In a previous article titled “Did you know that Japanese Americans in Portland were once forced to move?” we mentioned the “Yosegaki Hinomaru Return Effort”, but eager to know more about this “Japanese flag return effort”, I interviewed some members of the Obon Society, a group active in Astoria, Oregon, a town on the coast famous for being the setting of the movie “Goonies”.
By the way, it may interest you to know that “hinomaru” is the name of the Japanese flag. Also, a “yosegaki” is a shirt, a card, or in this case a flag, covered in autographs from someone’s friends and family.
There were 2.4 million Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific War, and 1.13 million besides who never came back home.
Most of the men who went off to war left with a “Good Luck Flag” in hand, covered in messages and autographs that their family and relatives, classmates, coworkers, and friends living nearby had written on it. You’ve got to wonder what was going through the heads and hearts of the people who wrote on those flags, and the soldiers who went off to war carrying them…
That, and what the people were feeling who helped return these flags to the soldiers’ families back home 70 years after the end of the war…
62 years after the end of the War, a flag that had belonged to the grandfather of Keiko Ziak, founder of the Obon Society, suddenly returned to her doorstep. This was quite an unexpected turn of events to Keiko and her family, who at the time didn’t know about “Good Luck Flags” or what significance they held, and all they could do was accept the flag, saying, “Grandpa’s spirit worked a miracle!” Her husband Rex, however, being the historian he was, wasn’t satisfied with simply calling it a miracle, and started investigating how it had come to be that Keiko’s grandfather’s flag had come back to her family.
It was through this investigation that he discovered a certain fact.
According to history, many soldiers on the winning side of the Pacific War had taken home flags from fallen Japanese soldiers as war trophies.
Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Japanese flags were taken home as trophies to the winning countries, and to this day many of them are being kept in America and other countries. Keiko had thought that this miracle was an isolated happening unique to her family, but she was surprised to learn that it could happen to the families of many other Japanese soldiers. A newfound sense of duty welled up inside her. She wanted to give the same feeling she had experienced to the other families, who didn’t even have the remains or belongings of their husbands, fathers and brothers who had gone to war; she had to.
It was this sense of duty that led Rex and Keiko Ziak to found the Obon Society in Astoria, Oregon in 2009. It is a non-profit, non-government, non-religious humanitarian activist organization, and at first it was named “Obon 2015”, a name that declared its hopes of returning as many Japanese flags as possible back home by the summer bon festival of 2015, which marked 70 years after the end of the war, but it was renamed the “Obon Society” in 2016 in hopes that it could continue its activities permanently without heed for the date.
The messages written on the flags, most to the effect of “This could be the last time I see you, my husband, father, brother. Come back home safely,” were written in Japanese, so many victors of the war who took them home were unable to understand what was written on them. As such, in most pictures where the soldiers are holding up their trophies for the camera with proud smiles, the flags are upside down. At the time, there was pride to be had by a soldier in bringing home a flag from an enemy country acquired in combat, and it no doubt gave him bragging rights once he got home.
This video shows the son of a soldier who survived the fierce combat with the Japanese soldiers in the Pacific War, who was told by his father on his deathbed, “Whatever you do, don’t let that flag get back to Japan!” but felt a stronger compassion in his heart for the family of the other soldier, and decided, “I should return it to his family,” then went to deliver the Japanese flag to the man’s children in person.
There are some whose feelings of hatred for the Japanese has slowly changed over the last 70 years, and now that they’ve reached the age where they’re likely to pass on in a few years, they look at the trophies they brought home, think of the bereft families left behind in Japan, and are torn on the inside wondering what they ought to do with the flags. The change in their hearts leads them to feel that now is the time to work out their feelings, and that the future is something we have to build together. By returning a material object like a Japanese flag to its family, the victors of the war too are released from their emotional suffering, and undergo a healing process.
At first, that kind of change didn’t even cross the minds of Rex and Keiko as they started their Japanese flag retrun effort, and they didn’t even understand it.
The reason Keiko had founded the organization had been her own personal experience, and the only thing on her mind was the other families who were feeling the same pain as she had. Once she started seeing success, however, it turned out that the victors of the war who had taken the Japanese flags home to their own countries also had their own painful feelings and deep emotional wounds.
Rex and Keiko gradually came to realize through their Japanese flag return effort that giving back the flags was also therapeutic for those on the winning side.
Returning the Japanese flags is not a simple one-sided effort, a mere transfer of an object from A to B. It’s a final punctuation marking the end of the war once and for all on both sides, and an effort to come together with newfound feelings of amity and build a brighter future.
(Picture is of Obon Society representative Rex at a conference with Prime Minister Abe)
Rex and Keiko told us about a time when they were present as a flag was returned in person to a family in Mikawachi, Nagasaki.
Keiko: It was a place with a long-standing community of pottery artisans that had been around for 15 generations, and we showed them the flag.
There are no words to describe what it was like when people started pointing to the flag and saying, “That’s my brother’s signature!” “That’s my dad’s signature!” right before our eyes. (Pictured above: Three people point to their father’s signatures on the flag)
The best outcome is getting a flag back to its family, but even when circumstances don’t permit that, it’s still reassuring to know that a community can come together to mourn the events of the past through a flag in this way, and that its history will be passed on through the ages.
I think that the power held by a Japanese flag is not just the joy of having a lost article returned, but rather it’s a drop falling onto an individual, a group of relatives, a whole community, that ripples and grows and permeates everyone around it.
Keiko: Meanwhile, the same thing happens when we report back to the provider of a flag; they’re elated, and some of them make comments through the media, or tell people they know about it, and the drop made by the return of the Japanese flag ripples and spreads stateside as well. We’re a non-profit organization and don’t have a large abundance of funds to work with, so we aren’t able to advertise or create publicity very actively. But it’s those people’s words that spread here and there, and slowly make the ring around that drop grow bigger, that let everyone know what it is we’re doing.
Sadly, war trophies like these Japanese flags are very popular collector’s items, and are often sold on auctions like eBay or at antique shows. The Obon Society staff work day and night searching for the families the flags belong to, and coordinating grassroots movements to spread the word about the organization, so that more people will know exactly what these Good Luck Flags are.
The Barbier family were equally astonished as this story unfolded. They marveled at how this discarded item they had found a quarter of a century earlier had somehow traveled around the world and right into the heart of a long-lost brother who had been searching for most of his lifetime to reunite the family. The email we received from the Barier’s son sums up the family’s feelings….
“My mom said, and I think she was spot on, that ‘This is the most meaningful and important thing we’ve ever done.’ I’m blown away; my happiness that it’s back with the family and that Tsuruo Watanabe is able to have some sort of closure is beyond words. I’m also really moved that the US and Japan used to be enemies that went to war but now we can have connections on a pure human level. Everyone across cultures wants to be with their family, the fact that we were able to help a family in Japan makes me very emotional.
If you can let Tsuruo know that I am happy and relieved that the flag has gotten to him, that would be great!”
-email from Dave Barbier; Oct. 27th 2015 to the Obon Society
Finally, the search for the flags in a widespread manner is getting harder as those who were actually in the war reach old age. It’s also difficult for many family members of the fallen who have reached old age to find information, or to get the word out to others, over the internet. That’s where the younger generation comes in.
We’d like you to share the Obon Society’s efforts with the world, and help the spirits of those that didn’t make it home find their way while their families are still alive.
Translated by Andy
Mailing address：P.O. Box 282 Astoria, OR 97103