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.
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.