When Jarat Chopra handed over to Tamotsu Shikata his late elder brother Hideo’s photograph album late last month, the moment was solemn, of course, but a little comical, too.
Chopra was late for the “returning ceremony” in Ayabe, Kyoto, Japan. He missed alighting at the right station, and the cab he caught took a long detour. “The album had taken 30 years to get back, so, perhaps, for another 30 minutes, Hideo wanted to look at the countryside before arriving,” remarked a mortified Chopra, 55, as teary-eyed people broke into laughter. Then, when Tamotsu opened the tightly-bound album, it somewhat disintegrated and pages flew out. Tamotsu — recounting his last memory of bidding Hideo goodbye under, perhaps, a tree — said he’ll fix it while recognising his sisters and relatives in it.
For 40 years, Chopra had in his care a photograph album dating to World War II. It belonged to Japanese soldier Hideo Shikata who was killed at the age of 24. After a three-decade search, Chopra came across OBON Society, based in Astoria, Oregon, US, and with their help returned the album to Hideo’s family.
Containing about 25 sepia-toned pictures, along with an old clipping from a newspaper and a note in Japanese with names and dates, the album shows Hideo in uniform and convalescing, his family, home-front community, and frontline comrades. “A war trophy is not more than a material object, but that object in its rightful context invariably has transcendental significance and can have a profound transformative effect,” says Chopra, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Welcome home. You have made it, at last,” is what Tamotsu said — in a trembling voice and fighting tears — to the album, which stood in for his dead brother, Chopra recounts. “Japanese adult men do not often reveal their emotions, they conceal what they feel,” says Keiko Ziak, 51, who runs the OBON Society with partner Rex.
At lunch, Tamotsu told Chopra that “at the time of the war, a public notice announced that the soldiers were killed by a bomb. The authorities wanted to convey the notion of a quick death”. After the ceremony, they went to the dead brothers’ “grave” (their eldest brother, too, was drafted during WWII, in China, but he returned injured and died), and to Tamotsu’s house, passing by the house where the brothers were born.
“When any trace of a person gone missing returns, whether a shoe, wallet, pair of glasses, diary or shirt, it brings some relief, spiritual closure to the family. This happens every time we return something to the family, a personal item which is the only trace of that person to have ever come home,” says Rex, 66. In WWII, adds Rex, 6.3 million Japanese were drafted into the army and 2.1 million in the navy. Of these, 2.12 million were “killed in action”, and the remains of over half were never recovered. Till date, 1.13 million are “missing in action”.
Hideo was one of them. Drafted at age 22, he was killed in action on April 1, 1945, in Leyte, Philippines. His family resides in the small rice-farming village Tada-cho, Ayabe City, in Kyoto Prefecture. Hideo, who was second of eight siblings, is survived by three younger brothers and a sister. “One of the photographs in the album is a curious portrait of a family out in the fields working. Such photographs were uncommon, as people typically dressed in their best clothing (to pose) in front of a house or temple,” says Rex, who later learnt that this photo was sent to Hideo to tell him that in his absence, the younger siblings and women are farming. Hideo’s father, a carpenter-farmer, depended on him during the planting season. Tamotsu, 89, the fourth son, was a carpenter who now tends to his garden.
Hideo’s family had sent him the photo album, letters and a newspaper clipping telling him how impressed the then Japanese premier Hideki Tojo was with him.
The OBON Society, which started as an idea in 2009, borrowed its name from a traditional Japanese season/holiday. “Obon in Japanese is equivalent to Memorial Day in America or Day of the Dead in Mexico. When ancestors’ spirits return to earth, the Japanese visit homelands/relatives, clean grave stones. In 1945, the atomic bombings and declaration of war on Japan by Russia occurred in the middle of the traditional Obon season, and Japan gave up the fight on August 15, the final day of the season. We wanted to bring home the spirits of missing family from the war,” says Keiko. After years of research and outreach, talismans of protection (yosegaki hinomaru or good-luck flags and senninbari or a belt of thousand stitches, sometimes with five yen coins sewn into them), photograph albums, notebooks, postcards, diaries, etc., from WWII started pouring in. So far, the OBON Society — with a newfound association with Nippon Izokukai (Japan War-Bereaved Family Association) — has returned more than 300 items and is searching for the families of about 900 items more.
In 2007, Keiko’s uncle received a call from a Tokyo hotel concierge about a Canadian man who left him a packet — it was her grandpa’s good-luck flag. Keiko’s grandfather had gone missing after being drafted during WWII and had, presumably, died in Burma. The return of his flag was no less than a miracle for the family. Keiko and Rex began their efforts to “bring another miracle to another family”.
Nobody understands better than Chopra how much items belonging to lost family members mean. A descendant of Mulraj Chopra, the diwan of Multan and leader of the Sikhs in the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), Chopra has been awaiting the return of his ancestor’s sword, surrendered at the end of the siege of Multan on January 22, 1849. He has also been looking for traces of his granduncle, Lt Col Diwan Chand Chopra, a medical officer in the British army who was posted in Malaya and vanished in 1942. Diwan Chand Chopra is believed to have been on board the Dutch ship SS Rooseboom, which was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine en route to Ceylon, on March 1, 1942. The family received neither his medals nor any confirmation of his death. Every now and then something surfaces, like Diwan Chand’s last war diary, written hastily in pencil, given to the Australians before his departure from Singapore.
Mulraj’s sword surfaced last year at an auction in London. It had been taken by General William Sampson Whish, who had taken Multan for the British. The sword remained in Whish’s family before being bequeathed in 1965 to the Royal Artillery Institution Ltd, a private charity. Chopra is awaiting a response to his request for its return, which, Rex adds, “can possibly be the beginning of the process that brings back to India treasures the British hauled away.” If any former Indian soldier who had brought back “battlefield souvenirs” of deceased Japanese soldiers from Burma during WWII, and if their families want to return them, OBON Society will undertake the task.
While Chopra’s family was trying to find out what happened to his granduncle, they came into contact with individuals who had served in the war, and, over the years, given them a number of objects. “I received the Shikata album this way. It had probably already passed through several hands,” says Chopra, who has relinquished all items of war in his collection. So far, only the Shikata album has reached its home.
It was the return of a sword and not the album that was on his mind when he contacted OBON Society. Chopra was barely in his teens when he received a Yamashiro samurai sword, dated to the 1870s and refitted for service in WWII. He had made multiple unsuccessful attempts to return it to its rightful family, before finally connecting with OBON Society. Besides this, he gave to them a collection of hundreds of personal photos and albums, a military helmet, military hats, bayonet and some ephemera. He says, “The Shikata album, like other talismans of protection, is a deeply personal item. I was acutely conscious of this and wanted to find the home shown in the pictures.” The newspaper clipping inside gave the soldier’s and his father’s names and the name of a suburb in a city that no longer exists. But with old maps and lists, the prefecture was located. “Japan has very strict privacy laws that protect their citizens from invasive intrusions,” says Rex, “this slows down our search, complicating the process, but we’ve learnt to search without any privacy violation.”
A former UN coordinator, who has worked in Somalia, and taught at Brown University, US, Chopra, says, “Having served in more than a dozen conflict zones, I’m no stranger to trauma in the making. It persists, transferred down generations. Here we are, almost 75 years after the end of WWII, still picking up pieces. In my family, the loss of my granduncle is unresolved, as are the events of Multan. The long-term disturbing effects of historical experiences should be a cautionary tale whenever the drums of war beat: for wars don’t end with the cessation of hostilities.”
As the items are prepared for shipping to Japan, at their “Fulfillment Office”, Rex says, “Five flags are going home to five families. Five miracles! More people are contacting us every day, we have to work hard to keep up.”
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