TOKYO — Toshihiro Mutsuda was only 5 years old when he last saw his father, who was drafted by Japan’s Imperial Army in 1943 and killed in action. For him, his father was a bespectacled man in an old family photo standing by a signed good-luck flag that he carried to war.
On Saturday, when the flag was returned to him from a U.S. war museum where it had been on display for 29 years, Mutsuda, now 83, said: “It’s a miracle.”
The flag, known as “Yosegaki Hinomaru,” or Good Luck Flag, carries the soldier’s name, Shigeyoshi Mutsuda, and the signatures of his relatives, friends and neighbors wishing him luck. It was given to him before he was drafted by the Army. His family was later told he died in Saipan, but his remains were never returned.
The flag was donated in 1994 and displayed at the museum aboard the USS Lexington, a WWII aircraft carrier, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Its meaning was not known until it was identified by the family earlier this year, said the museum director Steve Banta, who brought the flag to Tokyo.
Banta said he learned the story behind the flag earlier this year when he was contacted by the Obon Society, a nonprofit organization that has returned about 500 similar flags as non-biological remains, to the descendants of Japanese servicemembers killed in the war.
The search for the flag’s original owner started in April when a museum visitor took a photo and asked an expert about the description that it had belonged to a “kamikaze” suicide pilot. When Shigeyoshi Mutsuda’s grandson saw the photo, he sought help from the Obon Society, group co-founder Keiko Ziak said.
“When we learned all of this, and that the family would like to have the flag, we knew immediately that the flag did not belong to us,” Banta said at the handover ceremony. “We knew that the right thing to do would be to send the flag home, to be in Japan and to the family.”
The soldier’s eldest son, Toshihiro Mutsuda, was speechless for a few seconds when Banta, wearing white gloves, gently placed the neatly folded flag into his hands. Two of his younger siblings, both in their 80s, stood by and looked on silently. The three children, all wearing cotton gloves so they wouldn’t damage the decades-old flag, carefully unfolded it to show to the audience.
The soldier’s daughter, Misako Matsukuchi, touched the flag with both hands and prayed. “After nearly 80 years, the spirit of our father returned to us. I hope he can finally rest in peace,” Matsukuchi said later.
Toshihiro Mutsuda said his memory of his father was foggy. However, he clearly remembers his mother, Masae Mutsuda, who died five years ago at age 102, used to make the long-distance bus trip almost every year from the farming town in Gifu, central Japan, to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where the 2.5 million war dead are enshrined, to pay tribute to her husband’s spirit.
The shrine is controversial, as it includes convicted war criminals among those commemorated. Victims of Japanese aggression during the first half of the 20th century, especially China and the Koreas, see Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese militarism. However, for the Mutsuda family, it’s a place to remember the loss of a father and husband.
“It’s like an old love story across the ages coming together … It doesn’t matter where,” Banta said, referring to the Yasukuni controversy. “The important thing is this flag goes to the family.”
That’s why Toshihiro Mutsuda and his siblings chose to receive the flag at Yasukuni and brought the framed photos of their parents.
“My mother missed him and wanted to see him so much and that’s why she used to pray here,” Toshihiro Mutsuda said. “Today her wish finally came true, and she was able to be reunited.”
Keeping the flag on his lap, he said, “I feel the weight of the flag.”