It was startling to walk into a museum in Astoria, Oregon a few weeks ago and behold WW2 Japanese flags framed on the gallery wall. Those flags with their bright red disks on white silk were just like the one I found with my father’s possessions, after he died, in an envelope with one of his letters home from combat in Luzon and wrote about in my memoir, The Souvenir. These flags on display in the darkened gallery are the centerpiece of an unusual exhibition called “A Peaceful Return: The Story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru” at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.
The yosegaki hinomaru are good luck banners, given to Japanese soldiers when they left for war, inscribed with messages of protection from their friends and family. The inscription on my father’s flag, translated, said: To Yoshio Shimizu in the Great East Asian War… to persevere is to win… I realized I possessed the name of my father’s “enemy.” But who was Yoshio Shimizu?
It took five years after my discovery of the flag to the spring day in 1995 when my husband and I formally returned Yoshio’s flag to the Shimizu family (his sisters, cousins, nephew) and friends (who’d signed the flag when Yoshio went off to war) in the town of Suibara in the snow country of Japan. Yoshio was 19 when he set off to fight for the emperor, 21 when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” his sister told me, “…the government just sent sand in a box.”
A friend who heard about the exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum commended me for “starting a whole movement of returning flags to Japan,” but I had to correct him. These current efforts to return the yosegaki hinomaru are a project initiated by a remarkable Astoria-based non-profit group called Obon Society, founded by a husband-wife team of Rex and Keiko Ziak. They receive, analyze, document and research the flags’ place of origin and, when possible, return these heirlooms to families of soldiers in Japan at no cost to the veterans or their families. To date they have returned fifty-two flags to Japan on behalf of US veterans as a gesture of healing and reconciliation. These flags on exhibit await their repatriation. Like the flag of Yoshio Shimizu, they represent souls who want to return home.
The Souvenir was first published right after September 11th. The U.S. invaded Iraq soon after, and in the fifteen years since then, our country has been in a perpetual war with no end in sight. There was no doubt as to the continuing relevance of this story as I spoke to the audience in Astoria about how the war transformed my gentle father and shaped the life of our family. They in turn shared their own stories—as veterans, children of veterans—about an uncle in the Bataan Death March, a brother wounded in Vietnam, a son in Afghanistan. It was an emotional morning.
After my talk, my friend Susan and I drove across the cantilever bridge spanning the wide mouth of the Columbia, aptly called “The Graveyard of the Pacific” because of its shallow shifting sand bars. Over 2000 ships have gone down here and over 700 people have lost their lives to the sea.
At Cape Disappointment State Park, where Lewis and Clark ended their journey, we ran our hands along the smooth surface of a fish-cleaning table formed out of native basalt (one of Maya Lin’s several projects as part of her Confluence Project) and read the text of a Chinook song of praise. We picked up driftwood wands and danced on the black sand beach.
Before we drove back across the bridge to Astoria and Susan’s sweet house, we paused above the officers’ quarters at Fort Columbia. The gun turrets and batteries reminded me of Fort Worden, up in Port Townsend, Washington, where I first began The Souvenir so many years ago, holed up in a cabin with my husband, my dog, and my father’s letters.
In both these strategic west coast defensive fortifications, the soldiers were battle-ready but never saw combat. They waited. Each day, each night they scanned the sea for the enemy, but the enemy never arrived. As they waited and watched– my father and his buddies in the 25th Infantry fought in the Caraballo Mountains against General Yamashita’s troops in the brutal battle of Balete Pass. It was during that campaign when my father acquired Yoshio’s flag as a souvenir. He sent the blood-flecked flag home to my mother and after he did, he regretted doing so. He mentioned it five times in his letters. “It was the stupidest thing I did in the whole war,” he wrote to apologize.
At another talk I gave recently, on “Memoir as an Art of Healing” at a university in SW Florida, a young woman, her hair streaked blue and her nails painted black, sidled up to me afterwards to say she had something to tell me. It wasn’t a question per se, she told me, hesitant. She said that sometimes she hears “messages from beyond”and she’d heard one during my talk. She wanted me to know that my father was very glad that I returned the flag of Yoshio Shimizu. She hoped I didn’t mind her telling me that.
I didn’t mind at all.