Japanese good-luck flags, yosegaki hinomaru, were small national flags, often inscribed with short messages wishing victory, safety, and good luck, 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.
In recent years, good-luck flags have been returned to surviving relatives through the efforts of the Oregon-based Obon Society, a nonprofit organization established in 2009 by Rex and Keiko Ziak. (Obon is the Buddhist custom of honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors.)
In spring 2020, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, learned of the Obon Society’s work and contacted them about repatriating 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. When plans for that museum did not come to fruition, the items ended up at McClung. The flag will be returned at the end of January.
“The repatriation of the flag is part of larger work being done by both the museum and the University of Tennessee to ensure that collections on campus not only follow important national and international laws but also follow important ethical standards of ownership,” said Ellen Lofaro, UT’s director of repatriation.
“The museum is honored to be a part of Obon Society’s work, which has been recognized as an important symbol of reconciliation, mutual understanding, and friendship between the US and Japan,” said Claudio Gómez, the Jefferson Chapman Executive Director of the McClung Museum.
The McClung Museum offers free digital resources for university students, staff, and faculty at mcclungmuseum.utk.edu. At some point during the spring 2021 semester, online registration will become available for timed socially distanced museum visits.
Update, October 21, 2021
Through coordinated efforts, the flag was returned to the family of deceased soldier Yushiro Narita, who died serving in the Philippines with the Japanese 19th Battalion. Narita’s family accepted the flag in a special return ceremony held on June 10 in Kazuno City, Akita, Japan.
“I am glad to see that returning this flag allowed the family of Mr. Narita to get some closure after so many years,” said Gómez. “The return of this flag also shows how museum collections are constituted of powerful and complex cultural and natural items. The McClung Museum will keep working with different communities to address similar situations with the ethical standards of the museum profession.”
Narita’s niece, Masako Sugimoto, and the wife of his nephew, Katsuyo Narita, accepted the flag on their family’s behalf after 77 years.
“It was incredibly moving to hear how important and meaningful the return of the flag was to Mr. Narita’s family,” said Lofaro. “It also highlights how significant the work of repatriation is, to the families and communities involved as well as to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We built many new and enduring bonds of friendship and understanding through this project.”
Since the McClung Museum returned Narita’s yosegaki hinomaru, six more flags from around the region have been returned to the Obon Society by other organizations and individuals.
Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375, email@example.com)
Alissa Sommerfeldt (865-974-6408, firstname.lastname@example.org)