Featured photo: L-R: Season Nye, Glenn Perkins, Ayla Amon with the Greensboro History Museum, pose with a yosegaki hinomaru they found in their archives in 2023. The flag is currently being held by the OBON SOCIETY while their volunteers search for descendants of the flag owner in Japan. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

This story was published in collaboration with the Assembly, a statewide news organization that publishes stories about place and power.

Late afternoon light poured into a back room of the Greensboro History Museum as staffers gathered to examine artifacts splayed before them on a table. Black and white photos, oval-shaped dog tags, postcards of women in kimonos, a sake cup, and two Japanese flags are among the relics—all items dating back to World War II that had been donated in years past.

Ayla Amon, curator of collections at the museum, said local WWII enthusiast Doug Dickerson donated a bulk of the items between 1982 and 2002. When he passed away in 2011, most of his remaining collection went to the museum, including one of the flags. The other was donated by J. Johnston in 1948, for whom the museum has no background information.

Known as a yosegaki hinomaru, or a “good luck flag,” the silk pennants were a traditional send-off gift for Japanese soldiers, primarily during the second World War. The white banner, marked with the bright red circle representing the sun in the center, included signatures and messages from family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers that radiated outwards from the center, like rays of the sun.

This yosegaki hinomaru, or “good luck flag” was found in the Greensboro History Museum’s attic in 2023. Flags like these were often sent off with young Japanese soldiers prior to being deployed during WWII. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

In modern times, yosegaki hinomaru are used during sporting events or after natural disasters. In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, people around Japan wrote notes on them to show support. When Miho Nakata broke the women’s 24-hour marathon record in 2023, she sprinted around the track with a flag.

In the midst of war, American soldiers would find these personal belongings on the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers — often ones they had just killed in battle — and bring them home as souvenirs, Amon explained.

“It was kind of a free-for-all,” Amon said. “Souvenir-taking is something that has been ingrained in war history for a long time. And I think sometimes rather than getting a weapon like a gun or something that was state-issued, getting these things was more of a marker.”

Decades later, it’s often the descendants of American soldiers who find the flags when cleaning out their relatives’ homes. Across North Carolina, a number of them have been discovered in the last few years. The Greensboro History Museum and other organizations are now working to return the flags to their rightful owners and bring closure to families back in Japan.

Among the items found by Ayla Amon included postcards depicting women wearing kimonos. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

The actions follow a growing trend within institutions and families: righting the wrongs of the past, no matter how difficult the subject matter. In an increasingly politically hostile environment where teaching history fuels accusations of bias, museums and individuals are pushing back by telling the truth about these highly sensitive artifacts.

“Objects can’t lie,” Amon said. “They’re a very visceral physical way for people to understand what can be very difficult, complex history, or just history they haven’t heard of before … Objects are a fundamental piece of history that cannot be disputed in many ways.”
A Shift in Museum Ideologies

The Greensboro History Museum, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in November, stores thousands of artifacts like these Japanese mementos in a huge attic. Much of what’s in there is largely unknown to the public and the staff itself, Amon said. She only found the artifacts when she was looking for other WWII objects for a display.

The Greensboro History Museum celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

“It was a visceral reaction on my part,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, these don’t belong here. They should go home.’”

Cultural institutions around the world are among a growing movement to repatriate items seized from individuals, countries, or tribes without consent or by force.

In December 2023, the Biden administration revised federal regulations regarding the repatriation of items back to native tribes. That led the Museum of Natural History in New York to close two of its halls exhibiting Native American artifacts in January. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art also returned more than a dozen sculptures to Cambodia and Thailand.

But items like the Japanese WWII artifacts at the Greensboro museum aren’t covered under the new rules. Instead, it’s up to individual organizations to decide what to do. Amon said other museums have recently started writing policies outlining which materials they won’t add to their collection.

“I think it’s a good shift for the field,” Amon said.

It’s also part of an ongoing conversation among museum staff about both their role in the community and of a museum in general.

“I think it’s really important for transparency’s sake, for our stewardship’s sake that communities understand what material we have,” Amon said. “And that if there’s anything that belongs more properly elsewhere that we’re willing to send it elsewhere.”

It’s what she calls “voluntary ethical repatriation.”

Season Nye, registrar, and Ayla Amon, curator of collections in a storage hallway at the Greensboro History Museum. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Amon’s previous work at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. influenced how she thinks about these objects.

“I think I’ve just kind of been attuned throughout my career to question what something is, why it’s in a collection, how it got there, and how it should be interpreted,” she said.

So when Amon found the objects among the more than 600,000 pieces in the museum’s collection, she knew she had to learn more. That’s when she came across the OBON SOCIETY.

The search for thousands of flags

Founded in 2009 by Keiko and Rex Ziak, the OBON SOCIETY is a nonprofit organization based in Oregon that is doing the difficult work of repatriating yosegaki hinomaru back to Japanese families.

The organization’s name stems from the popular Japanese holiday Obon. It takes place in the summer and is when families clean their ancestral graves in preparation for the return of their relatives’ spirits. It’s a reflection of the work they are trying to do, Rex Ziak said.

Rex and Keiko Ziak started the OBON SOCIETY in 2009 after being spurred on by Keiko’s personal family history of reconnecting with her grandfather’s flag. (courtesy of the OBON SOCIETY)

The nonprofit worked for years to find yosegaki hinomaru like the one found at the Greensboro History Museum and reconnect them to families in Japan.

“Museums want to do the right thing,” he said. “These objects are living objects, these aren’t something that is going to some country; this is going back to a family.”

And for his wife, Keiko, the work is deeply personal. As a child growing up in Japan, her mother, Yasuko, would take her to the family grave in Kyoto where she would point to where her grandfather’s remains should have been.

“There’s nothing buried there,” her mother told her.

Such is the reality for many Japanese family members of young men sent to fight during WWII. Due to the nature of Japan’s defeat and subsequent unconditional surrender in 1945, more than 1 million Japanese soldiers were declared missing in action. As a point of comparison, the number of U.S. soldiers missing in action was around 70,000.

That meant that when the government reached out to the families of the deceased, they couldn’t return bodies for cremation, as is customary in Japan. Instead, they sent a single rock with a death notice from the government.

“It was the government’s way of saying, ‘There’s nothing coming back; bury this rock,’” said Rex.

In the aftermath of the war, the absence of a body or any personal effects from her father left Yasuko distraught. The family never talked about him; he became a kind of ghost.

“I didn’t understand World War II or what happened to my grandfather,” Keiko said. “Nobody talked about him. I had no knowledge.”

That all changed when a surprising artifact was discovered and returned to the family in 2007. More than 6,000 miles away in Toronto, Canada, a military collector on his deathbed wrote in his will that he wanted his son to return a Japanese flag marked by dozens of signatures to its country of origin.

The collector’s son took the flag on a business trip and stopped in Tokyo, where he left it with hotel staff. They then worked for about a year to find the soldier’s original family members, placing ads in the local newspaper and spreading the word. Eventually, the flag made it back to Keiko’s mother.

“My mother said, ‘It’s my father’s spirit that wanted to come back home,’” Keiko said. “As a granddaughter, it was a lightning strike; it was so amazing. It was a miracle experience.”

A few years later when Keiko met Rex, a historian and photographer, she shared her family’s story. That set off a chain of events in which Rex, driven by his unending curiosity, found that there were not just hundreds, but likely thousands of other flags out in the world. The two started the OBON SOCIETY a few years later.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Keiko said. “There were more miracles.”

During the first year of operation, they found four flags, one of them through a chance interaction with a veteran. The next year, they got 15. Eventually, the OBON SOCIETY started receiving as many as 96 flags every year. According to Rex, it took four years to repatriate the first flag.

“My goal is to return 360 flags per year,” he said.

They’ve now successfully returned 750 flags to Japan.

Rex and Keiko Ziak attend the 2024 Japan-America Society of Oregon Gala (courtesy of OBON SOCIETY)

Because these artifacts are so personal to the families, Rex has started calling them “nonbiological human remains.”

But their work faces many barriers.

First, many of those who find these flags don’t read Japanese and don’t understand their significance. Secondly, because Japan engaged in a complete surrender, many in the Japanese government aren’t keen on engaging in repatriation efforts for WWII soldiers. In their minds, doing so means reopening old wounds and admitting, in part, that the U.S. did irreparable damage to Japan, Rex explained.

Still, the organization has had some supporters like former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who met with the OBON SOCIETY before he was assassinated in 2022.

Across North Carolina, a number of individuals have found flags and contacted the organization. And though the known number of flags found in the state so far is minimal, advocates of this movement say there are likely many more around the world.

“We estimate that 100,000 flags still exist and are waiting to go back to Japan,” Keiko said.

The process of finding family members can be long and laborious. Once the flags are sent to the OBON SOCIETY in Oregon, volunteers input all known information into their database. Then they reach out to their archivist contacts in Japan, who photograph the items and safely store them while getting to work finding the family. They’ll use names on the flags or pinpoint any locations, like the shrine the family frequented, that are written on the silk.

Because each flag is unique, Rex likens the layers of kanji, or Japanese characters, to strands of DNA.

“That writing can be read and deciphered to precisely the same family,” he said.

For example, the flags found in Greensboro belonged to two Japanese soldiers named Katsuo Wada and Mankichi Yokokawa based on the deciphered writing.

Still, it’s impossible to know how long the process might take. In the case of the flags sent from Greensboro, the organization was still working on finding the families as of this month.

One of the other artifacts, a military booklet, was recently repatriated by the OBON SOCIETY to Japan. Amon said that the flags would likely take a bit longer.

Treasures in dresser drawers

As a child, Michele Simons of Holly Springs caught glimpses of the yosegaki hinomaru in her mother’s dresser drawer as she helped put away laundry. When her mother died in 2000, the flag was moved to a plastic bin under Simons’ bed for years—that is, until she saw a TV program at the end of 2019.

Simons’ father, Matthew Verban, had been stationed in Southeast Asia during WWII. Like many men of his generation, he didn’t talk about the war. Even after his death in 1996, Simons’ mother didn’t explain the foreign artifacts that she inherited.

“I don’t think they were trying to hide anything,” Simons said. “It was an adult thing, and we were children and it just wasn’t discussed.”

But when Simons learned about the OBON SOCIETY from a television news segment, she immediately reached out to her family members. She asked if they would be okay with her returning the flag to the organization, and contacted the OBON SOCIETY in February 2020.

For a few months, Simons didn’t hear anything. Then in May 2020, she received an email from the organization along with a photo of a Japanese family holding the same flag she had packed up and sent in the mail just three months earlier.

“I was in tears,” Simons said. “I couldn’t believe that they found the family; I just thought it was fabulous.”

In the photo, Masayuki Tanaka stands in the center directly behind the flag. His wife is on his left side and their eldest son stands to his right, gripping one corner of the fabric. Behind them, his son’s wife and their two daughters peek out.

This is the family of Fumio Tanaka, a WWII Japanese soldier, poses with his yosegaki hinomaru. The man at center is Masayuki Tanaka, Fumio’s eldest brother. Thanks to the work of the OBON SOCIETY and Michele Simons, this flag was returned to the Tanaka family in 2020. (courtesy of the OBON SOCIETY)

“We are certain that the man in the middle is Masayuki Tanaka, eldest [brother] of the missing soldier,” OBON SOCIETY wrote in an email to Simons in 2020. “So now, this grandfather is alive within their family for the first time, and will live on with the son and his children.”

Simons was touched that the flag had been returned. It made her think of her father going to war.

“We did the same in this country when we sent our soldiers off to war,” she said. “They loved their sons or brothers or uncles or nephews just as much as we loved ours … They have the right and should be able to have it for their family and to pass it down to their children because this was clearly something that was very important to them.

Fumio Tanaka (courtesy of the OBON SOCIETY)

“Had it been my family, had the role been reversed, I would have hoped that someone would have done the same,” she said.

Now, Simons only wishes she had checked her belongings sooner.

“I’d like people to go look at the bins under their beds,” she said.

That’s partly why Amon and Glenn Perkins, the Greensboro History Museum’s curator of community history, hosted a virtual event in which they talked about the items in their collection earlier this year.

“It shows people like, ‘Hey, did you find one of those in your attic?’” Amon said. “Hopefully it’s a way to reach out into the broader general community especially when we have so many of our WWII veterans who have either recently passed away or are passing away. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are finding this kind of material.”

Simons agrees.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re going to be many generations from the war,” she said. “And the further we get away from the war, the less people will know about it.”

‘Healing beyond PTSD’

Despite the increasing cultural relevance of this work, the OBON SOCIETY is a small team of volunteers. They have minimal funding and hope to spend the next few years on fundraising and business management.

Even so, their efforts are gaining traction. Earlier this year, Rex Ziak was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Japanese government, in recognition of “promoting understanding of Japan in the United States and friendly relations between the two countries.”

“We’re transforming hated enemies to trusted allies,” he said. “This is a poster story of what peace looks like.”

In 2024, Rex Ziak, pictured here with Keiko Ziak, was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Japanese government in recognition of “promoting understanding of Japan in the United States and friendly relations between the two countries.” The award is the highest award given to private citizens. (photo courtesy of the OBON SOCIETY)

As part of the repatriation process, several American families have joined the Ziaks in Japan to meet the descendants of the soldiers. In at least one instance, an American soldier who fought in WWII returned a flag that he had found 73 years ago to the soldier’s brother. The stories of families reconnecting with the flag are captured on the OBON SOCIETY’s YouTube channel, and almost always, they are tearful.

“This is not just a piece of textile coming home,” Rex said. “This is the spirit of that young man coming back as much as if it was any other part of him. The spirit of these soldiers are in these flags, and they want to go home, and they’ve been wanting to go home.”

To Amon, this shows that the Greensboro History Museum did the “right thing” by sending the flags to the OBON SOCIETY.

“When you bring an object into a museum, you’re pledging to care for it for the rest of its life, or as I like to say, ‘forever ever,’” Amon said. “And it’s important that we acknowledge that we can’t keep everything forever ever and that some things definitely would be better cared for elsewhere.”

Ayla Amon and Season Nye outside of the Greensboro History Museum. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

For her next project, Amon plans to search the rest of the donations to determine if anything else can be repatriated to other countries and families.

And even if the items are no longer in their collection, Perkins says that telling this story is as much part of their work as displaying the physical objects.

“We’re not necessarily sending its story away,” Perkins said. “By maintaining the records of the object’s time here in Greensboro, we can use it to shine a light on tough subjects.”

The Ziaks feel their work also gives peace, allowing families to grapple with intergenerational trauma.

“I’m proud of being Japanese and doing this,” Keiko said. “I’m proud to show that this flag brings history to the present and to the future … It’s healing beyond PTSD. You can’t change the past, but you can learn and change the future.”

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