Japanese flag from WWII discovered at New Trier reunited with family of fallen soldier

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A Japanese flag from World War II discovered during construction at New Trier High School's Winnetka Campus in 2015 has finally been reunited with the family of the fallen soldier who carried it into battle. Thanks to the efforts of New Trier faculty members, Japanese language students and a nonprofit organization dedicated to returning battle flags to families in Japan, 90-year-old Teruo Shimizu now has a cherished memento from his brother, who died in battle in 1944 at age 21.

The nonprofit OBON SOCIETY returned the flag this summer after using clues from the flag and New Trier's research to locate the family of the soldier, Tokichi Shimizu, in Japan. Now New Trier Japanese language students and members of the Japanese Culture Club, inspired by the messages they exchanged with Teruo Shimizu, have raised $1,766 for OBON, an Oregon-based nonprofit that works to provide opportunities for reconciliation between families through the return of personal items taken during war.

After learning that Tokichi Shimizu's family had been located, current and former New Trier Japanese language students wrote letters in Japanese to Teruo Shimizu describing their involvement, sending pictures, and offering their condolences for his loss. He replied with a letter that Japanese 4/AP students translated with the help of their Japanese language teacher, Naomi Suzuki. Faculty members Gardiner Funo O'Kain and Susan Holderread, who also were involved in the flag's progress since its discovery in 2015, assisted in communications with OBON.

"Writing and receiving letters from Mr. Shimizu was a really valuable experience for me and everyone else in the Japanese program," said Bennett J. Blake, a senior in AP Japanese 4. "Being able to write letters in Japanese and then translate the letter we received was an engaging real-world application of our Japanese knowledge. We in the Japanese program are happy to have returned the flag to its rightful owner."

Japanese flags like Tokichi Shimizu's, known as yosegaki hinomaru , were commonly given to soldiers by family members as tokens of protection on the battlefield. Teruo Shimizu told the students that he was grateful for their letters and their efforts to return the flag to his family.

"The 45 letters that I received from students were very heartfelt," he wrote. "During the 90 years of my life, I have never received letters that moved me so much. Thank you. I want to express my gratitude."

Teruo Shimizu said his late brother, whose rank was equivalent to an army private, was a border security officer in Manchuria before he was deployed to the Marshall Islands. Later that year, the Shimizu family received a report that Tokichi had died there. Tokichi was the oldest son of six siblings, and Teruo said that he and his 87-year-old sister are the only siblings alive today.

"Now, I am 90 years old, I run a small farm, and I am doing well," he wrote. "I pray for the further development of New Trier High School. I also pray for the good health and development/growth of New Trier High School students. On behalf of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, I want to give thanks."

Tokichi Shimizu's flag was inscribed with several messages of love and encouragement in Japanese and accompanied by a portion of a 1944 newspaper photo of U.S. soldiers with the caption "To the conquerors" when it was discovered at New Trier in a mechanical area during preparations for construction at the campus later that year. It was common for U.S. soldiers to return home with battlefield souvenirs. New Trier social studies and Japanese language students translated and researched the flag at that time, and OBON SOCIETY confirmed the flag's authenticity based on photos.

After hearing from Teruo Shimizu, current Japanese language students and members of Japanese Culture Club wanted to help further OBON's cause. In November, they sold $1 tickets for a Japanese restaurant raffle with the help of local restaurants Torino Ramen, Ao Sushi, Akai Hana, Nobori Sushi, Sea Ranch, and Gabutto Burger, which all donated between $40-$100 worth of gift cards. Club members also sold ramen and onigiri rice balls during lunch periods at New Trier to raise funds.

"The passion that my students exhibited toward returning the flag, corresponding with the owner's brother, and raising money for OBON SOCIETY filled me with tremendous pride," Suzuki said. "It was rewarding to see how they connected to this 90-year-old Japanese man in his native language. We were all touched after reading Mr. Shimizu's heartwarming response."

The co-founders of OBON SOCIETY, Rex and Keiko Ziak, were also touched by the connections students made and by their fundraising efforts.

"Every penny you earned for us will be spent wisely, and all the money will go towards the return of more Yosegaki Hinomaru to families in Japan," the Ziaks said in an email to New Trier. "… Again, thank you very, very much for your hard work and generosity. Many more families will benefit from our work thanks to your generous support of our efforts."

Junior Katelin Ambrosino, a student in Japanese 4, said she was inspired to help raise money for OBON SOCIETY to further promote reconciliation between Japanese and American families "after seeing how much time and money Mr. and Mrs. Ziak put into running OBON SOCIETY, as well as the happiness that their work brought to not only the families in Japan, but also to the people who were involved in the process."

"We got to experience first-hand the joy that Mr. Shimizu felt, as well as the joy we felt from being involved, and I hope that this experience will encourage others to continue to put aside our differences and see how much we all have in common," Ambrosino said.

To learn more about OBON SOCIETY or to donate, visit http://obonsociety.org/