Aaron Sponseller with Bunjiro Kaizo, holding the Japanese flag that belonged to Mr. Kaizo’s younger brother, Bunichiro Kaizo, a soldier who fought in World War II.
Aaron Sponseller, a Hiroshima-ken JET from 2006-09, shares the extraordinary story that had him in headlines here in Hiroshima and in Niigata Prefecture in the summer of 2008.
By Aaron Sponseller
As I exited Nagaoka Station, I had no idea what would happen over the course of the next several hours. After taking an all-night bus trip from Hiroshima to Tokyo and then hopping on a train for another couple hours to reach this city in Niigata Prefecture, my wife, Tomoko, and I were tired yet enthusiastic to see how this day I had long-awaited would turn out.
We had come to Nagaoka to finish something that was long overdue. My grandfather served in the United States Army for the entire duration of World War II. In the spring of 1945, in the Philippines, he came into possession of a Japanese war flag.
When enemy soldiers were captured, they were stripped of all their gear and military issued clothing. It was not unusual for their captors to take these objects and keep them as souvenirs. Allied soldiers would take Nazi paraphernalia back to their home countries in the European Theatre; they did the same thing with Japanese paraphernalia in the Pacific. Japanese swords, katana, were prized as souvenirs. However, getting a sword back to the U.S. may have proven difficult, so many soldiers looked for smaller or more easily smuggled items. Less conspicuous items. One of the most common items to smuggle home was a Japanese flag.
Before heading to war, most Japanese soldiers took part in a ceremony of some kind that marked their departure. These ceremonies were typically held at Shinto shrines around Japan, with each ceremony marking the departure of several soldiers. During the ceremony, most soldiers were presented with a medium-sized Japanese flag (just the traditional white flag with a red “sun” in the middle). The flags were usually written on, however. The top of the flag read 「武運長久」(pronounced bu-un cho-kyu). This translates to something along the lines of “continued luck in battle.” The flag would also have the name of the soldier on it in large characters, as well as the name of the person at the ceremony who presented that flag to the soldier. The presenter was typically someone important to the soldier such as a boss or a good friend. Around the red sun were the hand-written names of the soldier’s friends or family or otherwise important people. The soldiers carried these flags with them throughout the war as reminders of who they were fighting for.
So, in the spring of 1945, in the Philippines, my grandfather found himself in possession of one such flag. Another soldier had quite a few flags and just gave one to my grandfather. Before I moved to Japan, my grandfather told me “I’ve wanted, for some time, to try to return the flag to the family to which it belongs. But I have no idea how you go about doing anything like that.”
So, after moving to Japan I asked my father to try to find the flag. It was somewhere in my grandfather’s house, but his house is in San Francisco and the rest of my family lives in Oregon. Compounding the task of finding the flag was the fact that my grandfather just has a lot of… Stuff.
About a year after moving to Japan, however, my father and grandfather found the flag, in great condition, in a closet. When I returned to America for a wedding the next summer, they gave me the flag and told me to take it back to Japan and try to find the family to which it belonged.
I was very excited. It was as if I had been invited to take part in history, in a way. Since childhood I have always loved history and especially American and Japanese history. One of my majors at university was history with an emphasis on U.S. history and the history of war. I had studied Japanese for almost four years, too. The opportunity to return the flag was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see both the American and Japanese side of things regarding WWII.
Upon my return to Japan, my fellow English teachers at Kokutaiji High School helped me translate the writing on the flag. Within minutes we knew the name of the soldier who had at one time carried the flag into battle: Bunichiro Kaizu.
I “Googled” his name in English and Japanese. I even searched using other names that were on the flag, but nothing worthwhile ever came back. There also seems to be no government branch in Japan that keeps a record of all the names of soldiers who fought for Japan in WWII. The search for Mr. Kaizu seemed to be hitting a dead-end.
Increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress, and not willing to give up the quest my grandfather had charged me with completing, I went back to the flag itself in search of another clue of some kind. Laying the flag out on my desk at work, I stared at it for quite awhile. Many strategies were employed. I looked at it from afar, from up close, from the side, upside down, I looked at the back of the flag, even. There was seemingly nothing left for the flag to tell me. My final Hail Mary strategy was to go over every square inch of the flag with a magnifying glass. And that is when I saw it.
It was not very big. It was not easy to see. It was unclear at first what it was or if it was anything at all. It was a very, very faint red… smudge.
But upon closer inspection the faint red smudge seemed to have had a pattern. And then it hit me: This was a hanko stamp!
Japanese people use hanko to stamp official documents and papers with red ink. Most of the time the stamp is relatively small, but some of the fancy ones are significantly bigger. This was a medium-sized stamp but it was badly faded. In order to have any chance of reading it we needed more light. So we put white paper under the flag and shined a lot of light on the flag. After about five Japanese teachers spent 10 or so minutes trying to read the stamp, the consensus was that it read “Yahiko Jinja.”
Yahiko Jinja, we learned after a search of Google and Wikipedia, was a shrine in Niigata Prefecture. This was the big break in the case. The origin of the flag had now been traced back to a very specific place and a very specific time.
Mr. Matsumoto contacted the Chugoku Shimbun and told them about the flag story. I was interviewed shortly thereafter and a picture of me holding the flag was published in the Chugoku Shimbun and the Niigata Nippo. Contact information was provided and anyone with information regarding Mr. Bunichiro Kaizu was asked to call Mr. Matsumoto.
Story appearing in the Niigata Nippo.
Within about three days, we got a phone call from a member of the Kaizu family in Niigata. I was so relieved and so very excited. After sitting in my grandfather’s house for over 60 years, the flag was going back to its rightful owners.
So that brings me back to the beginning of the article at Nagaoka Station. Tomoko and I soon found ourselves getting a ride to the Kaizu residence with a nephew of Mr. Bunichiro.
Upon arrival at their residence, the Kaizu family welcomed us warmly into their home. We were both rather shocked by the extra hospitable nature of the family. They had ordered a lot of sushi, beer, and other snacks. It was very nice.
However, the most enjoyable part of the nearly four-hour visit was the conversation with the family and learning about the history of Nagaoka, the Kaizu family and Bunichiro.
Bunichiro Kaizu, it turned out, had died near the end of WWII when his warship was sunk 21 kilometers off the coast of the Luzon region of the Philippines. His remains, along with the remains of nearly every other soldier on that ship, had never been recovered. The Japanese military simply sent the Kaizu family a small urn with sand inside as a symbolic gesture.
The city of Nagaoka had been destroyed on Aug. 1, 1945, during a massive bombing by Allied forces. One hundred twenty-five B-29 bombers dropped enough explosives to kill around 1,500 people in the city. Having their city destroyed was, for the Kaizu family, terrible. Compounding their pain was the fact that everything they had owned was lost in the bombing. They now had literally nothing besides memories of Bunichiro. No remains, no pictures, no letters, no nothing. From Aug. 1, 1945, forward, Bunichiro Kaizu existed, for the Kaizu family, only in the form of memories.
When I presented Bunichiro’s little brother, Bunjiro, with the flag, it was clear to see that it meant a great deal to him. He did not cry or get extraordinarily emotional, he simply accepted the flag with both hands very politely, bowed to me and then turned to the small “shrine” sitting a couple of feet away in the same room. He placed the flag within the shrine, lit some small candles and prayed silently for a few minutes. It was a very important moment for the Kaizu family, and for me as well.
It was an incredible honor to be witness to those few minutes. Japanese people are generally very private and this was an exceptionally personal moment for them.
But after those few moments passed, the lively conversation continued once more. We discussed many things about the past, present and future. We spoke of war and peace, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also of Pearl Harbor. We discussed the general state of world affairs and wondered aloud about the direction the world was headed in. Those hours passed far too quickly. That day in Nagaoka is one I will never forget.
The return of the flag made headlines in the Chugoku Shimbun.