The Obon Society: The radical act of empathy

Photo of the family of Haruo Saito holding the flag that belonged to him during WW2 and that was returned to them by the Obon Society
Obon Society/Courtesy

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More than 75 years ago, Keiko Ziak’s grandfather disappeared into the Burmese jungles. His family learned of his death by way of a rock-filled box sent to them by the Japanese government. “If you get a rock in the box from a government and nobody comes back from conflict, you just connect the dots,” Keiko’s husband Rex Ziak explained to me. Over the next 62 years, Keiko’s family went to the grave they had built for him and stood over the contents of the little box, which they interred in place of his body. Then, one day, Keiko’s uncle received a call.

In Montreal, a collector came across something peculiar. “He sees these flags with writing on them, and he knows enough that these are not war souvenirs of the classic government-issue collectible things. These are personal items,” Rex said. These flags had been carried by people, tucked away safely in their clothes. Lines and lines of calligraphy spun out from the crimson red disk at the flags’ centers, and the writing carefully inked onto them bore messages from people wishing the carrier of the flag well.

The flags were yosegaki hinomaru, signed by family members and loved ones carried by thousands of Japanese soldiers when they left home to fight the Allied Forces across the Pacific theater. According to Rex and Keiko, a Canadian collector, realizing what he was in possession of, told his son that he had to return it. His son said he would, carrying the flag with him on a business trip to Tokyo, where he left it in a hotel lobby. There, members of the hotel staff took it upon themselves to find the names etched in the fabric and, through several strokes of fate, located the neighborhood in which the names and messages on the flag had been written. They found Keiko’s uncle’s number and called him to tell him his father’s flag would be coming home.

To Keiko and other families of Japanese soldiers killed in action, yosegaki hinomaru are more than just possessions lost in the ravages of war. When the flag came back, Keiko tells me, her mother cried and said,  “Grandfather finally came home to meet us”. According to Keiko’s mother, “Father’s spirit was so strong that he tried and tried and tried and worked until he could come back home,” Rex said.

Keiko and Rex began to research yosegaki hinomaru and learned that there were thousands and thousands of them out there. Moved by Keiko’s mother’s experience, they set about trying to reunite other Japanese families with the flags their fathers and brothers had carried, slowly gathering funding and going through the difficult process of locating families in Japan and flags in the United States, Canada and Australia. They named themselves the Obon Society, a nod to the Japanese Obon festival that commemorates deceased ancestors.

With such work comes reflection; flags that are returned must have once been stolen, and questions about the nature of their theft raise certain uncomfortable realities. “The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes,” one U.S. Marine officer wrote in his memoir. “It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred.”

With such work comes reflection; flags that are returned must have once been stolen, and questions about the nature of their theft raise certain uncomfortable realities.

Yet, as Keiko and Rex increased their operations, facilitating the return of more and more artifacts stolen from bloodied corpses and carried home as trophies, they saw that the profound mutual hatred that led to the vandalism and theft of dead soldiers’ bodies had turned into something else quite different over time. This was evidenced by the very fact that they had an operation at all — their outreach was minimal, their funding practically zero, their business plan nonexistent. They were returning these flags because American veterans and their families wanted them returned. “We are not saying, ‘OK, we want to do this, let’s keep going,’” Keiko said. “It is people who find us and people who ask for help.”

One of the items the Ziak’s returned, a photograph of a young husband and wife sitting with their six children beside them, was given to them by a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He told the Ziak’s that he, too, had grown up in a family with seven brothers and sisters and that the photograph was so much a mirror of his own family that it had begun to haunt him in the years since he took it.

Another story of an object’s return through the Obon Society comes from Marvin Strombo, a soldier who, at 20 years old, took the yosegaki hinomaru of a fallen soldier in Saipan. Strombo said in an interview that, as he took the flag off the soldier’s body, he made a promise to return it to the soldier’s family one day.

I ask Rex and Keiko about this. Do they think many soldiers who stole flags from fallen soldiers had the same mentality? Rex and Keiko exchange a glance. “Memories change,” Rex says carefully. “People’s stories change.”

We move on, but I keep coming back to Strombo in my notes. Cultural exchange has always been an imperfect affair. In any culture, it is unusual for an item of “progress” to not bear the stain of blood once spilled. Since prehistory, humans have been killing their perceived enemies and taking things, including land, technology and ideas, from each other.

Rare, though, in the course of human history, is the return of the spoils of victory to the vanquished. And even this is not a perfectly incorruptible act. Some, like Strombo, may rearrange their memories to make this kind of reconciliation possible. Others, as the Ziak’s explain to me, might be motivated, in part, by a selfish urge to feel connected to someone from another culture in one of the most intimate ways possible. Universal, however, among those who seek out the help of the Obon Society is the glimmer of recognition that some item in their possession means something to someone else. “There were many Americans who we talked to who said they should have dropped more atomic bombs, they shouldn’t have stopped at two,” Rex said. “They are returning these, and this is not being done by philosophers, or diplomats, or something the state department is encouraging. This is grassroots, in the hearts of people.”

Kat is the Weekender Deputy Editor. Contact Kat Blesie at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at .