Before sending their young men to serve in the military during World War II, Japanese families prepared small flags signed by family members and friends for the soldiers.
Each Japanese soldier carried at least one flag with them onto the battlefields.
Once they were discovered by American soldiers, the flags became highly prized treasures of war and were brought back by the thousands as souvenirs, according to local historian and author Rex Ziak of Naselle, Wash.
“Capturing a flag is one of the highest accomplishments on a battlefield,” Ziak said. “It’s hardwired into their heads that if you get a flag it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Now 70 years later, many American veterans and their families are realizing the souvenirs are actually personal items that belong to Japanese families. In most cases, the flags represent the only surviving trace of the young men.
Individual efforts have been made by veterans in recent years to return the flags, called Yosegaki Hinomaru.
Ziak and his wife, Keiko, are organizing the efforts through their Astoria-based nonprofit group, OBON, a humanitarian movement that receives the flags from American veterans and their families, searches for the flags’ origins and returns them back to Japanese families at no cost.
The nonprofit movement, affiliated with Astoria Visual Arts, is the first of its kind.
“This is very unique. These items were taken, and now 70 years later, they are being sent back to Japan as a symbol of reconciliation and love,” Rex Ziak said.
On Monday, OBON and members of the 41st Infantry Division — National Guard units from the Northwest that served in World War II — will host a returning ceremony at the Barbey Center at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.
The ceremony will be the first official public transfer of the flags. Five flags will be ceremoniously passed to OBON, which will attempt to connect them with families in Japan.
“This is making peace at a family level,” Ziak said.
Rex Ziak founded OBON — named after the Japanese season when ancestors’ spirits are honored — in 2009, the same year he married.
Keiko Ziak, a native of Japan, experienced first-hand the joy of a flag returning home. Her grandfather died in Burma during World War II and disappeared without a trace. Her family never had closure until the son of a Canadian military memorabilia collector returned her grandfather’s flag to the family.
For the Japanese, and for most other cultures, an item such as a flag means more than its material value. The flag symbolized Keiko Ziak’s grandfather coming home. It is hanging in a family shrine at her uncle’s house in Japan.
“It’s a miracle that happened,” Keiko Ziak said. “I passed that story on to Rex. He researched it and we found out that so many miracles could happen.”
More than 2 million Japanese soldiers died in World War II, including over 1 million missing in action. The staggering numbers mean there are just as many unclaimed flags.
So far, Rex and Keiko Ziak have collected about 100 flags, of which 30 have been claimed by Japanese families.
Connecting the American and Japanese cultures to return the flags has proven difficult for the Ziaks. One obstacle is the fact that Japan did away with phone books about 15 years ago, making it harder to track people down.
Since 2009, Rex Ziak has been busy gathering a group of scholars who can read the names and slang messages on the flags. In addition, he has worked with Japan’s version of veteran affairs, health departments and religious leaders.
With help in place, Rex and Keiko are just recently starting to collect and return flags.
Had they not married, the Ziaks say they would not have been able to start the OBON effort. Keiko needed Rex’s understanding of American government and vice versa for it all to work.
“She was able to work the other side of the ocean and I on this side,” Rex Ziak said. “It was truly a combination.”
One of the flags that will be returned at the ceremony Monday is from a Portland physician, whose late father grabbed the flag during the war. If the Ziaks can find the Japanese family connected to the flag, the physician’s 86-year-old mother said she may want to travel to Japan and return the flag in person.
“It’s a very peaceful gesture,” Rex Ziak said.
David Pearson, deputy director at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, said the museum is planning to display collected flags in an exhibit in August. The exhibit is scheduled to be open for at least a year, possibly two. Pearson said it will be interesting to watch the exhibit fluctuate as more flags come in and others are returned overseas to Japan.
“The museum has always had an exhibit on the Pacific War, so it seemed like a very interesting part of the story 70 years later,” Pearson said.
As more flags are returned, Rex and Keiko see their project as something larger than when it started, something they say could foster more peace in the future.
“To me, it’s very spiritual,” Keiko Ziak said. “We believe this is the right thing to do on both sides of the ocean.”