University to return Japanese ‘good luck’ war flags as part of decolonisation efforts

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The repatriation of two Japanese flags has been approved by the University and Library Collections Service’s Acquisitions and Disposal Panel, in collaboration with the Japanese government.

Taken as souvenirs during the Second World War, the flags will be returned to the next-of-kin of the original owners.

The two flags were taken from the body of a Japanese solider by Allied servicemen searching for souvenirs.

Known as hinomaru yosegaki (or ‘good luck’) flags, they were traditionally presented before a soldier’s deployment or induction into the military. In Japanese tradition, the flag offers communal hopes and prayers to the owner when it is unfolded.

Many relatives of Japanese casualties believed that their family member’s spirit lives within the hinomaru yosegaki. As many have no recorded grave, the return of hinomaru yosegaki flags to the family of soldiers can be very personally significant.

The decision by the Acquisitions and Disposal panel was made following an incident in 2018, where police were called to remove several Japanese artefacts from the home of an elderly woman, who said her family had held the items for several years.

The artefacts included one of the flags and a samurai sword, which the woman feared may be used against her if it remained in her home. They have been held in Durham’s Oriental Museum, opposite Van Mildert College, since, while the Museum attempted to contact the relatives of the deceased soldier via the Japanese government.

“There was a tradition in Japan in the 20th century where silk flags would be signed by people”

Rachel Barclay

Liz Waller, Director of Library Services at Durham University, told Palatinate: “In May 2021, Durham University assisted in the return of two Second World War-era Japanese flags to relatives of their original owners.

“The first flag had been in the University’s collections for several decades but was not fully identified until 2018. The second was not part of the University’s collections, but temporarily held by the University at the request of Durham Constabulary until it could be returned to Japan.

“The return of the flags was arranged through the Japanese Government, which was responsible for contact with the relatives of the original owners.”

Commenting at the time, Oriental Museum Rachel Barclay said: “There was a tradition in Japan in the 20th century where silk flags would be signed by people, sometimes friends or family, they would then be folded very small and kept within the soldier’s uniform as good fortune”.

Announced in the 2020/21 University Library and Collections Annual Report, the repatriation of the flags is part of the ongoing active decolonisation work undertaken by University Libraries and Collections.

A working group within the department will be established during the current academic year to support its work around decolonisation, diversification and repatriation.

Image by Durham University

This article has been amended since publication to reflect that the Museum did not contact relatives directly, only via the Japanese government, and to clarify the University’s intentions when first receiving the items.

6 thoughts on “University to return Japanese ‘good luck’ war flags as part of decolonisation efforts

  • Japan was never colonized but was defeated after starting a War on Hitler’s side (or more so on their own, but never mind). Do you mean Great Britain regrets its own victories?!

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  • This is insane. Japan was a colonial nation. They conquered Korea in the beginning of the Century. Then they decimated China and forced the Chinese into a state of slavery and suffering that is beyond comprehension. As an American this is especially enraging. We are not saint in regards to colonialism, but they attacked us and planned to unleash biological weapons, and napalm to annihilate the West Coast. They murdered our POW’s. This is a war trophy, not an artifact from a colonized nation. You would think the UK would know that considering they owned 25% of the Earth’s landmass at one point. Why not return Indian or Chinese Artifacts? As those were STOLEN this flag was EARNED. Down with imperialism!

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  • The absolute state of U.K. universities even considering Imperial Japan as somehow colonised. Beyond time the state removes all support for the financial support of these establishments.

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  • I’m not sure who’s terming this action as part of ‘decolonisation efforts’, is that coming from the university, or from Palatinate? The repatriation of the flags, particularly since one of them was not even part of the collection, is no bad thing. However, given the nature and history of these objects, describing this as ‘decolonisation’ just comes across as a flimsy attempt to appease agitators and is likely to only increase calls for repatriation of some of the more high-profile exhibits.

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    • It is the University’s description. In the official statement to the University Senate about the incident, the Museum used the return of the flags as an example of their progress on decolonisation. Agreed this should be clearer in the article, however.

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    • I would agree. This seems to be a repatriation of a personal nature. The atrocities committed by Japan shouldn’t deprive a family, who likely had no power or part in those actions, of the right to remember a family member. And if the museum had no use for the item, it seems appropriate for it to be returned to those who would value it. Whoever labelled this decolonisation has acted irresponsibly. I almost get the sense that this label was deliberately used in a semi-conscious urge to provoke.

      Reply

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