre than Onoda’s case. Ishinosuke Uwano was last seen by his family when he went off to fight in the Second World War. Uwano was drafted to the Imperial Japanese Army as a teenager and in 1943 he was sent to Sakhalin Island, to the north of Japan. The northern part was occupied by the Soviets, with the Japanese on the south. When in august 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, they rapidly invaded and seized the remaining half of the island. All Japanese soldiers that surrendered were forced into a prisoner of war camps, frequently spending decades in these gulags.

And as for Uwano, well, after the Second World War ended, he didn’t come home. Now, it wasn’t rare for the Soviet Union to send captured Japanese off to labour camps which was assumed had happened to him. And Uwano wasn’t a rare case of a missing soldier either; there were thousands of Japanese that were either left stranded on islands in the pacific, perished in gulags or were never found again and probably killed in action. The last part did not happen to Uwano for sure because the last confirmed sighting of him was on the Sakhalin island in 1958. Other sources state that year was the last time he had been in touch with his family. Either way: it was certain he was alive by 1958. One theory goes that once he found himself behind enemy lines on the island, he tried to survive in the wilderness of Sakhalin. After realising Japan had lost the war he must have surrendered himself to the Soviet Union. Even today the Sakhalin island remains Russian territory, so it isn’t too odd for Uwano to surrender himself after realising there would be no Japanese counter-offensive.

Uwano during the Second World War, ca. 1943

Now it is certain Uwano was put in a forced labour camp for several years, if not decades after the war. But it is blurry what exactly happened after 1945 and after 1958. What is certain is that in 1965 Uwano somehow ended up in Ukraine, probably after he was allowed to resettle by the former Soviet government. He moved to Zhytomyr, a city in central Ukraine. Over there, he married a local woman and raised three children, living his life closed-off from his past for multiple decades. Considering the last sighting was in 1958, his family tried their best to locate him in the following decades, but without any success. In 2000 they gave up hope of ever finding him alive, assuming he probably perished in a forced labour camp. Even the Japanese health ministry, which was tasked with finding missing overseas veterans, said they believed Uwano had died. So imagine the surprise when the Japanese embassy in Ukraine contacted them in 2006 saying that Uwano came to them and asked them to locate his surviving family in Japan.

So why didn’t he reach out to them earlier? According to Uwano, the Soviet government prevented him from contacting his family and considering the circumstances that is very likely. The Soviet Union was notorious for being secretive. Since Uwano seems to have been both captured and moved to Ukraine at the height of the Cold War, it is understandable the Soviet Union didn’t feel like informing the Japanese government, let alone Uwano’s family. When the Japanese embassy of Ukraine reached out to the family, the Japanese government prepared for Uwano to come over to Japan. It finally happened in 2006, when Uwano was 83 years old, as he arrived at Tokyo airport to meet his family he hadn’t seen in over 60 years. His Japanese was rusty, which is understandable, after all, he hadn’t spoken Japanese in 6 decades. Because he was declared legally dead in 2000, he could only visit Japan as a Ukrainian tourist instead of an actual citizen, something the Japanese government promised to resolve. 

I wish I could tell you more about Uwano, but literally all sources are of his visit from 2006, which lasted for 9 days. I don’t think there has been an English news-outlet that has done a follow-up article. It is curious, because even today, 14 years later, Uwano is still alive. He is currently 97 years old and although the Japanese government said that they would try to give him back his Japanese citizenship, I assume he is still living in Ukraine. 

Although Uwano is the last missing Japanese soldier to turn up, the year previous to his discovery there was another fascinating case. In 2005 a media-craze erupted about supposedly missing Japanese soldiers. On the island of Mindanao two men, Yashio Yamawa who was  87 years old and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, who was 85 years old, claimed they had been Japanese soldiers during the second world war. It seems these men knew the war was over but decided to remain on the island to start a new life. Not quite for any easy reasons though: according to the men they had stayed on the island for 60 years because they feared returning home. It was because of their fear of being court-martialed for getting lost from their division during the fighting. Now, if you’re interested in Hidoo Orona, the soldier that emerged from the jungle in 1974 to surrender his weapons finally, then make sure you watch that video after this one. I’ll link it here.