Messages from home
The Good Luck Flag, known as hinomaru yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き) in the Japanese language, was a traditional gift for Japanese servicemen deployed during the military campaigns of the Empire of Japan, though most notably during World War II. The flag given to a soldier was a national flag signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.
The Japanese call their country's flag hinomaru, which translates literally to "sun-round", referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning "sideways-writing". The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as "To write sideways around the red sun", describing the appearance of the signed flag.
The hinomaru yosegaki was traditionally presented to a man prior to his induction into the Japanese armed forces or before deployment. Generally, relatives, neighbors, friends, and co-workers of the person receiving the flag would write their names, good luck messages, exultations, or other personal messages on the field of the flag. The writing usually flowed out sideways in a rayed pattern away from the red sun. However, if the messages became crowded, well-wishers improvised and wrote wherever they could squeeze in a message.
Normally, some kind of exhortation such as Bu un Chou kyu is written across the top within the white field. Loosely translated into English,Bu un Chou kyu means "May your military fortunes be long lasting." Dark, medium sized characters may normally be seen that run vertically down the right or left hand margin of the flag. These usually occur in one, two or three columns and are generally the names of the man receiving the flag, the date, and the name of the individual or organization presenting the gift to him. The kanji characters were typically written with a calligraphy brush (fude) and ink. While it was normally the custom to sign only around the red center of the flag, some examples may be found with characters written upon the red center as well.
When the custom of writing on flags began is up for debate. Some sources indicate that signed flags became part of the military man's off-to-war gear, along with a "Thousand-stitch sash" (senninbari), during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895.) Any good luck flags that pre-date the Manchurian Incident (1931) should be considered rare. It is generally agreed that most hinomaru yosegaki seen today come from just before or during the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945.)
For the military man stationed far away from home and loved ones, the hinomaru yosegaki offered communal hopes and prayers to the owner every time the flag was unfolded. It was believed that the flag, with its many signatures and slogans of good luck, would provide a combined force or power to see its owner through tough times. Furthermore, it reminded him in a material way to do his duty. The performance of that duty meant that the warrior was not expected to return home from battle. Great honor was brought upon the family of those whose sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers died in the service of country and Emperor. The belief of self-sacrifice was a central one within Japanese culture and was much exalted during World War II. Culturally, the Japanese believed that in doing one's duty, the soldier, sailor, or aviator must offer up his life freely to the Emperor just as thecherry blossoms fall freely from the tree at the height of their beauty. As part of the samurai or bushido code (Way of the Warrior), this worldview was brought forward into twentieth-century Japan from the old warring days of feudal Japan and was impressed upon twentieth-century soldiers, most of whom descended from non-samurai families.
U.S. Veteran Accounts
In Sid Phillips's book, You'll Be Sor-ree, he describes the role of Japanese flags played in the Pacific War, "Every Jap seemed to have a personal silk flag with Jap writing all over it and a large meatball in the center." There are numerous books describing these souvenirs taken home by U.S. Marines and U.S. Army Infantry. Another example is Eugene Sledge's book With the Old Breed, "The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred." In a 2008 article of the Monroe News, a World War II veteran talked about the flag brought from the Pacific theatre. He said he did not search every Japanese soldier he shot, as there was usually not enough time. He found the flag while fighting on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. He said soldiers did not take large souvenirs, such as a katana (sword), for fear that someone would steal it; a flag could be easily concealed. The flag was being returned to Japan through Dr. Yasuhiko Kaji who searches for the owner and/or their family.
Effort to Return Flags To Japanese Families
OBON 2015 is a private organization with the mission to return all of the good luck flags to their families in Japan by August 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Obon is Japanese for the month of August. As of July 2014 they have returned ten flags and have more than 20 other flags they are currently working on returning. Published news stories and interviews indicate that the effort to return the flags is seen as a humanitarian act which can provide closure for the family members.
Preservation and Restoration
The United States' National World War II Museum publishes a preservation guide with a list of recommendations for storing and preserving synthetic materials such as flags. Such artifacts should be stored in climate-controlled areas, never in attics or basements, and should also be kept away from bright light such as sunlight and fluorescent lights which have large amounts of UV rays. If intended for display, a flag or any textile artifact should be supported by a backing, never allowed to hang by its own weight. If storing in a box, make sure the textile is flat with no creases. Do not use sealed plastic bags; however, muslin bags can be used. Human beings are a hazard to these artifacts as well, since hands can transfer oils, sweat, or make-up to the artifact and cause damage. Wear clean cotton or nylon gloves when handling heirloom textiles.