It's not uncommon for troops who overrun an enemy position to take a photo with a captured enemy banner. It's just as common for them to take that banner home as a souvenir. There are a lot worse things to remove from the battlefield. American troops have been capturing flags since the founding of the republic. So, why are these World War II veterans returning captured Japanese flags?
The importance of a unit's standard dates back to antiquity. Roman legions carried standards that took on an almost divine quality, representing the Legion, the Emperor, and even the Gods themselves. They would take extraordinary measures to recover a captured standard, even invading neighboring countries decades after losing the standards just to get them back. The Japanese had a similar tradition with their Yosegaki Hinomaru.
The hinomaru was a blank flag carried by every drafted Japanese soldier. It was signed by everyone in their life; mother, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, teachers, wives, and children. It was a good luck charm that wished bravery and a safe return home to the carrier. The Japanese troop then marched off to war, the flag folded and tucked somewhere on his person.
These are usually the flags that were captured by American troops in World War II. Because no one enjoys taking photos with the flags of their fallen enemies like U.S. troops.
But American troops had no idea these flags were the personal keepsakes of fallen individuals and not unit flags carried by the Japanese army. Now that the men who captured these battlefield trophies are aging and dying, the flags are being sold off or thrown away altogether, but there's a better way to handle these pieces of history: giving them back.
And that's what World War II veterans and their families are doing. Through the international nonprofit Obon Society, families and veterans who still possess a captured yosegaki hinomaru are tracking down the Japanese veterans and families of Japanese veterans of the Pacific War to return the family heirlooms and help the aging veterans heal their decades-old, invisible wounds.
If there's any doubt about the power of these standards, even to this day, just watch below as a Japanese man reacts to seeing his missing brother's yosegaki hinomaru.
There are no better frenemies than American and Japanese veterans of WWII. In the years that followed, the U.S. and Japan grew ever closer as allies and as people. Despite the overwhelming brutality of the war, the enduring friendships that developed in the years since have been a testament to the idea that peace is always possible, even in the face of such hard fighting. The only thing that remains is handling the losses incurred along the way – brothers, fathers, sons, and friends.
Groups like the Obon Society and its team of researchers make it easy to start healing the pain that remains between families and friends who lost loved ones in the war. If you or your departed veterans have a flag like the ones seen in the photos above, contact the Obon Society to return the flag to its family and maybe even make contact with them.