Philippine island of Bohol
Philippine island of Bohol is known for its Chocolate Hills and a treasure that has never been found Loic Lagarde/Flickr

Japanese soldiers did not bury huge quantities of treasure somewhere in the Philippines during WWII, an anthropologist has said, adding that such national legends tend to emerge during periods of social crisis. Piers Kelly has traced back treasure myths in the country for at least 100 years – and believes such stories emerge to "boost local morale" during difficult times.

The story of Yamashita's gold has it that there are caches of treasure hidden underground and in caves and tunnels in the Philippines. It was war loot stolen by Japanese soldiers under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was in charge of occupying forces in the country in 1944. Legend has it that many people who knew the location of the treasure were killed during the war. Yamashita was executed by the US in 1946.

The lure of the loot has attracted treasure hunters from around the globe, sometimes resulting in damage to important archaeological sites. The story has also perpetuated conspiracy theories about politicians, who are thought to have kept the spoils for themselves.

Most experts have dismissed its existence and there has never been any evidence to suggest it was real. Yet the decades-old myth remains.

Kelly looked into Philippines folklore for similar stories of hidden treasure. Specifically, he looked at one involving a church bell that had been concealed in order to prevent it being stolen.

In his study, published in the Journal of Folklore Research, he found it originated with the small Eskaya community of south-east Bohol. Different versions of the story emerged, but in its simplest form, the bell was stolen from the native people by Spanish priests who hoisted it onto a church. It was reclaimed and hidden, so it could not be stolen again.

japan hidden treasure
Japanese soldiers celebrate after capturing an American gun emplacement in the Bataan province of the Philippines Getty Images

"Tales of buried gold, sliver and generic treasure are recounted throughout the Philippines," he wrote. "The deliberately concealed church bell and its promised future retrieval recapitulates wider postcolonial narratives of cultural-linguistic suppression and revitalisation."

On the more recent story about the WWII treasure, Kelly said there is a "striking common theme" regarding resources that have been "unjustly withheld" from their true owners. And the timing of these stories often coincides with periods of war and political suppression.

Kelly claims legends are created in response to extreme inequality – it is easier to bear economic injustice if the possibility of finding treasure is on the cards. "Since at least the 19th century Filipino storytellers have shared tales of hidden valuables such as gold, church bells, silver coins and fine tableware.

"By tracing variations of this story, we were able to show that their popularity coincides with periods of war and crisis. The promise of future wealth may have served to boost local morale," he said.