‘Yamashita treasure’ 70 years after
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—For P50, a visitor is treated to a tale of adventure and nail-biting suspense at a little known museum in the summer capital.
The best part of this story is that “it’s all true,” said Henry Roxas, 47, son of the late treasure hunter Rogelio Roxas.
Henry runs the Roxas Museum near the tourist-drawing Lourdes Grotto, which offers an interesting collection of World War II relics, war helmets, rifle bayonets and a fortune in old coins.
He is always ready to narrate the discovery of the “Golden Buddha,” which his father supposedly discovered, and then lost, to the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
Some of the relics were dug up as Rogelio searched for the “Yamashita treasure,” referring to loot collected throughout Southeast Asia by invading Japanese forces, which were supposedly buried in the Philippines toward the end of World War II.
The treasure trove is how Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, is remembered, 70 years after he surrendered to Filipino guerrillas and the United States on Sept. 3, 1945, at Camp John Hay in this city.
Yamashita’s surrender was the final act that ended the war in the Pacific. He was later hanged for war crimes.
But stories of untold wealth linger.
Battles in court
There are, however, more skeptics than believers in the Yamashita gold. Many scholars call it fantastic fiction.
But a battle in local and international courts between Henry’s father and Marcos gave the Yamashita tale a measure of legitimacy, and helped make it a pop culture reference for years.
Rogelio Roxas sued Marcos in 1988 for allegedly ordering the April 5, 1971, theft of a “Golden Buddha,” containing diamonds and jewels, from his house in Aurora Hill here. Rogelio and a group of men, with the help of their Japanese sources, unearthed the statue near a hospital in Baguio.
Rogelio’s story, as retold in books, online articles, blogs and a 1989 movie (“Ang Lihim ng Golden Buddha”), eventually turned into a tale of alleged Marcos cruelty committed before martial law was declared in 1972.
Rogelio was allegedly tortured by Marcos’ men who wanted to know the location of the treasure. Freed in 1974 after a brief incarceration, he hid and then resurfaced to file cases through the Golden Buddha Corp. in the United States.
Rogelio died in 1993 but his family won the lawsuit in 1996, which was heard in a Hawaii court, and upheld in the Hawaii State Supreme Court.
The trial was virtually a narrative of treasure hunting lore that rivals an Indiana Jones adventure, Henry says.
Bayonets, human skeleton
“Sometime in 1970, (Rogelio) Roxas’ group began digging on state lands near Baguio General Hospital. After approximately seven months of searching and digging … the group broke into a system of underground tunnels. Inside the tunnels, the group said they found wiring, radios, bayonets, rifles and a human skeleton wearing a Japanese army uniform,” according to the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s 1998 decision.
The court said: “On Jan. 24, 1971, the group broke through the enclosure… (and) discovered a gold-colored Buddha statue… Roxas also found a large pile of boxes underneath the concrete enclosure, approximately 50 feet from where the statue had been discovered.”
“He returned the next day and opened one small box, which contained 24 one-inch by two-and-one-half-inches bars of gold. Roxas estimated that the boxes were, on average, approximately the size of a case of beer and that they were stacked five or six feet high, over an area six feet wide and 30 feet long,” it said.
Roxas, it said, “returned to blast the tunnel… planning to sell the Buddha statue in order to obtain funds for an operation to remove the remaining treasure.”
‘Golden Buddha’ retrieved
Henry said he and his father revisited the location of the tunnel where the Golden Buddha was retrieved in 1987.
But Rogelio was more concerned about the construction taking place that year, he said, “because people were not aware of the tunnels running beneath everyone.”
Henry knows little about Yamashita’s life but is confident the treasure he hid is still out there, somewhere.
The Japanese military did handle gold and other minerals at one point, when Japan took over Benguet’s mine operations.
A Japanese paper read at an international conference on Cordillera studies at the University of the Philippines-Baguio in 2008, examined journals of the Mitsui Group of Companies, which reactivated the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co. (LCMC) to supply the Japanese Army valuable metals for its war efforts.
Before the US military abandoned the Philippines, it ordered all Philippine mines destroyed in 1941 and 1942, according to the paper of Seriwaza Takamichi of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 2008.
The mines were natural strategic targets because Japan also required copper, nickel and iron to produce armaments, the paper said.
But reports describing the supposed Yamashita treasure cite bank notes, silverware and jewelry taken from rich households in the Malay peninsula among the loot that was supposedly buried, Henry said.
“Sadly, there are treasure hunters, who ignore the coins or the authentic silver forks and spoons, which are equally valuable,” he said.
Armed with maps
Upland treasure hunts have been reported as far back as the 1950s in the Cordillera, Cebu province and Mindanao, but records of upland digging sites inspected by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in the Cordillera only go back to 2001.
The MGB recorded 26 treasure hunting sites from 2001 to 2015, some concentrated in Teachers’ Camp and near Camp John Hay, which served as the Japanese headquarters when Yamashita withdrew from Manila.
It reported treasure hunting inside the Baguio City Post Office in 2003, the public market in 2013 and on the grounds of a local university this year.
Some hunters tunneled through inhabited communities, armed with maps, because these areas supposedly conceal caves used by the Japanese, MGB records show.
‘X’ marks spot
In 2014, a boulder marked with an “X” was stolen from the Baguio tourist destination, Tam-awan Village. Last week, hunters petitioned the village leaders to allow them to dig through their compound in exchange for half of their find, according to a Tam-awan official.
The MGB also investigated excavations that may have been illicit treasure hunting in Eheb village in Tinoc, Ifugao, in 2004, and in Betag and Pico villages in La Trinidad, Benguet, in 2013.
Victor Carantes, a retired official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said a government official once told him he conducted treasure hunts in the guise of government projects. Another official claimed to have recovered coins which he used to buy Baguio lands.
Most of these sites were excavated without government permits.
Decree on hidden treasures
In 1949, the Civil Code of the Philippines addressed the issue of “hidden treasures,” granting 100 percent of the find to the owner of the lot where a treasure is discovered.
In 1980, Marcos issued a decree which sought to manage the “hidden treasures buried for years or centuries underground,” which Marcos described as objects “possessed of immense cultural significance.”
The decree required hunters to apply for a permit from the Office of the President. The digging site would be overseen by a committee, which included the commanding general of the Presidential Security Group.
“If the treasures consist of war spoils … or anything of value buried by Imperial Japanese Forces during the last World War, the treasure shall be divided [between] the government (75 percent) and the permitee-finder (25 percent),” the decree said.
Issuing permits used to be handled by the DENR but the National Museum has since assumed jurisdiction over the licensing of treasure hunts, said Fay Apil, MGB-Cordillera director.—Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer Northern Luzon; With reports from Jessica Tabilin and Jhoanna Marie Buenaobra, Inquirer Northern Luzon
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