Editor’s Note: In this installment of The Writers, Stan Fagerstrom talks about his first trip to Japan and what it meant for him to step on the shores of the country he was to invade in 1946. Click to read part one, part two or part three.
A Return to Japan
“I’ve already mentioned my service in an infantry rifle company in the South Pacific during the war with Japan for just a bit less than two years, Fagerstrom said. “I also mentioned that I was brought home on a stretcher on a hospital plane. The crowded plane didn’t afford me, or anyone else for that matter, much room for ourselves let alone room for any personal effects.
“One thing I was able to bring with me was a miniature bible with a steel cover I’d carried throughout the war in a pocket of my fatigue jacket. The other things I brought back were three personal Japanese battle flags that I’d also stuffed inside my fatigue jacket. I’d taken those flags while in combat in the South Pacific jungles. I call the flags personal because they weren’t unit flags; they were individual flags Japanese soldiers often carried into combat – sometimes the name of the soldier who carried it was on these flags. Sometimes it wasn’t.
“When I finally got home and out of the hospital I had stuck those flags along with a few other wartime souvenirs into an old suitcase and stored it on a closet shelf. There are some things you never forget if you’ve been involved in infantry combat. At least I know I haven’t. I’d often thought about those flags. I’d been told I could sell them for some pretty good bucks. That didn’t seem right to me and I didn’t choose to do it. Once I got that invitation to Japan, though, I knew what I wanted to do with them. As a result of my prayers in this regard, my heart told me to send those flags back to Japan. That was where they really belonged. I was simply doing what God had told us to do – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“The first thing I did was go to a Japanese lady [in Washington State] who could read what was on the flags. Only one flag carried the name of its owner. The flag had belonged to a Japanese infantryman named Giichiro Komatsu. I packaged the flags and sent them to my contact in Tokyo. I asked that he take the flags to the Tokyo media to see if they could publicize the return of the flags and possibly find any of Giichiro’s surviving relatives or former comrades. I’ll be forever grateful that the Japanese media did as requested.
“One of the individuals who read about the flags coming home was Giichiro’s brother, Shoji Komatsu. Shoji was a Buddhist priest. They found a few of Giichiro’s former comrades and held a special Buddhist funeral style service with his flag. All Giichiro’s family had ever been told by the Japanese government was that their son was dead. The family didn’t know how, when, where or why. They provided me with a sheet asking those questions. I was able to provide the answers. Those answers included telling his family that their son, as Japanese soldiers almost always did, had died bravely and that he and all of his comrades who had been on the two small islands my battalion had invaded had been killed.
“The other two flags, they didn’t have the names of the soldiers who owned them, have been sent to a shrine in Tokyo.
“War always leaves wounds of the spirit as well as the body. Some of the letters I’ve had from the Japanese as a result of returning those flags tell me my having done so might have helped to at least some extent those unseen wounds to heal. And that’s not all it did. It also provided a degree of closure of sorts for me. Some of my closest comrades in my infantry company were seriously wounded or killed out there in the Pacific war. War makes it so easy to hate and so difficult to love. I came away from my Tokyo appearance convinced of something I’ve accepted as fact – it’s that the average resident of the Japanese homeland had just about as much as I did in starting World War II – not one damn thing! I might never have been able to accept that realization if I hadn’t returned those flags and then gone to Japan to witness the result. You should see some of the letters I’ve received from Japan that provide testimony to what I’m attempting to say.
“While I was at the Tokyo show I was lodged at the Makhuari Prince Hotel, at the time one of Japan’s newest and best. It was within easy walking distance of where the show was to be held. I couldn’t help but think how different things were compared to what they almost had been about a half century earlier. As I’ve mentioned, the 31st Infantry Division, in which I served, had been picked as one of four divisions to form the American 8th Army. As I also pointed out, we had been scheduled to land right in the Tokyo Bay area on or about the 1st of March, 1946. You can imagine my feelings, being right in the same area as a guest of the very people we would have had to fight had that invasion actually taken place. I thanked God then and I thank Him today that it didn’t have to happen.
“My return of the flags was publicized in the Tokyo press. I felt like I was being embraced by the Japanese people throughout my stay. The outdoor show itself was a somewhat formal affair compared to the way similar shows are held in the USA. Show producers and their associates were on a stage up front and a cracking good Japanese military band was seated in front of the stage before the show was opened to the public. I was also on that stage. The Japanese Princess Nobuko was there too and seated behind a big lengthy red ribbon that she was to snip as part of the show opening ceremony. There was still to be a brief period before the public was allowed to enter.
“It was during this time that a representative of the Princess came to me to ask if I would consider giving her a brief private casting demonstration before the crowd came in. It turned out the princess liked to do a bit of fishing herself from time to time. My answer was that I’d be both pleased and honored to do so. I hadn’t yet met my interpreter and I remember thinking at the time just how in the world am I going to communicate with this beautiful lady. I needn’t have been concerned. Among other things, she had been educated at Harvard University in the United States. She spoke better English than I do. The last thing she said to me after I’d done some casting for her was ‘Have a great day, Stan.’”
Stan will tell you that he was tremendously pleased with his reception at the Tokyo show.
“Thousands of people attended,” he said. “At one point I couldn’t even get away for a quick lunch because of the hundreds of autographs I was asked to sign on everything from paper to items of clothing. I found the Japanese youngsters especially clean, polite and much like the youngsters I’ve found wherever my casting exhibitions have taken me. I’ve never felt better emotionally in returning from a show than I did coming back from Japan.”
In Part Five, Fagerstrom will talk about his trips to New Zealand and Brazil along with some of the follies he’s had over the course of his career.