By Pierre Kosmidis
Photos by Rex & Keiko Ziak/OBON SOCIETY
The nation of Japan experienced nearly 2,000,000 lost soldiers during the war for the Pacific.
Of these approximately 1,140,000 are still listed as Missing In Action, that is, they were killed but no trace of their bodies was ever recovered.
These personalized flags, given by family and friends to the soldier before leaving home and later brought back as battlefield souvenirs, is the family’s only opportunity to connect with their lost relative.
www.ww2wrecks.com contacted Rex & Keiko Ziak and asked them some questions, which explain the importance of returning the flags to the families of the fallen soldiers.
As Rex and Keiko stress, “this is not some article of cloth…..this flag contains the living spirit of that person who carried it.
The Japanese family members, upon receiving it will speak to it and say,
That is the miracle we attempt to provide.”
1/ What made you start this project? Were you personally involved in any way (had relatives MIA or felt you needed to do something about it)?
Keiko’s grandfather was a rice farmer in a rural part of Japan that was so far away from any population center that even today their rice fields and gardens are raided by wild boar, bears and deer.
He was married with two children when he was drafted and sent to Burma.
He never came home.
No trace of him was ever found.
Several years after the war the government sent an official death notice and a small box with a rock inside to the family. It was the government’s way of saying no remains would ever be returned.
If the family wanted to make a grave they could bury the rock.
Sixty-two years later (2007) a flag that Keiko’s grandfather once carried unexpectedly appeared.
It had been kept in a collection in Toronto, Canada.
The collector grew old and told his son to return the personal items to Japan after he passed away.
The son took the flag with him on a business trip with a stop over in Tokyo.
He caught a taxi to a hotel, handed the flag to the staff and asked them to please find the family and return it.
Fortunately the staff followed through.
They took up this difficult search.
They put ads in papers and spent a great deal of time looking for the right family. Finally, after more than six months of searching they found Keiko’s uncle.
The family regarded this as a miracle.
How else could it be seen?
The grandfather died in Burma and this flag with his name returned from Canada.
There was no way to explain it.
When I first heard this story I too thought it was a miracle. Then, after a little research into this history we discovered that every Japanese soldier carried one or two or three of these flags and American G.I.s brought them home as souvenirs by the thousands or tens of thousands.
We realized that the “miracle” Keiko’s family experienced could be a miracle other families could also experience. That was in 2009 and with that idea OBON SOCIETY was born.
2/ War is not without a face; millions fight and die.
How important is it not to forget and to help the families get closure?
We do not think about war very often. It is not really any concern to us.
Battlefields and sunken ships are not something we have any real knowledge of.
We deal with the damaged families that result from war.
Everyone has a family and the family never forgets.
We cannot speak for any individuals or nations or governments.
Our area of interest, at this point in time, is between the families who reside in Japan and America ……..and Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The feelings we deal with is largely a reflection of the conflict transformation that has occurred in the past seventy years.
The Japanese were America’s hated enemies.
They fought a savage war.
There was tremendous suffering, deprivation and loss.
The feelings on both sides were filled with hate. There was injury and death everywhere.
Despite all this, now only seven decades later, these two nations are among the most trusted of friends.
It is this arena that we work.
We call it conflict transformation.
When the Americans (or residents of the other nations) contact us with personal items they want returned we understand that this is a profound moment for that family.
This item is something their family member proudly brought home years ago, as a symbol of victory over a fierce enemy, but rather than keep it in their possession they want to send it to some unknown family members in Japan.
Their intention is to provide comfort and peace within.
This is a profound moment.
They are giving up something that has been in their possession for many decades with the intention of providing closure and reconciliation to the family of a former enemy their fathers were fighting.
When we begin the search we never know what or whom we will find.
It is long and tedious work looking for family that belongs to some item taken from a battlefield 70 years ago.
When we do find family it is inevitably the first and only trace of their relative that came home.
This is an heirloom.
It’s not some government issued item returning to them….or a “dog tag” like the Americans carried.
We have heard too many stories about the sensations the families feel when reunited with their lost relative.
We know it is very real. They feel the spirit of their ancestors.
The family is reunited.
3/ What is your aim?
What would make you happy and with a feeling of fulfillment?
Our initial aim was to provide miracles for as many families in Japan as possible.
Then, as we became more aware of the impact this has on the families of the victorious nations, we broadened the scope of our concern.
We give a great deal of attention to the families who have had possession of these items…their feelings and emotions.
Realizing the tremendous emotion involved in this effort and understanding the millions of unresolved families and emotions we are now focused on the year 2020 as an opportunity for a significant display of reconciliation.
We call it ‘Writing the Final Chapter of WWII.”
We would like to expand the awareness of our effort across America, then Canada, England, New Zealand and Australia.
We would like to make those families who feel the desire to reconcile the war and provide closure to the Japanese families that this is their opportunity.
The year 2020 brings together the Olympics in Tokyo and the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.
These two amazing events….combined with the fact that many veterans are still alive…makes 2020 the most ideal time to express an end to this conflict.
After all, the way we see it, when the veterans and their families of the victorious nations give back battlefield souvenirs to the families of the defeated, it is a profound display of peace and reconciliation.
After that, there is nothing more to say or to do.
That is the end.
If a book were written about the war, from beginning to end…this would be the “final chapter.”
4/ Are you working together with any organisations from the US and/or Japan?
We are an independent, non-profit humanitarian organization.
We are not affiliated with any religious, political or special interests groups.
Our funding comes from donations by caring citizens. All workers involved in our effort are volunteers who spend hundreds of hours towards this cause.
For our part, we have spent tens of thousands of hours and much of our savings towards this effort, and have not paid ourselves one penny of compensation.
We are not affiliated with any others, but we do utilize a network of agencies and organizations in our search for family in Japan.
The Japanese have strict privacy laws and we must confirm each family relationship.
5/ Which story do you remember the most, from a human perspective?
Off the top of my head there was a gentleman named Mr. Watanabe.
He lost both brothers in the war.
His mother wanted him to find the brother who disappeared in Okinawa, so he dug for the remains for more than thirty years (CLICK TO READ THE STORY).