On the evening of September 2, I had a most interesting phone call with Rex & Keiko, founders of OBON 2015. The call started out with Rex and Keiko introducing themselves and their OBON 2015 project. Rex is former military and his wife Keiko is native Japanese, now living in Astoria, Oregon.
Some years earlier, they had started a project of repatriating Japanese Yosegaki Hinomaru’s back to the families of the owners. Rex explained that his group had never worked with the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and was pleasantly flattered they knew of OBON 2015. The date of “2015” signified when they hoped all Yosegaki Hinomarus would be returned to families of the owners.
Rex explained that Yosegaki Hinomarus were flags given to Japanese soldiers before they went off to war. The flags were signed by family members, friends, and neighbors for good luck. The soldiers would carry these flags tucked in their clothing during their entire tours of duty. At some point during the war, American soldiers (and soldiers from allied nations) discovered these flags and began collecting them from the bodies of slain Japanese soldiers as war trophies. These collected flags were now scattered all across America and former allied countries, held by aging war veterans or the veteran’s families.
Rex explained the significance of returning these flags; most Japanese soldiers who died in combat were buried (or not) in mass graves on the battlefield where they fell. Their graves were unmarked and families back home only knew their loved one was dead (as opposed to American soldiers, where the US Government made great efforts to return the bodies home). Japan had been culturally isolated for several hundred years, and for most families, losing a loved one in foreign combat may have been the first time in generations the family had no way to properly honor their dead. The Yosegaki Hinomaru, if returned, was all that these families would ever have as a remembrance.
Rex acknowledged that Japanese actions during the war were savage and many allied soldiers who fought the Japanese held bitter memories. But, the war had long ended, Japan was now an ally, and Rex felt it was important to honor the individuals who fought in the war.
Rex then explained the process they used to repatriate Yosegaki Hinomarus. Once OBON 2015 received a Yosegaki Hinomaru they would study the writing on it. Japanese writing styles varied among prefectures (particularly back in the 1930s and 1940s), so Japanese scholars were often able to identify a region by the writing style. Once they had identified the location, they would work through contacts local to that Prefecture to identify surviving family using the names on the Yosegaki Hinomaru. Rex explained they had a fairly high success rate in repatriating the Yosegaki Hinomarus. Occasionally, a Yosegaki Hinomaru was too badly damaged to read, or the prefecture/names just could not be identified, but those were rare exceptions.
Rex and Keiko explained that, based on the photo I had sent, my Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru was in exceptionally good condition and even had addresses written on it. Rex explained that if I chose to return it, finding the family of the owner should be relatively simple. At this point, I explained what I knew of the Yosegaki Hinomaru, which was a pretty short explanation.
Rex explained that returning the flag was entirely my decision and he would not try to push me. However, should I decide to return the Yosegaki Hinomaru, OBON 2015 would not/could not return it. Upon receipt, OBON 2015 would research the Yosegaki Hinomaru to locate surviving families of the owner. At my request, they would keep me informed of their search results. Once a surviving Japanese family member was located, they would be contacted via a Japanese priest and asked about their preferences for return. The Yosegaki Hinomaru would then be sent to the family in accordance with their wishes. If the family wished to share information on the original owner of Yosegaki Hinomaru, OBON 2015 would relay that information back to the person who provided the Yosegaki Hinomaru.
Our conversation lasted about one hour. I was deeply impressed with Rex and his project. I was also feeling a bit awed at the small piece of history I had just fallen into. We ended our conversation with my promise to discuss this with the rest of my family, and come to a decision on whether we would return the Yosegaki Hinomaru.
Over the next several days I contacted my sister Melinda, and brothers Howard and Jeff, letting them know what I had found. As executor of Dad’s estate, I knew I had the legal authority to dispose of Dad’s belongings, but I wanted this to be a family decision. In truth, I had already made my personal decision. As a Navy veteran, I knew that if the Yosegaki Hinomaru had been mine, I would have wanted it returned to my family. It was that simple; I was one veteran wanting to honor another veteran of a past war who believed he was fighting for an honorable cause by defending his country. A belief based on being fed lies by his Government, not all that different than the lies pushed to other soldiers of other Governments over past hundreds of years including our own.
But I was also feeling disappointed in Dad. I thought about what this discovery meant; that Dad would have rummaged through the body of a dead soldier looking for war trophies. While I could accept soldiers becoming desensitized to death on a battlefield, the thought of Dad doing that disturbed me.
Melinda and Jeff were completely supportive of returning the Yosegaki Hinomaru. Howard was not. His feelings revolved around the history of how the Japanese treated allied POWs, and how they treated the citizens of conquered nations. Howard was also upset because Dad had given away his Japanese rifle to someone outside the family, and Howard felt we should keep this item as a memento of Dad’s WWII service. But in the end, I felt Howard acquiesced in returning it.
Returning the Yosegaki Hinomaru was complicated by the fact that, after finding it and taking photos, I replaced it back in Mom’s cedar chest where I found it. By the time we had all agreed to send the Yosegaki Hinomaru to OBON 2015, Mom’s cedar chest was packed away and in transit somewhere between New York and Tennessee. I wasn’t able to reclaim the Yosegaki Hinomaru, package it, and send on to OBON 2015 until the end of October 2014.
As part of mailing the Yosegaki Hinomaru to OBON 2015, I filled out their legal release form. In this form I indicated, in the event the family of the owner was located, I wanted as much information as possible on who the individual was and how/where/when the owner died.