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The Legend of Yamashita’s Gold

Will the mystery of Yamashita's gold ever be solved? Image: CoinWeek.
Will the mystery of Yamashita’s gold ever be solved? Image: CoinWeek.

By CoinWeek ….
We at CoinWeek make no secret of our skepticism toward stories of buried treasure. In the age of Tommy Thompson and Forrest Fenn, it’s hard to ignore the greed and recklessness that lay behind the glamour and Romanticism, and the dogged determination of the treasure hunter looks more like obsession and addiction.

But who doesn’t appreciate a good story?

Yamashita’s Gold

The legend of Yamashita’s gold goes back to the height of World War II.

As the Japanese Imperial Army ravaged through Southeast Asia, they pillaged the wealth of the nations they trampeled. Some historians claim that the gold, jewels, and other valuables were headed back to the Japanese mainland to fund the war effort, which seems like a reasonable assumption. By that time, however, the United States Navy had established its dominance over the Pacific Ocean, and such a removal effort would have likely failed.

So, according to legend, billions of dollars worth of gold and other treasure was hidden in a multitude of caves and tunnels all over the Philippines by Japanese forces under the direction of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The general had distinguished himself by defeating British and Commonwealth forces in Malaya earlier in the war and, after having been effectively banished to service in Manchuria, he was called back to Southeast Asia by the Imperial Army as Japan’s situation became more desperate. After the Japanese were defeated in the Philippines, Yamashita surrendered and was arrested as a war criminal (especially for his army’s actions during the Battle of Manila in 1945), tried, and executed by the United States in 1946.

The fate of the gold was unknown.

In some tellings of the story, a conspiracy of Japanese royalty and organized crime (yakuza) known as “Golden Lily” was behind the hoard. In a familiar and dastardly trope, all of the soldiers and engineers involved in its burial are said to have been killed in order to preserve the secret, their skeletons mingled amongst the treasures. Explosive booby-traps awaited the intrepid or unlucky.

In other tellings, the American Government or the CIA–having access to some of the principal figures at the end of the war–had already found the treasure and took it a long time ago.

Most historians, though, dismiss the reality of the hoard altogether.

Treasure Found?

But in an intriguing twist, a Filipino man named Rogelio Roxas sued former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a Hawaiian court, alleging that he, Roxas, had found Yamashita’s gold (or at least part of it) and that Marcos had stolen it from him. At the time of the suit, Marcos was living quite comfortably in Hawaii under the protection of the United States after a coup and revolution in the Philippines.

In 1971, Roxas claimed, he learned the location of the treasure in a tunnel near Manila from a Japanese man involved in the original plans (who wasn’t killed, apparently). When he excavated the site, there was so much gold that Roxas decided he would have to leave and return later with the proper equipment, taking only 17 gold bars and a gold Buddha statue as proof of his find. The authorities found out about his discovery, and, it was alleged, President Marcos had Roxas arrested, tortured, and threatened with worse if he said anything about it.

After filing his lawsuit, Roxas died “under mysterious circumstances”. Eventually, though, the Hawaiian court ruled posthumously in his favor, stating that there was enough evidence to prove that Roxas found a treasure and awarded his estate over $13 million USD.

Did he find Yamashita’s gold? Hawaii didn’t say one way or the other, but Marcos’ widow, the former First Lady Imelda Marcos, would claim in the early 1990s that the couple’s wealth was indeed based on the Yamashita treasure, though no one has proven this to be anything other than self-mythologizing.

At any rate, modern-day treasure hunters are still looking.

Dangerous (2021). Image: Lionsgate.
Dangerous (2021). Image: Lionsgate.

In order to mitigate the environmental damage to sensitive ecosystems caused by illegal mining and digging, in 2009 the National Museum of the Philippines was tasked with issuing permits to potential treasure hunters. One such treasure hunter was Eliseo Cabusao, Jr., whose quest made international news in 2016. Presumably he didn’t find it, because there have been no updates in seven years. Cabusao had promised an even split with the Filipino Government if he did.

More recently, the mayor of Baguio, a major city on the island of Luzon, has decreed that treasure hunting is forbidden in the area due to its destructiveness. The History Channel aired a series about Yamashita’s gold in 2019, and the treasure served as a plot point in the 2021 movie Dangerous featuring Mel Gibson.

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