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What is the Yamashita Treasure? Marcos Bid Revives Interest in Fabled Gold

Treasure hunt again?
by Arianne Merez
Nov 18, 2021
FILE PHOTO: Golden buddhas are displayed at a Buddhist temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 24 May, 2013. In the Philippines, the candidacy of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos' only son and namesake has sparked renewed interest in the Yamashita treasure and the fabled golden buddhas.
Photo/s: Mohd Rasfan, Agence France-Presse

Showing a room full of court documents on their sequestered riches, former First Lady Imelda Marcos in 2013 said her family was willing to share gold bars of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos not just to Filipinos but to the rest of humanity as "this will save the world".

Eight years since the Marcos matriarch's words, their supporters are betting on the late patriarch's namesake, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., to win the presidency in 2022 and end the guessing game on the lost Yamashita treasure that has long been linked to their family.

"Kung mayroon kayong mahanap, inyo na," Marcos Jr. told reporters in 2017, when asked about the fabled treasure.

Whether it's true or not that the Marcoses are in possession of the lost treasure, what's clear is that the Marcos candidacy has again revived interest in one of history's most-watched treasure hunts.

What is the Yamashita treasure?

The Yamashita treasure or gold refers to the alleged loot of World War II Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita.

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The tale goes that Yamashita stole gold and precious artifacts--including golden buddhas--from different parts of Southeast Asia and stashed them in various caves and underground areas in the Philippines.

The plan, according to various narratives, was for Yamashita to ship out gold from the Philippines but he failed to do so as American forces defeated Japanese soldiers.

The locations of the loot were undetermined with many of those believed to have knowledge killed during the war.

After Japan's defeat, Yamashita was convicted of war crimes and hanged by American soldiers on Feb. 23, 1946 in Los Baños, Laguna.

While many dismissed the Yamashita gold and jewels as a fable, these have not stopped treasure hunters from coming to the Philippines in search of the lost riches.

What's Marcos got to do with the Yamashita treasure?

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There have been several tales passed on from one generation to another on how Marcos is linked to the Yamashita treasure.

One long-running tale is that Marcos Sr. found the Yamashita treasure when he was still a guerilla commander during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

He allegedly hid the treasures and shipped them to different places including Switzerland under his name.

Part of the treasure that people believe is to be in possession of the Marcoses has collectively been called the Marcos gold bars and in 1992, this idea was reinforced when Imelda claimed that some of the gold her husband has was from Yamashita's loot.

Imelda said her late husband used the gold to help the Philippines survive an economic crisis from the 1960s to the 70s. But in a 2013 GMA documentary, she said the so-called Marcos gold bars were products of her husband's "earnings" and "investments" as a lawyer.

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Their daughter, Sen. Imee Marcos, supported her mother's claim in a 2018 interview, adding she had "never seen" such treasures. "There was a great deal of well, demonizing I'm afraid, that everything has been stolen," she told One News.


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There was a court case, what happened?

Another story, one that has been a subject of a Hawaii court case, involved a Filipino treasure hunter who discovered a golden buddha filled with diamonds, and gold bars believed to be part of Yamashita's treasure that was allegedly stolen by Marcos cronies.

Based on Hawaii court documents, Rogelio Roxas, a locksmith in Baguio City, met a man named Fuchugami in 1961, who claimed that his father was in the Japanese army and had drawn a map to locate the Yamashita treasure.

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Roxas sought a permit from Judge Pio Marcos, a relative of the late strongman, to find the treasure. The hunt went on for months until Roxas and his team found a three-foot-high golden Buddha with a removable head that contained diamonds. A few days later, he and his team also found 24 gold bars. Roxas said he tried to contact Judge Marcos to no avail.

In 1971, Marcos men raided Roxas' home and seized the buddha, gold bars, a piggy bank belonging to his children, and his wife's coin collection.

Months later, a replica buddha was turned over to the local court and Roxas was told by men who said they were representing the late strongman's mother that he would be paid P3 million if he said the buddha was the same one he found in a cave.

Roxas refused and he was later arrested and tortured. While he managed to escape, he was again caught by Marcos men and tortured again. He was freed in 1974.

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After the People Power I ousted the late Marcos from power, Roxas filed a suit in 1988 against the strongman on claims that the dictator stole the buddha that he found.

Roxas signed over his rights to the Golden Buddha Corporation, a company established for that purpose before he died in 1993.

While Roxas did not live to see the verdict, a jury in Honolulu in 1996 ordered the Marcoses to pay a record $22 billion for the Golden Buddha.

The Marcoses countersued and in 1998 the Hawaii Supreme Court reversed the verdict, saying there was not enough evidence to correctly identify the quantity of the gold in the boxes allegedly found by Roxas.

A portion of the decision however read: "There was sufficient evidence to support the jury's special finding that Ferdinand converted the treasure that Roxas found."

Several legal proceedings followed and in 2005, the Supreme Court of Hawaii upheld two decisions against Imelda for $6 million and $13 million in damages over the torture of Roxas and the claim of the converted treasure.

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What now?

Up until now though, the Marcoses are still facing cases over their ill-gotten wealth which has been estimated to be around $10 billion excluding the so-called gold bars.

For treasure hunters though, one interesting detail that cropped up during the hearings was the possibility that there are more golden buddhas hidden in the Philippines.

Robert Curtis, an American mining firm owner who had met the late Marcos, testified during the Roxas trials that his study of the Yamashita treasure shows that artifacts and as many as 18 more golden buddhas are believed to be scattered across 172 sites in the Philippines.

This may be of interest to many Filipinos who are hoping that a Marcos presidency could shed light on the treasures.

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But as Imee said in the 2018 interview, the treasures are no "big mystery."

"There's no big mystery and all these urban legends are lots of fun and we deal with them as we do," she said.

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