When Morey Skaret, resident of Fauntleroy (King County), now 95 years old, returned to Seattle after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, he brought with him a Japanese banzai flag he had come across in the South Pacific. These flags were carried into battle by Japanese soldiers. Over the years the feeling grew in Morey that the flag should be returned to the family of the soldier to whom it had belonged. This People's History, written by Morey Skaret's friend and neighbor Ron Richardson (d. 2011), recounts the inspiring story of how total strangers from Seattle, the Aleutian Islands, Japan, and even Toledo, Ohio, worked together to help Morey complete what he considered an act of reconciliation. When they started, the name of the Japanese soldier was unknown, and the only clues were markings on the flag written in a form of Japanese that was no longer in use. But through perseverance, kindness, and the power of the Internet, this band of allies was able to determine the soldier's home village, and this led to his two surviving children. Finally, after 65 years, the flag made its way home, and Morey's act of reconciliation was complete.
Morey Skaret, World War II, and a Japanese Banzai Flag
Morey Skaret is my 95-year-old friend and neighbor in Fauntleroy. He was in the Seattle Police Department on December 7, 1941, the day that changed lives for everyone. He had skippered tugs in Puget Sound at one time and was a good fit for the Coast Guard, so he signed up to go to war. Following training in Florida, Morey’s first Coast Guard assignment was along the North Atlantic coast. He then was transferred to the South Pacific, where he was the skipper of FP157. Coast Guard skippers played a crucial role in the war, commanding hundreds of craft carrying out the amphibious attacks that proved decisive in the Pacific.
Morey took part in many of the military operations in New Guinea and the Philippines. Among his memories are meeting Douglas MacArthur, having a surprise reunion with a friend who had been released from Corregidor, ferrying troops and supplies into combat zones and moving body bags and wounded out, delivering weapons to Filipino guerillas, and seeing battlefields scattered with the terrible remains of war. These memories have lingered for more than 60 years.
Along the way Morey came across a Japanese banzai flag, which he kept as a souvenir of war. But over time Morey became uncomfortable having the flag, and the memories woven into it, in his home. He felt the rightful place for the flag was with the family of the Japanese soldier who had brought it into battle. Returning it was to be Morey’s act of reconciliation. He hoped the writing on the highly decorated flag would give clues to where the soldier’s home was and, perhaps, to his identity.
The Quest for Reconciliation Begins
May Shimbo is a regular visitor to Fauntleroy Cove, and like most folks in the area, she is a friends with Morey Skaret. She is also one of the generation of Japanese Americans in Western Washington who were sent to the Minidoka Internment camp during World War II.
May offered to help decode the writing on the flag. She and her sister-in-law, Etsu Shimbo, paid a visit to Morey in the early spring of 2007. From Etsu, who had been born in Japan, we learned that these flags were common among Japanese soldiers and were presented to a soldier by his community and family. It was also common to include poetry and good luck messages on the flags. Etsu explained that the writing on the flag was an old-style script and no longer in use. We would need to find someone who could translate this type of script. Things were not getting easier.
Still looking about locally for a clue as to how to proceed, I paid a visit to an acquaintance, Tom Ikeda, of the Densho Project, to see if he would have any suggestions. Tom is well-connected in Seattle's Japanese community and was very understanding of Morey’s situation. He was willing to spread the word, but he explained that Morey’s quest was outside the scope of Densho’s purpose, which is to collect the history of the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. The organization's goal is to remind and educate folks about this grim internment experience. Tom told me that the word Densho can mean "reparation," "remembrance," and even "reconciliation," meanings that certainly defined Morey’s quest.
Help from The North American Post
Ken Sato is president of the Japanese Community Service of Seattle and a former teacher and coach in Seattle schools. He is also affiliated with the Japanese Language School in Seattle. Ken introduced me to Shihou Sasaki of the North American Post, someone who could get the word out to Seattle's Japanese community about Morey’s quest.
The North American Post is a newspaper of the Japanese community in Seattle, and is printed in both English and Japanese. Mr. Sasaki said that he was preparing a series of articles about World War II, and he thought Morey’s story would fit this theme. After interviewing Morey, Mr. Sasaki ran the article on August 22, 2007, under the headline “Banzai Flag To Be Returned.” We hoped that someone reading the story would have a suggestion on how to go about finding where the flag rightfully belonged.
A Buddhist Blessing
During the same period, I visited the Seattle Buddhist Church. This was another long shot, but I thought perhaps someone there had traveled down the same road and could provide an encouraging suggestion. I met Teruo Yorita, office manager of the church. Mr. Yorita was Japanese American and had been in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in the 1960s. He understood what it meant to be in combat. At a deep level, he connected with what was driving Morey to carry out his act of reconciliation.
Mr. Yorita had no specific ideas on how to carry out the project, but he offered something very powerful. He said to pass along a message to Morey. It was: “By making the decision to return the flag, and acting to do so, you have been successful.” This was a perfect Buddhist answer to the situation, and it gave us all some needed peace of mind.
The Search: From West Seattle to Japan to Ohio
Help soon came from an unexpected source -- Jeff Volland, a friend who lives in West Seattle. When I told Jeff about the flag project, he passed along the story to his cousin, Tim Jensen and Tim’s wife, Mayu, who live in Nagano, Japan. The Jensens, in turn, sent us a link to a website, The Aleutians Home Page. The Aleutian Islands were invaded by Japanese in the early stages of World War II, and I later learned from Mr. Sasaki of the North American Post that his father had been a part of this invasion. The Aleutians Home Page website was provided because it had a link titled “Let War Memorabilia Come Home.” This link ultimately led us to Dr. Yashuhiko Kaji, of Toledo, Ohio.
Dr. Kaji was born in Japan and trained as a doctor and has been practicing medicine for years in Toledo. It has become his mission and passion to help return war items to families in Japan, especially banzai flags, and he provided the address of the government ministry in Japan that helps track down the origin of these flags.
The power of the Internet is amazing. We had gone from Seattle, to Japan, to the Aleutians, to Toledo, to Seattle, and eventually to Tokyo. I took this journey while sitting at my computer in Fauntleroy. None of this could have happened just a few years ago.
A Long Wait, and Disappointing News from Japan
We contacted the recommended government ministry in Japan, and Mr. Tatsunori Sato sent Morey a form to fill out. Mr. Sato was from an impressive-sounding organization in Tokyo entitled the Office of Foreign Affairs, Planning Division of War Victims' Relief, Social Welfare and War Victims' Relief Bureau, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Tokyo. They added Morey’s request for information to other requests in the ministry’s database. It was still a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but this office had done this before and had the necessary resources. Interestingly, they wanted to be sure Morey was not expecting money in return. They also warned Morey that there was a chance that the family, if found, might refuse to take the flag. But with nothing to lose, Morey proceeded anyway.
We waited patiently. A year later, we still had heard nothing from the Office of Foreign Affairs. I made a visit to the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle. Aki Ohsawa and Yukio Motoe of the consulate staff looked at the flag photo and listened to my concern about the lack of response. As there had been no reply from Tokyo, Aki Ohsawa suggested that Morey should consider sending the flag to the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. This is a Shinto shrine dedicated to warriors, where "the divine spirits of those who have made the great sacrifice are invited."
In time we did hear from the Office of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, which wrote, “We apologize for not having been able to fulfill your request and seek your understanding in this regard.” We resigned ourselves to the probability that we would turn the flag over to the Yasukuni Shrine without ever having made contact with the soldier’s family.
Breakthrough! The Soldier's Village
In October 2008 I made another attempt to find someone who could possibly provide suggestions on how to proceed. I stopped by the offices of the Japan-American Society of Washington, located on the Seattle waterfront. One of the purposes of the Japan-American Society is to promote trade, business, and understanding between Japan and the United States.
The receptionist accepted a sheet describing the background of our project and offered me cup of tea. Acting executive director Tomoko Miwa appeared. She was in the office only a couple of days a week and, luckily, this was one of those days. Tomoko expressed an interest in the project, and within a week she called to say she would take on Morey’s quest. Tomoko explained that her uncle had been lost in World War II, and she understood the significance of what Morey was trying to do. We had found an extremely capable friend and ally, and without her our quest would have been dead in the water.
After examining the flag, Tomoko and her husband, Taro Miwa, were able to identify Takara-Mura in the Yamanashi Prefecture as the name of the village the flag came from. After months of frustration, this was a big breakthrough. But it was only the beginning. Tomoko contacted her friend, Ms. Sato, a photojournalist at Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, one of the oldest and largest newspapers in Japan. Ms. Sato, in turn, contacted Mr. Yusuke Tanako, who works for the Asahi Shimbun bureau in Yamanashi Prefecture.
A Family Found
Mr. Tanako went to work on the story. He contacted the Japan War-Bereaved Association in Yamanashi, and they searched archives and documents from the Takara-Mura village. Mr. Tanako called Morey for a phone interview. Morey had been to many spots in New Guinea and the Philippines. But the war was more than 60 years ago, and Morey could not recall precisely where he had come upon the flag.
Tomoko Miwa had taken detailed photos of the flag and forwarded them to Mr. Tanako, whose thorough detective work produced results. Mr. Tanako and members of the War-Bereaved Association relayed dramatic news. Even though the soldier’s name was not on the flag, other names led the investigators to conclude that the soldier was most likely Taizo Okuaki. They then tracked down Okuaki’s two children, Yasuji Okuaki and Masako Morishima.
At this point, they confirmed that it was indeed Taizo Okuaki’s flag. The children were very moved, and they agreed to accept the flag. Tomoko, Ms. Sato, Mr. Yusuke Tanako and the hard-working Japan War-Bereaved Association had performed a miracle.
A Flag Returned
From the family we learned much about Taizo Okuaki. Records indicated that, after joining the Army, Taizo was first sent to Manchuria. He later fought in the South Pacific, probably in the Philippines. To our knowledge, Taizo was never in New Guenea.
Amazingly, Taizo, though very ill, returned home at the end of the war. He died from his illness within a few months without telling anyone of his war experiences. Where had he been? How did he lose possession of his flag? Was he ever POW? Did he give the flag to another? We shall never know. While interviewing Morey for his article, Mr. Tanako had asked, “What would you say if you could meet Taizo Okuaki today?” Morey’s answer, “I would offer him my hand and tell him I would like to be your friend.”
Tomoko and her family had planned to visit their families in Japan in January. She took the flag with her and set out to personally deliver it to Taizo Okuaki’s children. Yasuji Okuaki was 2 years old when his father went off to war. Masako was not yet born.
Tomoko, the journalists, and Mr. Kokubo of the Japan War-Bereaved Association met with the family to transfer the flag. Friends and neighbors were present as well. By all accounts, it was a dramatic and splendid event. This was more than Morey could have expected, given the long road to the small village of Takara-Mura in Japan.
Thoughts and Thanks from the Soldier's Family
Upon receiving the flag, the children of Tazio Okuaki sent gifts of appreciation to Morey -- a silk scarf, a decorative Japanese fan, and a letter of appreciation:
We would like to express our deepest appreciation to you for keeping our father, Taizo's, flag for all these years.
How we wish to meet you in person and personally thank you ... but since we can't, we hope this letter carries our appreciation to you.
We were very surprised when we first heard that our father's flag was coming home. We were very happy to learn the news as we felt as if our father was coming home once again from the war.
Our father died on June 7th, 1946, at the age of 38 due to an illness he had contracted while on duty.
Though neither of us has been to a war, and though it's been over 64 years since the war ended, we still see ghosts of the war, even today, here and there in our lives and in our hearts.
Perhaps, that is because we grew up watching our mother, working tirelessly throughout her life to protect us and give us better lives after we lost our father. Our mother passed away ten years ago, at the age of 85, telling us to be good to each other.
Our hearts are not fully healed even today, but now we have our father's flag with us, which we will treat as our treasure, we shall continue to live our lives fully and sincerely.
Mr. Morey Skaret, please take care of yourself, and live a long, healthy, happy life, for our father too. Our prayers will be with you.
With much appreciation,
Yasuji Okuaki (68 years old)
Masako Morishima (66 years old)
An Effort That Has Touched Many Lives
Over the course of months and years, many folks helped the quest along, one step at a time. Each provided encouragement and understood what this project was about. Many gave a tip or suggestion that led to the next step and the next person who could make a contribution. All have been bound together and rewarded by the outcome of the project.
Mr. Sasaki of the North American Post wrote a follow-up story on the flag's journey in the February 18, 2009 edition. In it he quoted Dr. Kagi of Toledo: “Searching for the families of dead soldiers is like a relay. We can’t do this without help by each person through their hearts and hands.”
The real key to the success of the venture was Tomoko Miwa’s effort, which spanned the Pacific from Seattle to the village of Takara-Mura in Japan.
In early February 2009, Tomoko, Morey, myself, and our families got together to celebrate and reflect on these events. Tomoko summed it up “We couldn’t have done this had we lacked even one person from this project. Everyone played a part. Truly an international team effort.” The final words are from Morey Skaret’s message to the children of Taizo Okuaki:
“Many thanks for the special gifts you sent with Tomoko. It was most kind of you.
I too am most pleased that no unkind thoughts exist between our people and the good people of Japan.
May my heart keep those thoughts alive.”
I have put together this account and dedicated it to Morey Skaret, Taizo Okuaki, Yusuji Okuaki, and Masako Morishima.
Thanks, Morey, for letting me a part of the adventure. It was meant to be.
Tomoko, thank you for being in the office that day, and for understanding.