The yosegaki hinomaru my great uncle James brought back to the United States. Click on the image to make it larger.

Growing up, I remember a dingy, old Japanese flag my dad had stuffed away in a filing cabinet in our basement. It sat in a plastic container, on top of some Susan B. Anthony coins, fifty-cent pieces, a couple of two-dollar bills, a holographic Michael Jordan Basketball card cira 1990 and an assortment of other novelties we’d forget about these items for years at a time.

Each time someone would pull the flag out, my dad would tell the same story, “Your great uncle gave that to me. During World War II he killed a Japanese soldier, who was carrying that flag in his helmet.” It was an impressive story, all two sentences of it, but over time it lost its luster. 

It wasn’t until recent years that my dad added another sentence to the story, “And I’d like to find the family of the soldier and return the flag to them.”

In my head I’d roll my eyes, thinking, “Yeah right, dad.” Us Williams’s like to make lofty statements with no follow through. I was sure that’s all this would ever be: A story about the idea of a story. 

But then my girlfriend, Kay saw the flag. And when she’s around, things get done. 

“I have a friend who can read Japanese.” Kay said. And the next thing I know, my dad is packing the flag away into a Ziploc bag so we can take it back to Chicago. It turned out that Kay’s friend couldn’t read Japanese. So when I got home that night I thought, “Why don’t I put a picture up on Facebook and see if anyone could help translate this thing?”

To be honest, I didn’t expect much at all. But I ended up getting an overwhelming response from people offering to help. Turns out the flag is called Yosegaki Hinomaru in Japanese, or ‘good luck flag.’ They were given to Japanese servicemen deployed during military campaigns by their families, most notably during World War II. 

From what I understand, these flags were taken off the bodies of Japanese soldiers as souvenirs. But in many instances, these flags are the only shot many Japanese families have at finding closure about what happened to their loved ones. Knowing that, returning this flag isn’t something my family and I should do. It’s something we have to do.