Until about sixth or seventh grade, I thought that my last name was unique. Or maybe it’s what I wanted to believe, that I was this unique person from a unique, tiny town in Southern Illinois. But, my naive, little world was shattered one day when I cracked open the phone book and found that a sizable portion of the page was dedicated to all the Williams’s around Lawrenceville. If there were this many Williams’s living in a town of forty-five hundred people, then imagine what that number is in bigger towns. So much for being unique.
Turns out that the original owner of this flag also has quite a common last name as well. On Thursday I received an email from the Japanese consulate in Chicago. I was told that the soldier’s last name is Ueda and that he was possibly a graduate or student at the Tagawa Agricultural and Forestry school in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Just those few details alone made things feel even more personal. Up to this point, it has been easy to merely say this is a flag of a fallen soldier, because my mind had nothing concrete to grasp onto. Without any information about this man, there was still a human disconnect. But knowing his name and what he was up to before getting drafted makes it feel personal. I can start to see the form of a real person emerging. It’s like watching an artist draw someone and seeing the lines on the paper finally come together to form the features of his subject.
It’s also personal, because like Mr. Ueda, I was at a similar point in my life when I left for Iraq. I had just graduated from college, but a few short months later, I was riding a bus to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma to start training for war. And several months after that, I was officially in the middle of that war.
Knowing Mr. Ueda’s name is certainly helpful, but since it’s one of the most common last names in Japan, it doesn’t make the search any easier. Although it is easier than not having a name at all. The man at the consulate told me that the soldier’s first name may be located somewhere near the four o’clock position on the flag, but he couldn’t make out the characters.
Before I mailed the flag to OBON 2015, I sent them some more pictures of the flag, and they emailed me the following:
It is a beautiful and complex hinomaru. Generally the penmanship of one person signing is respected by others. I don't recall ever seeing calligraphy on top of calligraphy like I see in this hinomaru. In some places I see three layers of writing! This is unusual. Our researchers are going to really enjoy having this puzzle to study. It is a very difficult flag.
Typically we see the first and last name together, in the same penmanship. Then we see several similar names, representing maybe uncles or brothers. That does not exist here in the photographs you sent. We see the last name, but not the first……for sure. However, as the consulate suggested, it might be hidden somewhere.
If all goes well, OBON should receive the flag on Monday. So updates may start to get pretty interesting in the next few days.
In the mean time, it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Ueda.