WWII 'peace flag' is returned to Japanese soldier's loved ones
By KAYLA SOSA | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: November 11, 2019
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — A rare Japanese “Good Luck” peace flag has been returned to its rightful owners from a West Michigan veteran’s family.
The World War II U.S. Marine veteran’s son presented the flag to the Grand Rapids Public Museum as a donation in 2015. The museum then partnered with the OBON Society, a national organization that returns lost and stolen items to people all over the world.
A family member of the Japanese soldier received the flag from the organization this year.
“As we look back 75 years, across America and around the world many, many veterans and their families discover that they are in possession of personal items ... and they want to give them back to the family in Japan,” said Rex Ziak, co-founder of OBON Society.
These Japanese peace flags were traditionally gifted to a Japanese soldier going off to war. Family and friends would sign the flag – which is the Japanese flag, white with a red circle in the middle – and send it with the soldier as a symbol of their love and support. At times, a U.S. soldier would take possession of the flag after killing the enemy soldier as a symbol of conquest – a common act among soldiers in a war.
Ziak said he and his wife, Keiko, who is Japanese, started the Oregon-based nonprofit 10 years ago after her grandfather’s flag was returned to her family. Her grandfather was a farmer in rural Japan and, after being drafted in the war, never returned home.
“It was so painful, he was never mentioned,” Ziak said. “His grave, up on the hill above the village, there was only a rock buried there. There were no remains because no remains of him came back. Then, 60-some years later, they get a phone call.”
That phone call was from a family who had the flag her grandfather was sent off to war with, signed by his family and other families in the community, many who still lived in the village.
“For my wife’s family, it wasn’t a flag coming back, it was the grandfather,” Ziak said. “It was the only trace of him to return. The family regarded it as a miracle. They knew he had died in Burma, and the item came from Canada.”
Since then, the OBON society has facilitated over 300 “miracles” - helping families all over the world return items recovered in wars, many being “souvenirs” that soldiers took during their times overseas in battle. Some families even have a funeral for their lost family member once they receive an item decades later.
“OBON Society has set up a team of archivists, researchers and scholars,” Ziak said. “We receive these items in packages from all over the world. We record them, put them in a database, analyze them, and our researchers and scholars try their very best to find where this person once lived.”
The flag from Grand Rapids was sent to a soldier’s sister in Japan. There are four more peace flags in the museum’s collection that the OBON Society is still working on. Two were donated in 1953 and the other two donation dates are unknown. Those flags - made of linen and, some, of silk - are stored in between acid-free tissue paper.
“Once you start digging into it, you find that this is a common thing for soldiers who served in the Pacific because many Japanese servicemen carried these,” said Alex Forist, chief curator at the GRPM. “When we go look into our collections, we have dozens, if not hundreds, of German and Japanese pieces from World War II that were brought back by service members and donated to the museum.”
Forist said the museum’s role with the flag was just “one stop on a long journey.” He said it’s important for museums to evolve and change as we get further from painful parts of history.
“Museums need to change in the 21st century,” Forist said. “I don’t think you can build a successful museum on this sort of colonizing principle. If you want to tell the story of native people or if you want to tell the story of Japanese servicemen, you can’t do it by literally taking the stuff from their dead bodies and putting it in a museum. You’ve got to do it in a different way.”
Ziak said these stories of reconciliation are the “highest expression of America” and should be happening on a large scale.
“This is a symbol, not only to all of America, but all of the world that we make war when we have to make war but when it’s time to make peace, we make peace,” Ziak said. “The brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of soldiers, they weren’t our enemy ... and for them to suffer the loss of their relatives and be deprived of the closure this brings to them, it’s just really not an American value.”
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