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Oregon-based group works to heal wounds of WWII with flag returns

This photo taken on June 25, 2018 in Astoria, Oregon, shows Obon Society founders Keiko Ziak (R) and her husband Rex examining a Yosegaki Hinomaru flag sent to the organization from an American family. (Kyodo)

ASTORIA, Oregon (Kyodo) -- In 2007, Keiko Ziak's family experienced a "miracle."

Sixty-two years after the end of World War II, the memory of her grandfather, believed to have gone missing in Burma during the war, returned to her family's home in Kyoto in the form of a Yosegaki Hinomaru, a "good luck flag" signed by friends and family that Japanese soldiers had carried into battle.

Allied Forces often took them from soldiers' bodies on the battlefield as keepsakes.

"The strong spirit of my grandfather wanted to come home," Ziak, 50, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.

This experience was Ziak's first with a Yosegaki Hinomaru, as she did not learn about the war in school or discuss it at home.

She had only heard about her grandfather during the Obon season, an annual summer Buddhist tradition celebrating the spirits of ancestors, who are believed to visit living family members.

After the war, the only acknowledgement of her grandfather's service was a stone they received from the Japanese government as a substitute for his remains.

After a Canadian collector returned the flag, Ziak became curious about how many other people had had a similar experience.

Two years later, she and her American husband Rex, 64, the son of a WWII veteran, embarked on a mission to "bring this miracle to another family" by founding Obon Society in Astoria, Oregon, a town that saw ships sail through from Portland to engage in combat in the Pacific Theater.

By 2013, the Ziaks had returned their first flag to a Japanese family.

While the non-profit venture, whose mission is to "heal the hearts and broken families that were a result of the war fought between America and Japan," mostly receives flags from around the world by mail, they sometimes meet American veterans' families through in-person deliveries.

On May 14, Alyce Fernebok entrusted the organization with a flag that she received as a naval academy graduation present from her grandfather, a naval lieutenant who survived deadly combat in Peleliu during the war.

"I really see this as human beings healing each other more than anything else," said Fernebok, a former Marine, at a separate luncheon in Santa Barbara, California. "I wish when this flag returns that it relieves some hurt and hope that helps to bring peace and happiness to the family."

"This is the final chapter of World War II," said Rex Ziak. "When the families of the victorious return battlefield souvenirs to the families of the soldiers they fought, the war has finally come to a complete end."

"We thought this was all about the Japanese families. But it isn't," he said. "We underestimated how many people wanted to return these. We underestimated their sincere feelings in thinking about the Japanese...and how to provide closure for them."

Within five years, Obon Society's concerns evolved from "How on earth do Keiko and I convince somebody to send us an heirloom their father brought back from the war?" and "How do we find the family in Japan so the hinomaru can be returned?" to wondering how they could keep up with the volume of flags, which has seen a dramatic influx due to media coverage.

In the beginning, they spent several months looking for a Japanese family's address. By the end of 2017, they were returning a flag every three days.

In their nine years since founding Obon Society, the Ziaks have logged a number of accomplishments.

In 2015, they dipped into their savings to fly six WWII veterans to Japan to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war with a delivery of 70 hinomaru. There they met Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who commended their work: "I am deeply moved to see how Japan and the U.S., who were once enemies, can reunite in this way."

That same year, the local maritime museum in Astoria opened an exhibit featuring Obon Society's work, which includes a wall of Yosegaki Hinomaru that has been seen by up to 350,000 visitors in the three years since its unveiling.

"You see people stop and stare," Bruce Jones, deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, said of visitors to Obon Society's exhibit. "That exhibit always captures the imagination of the visitors."

In 2016, Obon Society succeeded in changing eBay's policy so flags could no longer be sold for profit on the website.

As the return of Yosegaki Hinomaru garnered international media attention, the Ziaks say, surviving family members of soldiers have become more familiar with the idea that they could be reacquainted with their loved ones' flags.

Several years ago, Izokukai preferred to receive flags privately. Now, according to the Ziaks, a majority of families ask for a public returning ceremony that sometimes counts city mayors and local government officials in attendance.

Over the years, Obon Society has evolved its process of analyzing Yosegaki Hinomaru and searching for their remaining family members. After their Astoria-based archivists receive flags in the mail, they process them by editing high-quality photos for scholars to examine later and assign each a number.

Across the Pacific, Japanese scholars hone in on the region the flag most likely originated from based on the name of the soldier. Once a family has been identified, Obon Society reaches out to the local Izokukai to contact the family with the news.

"We put together the most efficient returning system in the history of Japan," said Rex. With the help of the Nippon Izokukai, Obon Society was able to operate "at 100 percent" and deliver 31 flags in three months at the end of 2017.

But after years of clocking in seven-day work weeks and returning a total of more than 200 flags, Obon Society's search for families has "run out of gas."

"We have run out of resources to continue at this rate -- the money, the support," said Rex. "After working toward this for nine years and having this system set up that's so efficient, it's just heartbreaking for us. But we have no other recourse."

While Obon Society continues to receive four to five Yosegaki Hinomaru a day, there are already 900 flags in their possession that are currently under search -- a process that "can take anywhere from months to years to find the family."

Obon Society hopes to obtain consistent funding to soon resume its search operations and someday hire three full-time and several part-time employees. They hope to continue working with the Izokukai to eventually return 2,000 flags. Rex Ziak has wondered whether they could one day work as a subcontractor for the Japanese government.

"Here is something that really captures, in many people's minds, the true spirit of what they think America should be," he said. "You fight the wars when you have to fight them, but when you can, you make peace...And you just let it go."

The Ziaks say that while they have been getting by with individual donations and their own savings, various peace foundations and companies they have reached out to, while expressing initial interest, have ultimately referred them elsewhere for funding.

"I think it has to do with fear," said Rex. "It's all about image and about what the public thinks."

"We're purely doing humanitarian (work)," Keiko explained, adding that Obon Society does not discuss the history of WWII. "And yet (in) the background is a war."

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