ASTORIA, OREGON - In 2007, Keiko Ziak’s family experienced a “miracle.”
Sixty-two years after the end of World War II, a Hinomaru national flag belonging to her grandfather, believed to have gone missing in Burma during the war, was returned to her family’s home in Kyoto.
Many Japanese soldiers carried flags signed by friends and families into battle for good luck, but Allied Forces often took them from soldiers’ bodies on the battlefield as keepsakes.
“The strong spirit of my grandfather wanted to come home,” Ziak, 50, said in a recent interview. This was Ziak’s first experience with such a flag, as she did not learn about the war in school or discuss it at home.
She had only heard stories about her grandfather during the Bon festival, an annual summer Buddhist tradition celebrating the spirits of ancestors, who are believed to visit living family members. After the war, the only acknowledgement of her grandfather’s service was a stone they received from the government as a substitute for his remains.
After a Canadian collector returned the flag to the family, Ziak began to wonder how many other people had similar experiences.
Two years later, she and her American husband, Rex, 64, the son of a WWII veteran, embarked on a mission to “bring this miracle to another family” by founding Obon Society in Astoria, Oregon, a town in the Western U.S. where ships would regularly sail through on route to combat in the Pacific War. By 2013, the Ziaks had returned their first flag to a Japanese family.
While the nonprofit venture, whose mission is to “heal the hearts and broken families that were a result of the war fought between America and Japan,” mostly receives flags from around the world by mail, they sometimes meet American veterans’ families in-person.
On May 14, Alyce Fernebok entrusted the organization with a flag that she received as a naval academy graduation present from her grandfather, a naval lieutenant who survived deadly combat near Palau during the war.
“I really see this as human beings healing each other more than anything else,” said Fernebok, a former Marine, in Santa Barbara, California. “I wish when this flag returns that it relieves some hurt and hope that helps to bring peace and happiness to the family.”
“This is the final chapter of World War II,” Rex said. “When the families of the victorious return battlefield souvenirs to the families of the soldiers they fought, the war has finally come to a complete end.
“We thought this was all about the Japanese families. But it isn’t,” he said. “We underestimated how many people wanted to return these. We underestimated their sincere feelings in thinking about the Japanese … and how to provide closure for them.”
According to Rex, within five years Obon Society’s concerns evolved from being able to convince people to give up the flags that had become family heirlooms and finding the proper recipients in Japan, to wondering how they could keep up with the volume of flags, which has seen a dramatic influx due to media coverage. By the end of 2017 they were returning a flag every three days.
Since the founding of Obon Society nine years ago, the Ziaks have logged a number of accomplishments.
In 2015, they dipped into their savings to fly six WWII veterans to Japan to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war with a delivery of 70 Hinomaru. There they met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who commended their work: “I am deeply moved to see how Japan and the U.S., who were once enemies, can reunite in this way.”
That same year, the local maritime museum in Astoria opened an exhibit featuring Obon Society’s work, which includes a wall of wartime flags. The exhibit has been seen by up to 350,000 visitors in the three years since its unveiling.
“You see people stop and stare,” Bruce Jones, deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, said of visitors to Obon Society’s exhibit. “That exhibit always captures the imagination of the visitors.”
In 2016, Obon Society succeeded in changing eBay’s policy so the flags could no longer be sold for profit on the website.
As the Obon Society’s work began to garner international media attention, surviving family members of soldiers started to believe that they could also be reacquainted with their loved ones’ flags, the Ziaks say.
In the past, soldiers’ kin had typically preferred to receive flags privately. Now, according to the Ziaks, a majority of families ask for a public returning ceremony that sometimes counts city mayors and local government officials in attendance.
Over the years, Obon Society has evolved its process of analyzing flags and searching for their remaining family members. After their Astoria-based archivists receive flags in the mail, they process them by editing high-quality photos for scholars to examine later and assign each a number.
Across the Pacific, Japanese scholars hone in on the region the flag most likely originated from based on the name of the soldier. Once a family has been identified, Obon Society reaches out to the local chapter of the Nippon Izokukai (Japan War-Bereaved Families Association) to contact the family with the news.
With the help of the Nippon Izokukai, Obon Society was able to operate “at 100 percent” and deliver 31 flags in three months at the end of 2017.
But after years of clocking in seven-day work weeks and returning a total of more than 200 flags, Obon Society’s search for families has “run out of gas.”
“We have run out of resources to continue at this rate — the money, the support,” said Rex. “After working toward this for nine years and having this system set up that’s so efficient, it’s just heartbreaking for us. But we have no other recourse.”
While Obon Society continues to receive four to five flags a day, there are already 900 flags in their possession that haven’t been returned to soldiers’ kin, a process that can take anywhere from months to years.
Obon Society hopes to obtain consistent funding to soon resume its search operations and someday hire three full-time and several part-time employees. They hope to continue working with the Nippon Izokukai to eventually return 2,000 flags. Rex hopes they might one day be able to work as a subcontractor for the Japanese government.
“Here is something that really captures, in many people’s minds, the true spirit of what they think America should be,” he said. “You fight the wars when you have to fight them, but when you can, you make peace.”
The Ziaks say that while they have been getting by with individual donations and their own savings, various peace foundations and companies they have reached out to, while expressing initial interest, have ultimately referred them elsewhere for funding.
“I think it has to do with fear,” said Rex. “It’s all about image and about what the public thinks.”
“We’re purely doing humanitarian (work),” Keiko said, adding that Obon Society does not discuss the history of WWII. “And yet (in) the background is a war.”