Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – It’s a banner day in Santa Fe in more ways than one.
The New Mexico Military Museum will host a Japanese flag repatriation ceremony that organizers hope will be the first of many held by a museum and, with some luck, bring comfort to the family of the man who once carried it with him into battle.
“What is happening on Saturday that is so significant in our minds is that for the first time ever we have a flag that’s coming from a military museum,” said Rex Ziak, who along with his wife, Keiko, founded the OBON Society 10 years ago. “We’re on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. We’re hoping that other museums will see what New Mexico is doing and that it might become a trend.”
The OBON Society has already returned more than 300 such flags to families in Japan. Ziak explained that it was customary for Japanese soldiers in World War II to carry flags bearing messages and signatures of loved ones with them when they went off to war. Keiko Ziak, who is of Japanese ancestry, said the messages were simple, saying things like “Be brave,” “Take care and be well,” and “We’ll look out for your home while you are away.”
But many of the flags were taken from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers by U.S. soldiers as “spoils of war” and kept as souvenirs when they returned home.
In 2007, Keiko’s family was the recipient of one that belonged to her grandfather, which was the impetus for the couple starting the OBON Society two years later. Their nonprofit group, based in Astoria, Oregon, where they live, was named for the Obon Festival, a major holiday in Japan during August, which, like the Day of the Dead, honors ancestors.
“The Japanese sincerely believe that their ancestors live in a spiritual world and they believe that their spirit is alive in this item,” Rex Ziak said, referring to the flags.
Ziak likened the return of the flags to the Finnish government’s recent return of the bones of Hopi people and artifacts taken from Mesa Verde more than 100 years ago.
“It is very close to the same thing,” he said. “We have museums that are full of many wonderful things but some of these things belong to people. They belong to families and should go back to the families.”
It’s unclear where the flag on display at the New Mexico Military Museum came from.
“We don’t have a history,” said Joseph Vigil, a public affairs officer with the New Mexico National Guard. “We don’t have any records of who donated it. We just know that it has been in the museum for many, many years.”
Making it happen
Margaret Garcia, a former Santa Fean who now lives in Albuquerque, was instrumental in making Saturday’s event happen.
Her father, Evans Garcia, was a U.S. soldier who was captured by the Japanese in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March.
“I used to go to the Military Museum all the time with my dad and saw the flag many, many times and never really gave it much thought,” she said. “After he died I started researching what the flags meant and discovered how important they were to the Japanese people who sent the soldiers to war. I had a sense that maybe that flag belongs back in Japan.”
Garcia talked to New Mexico National Guard Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nava about seeing if the flag in the museum could be returned to the appropriate family in Japan, “and he agreed immediately.”
Garcia is also a member of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, which she said works to preserve and teach the history of American POWs held captive by the Japanese during World War II. The group has for several years worked with the U.S. State Department and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring former POWs and their descendents to Japan on reconciliation trips. Its president, Jan Thompson, was also enthusiastic about returning the flag and will be among the speakers at Saturday’s flag repatriation event.
The Ziaks, who are coming to New Mexico for Saturday’s event, say the OBON Society will take photos of the flag and archive it into a database. A team of scholars on both sides of the Pacific take over from there and analyze the names on the flag in an effort to track down the family.
“It’s magical what they do,” Rex Ziak said. “They pin it down to a geographical area and then another team comes in, the boots on the ground people, and they alert people about it. Sometimes we’re very lucky because they’ll know the family.”
Ziak said they’re hoping to get lucky with this one, too.
“People go to museums and see objects, but some of those things are very personal. They mean something to people, and don’t belong in museums,” he said.