When Yasuhiko Kaji heard about someone seeking assistance in returning the photo album of a Japanese soldier found on Saipan to its original owner,
he “enlisted” in a repatriation effort of his own.
As many belongings of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers are sold at flea markets in the United States featuring military-related items, Kaji began purchasing a Hinomaru flag filled with farewell comments, a pocket notebook, picture and other keepsakes.
When the mementos bear the owners’ addresses or the names of their hometowns, he contacted their families to hand the items over. Some people who learned about his activities have even made donations over the years.
“If souls exist in this world, I would like them to return to their families along with their keepsakes,” said Kaji.
Kaji, a doctor from Mie Prefecture who lives in the United States, has been returning the personal possessions of Japanese soldiers killed in World War II to their bereaved families for half a century.
Kaji, 85, who resides in Ohio, began 50 years ago seeking the relatives of Japanese service members who died in the bloodiest battlefields in the war, so that their Hinomaru rising sun flag, letter, photo and other articles taken by U.S. military personnel can be repatriated.
Having a grandfather and father working as military doctors, Kaji enrolled in Nagoya University’s school of medicine, studied at a graduate school and then started working as a researcher at a U.S. college.
He later opened an obstetric clinic in the United States.
Around 1970, a woman who later became Kaji’s wife was asked by an American friend to help repatriate the photo album found on Saipan. That started Kaji on his long path to returning the wartime souvenirs brought back to the United States.
Kiyoshi Nishiha, a close high school friend of Kaji, opened a dedicated website around 2004 to assist in his efforts. More than 20 items collected by Kaji and shown on the site have been returned to their bereaved families.
After Nishiha died in 2010, his eldest daughter joined Kaji’s project according to the wishes of her late father. A friend of Kaji, who is a retired U.S. service member, also started assisting in the effort.
One of those new members, Chizuko Jaggard, now 67, who hails from Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, moved to Illinois after graduating from a university. She found a Hinomaru flag while sorting through the possessions five years ago of her late father-in-law, a former U.S. Marine.
Hoping to repatriate the flag, Jaggard contacted Kaji’s group, called Project Returned Memories Kiseki, through his site to join the activity. The group currently comprises Kaji and two others living in the United States and four people in Japan.
In November 2018, Jaggard visited Emi Nomura, 54, who lives in Yokohama, and her father, who resides in the Goto island chain off Nagasaki Prefecture. She had with her an old letter penned by Nomura’s uncle, Shigeo Yamaguchi, which is addressed to his supervisor at the company where he worked before going to the front.
Yamaguchi was killed in fighting in the Marianas in the western Pacific around July 1944, according to Nomura.
Reading the letter, Nomura felt that “my young uncle must have had many things he wanted to do after returning from the war.”
The returned missive was one of 11 letters found among the personal possessions of a deceased U.S. Marine in May last year.
Jaggard, who has also contributed articles to newspapers calling for the repatriation of mementos of the war dead, has been searching antique shops and estate sales for keepsakes of Japanese soldiers for five years. She is concerned about the decreasing number of bereaved family members over time.
She also said some younger bereaved relatives are not interested in their ancestors and are unwilling to accept their families’ keepsakes.
“I want to return mementos in a way that both recipients and senders will feel happy about,” Jaggard said.
For more details on the activity, contact Project Returned Memories Kiseki at (firstname.lastname@example.org)