As a part of the McClung Museum’s Museum in Progress initiative and new Collections Management Policy, we have been taking efforts address ethical issues in our collections by returning objects to source communities and/or families.
In the Winter of 2020 the museum came across a yosegaki hinomaru, also known as a Japanese good-luck flag, during collections research. These small national flags, often inscribed with short messages wishing victory, safety, and good luck, were given by friends and family to Japanese servicemen in World War II to carry as mementos from home. After the war, many flags came back with American soldiers as souvenirs.
Museum staff members were familiar with Oregon-based Obon Society, a nonprofit organization established in 2009 by Rex and Keiko Ziak, to return good-luck flags to surviving relatives. Working with Obon Society and UT’s Director of Repatriation, Ellen Lofaro, the McClung was able to return a flag that was given to the museum in 1945 by Captain Wiley C. Smith of the Sixth U.S Army. Smith, a UT alumnus who had been stationed in Batangas, Philippines, sent the flag after the university asked alumni to donate war souvenirs to create a museum on campus.
We now know that the flag belonged to Mr. Yushiro Narita (b. 1924), who served in the Japanese 19th Battalion. His Battalion left for the Philippines in October 1944. Many members of the 19th Battalion didn’t survive the war, including Mr. Narita, who died of dengue fever on January 13, 1945 in Batangas Province, Philippines.
The museum is honored to report that through the efforts of Obon Society, the Akita Prefecture War-bereaved Family Association, Dr. Ayumi Sugimoto, Associate Professor of Rural Studies at Akita International University, and of course, the family of the deceased soldier, Mr. Yushiro Narita, that the flag has been returned. Mr. Narita’s family accepted the flag in a special return ceremony held on June 10, 2021 in Kazuno City, Akita, Japan.
Mr. Narita’s niece, Ms. Masako Sugimoto, and the wife of Mr. Narita’s nephew, Ms. Katsuyo Narita, accepted the flag on their family’s behalf. They were very surprised and happy for the flag’s return after 77 years. After the ceremony, they went to Mr. Narita’s family graveyard with his flag. Mr. Yushiro Narita’s name is written on the gravestone with other family members. They offered handmade sekihan (festive red-rice) to their ancestor’s spirit and reported his flag finally returned to his home place. They were generous enough to share this video of the return with us:
The museum is incredibly honored to have been included in this emotional, intimate return ceremony. As Rex and Keiko of Obon reminded us,
“This is one of many cultural / spiritual differences with how many ‘Westerners’ think about life and death. To the Japanese, the ancestors are able to hear. Their spirits are with us here on earth. When they go to the cemetery to light a candle, burn incense and give beans and rice, this is all part of the communication with ancestors who preceded them.”