IN SEREMBAN, MALAYSIA
It was May 1969 and 16- year-old Larry Thambu looked out the window and noticed someone standing outside their family property in Temiang, Seremban.
Worried about the man’s safety, due to the national curfew imposed on Malaysian’s at the time, he rushed out to open the gate.
As Larry describes, “It was so dangerous to be outside during curfew time and I thought, who is this guy as he approached the family gate, mumbling away in a language I didn’t understand at first, but he looked and sounded Japanese.”
“I tried to tell him he must come inside as being on the street was very dangerous as army patrols were in the streets and would shoot first, then ask questions. Even if you were standing outside your house after curfew time it was considered illegal. He had no idea.”
Larry called out to his uncle Thanby Raja to help out as he had been to Japan many times to study aikido and had learnt some basic Japanese.
Thanby could not help out but luckily Larry’s mum Agnes, hearing the kerfuffle, came outside.
Agnes, a well known teacher in Seremban, was fluent in Japanese after being schooled by them during the occupation in the 1940’s, and she told the young man in no uncertain terms that he must enter the property immediately and stay the night at their home, as wandering the streets at this time was a life and death matter.
And that is how the Thambu family met, took in, and became lifelong friends with the soon-to-be notorious adventurer, 20 year-old Japanese young man Norio Suzuki.
“He was such a risk taker,’ said Larry, ‘but always with a touch of eccentricity,” ‘all he had with him was one tiny backpack.”
Larry’s younger sister Juliana said she could just remember him.
“I was younger than Larry and more into the Beatles and stuff at that time but I do recall playing tricks on him with my sisters. At mealtime we would serve him the hottest chillies to try, and he always ate them. Then he would run out and put his mouth under the nearest tap. He kept coming back for more.”
“Suzuki would always go that step further,” according to Larry, “you could see that in him early on. Even with the curfew still active in Seremban he would head out for the day and come back just in time, full of stories about the streets, kampongs and villages.”
After a month or so Suzuki eventually said goodbye to the Thambu family and carried on his solo adventure, eventually returning to his homeland.
“Every Christmas without fail we would receive gifts or a card from him detailing his next adventure,” said Larry.
SUZUKI’S PHILIPPINE ADVENTURE
February 1974 was to be Suzuki’s largest adventure and was one that would immediately propel the 24 year old traveller into the world’s limelight.
At the time the world press were reporting on the death of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, who were considered guerrilla fighters that had refused to surrender after the end of World War II.
Suzuki announced to the Japanese media that he was going to search for, and find, Hiroo Onoda, the leader of these last remaining Japanese holdouts, as well as “a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”
Not realising how dangerous his mission was, as Onoda and his men had killed numerous Philippine men during their time on the island, Suzuki set off for Lubang Island in the Philippines to search for Onoda.
Wearing a funky straw hat and flared jeans, socks and sandals, his search was cut short as Onoda actually caught Suzuki.
He ambushed him in the jungle as Suzuki was making camp one late afternoon and Onoda had him in his gun sights. Onoda wrote about the encounter in his book.
“If he had not been wearing socks, I might have shot him. But he had on these thick woollen socks, even though he was wearing sandals. The islanders would never do anything so incongruous.
He stood up and turned around. His eyes were round… he faced me and saluted. Then he saluted again. His hands were trembling, and I would have sworn his knees were too.
He asked, “Are you Onoda-san?” “Yes, I’m Onoda.”
“Really, Lieutenant Onoda?”
I nodded, and he went on.
“I know you’ve had a long, hard time. The war’s over. Won’t you come back to Japan with me?”
His use of polite Japanese expressions convinced me that he must have been brought up in Japan, but he was rushing things too much. Did he think he could just make the simple statement that the war was over and I would go running back to Japan with him? After all those years, it made me angry.
“No, I won’t go back! For me, the war hasn’t ended!”
It was here that Suzuki’s never-give-up attitude kicked in.
Suzuki told Lt Onoda that he would return to Japan and bring Onoda’s commanding officer back with orders to surrender, and he did, along with the world media who were fascinated by the story.
In March 1974, Suzuki returned to Lubang Island with Onoda’s former Commander who officially relieved him of his duties. Once Onoda surrendered, he was pardoned by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and became free to return to Japan.
From letters the family learnt that Suzuki returned to Japan with his newfound fame and had soon set off to find a panda in the wild some years later. In 1975 he claimed to have seen a yeti from a distance whilst hiking in the Dhaulagiri range of the Himalayas, but he had no proof.
SUZUKI LOOKS FOR A YETI
Larry remembers his uncle Thanby Raja receiving what was to be the last letter from Suzuki in 1986.
“My uncle came from his dojo to my house in the family compound to show me, laughing and shaking his head, saying it’s from Suzuki, saying that he’s going to look for the yeti again in the Himalayas, and that’s the last we heard from him.
The Thambu’s weren’t the only ones who missed Suzuki.
Suzuki never returned from his yeti search in the mountains and the Thambu family accepted the worst case scenario, but hoped for the best.
“Years later my younger brother Joe showed me an article about how they had found Suzuki’s body the following year. We weren’t in the least surprised he was killed in an avalanche as he was the sort of person that pushed the risk factor. We were just sad to hear the news – he always had a smile on his face.“
For those wishing to read more about Suzuki or Onoda read historian Mike Dash’s vivid account here.