It might have been easier to just leave the flag in the trunk of her grandfather's World War II mementos, forgetting it or tossing it out later. But this story about the Perry family in California just goes to show that remembering our veterans and reaching across cultures to mend countries doesn't require a federal holiday.
Sometimes all it takes is one family.
The aroma in the room was about as un-American as I could imagine. My slippers scratched against the tatami mats that lined the floors of the small dining room. The foreign chatter bounced off the walls, resonating as gibberish in my ears. After a 10,000 mile plane ride across the ocean and a few hours on trains we had finally reached our final destination--Otsu, Japan.
My mother, father, brother and I traveled to Japan this December with Kenneth Hasegawa and his parents, Debbie and Toshi. The history behind our trip began over 60 years ago in the Phillipines during World War II. When my grandfather, Lou Perry, returned from WWII in 1944, he brought back a Japanese flag, or Hinomaru, that belonged to a Japanese soldier killed on the island of Leyte. It is Japanese custom for soldiers to carry flags during wartime given to them by loved ones. Friends and family write the soldier's name, prayers and encouragement on the flag. The flag sat idle in my grandfather's war trunk for many years. Last fall, Toshi translated the messages on the flag and linked the soldier, Takeo Kuriyama, to the Otsu Commercial High School. We sent the flag to the soldier's family in October, and they presented it to the high school. Shortly after, the OCHS Alumni Association invited our two families to attend a ceremony celebrating Kuriyama-san's homecoming.
Yoshiko Inoue, the Head of the International Group for the city of Otsu, greeted us soon after we arrived in Otsu. She acted as our tour guide and hostess for our weekend there, highlighting Otsu, a city renowned as a landmark of Japanese Buddhism and a capital city in ancient Japan. Inoue-san spoke very little English (Kenneth's parent's translated), but was clearly amused by our group dynamic (particularly my brother, Jack).
Upon our arrival at the Prince Hotel, Inoue-san led us down to a private room for a welcoming dinner. There were over 20 people present, although only a few spoke English. Despite the language barrier, the hospitality and budding friendships were evident. One gentleman, who taught computer classes at the school, proudly showed my mother and me pictures of his cats on his cell phone. He was convinced we were from Hollywood. Kenneth sat near a jovial man, also a teacher at the school, and talked about tennis and high school. We spent almost three hours at dinner that night, getting to know one another (everyone stood up for introductions), toasting and feasting on traditional Japanese cuisine.
The next morning, Inoue-san took us to see some of Otsu's historical landmarks. To Toshi's delight, we first stopped at the monument that marked the 1891 attempted assassination of Russia's Crown Prince Nicholas II. We then took the train to visit Miidera Temple, which overlooks Japan's biggest lake, LakeBiwa. After soaking in the sights, we walked the short distance to OCHS for the flag ceremony.
We were greeted by familiar faces as we entered the room where the ceremony took place. We quickly removed our shoes, stepped into the provided slippers, and made our way to the tables that were arranged for the presentation. The principal, the president of the Alumni Association, and Kuriyama-san's sister and best friend all made speeches. Although I couldn't understand what they were saying, it was evident from their facial expressions that they were passionate about their words. My father then stood up to make a speech.
"Over sixty years ago Kuriyama-san and my father were fine young men," he said. "Kuriyama-san was captain of the rowing team and my father was captain of the basketball team. They both had much to look forward to in their lives. They were both called to serve their countries and they both answered that calling. Unfortunately, this placed them on opposing sides of a terrible conflict."
I was very impressed with my father's speech. As Toshi translated, it was clear that Kuriyama-san's friends and family appreciated his message as well.
He closed by deeming the flag a token of peace and friendship.
"I also know that Kuriyama-san and my father are happy with the peace and prosperity that was born out of that terrible war," he said." "On behalf of my father, my family and the Hasegawas' I would like to present the flag to you in remembrance of Kuriyama-san and as a small symbol of the peace that our countries now enjoy."
Toshi then spoke. He referred to the Great War not only as a conflict between two governments, but also as a human struggle. The war was fought by soldiers, and this was the story of two young men. He also noted that this was Kuriyama-san's homecoming, and because my grandfather picked up the flag over 60 years ago, this was made possible.
After the speeches, we exchanged omiagi, or gifts, with Kuriyama-san's family and school administrators. We were then taken upstairs to see the flag on display. It has been beautifully framed, and is a part of an exhibit on OCHS's history organized by the alumni association.
The "flag story" received attention from local and national media sources. There were multiple cameramen and reporters present at the ceremony. Prior to our arrival, the story was featured on a news station in Tokyo. After the ceremony, reporters interviewed my father and Toshi. One man, Kentaro Suzuki, even questioned Jack, Kenneth and I.
A lot of people have questioned if it was at all awkward, returning the flag of a soldier that was killed in combat in a battle that my grandfather was in. Although I had my doubts going in, the experience proved to be everything but. The feelings were nothing but hospitable and warm, and the peace message transcended all potential negativities.
Our trip to Japan was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all feel very blessed to have been a part of such a significant cultural exchange. We made friends that we will hopefully stay in contact with, and learned lessons I hope we will never forget. This experience took the history out of AMSCO and Brinkley and laid it right in front of our eyes. It showed us the human aspect of war, as Toshi spoke about, in a way I never thought possible.