Soldiers’ Homecoming: Japanese flags returned to families after decades abroad

Rex and Keiko Ziak of the Obon Society have accepted hundreds
of flags Allied soldiers took from dead Japanese soldiers during
World War II in an effort to repatriate them to their families in Japan. photo courtesy of the Obon Society

More than 70 years ago, American soldiers fighting on the frontlines took home souvenirs from the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers. Today, they are finding their way back home to Japan through the efforts of the Obon Society.

Based in Astoria, Ore., Rex and Keiko Ziak work full time to accept, catalogue and research Japanese flags taken from the bodies of Japanese soldiers during World War II in order to reunite them with their families in Japan. The hinomaru yosegaki, Japanese flags, are decorated with signatures and messages of good luck that were written by family and community members and given to soldiers before they were sent off to the war. According to Rex Ziak, more than two million Japanese soldiers died during the war and more than half are reported to be missing in action.

“Not a trace of them returned home, not a button off their shirts,” he said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “For those many, many families, when something comes back, it is a very spiritual moment for them.”

Ziak said his wife, who is Japanese, was able to experience that connection herself when her grandfather’s flag was returned to her after a Canadian left it with a hotel in Tokyo, asking the staff to find the flag owner’s family. Some 62 years after her grandfather disappeared somewhere in Burma, her family got a phone call notifying them of the flag. “When this flag returned to Keiko’s family, her mother talked to it and said, ‘grandfather has finally come home,’” he said.

After hearing his wife’s story, Ziak recalled seeing other flags in the United States and asked himself if he could help return more flags to Japan. In 2009, Ziak started studying the issue and came across a flag for sale on eBay. Ziak contacted the seller and learned the seller, the son of a World War II veteran, had inherited the flag and wanted it to return to its family.

Over the years, Ziak said he and his wife have repatriated more than 100 flags to Japan, and the experience has helped make finding families easier as time has passed. The Obon Society’s first flag, however, was delivered rather serendipitously with the help of a Buddhist priest. While visiting his wife’s home in Kyoto, Ziak ran into a Buddhist priest who could speak English and solicited his help. The monk found that the flag’s owner was once studying to become a Buddhist priest in the same sect of Buddhism he was in. Through his temple’s records, the monk was able to track down the man’s niece and return the flag, Ziak said.

Even as the Ziaks have gained experience identifying families and repatriating flags, the couple work all day every day to keep up with the hundreds of flags now under their care. Ziak said he used to work as a historian and author while his wife was an officer on a cruise ship. He had hoped to continue working on the side to finance their work with Obon Society, but has since quit.

“My wife is in front of the computer 10 hours a day. A long day would be 16 to 18 hours, just stopping to eat,” he said. “I would be at my computer — I can’t take it, I tap out — but I can do 10 hours, 12 hours.” Helping the couple are a team of about 30 people, most of them in Japan as well as a new satellite office in Melbourne, Australia. Ziak added that everyone works on the project as a volunteer and that they work off of small cash donations made to their organization.

“Rex does everything to do with … the English parts,” Keiko Ziak said. “I do the Japanese part. It’s such meticulous work, it is not easy. We’re not doing this because it’s easy, but because this is the right thing to do.”

She added stringent privacy laws in Japan make it difficult for them to find families. The Obon Society, however, has recently benefitted from tech savvy younger generations of Japanese descendants who have found the Obon Society’s Webpage and looked through its collection of some 300 flags currently on display on the site.

“I wouldn’t call it a cold case, it’s just taking longer,” she said. “Just the other day, we found a family after two years of searching.”

“We are contacted by the veterans, the children of the veterans, and the grandchildren and friends of the veterans,” Rex Ziak said. “The veterans are all very old, but we occasionally get a letter from one, who says ‘I want to lay this to rest before I’m laid to rest.’ And they are the ones who want to heal. They are the ones who have these items, they think about the people of Japan.”

Most recently, World War II veteran Marvin Strombo traveled to Japan with Obon Society to personally return a flag. “What’s really rare and is a historical moment is that he, a living veteran at 93, is the one who got the flag off of the dead soldier,” Keiko Ziak said.

Strombo met with the flag owner’s 89-year-old brother in Gifu Prefecture. “(This is the) first time this happened, and I don’t think it will ever happen again.”

While the Obon Society focuses on finding and returning flags, Rex Ziak said there is a bigger story behind the physical return of mementos and that ultimately, the organization hopes to heal the hearts of people both in the Japan and America, as well as foster peace.

“We are just trying to create as concrete and firm of a relationship, not just in business, but within the hearts and minds of the people,” he said.

To learn more about the Obon Society, visit http://obonsociety.org.

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