By Shihou Sasaki
The North American Post
Dozens of Japanese flags are covered with names and messages, a little old and worn, and even with blood stains. The display is no doubt leaving viewers with a strong impression.
Rex Ziak, who contributed to the exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Ore., said that the museum is one of only a few sites in the states exhibiting stories from both sides of World War II, especially those of Japanese soldiers.
A World War II exhibit section in the museum has been showcasing “A Peaceful Return – The Story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru,” contributed by the Obon Society, a non-profit organization run by Rex and Keiko Ziak to support those who want to return World War II items to the families of their original owners.
Japanese soldiers in World War II carried personal items from their family, friends and community. One of the most famous, the Yosegaki Hinomaru, is a Japanese flag covered with signatures and well-wishes for safe return, though most carrying them did not come back from the battle fields. American and allied soldiers collected the flags and Japanese belongings from the battle fields as their souveniers.
Decades later, veterans and their families began realizing that the items “might be the only tangible evidence of a beloved family member lost” in the war.
Over 70 years have passed since World War II ended, but the activity is still meaningful and has been a continuous effort.
“We both really believe that this is the final chapter of World War II,” Keiko said. “This is their last chapter of life and history. They are saying that we cannot hate an enemy for 75 years. This is the time to become friends.”
The Obon Society was named after the Japanese obon, the time the war with Japan ended in 1945 and the annual event respecting and welcoming ancestors coming back to their homes.
“What we are doing is providing an opportunity for people in Japan to have closure,” Rex said. “They take these items back and maybe take them to a temple or shrine where they can think about the person.”
Rex, a historian and book author, said that his first encounter with the Hinomaru story was in 2009 when his wife, Keiko, whose grandfather died in Burma, shared how his flag was returned to the home in Kyoto. He began researching the background and history of the Pacific War and turned his research into a mission.
“I thought it was a miracle,” he said. “I heard how important it was and I realized that it was a miracle we could bring to other families, maybe a couple, maybe hundreds or maybe thousands. I knew there were lots of items out there.”
Rex recalled that the couple’s activity has shown grown a great deal from its beginning in 2009, when they could did not know how to collect the items, how to find the families who had them and were still learning the history of the war.
Rex added that they received two flags in early March this year.
“[At this point], we know exactly what to do,” he said. “We know how they should be photographed, how they should be cataloged and how to get information on the original owners.”
After collecting over 100 flags, Ziak said that they have successfully identified dozens of owners. The couple can handle both English and Japanese – English for Ziak and Japanese for Keiko -, but inquiries have increased and they are beyond their capability.
“It’s every morning, seven days a week. When we wake up, it is our first thought and every night, when we go to bed, it’s the last thing we do and the last thing we think about,” said Rex, who hopes to find enough funds to hire assistants or open up a proper office rather than using their private home in Naselle, Was.
At the museum in Astoria, a flag will hopefully be taken down one day soon in March. As of early March, one of the displayed flags might be able to be returned to Japan, according to Keiko Rex. Another flag would be added to the space in order to keep sharing the story with visitors.
The section includes both English and Japanese explanations. One display exhibiting guns and swords will not be returned due to strict Japanese legal regulations.
The Ziak’s activities have also been publicized throughout the community. The flags have been exhibited at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and Oregon Historical Society in Portland. In April, Rex designed a traveling exhibition held in Cottage Grove, Ore. The couple wants to bring the exhibit to Seattle and other cities.
Last year, in commemorating the 70th anniversary of ending World War II, the Japanese government recognized the couple and their organization and awarded them the Foreign Ministry Award.
The momentum can continue as this year will mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the couple said that this will be another moment to think about history and World War II.
Rex and Keiko emphasize that what they are doing is a humanitarian effort.
“This is the time,” Keiko said. “Veterans and their family are still alive. It is not too late. This is the last chapter we are working on.”
More information about the Obon Society can be found at http://obonsociety.org/.