MANILA, Philippines – Japanese diplomats investigated claims Friday that two former Japanese soldiers have been hiding in the mountains of the southern Philippines since World War II.
The health ministry, in charge of repatriating Japanese overseas, said it was sending an official to the southern Philippine city of General Santos (search) on Saturday to join Japanese embassy officials attempting to reach the pair.
The diplomats failed in their attempt Friday to arrange a meeting with the two men, officials said, and were left waiting in a hotel in the port city 600 miles south of Manila. They were scheduling another meeting through a Japanese mediator who had contacted the mission.
"We are doing our best to contact the mediator. ... We will just continue to wait. We hope there will be new developments tonight or tomorrow," Japanese Consul Seiichi Ogawa said.
Yu Kameoka, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's (search) spokesman, said in Tokyo the two men apparently were reluctant to meet with officials because of the large number of people, including reporters, waiting to see them.
"According to a man who is mediating, the two men are rather worried about meeting with so many people gathered in General Santos, including those from the media," he said, adding no time has been set for a meeting.
Media reports in Japan said the two octogenarians lived on the southern island of Mindanao (search) and used equipment suggesting they were former soldiers, with one report saying they were separated from their division and later wanted to return to Japan but feared they would face a court-martial.
Koizumi said in Tokyo he hoped the mystery would be cleared up soon.
"We are checking it now," he told reporters. "It is a surprise if it's true, but we have to check first."
Goichi Ichikawa, the chairman of a veterans group in Japan, said he first alerted the Tokyo government of reports about the men in February, asking that they be rescued as soon as possible.
Ichikawa said he learned of at least three Japanese men living in the mountains of Mindanao from someone who went there late last year.
"It's amazing they were able to survive for 60 years," Ichikawa told reports in the Japanese city of Osaka. "Of course I was stunned."
Last September, a Japanese national in the lumber business ran into the men in the mountains, the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun reported. It was learned later that they wanted to go back to Japan but were afraid of facing a court-martial for withdrawing from action, the newspaper said.
Another source told the paper that there may be more than 40 other Japanese soldiers living in the mountains and that they all want to return to Japan, the Sankei said.
Japan's Kyodo News agency said the two may be Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 83. But the health ministry declined to confirm the report, saying they could not disclose any information until officials have identified them.
The reports were reminiscent of World War II straggler Lt. Hiroo Onoda (search), who believed the war was still on when he was found in the jungles of the Philippines in 1974. He refused to give himself up until March of that year, when the Japanese government flew in his former commander to formally inform him the war was over.