War with Japan, Peace, and Reconciliation: The Obon Society

We arrived home several days ago from a wonderful nine-day vacation trip visiting the north coast of Oregon. Upon arriving in Portland via Southwest Airlines, we rented a car and headed for the coastal town of Astoria.

We had several goals while visiting Astoria: chief among them was the desire to visit the terminus of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. We were also aware of a fine maritime museum just inside the treacherous “Columbia Bar,” where the mighty Columbia River disgorges huge volumes of water into the Pacific Ocean. The “Bar” is justly known as “the graveyard of the Pacific” for the many ships lost in its treacherous waters. We were not disappointed in the quality of the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

During our nine days of travel and exploration which ended back in Portland, we experienced many interesting places and sights including the mammoth “Spruce Goose” seaplane built by Howard Hughes in the mid-nineteen forties. The “Goose” remains the largest airplane ever built…entirely of plywood! It flew but once in 1947 – for a whole fifteen seconds! It has been in drydock ever since and is now on permanent display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum near McMinnville, Oregon. Fascinating and breathtaking are applicable words to describe the experience of seeing the Spruce Goose in person!

And, yet, the most absorbing and poignant experience on our trip occurred in Astoria, our first stop along the way. An exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum documented the story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru and the Astoria-based Obon Society. The Yosegaki Hinomaru is a flag of Japan carried into battle by Japanese soldiers during World War II. It was tradition to have family and friends inscribe their well-wishes and prayers on the flag for the soldier carrying it off to war. Large numbers of these flags, like their owners, never made their way back to Japan. Many of these flags were captured by American troops and brought home as souvenirs of the war.

The Obon Society is a non-profit organization founded by a husband and wife team from Astoria. The society’s mission is to facilitate the return of captured flags to descendants of those who carried them off to war. This, to provide a final chapter in the decades-long reconciliation with Japan. The society has a moving exhibit in the maritime museum explaining their work and displaying many examples of the Yosegaki Hinomaru.

I found the display most moving and thought-provoking. Above, a young soldier is wearing a sash with his flag attached, surrounded by family and friends and about to leave home, possibly never to return.

Here, a very young soldier proudly displays his Yosegaki Hinomaru on his way to war.

Many are the yellowed photographs still lovingly preserved by descendants of American soldiers – images which depict these Yosegaki Hinomaru as spoils of war, taken from fallen Japanese warriors. For the most part, these unique and personal flags made their way back to the states and were tucked away in trunks stored in the attics of countless places like Akron, Ohio, Poughkeepsie, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana. In many cases, they lay undisturbed and undiscovered in those locations for years until found by descendants curious about the contents of those old trunks in the attic.

Here, Iwo Jima marines display their captured flag. The sharp creases indicate the many folds necessary for its owner to carry it on his person into battle.

We found this exhibit by the Obon Society to be extremely interesting and moving – a totally unexpected experience as we worked our way through Astoria’s fine maritime museum. The images speak volumes to any discussion of war and the nature of humanity. After World War II, when tensions began to subside and travel/communications were greatly improved, many American fighter pilots who flew against the Germans wanted nothing to do with their Nazi counterparts at the various “reunions” of flying warriors from both sides which began to materialize. For some of these American pilots, it took a while for time to heal wounds and attitudes toward their former adversaries. Most of the Americans eventually acknowledged that their former Nazi enemies in the skies were fighting to protect the homeland, just as they were. Many of the flyers from both sides became fast friends while acknowledging their common humanity in the years that followed.

Most touching of all in the Obon Society’s exhibit was a short video presentation titled Yosegaki Hinomaru Tsukashima Return which chronicles the return of one warrior’s flag to the younger brother of its owner who never returned from the war. What a mind-bender it is to witness the emotional reaction of the flag’s new owner as he recognizes some of the signatures that were laid down so many decades ago. Tearfully, he says, “You have finally returned home!”

To the Obon Society: Well done! Your efforts and the work of other such organizations constitute the glue which can cement the future hopes of peace on this planet. Recognition that our common humanity is far more significant than our differences is the message sent and, hopefully, received by men and women of good will.

2 thoughts on “War with Japan, Peace, and Reconciliation: The Obon Society

  1. We loved hearing about this when you visited us but it’s even more moving to see these flags and the men who carried them into battle. What a wonderful experience for you and so good to shed the spotlight on our commonalities.

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