Bringing a "good luck" flag home
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE - Fitted in a frame for preservation, Jessica Jordan is both haunted and intrigued by the tattered Japanese war flag in her office. The worn national flag covered in personal handwritten messages dates to World War II. The flags are known in Japan as a “hinomaru yosegaki” and in English as “good luck flags.”
“They are known as ‘good luck flags’ because they were signed by friends and family and carried by Japanese WWII soldiers and sailors into battle,” said Jordan, assistant professor of Regional and Cultural Studies (Asia) at the Air Force Culture and Language Center here. “This one appears to be stained by sweat and blood.”
Far from simply being artifacts of WWII, these flags are valuable as mementos of loved ones who went missing in action.
“Many Japanese families never heard from their sons or brothers again after they left for the front lines of battle, and these flags are often the only remains of a lost relative,” said Jordan, who has a doctorate in history.
She explained that the Japanese government often sent bereaved families a box of local sand, instead of bones, along with official death notices when the remains were never found.
“Surviving family members have used these flags in funeral ceremonies as a substitute for lost human remains—the fact that they were on the body at the time of death and absorbed fluids means that these flags are probably as close as we will ever get to the remains of these individuals,” she said. “This is why we have to look at this flag as an extension of the human body, and part of why I feel a sense of urgency about finding a way to return it to Japan.”
While many of the messages on the flag are beautiful, Jordan describes the flag as a disturbing reminder of discrimination and brutality during WWII.
“These flags were popular among Japanese deployed forces, and they were the most common object taken by servicemen during WWII. To me, they call to mind the cultures of both American and Japanese forces in WWII,” she said.
There is still an active market today dealing in the trade of “souvenirs” from WWII in Asia and the Pacific, in which hinomaru yosegaki are perhaps the most common commodity.
“They are often traded without much knowledge of their history, and no awareness of their significance to Japanese families today,” she said.
The handwritten Japanese messages provide some of the flag’s history.
“There are multiple names written here, and a name that I believe is the likely flag owner: Ken Ōjima,” she explained. “There are also several other phrases here including ‘good luck’ and ‘pray for victory.’ This has turned into an ongoing research project.”
She came into possession of the flag when her aunt, now deceased, gave it to her years ago. At the time, Jordan was an undergraduate student studying Japanese culture and language. She regrets not getting the full story on the flag’s background then. She said those details would make it much easier to return it.
“My aunt received this from a friend many years ago. Her friend’s father was in the U.S. military, and he took it from the main island of Japan during the allied occupation,” she said. “My aunt was an archeologist and gave it to me. Neither my aunt’s friend nor my aunt felt comfortable keeping it. Because I was studying Japanese, she felt I should have it. At the time I did not write down her story about its origin. Now I wish I could ask her more about where it came from.”
Jordan is using her expertise to research these flags, while also working to track down family members.
She is working with a non-profit research agency called the Obon Society to find the family so that she can repatriate the flag to Japan. She is hopeful that the Obon Society, which specializes in war reconciliation through the return of personal items taken during the war, will be able to track down the family or the area of Japan it likely came from. The society has already returned dozens of these flags to Japan.