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WAR, REMEMBRANCE AND A FLAG : Among the Letters Her Father Sent Home From the War Was a Mysterious Japanese Flag, which Started a Daughter's Quest

August 06, 1995|LOUISE STEINMAN | Louise Steinman, a Los Angeles-based writer, is writing a book about the Pacific War in the 1940's and its long-term effect on an American family

On Jan. 12, 1944, when my father crossed the Pacific for the first time, he did not know where he was going. I know his destination because of the letters he wrote to his wife, my mother, almost every day during the war. I know my father was on his way to New Caledonia, to New Zealand, to Guadalcanal, the Philippines--to 152 consecutive days of combat with the 25th Infantry Division in northern Luzon. I know that he mailed home a Japanese flag, and that his wife was horrified. I know my father deeply regretted mailing it to her. "I'm not a souvenir hunter--I don't take things off dead Nips," he wrote home.

Fifty years later, I'm crossing the Pacific for the first time, gazing from the windows of a wide-body jet en route to Japan. In my backpack on the seat beside me is a box containing that same Japanese flag my father acquired on a battlefield in northern Luzon. I am returnaing the flag to an old woman who lives in a town in the northwest of Japan, a woman the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare (war victims' relief bureau) has identified as the younger sister of the Japanese soldier whose name is inked in black characters on the tattered white silk.

The Sunday before my departure, my husband and I visited the mausoleum in Hollywood where my parents are immured. We sat on stools in front of my parents' crypt: "Norman Steinman: A Just Man" is engraved on the bronze plaque. I decided on the epitaph myself, at my mother's request. "You're the writer in the family," she said. I stared at the silent wall, trying to guess what Norman would think of this mission, this obsession, of mine. I'd been trying for more than a year and a half to locate surviving family of the Japanese soldier. It had seemed so unlikely. Shimizu is a common name in Japan. Now that the soldier's sister had been identified, I was going to fly halfway around the world to give her this flag. Would my dad be pleased? Would he think I was crazy?

I found the flag in an old metal ammo box in a storage locker while cleaning out my parents' condo in 1990. The box was rusty, the hasp stiff. It probably hadn't been opened since 1946. Inside, among hundreds of letters and photographs, was one large manila envelope marked "Japanese flag." The slippery piece of white silk had been folded in eighths; I opened it up. Pinpricks of light showed through the fragile fabric--tiny holes where the fine strands had given way. The orange-red disc in the center was faded. Airily brushed over the surface were Japanese characters, and speckled among them, faint drops of red-brown. Possibly rust. Possibly blood. Like my mother 50 years ago, I felt instant revulsion.

Nevertheless, over the next four months or so, as I sorted through the letters, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the flag. I'd pull it out, run my hands over the shimmery surface, then fold it up and put it back in its envelope. It didn't immediately occur to me that the Japanese characters actually meant anything. They were just mute forms, swirling across the surface of the silk.

One day, on a whim, I searched through my Rolodex at work and found the telephone number of a Japanese performance artist named Rika Ohara. For years she had been working on a large-scale outdoor performance piece about nuclear annihilation.

Rika agreed to come to my office. We sat outside on a bench on a hot afternoon. With some apprehension, I opened the envelope and drew out the flag. Rika's face was impassive. She rolled a cigarette first, then took the flag in her small, fine hands. She looked at it for what seemed like a long time.

Finally, her fingertips still caressing the flag as if reading Braille, she said, "This is a good luck banner, given to a soldier when he went into battle. It says here: 'To Yoshio Shimizu given to him in the great Pacific War to be fought to the end if you believe in it you win.' That's what it says. The other characters on the flag are names." She handed the flag back to me gingerly, rolled another cigarette and lit up.

The situation felt suddenly felt strained. Perhaps I should defend my interest in this ghoulish artifact. I didn't know how my father had come to have the flag. I refused to assume the obvious: that he'd taken it off a dead soldier. Yet I felt a rush of shame. The flag didn't really belong to me. I wanted to ask my father about it, about Yoshio Shimizu, but I couldn't. My father had been dead for a year. He didn't know his enemy had a name, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have wanted to know.

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