The following is an interview with Cage on the Sea author Kaoru Ohno, conducted on October 31, 2013.

When did you first hear about the Anatahan story?

I was in the early years of elementary school in 1951 when the Anatahan returnees originally made the news. Not being the age to read the papers, I knew nothing about it. But I did see the Josef von Sternberg movie Anatahan when it came out a couple of years later in 1953, so the name “Anatahan” stayed with me, if not the precise details of the story.

I got to know the story in greater detail in 1983. A headline caught my eye when I was looking through microfilms of old newspapers while researching another book: “They ate lizards and snakes to overcome their hunger,” it said. Hmm, looks interesting, I thought. The article was about the men repatriated from Anatahan. I got a copy and kept it handy.

Does Anatahan live on in Japanese folk memory?

Some Japanese know that there’s an island called Anatahan; few know what actually happened there. At the time, Kazuko, the woman at the center of the whole story, appeared in all the weekly scandal mags. She was probably one of the best-known people in Japan for a while. Now it’s different. People need to be prompted. You start telling the story and then they’re like, “Oh, okay, I remember that.”

What made you want to write about the Anatahan episode?

At the beginning, I was interested in how people abandoned on a remote island managed to live; I enjoyed speculating about the Robinson Crusoe aspect of their lives. In Japan, there’s always been a great deal of interest in WWII holdouts who finally came home—Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi on Guam, or Lieutenant Hiro Onoda on Lubang in the Philippines. In the same way, I was drawn to the story of the people on Anatahan and their reversion to a primitive way of life. Initially, it wasn’t much more than that.

But then I read Anatahan, a memoir that Michio Maruyama, one of the Anatahan holdouts, wrote in the 50s. It mentioned the series of murders committed in connection with the one woman on the island. That stirred vague memories of the Sternberg film from decades earlier. I began reading more articles about Kazuko. What I saw there was how extreme circumstances bring out a person’s true character.

I made up my mind to look into the matter properly. I flew down to Nago in Okinawa, the birthplace of Kazuko. Had she still been alive, she’d have been in her mid-seventies. But even though she was dead, none of the people in Nago wanted me to write about her. They were sick of the whole thing. A local innkeeper who acted as Kazuko’s manager during her fifteen minutes of fame had a different perspective, urging me to write the story for her sake. And he was someone who had known the real Kazuko, the woman mockingly branded the “Queen of Anatahan” before coming to such a miserable end.

The chairman of an Okinawa publishing firm was equally encouraging. “This is history,” he told me. “It deserves to be recorded.” A famous Okinawan writer he knew me urged me to use the real names of the people involved. The chairman introduced me to a friend of his who’d been repatriated from Tinian at the end of the war. Tinian, the island next to Saipan, was where Kazuko Higa had lived before moving to Anatahan.

It was more a matter of luck than anything, but the chairman had given me the key to the “cage on the sea.” It happened that the guy he’d put me in touch with was the very man James B. Johnson had asked to track down Kazuko Higa. He told me everything he had found out about her.

This was the first time I’d heard the name of James B Johnson. He was the crucial figure in prizing open the cage of Anatahan.

In May 1995, I went to California. I was taking some people on a tour connected with a 1982 book I’d written that was set in Point Arena. While at a hotel in San Francisco, I suddenly thought of Johnson. I had his name and address, so I called directory inquiries to get his phone number. I called him up in Vero Beach from my room.

“Is that the Johnson residence?”

“It is”

“Is that Commander James B. Johnson, the former head of the Saipan civil administration?”

“That’s right. This is James Benjamin Johnson.”

The commander was still alive. I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Hello. This is Kaoru Onoh here. I’m a Japanese writer researching Anatahan…”

My intention was to tell him what I was working on and get his advice.

“If it’s documentation you’re wanting, everything is here at my house. You’re welcome to have a look any time.”

He had all the documentation himself!

I had to take my tour group back to Japan, but I promised to come back and see Johnson later. That was then the door to the “cage on the sea” was flung wide open for me.

How is Cage on the Sea related to your other books?

I’ve written a lot on the themes of “choosing death,” or the opposite, “choosing life.” For example, I wrote about the kamikaze pilots. They had to get into their planes having persuaded themselves that they were dying for a valid reason. Similar thing when I wrote about people with cancer. How do they choose to live their constrained lives, which could end at any time? I always remember one cancer survivor telling me how happy he was with his completely ordinary, routine life. That insight inspired me to write a book from the perspective of a cancer survivor. The action of Cage on the Sea is also about deciding how to live one’s life. It’s developing a fundamental human theme I’ve explored in my other books.

Did you meet any of the characters from Cage on the Sea?

Through meeting Johnson, I got to know where the holdouts came from. His archive included the real names and addresses of everyone involved. After returning to Japan, I managed to get in touch with the youngest of the sailors. He refused to meet me, because he didn’t want to talk about the murders that had taken place on the island. But he did allow me to interview him by phone and was very forthcoming about how they lived on Anatahan.

I also visited the wife of one of the holdouts. (The man himself was already dead.) Believing her husband to be dead, the woman had married another man. She had no idea he was still alive until he reappeared. The whole experience had been horribly traumatic, she said. So, I never met any of the surviving holdouts in person.

Did you go to Anatahan?

Yes, I visited the island in the summer 1997 by chartering a jet helicopter on Saipan. It normally costs 350,000 yen [approximately US$3,500] for thirty minutes, but I got the rate down to 500,000 [approximately US$5,000] for an hour. I had a map of the island and got the pilot to do a circuit while I took a video-recording. We actually landed on a small raised plateau near where the men came ashore from the sunken ships. I went down to the shore and stood on the stony beach where they finally surrendered.

Back up on the plateau, I bumped into some Kanaka hunters in a hut. I guess they smoked the meat of the wild deer they caught there and sold it. I asked them about the Japanese holdouts, but they knew nothing about them. In front of their hut, there was a wire cage where they raised bats. Remember how in the book the Japanese eat bats for protein? Anyway, I got them to take one of the bats outs. Sure enough, it had a very wide wingspan with a body about as big as a chicken.

The island was very humid and the ground was very slippery underfoot. I fell over countless times and my trousers were caked in mud. I was going through what the holdouts themselves had gone through, so I couldn’t have cared less about a little dirt. My experiences on the island infuse every page of Cage on the Sea.

What sort of documentary research did you do?

The main documents I had were Johnson’s personal archives and notes from the four days I spent talking to him. The Japanese captain of the Miss Susie—the boat that took the holdouts off the island—was living on Ogasawara, so I interviewed him by phone. José and Soledad Tenorios, the couple on Saipan who had been so helpful to Johnson, were dead, but their son, José Tenorio Jr, a successful businessman, told me a great deal about his parents. Tenorio had met Johnson and had a wide circle of contacts.

For me, the most valuable documentary source were the photographs Johnson had got the photographers to take of the actual rescue and of Kazuko being interviewed. Thanks to those images, I really felt pulled back into the moment. Then there was Kazuko’s interview transcript, plus photos of the civil administration buildings and the rooms where the rescued holdouts were lodged. All of this stuff was lying on the shelves in Johnson’s house.

The American government ordered the U.S. military to plant the Stars and Stripes on Anatahan. The military were quite happy to mop up the holdouts and use up the mountains of munitions they had originally prepared for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. Johnson, however, had other plans. He played for time, keeping the military at bay while trying his best to get the holdouts to surrender voluntarily.

Johnson’s plan started to bear fruit in May 1950, when Kazuko surrendered. From her, Johnson got the names of the other Japanese holdouts. He was able to get their families to write them letters urging them to surrender. He had these left on the beach, at the same time as dropping personalized surrender leaflets from planes. In July 1951, all the remaining men surrendered and were taken off the island.

Beyond that, I read the Guam newspapers that Johnson had in archive. From them, I learned about the aggressive questions the returnees had to deal with at their first press conference. The competition for scoops between the papers then was ferocious.

There’s a huge cast of characters on both sides. Was it difficult to marshal them into a coherent story?

The first thing I did was to get a grip on the names of the Japanese characters by dividing up all the people who appear in Michio Maruyama’s 1951 true account into groups. I grouped them according to which ship they belonged, then drew up logs listing what they did. I then noted how the different cliques were formed and dissolved, and who was where when murders took place. Since we are dealing with real murders, I didn’t want to upset the families and changed the names. For the Americans, I use the real names as they appear in Johnson’s records or when he spoke to me.

The book ends with a letter explaining that Kazuko, after an unhappy life, is dead. The original letter, which was written as a report for Johnson by someone called Shirota, was very brief and to the point. I interwove a lot of the new information I had unearthed from my research in Okinawa into the letter in the novel. As I said, I’m interested in how people choose to live their lives. And Kazuko’s fate was so ironic: Johnson went to such pains to save her and yet she died in misery.

The whole story also shines a light on the strong sense of morality that motivated Johnson. That was another neglected theme I wanted to touch on. The letters that the governors of the prefectures where the holdouts came from thanking Johnson for sending the men home safely express that aspect of the story very well. It was all thanks to the efforts of this one man that the holdouts finally made it home safely.

When I met Johnson, I found him to be a real gentleman. “The war was over, so I was determined that no blood should be shed—of either American or Japanese fighting men,” is what he said to me. That’s the sort of thing that informed my depiction of this main character of one side of the Cage on the Sea story. I hope I’ve channeled his real feelings.

One more thing. You remember how Johnson changed the plan and sent the holdouts home by plane rather than by boat, because it was faster? Well, he even arranged the seating plan so that no one would have to sit near anyone they had become enemies with while on the island.