Japan was checking Friday if two elderly Japanese men found on a Philippine island plagued by an Islamic insurgency were soldiers left behind from World War II who were unaware of Tokyo’s surrender.

“What a surprise it would be if it’s true,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.

 

The Japanese embassy in Manila sent three officials early Friday to General Santos city, 1,300 kilometres (806 miles) south of Manila, to meet the two men found on the lawless island of Mindanao.

 

“The Japanese embassy in the Philippines received information yesterday that two men believed to be former Japanese soldiers are alive,” Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura told reporters.

 

The diplomats will interview the pair, said to be in their 80s, to confirm whether they are Japanese soldiers left over from World War II, said Japan’s consul general in Manila, Akio Egawa.

 

“It is an incredible story if it is true,” he told Agence France-Presse. “They were found, I believe, in the mountains near General Santos on Mindanao Island.”

 

“At this stage we are not saying either way whether or not these two men are in fact former soldiers. We may be in a better position later today,” he said.

 

A former soldier who served in the same unit the men were reported to belong to said he had heard that one of them had been telling residents in Mindanao that his family name was Sakurai.

 

“In October or November, I heard local residents went into the mountains and met the man, who said ‘My name is Sakurai. I am a Japanese,'” said Goichi Ichikawa, 89.

 

“The man apparently said he wanted to go home, but was worried,” he told reporters.

 

Ichikawa, who leads a veterans group, said he had heard of at least three former Japanese soldiers in the region and asked the Japanese government in February to rescue them to no avail.

 

Mindanao, an island of dense jungle, has witnessed more than two decades of Islamic insurgency.

 

Japanese media said the pair had been living in guerrilla-controlled mountains near General Santos until late this month. It is not known if they knew of Japan’s surrender in August 1945 to Allied forces.

 

Kyodo News agency, citing Japanese government sources, said the two men had contacted a Japanese national who was on the island collecting the remains of dead Japanese soldiers.

 

Quoting unspecified government sources, the news agency identified the two men as Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 85.

 

The¬†Sankei Shimbun¬†daily said the men were believed to belong to the “panther division.”

 

Some 80 per cent of its members died or went missing while battling US forces.

 

The daily said the pair was afraid of facing a court martial back home for deserting the frontlines — an option that would be unlikely as the Japanese imperial army is defunct.

 

Japan attacked the Philippines, then a US colony, hours after its 1941 air raid on Pearl Harbour and formed a puppet government of Filipino oligarchs.

 

The occupation was brutal, with some one million Filipinos estimated to have died and the sexual enslavement of Filipino women.

 

Japan also carried out the notorious Bataan “death march” in which thousands of Allied prisoners died as they were forced to march 96 kilometres (60 miles) without adequate food.

 

Japan was stunned in 1974 when former imperial Japanese army intelligence officer Hiroo Onoda was found living in the jungle on the Philippine island of Lubang. He did not know of Japan’s surrender 29 years earlier.

 

After being repatriated, Onoda emigrated to Brazil.

 

Another former Japanese soldier, Shoichi Yokoi, was found on Guam in 1972. He returned home and died in 1997. — AFP