Hiroo Onoda and the Six Million Dollar man: what does it mean to know how to die or live?

A news article just came my way that fascinated me: “Hiroo Onoda, Japanese soldier who hid in Philippine jungle for 29 years, dies at 91”.

Of course, I had long heard of “stragglers” who did not realize that a war or persecution was over and kept fighting or fleeing, away from “civilization”, unaware of how the rest of the world was changing. The most recent case of that I read about was a really moving story, astonishing and sad, about an Old Believer Russian family that hid out for forty years.

But in the case of this Japanese soldier, although I had not earlier read about his particular story, I instantly remembered an old TV episode I watched as a young child that was an astoundingly memorable episode, whose details are etched in my mind. This was “The Last Kamikaze”, an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series that I watched religiously back in the day. This episode was about a Japanese straggler from World War II. It changed my life forever.

The Last Kamikaze

Amazingly, I found the whole episode online. You may want to watch this episode before reading my spoilers below.

The Six Million Dollar Man–The Last Kamikaze… by dwyerjoss

Discussion, with spoilers

It made a profound impact on me when I watched it over 30 years ago. First, there was the exciting action aspect, of course (all the booby traps in the jungle). But mostly, it was in some sense my first exposure to something from Japanese culture, in particular regarding notions of “honor”.

OK, it was just TV, and American 1970s TV at a time when there weren’t a lot of Asians even being portrayed at all, but in retrospect, it wasn’t bad at all. I was confused by the attempted seppuku, and my parents had to explain what that was about (not being Japanese, but actually living during World War II in Taiwan under Japanese rule and remembering the Allies defeating Japan).

Death and life

But the real climax of the episode was when Steve Austin intervenes in the attempt and saves the character Kuroda, saying “You have shown that you know how to die. Now for the sake of your enemies, show me that you know how to live.” I reflected on what it might mean to “know how to die” or to “know how to live”. In that moment of the TV episode, my life was changed forever. I was around seven years old at the time. I suppose you could say I lost my “innocence” at that exact moment in time; I became a philosopher then.

I thought a lot about life and death after that episode. What is the meaning of life, or of death? And most of all, what do we choose, and why do we choose? What is honor?

My questioning may have begun at seven, but it has not yet ended. I do not have the final answer.

But that one TV episode got me started on a lifelong philosophical journey. When I was older, I studied the Christian Bible, which is all about exploring what it means to live and die: Jesus dying and living again, and the command to be dead to sin but alive in Christ.

Of course, there is also the controversial choice of Socrates to commit suicide, which I read various conflicting opinions about: when I had just finished high school, the book “The Trial of Socrates” by I.F. Stone came out that was very provocative and turned me against Socrates, whom I had earlier considered a hero, from reading Plato’s dialogues about him.

I was also bothered but fascinated by the lore that Gautama Buddha deliberately ate rotting food in order not to offend his host, and died as a result.

And what of the controversial mass suicide by Jews at Masada? Or that of self-immolating Buddhist monks in Vietnam?

In college, I took a philosophy course by Frederick Neuhouser and studied Nietzsche, who had his character Zarathustra say, “Die at the right time”. I was profoundly affected by the challenges that Nietzsche threw at his readers. That course changed my life.

Very recently, Stoicism has become popularized as a living philosophy for today, with proponents such as William Irvine, who talks about “contemplation of death”. I very much enjoyed his book “A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” not long after it came out; reading it in early 2011, I changed the course of my life. (Don’t forget that Seneca was also forced to commit suicide.)

I am fascinated by deliberate, reasoned decisions about life and death.

comments powered by Disqus