SHERIDAN — Toshio Yamamoto, a Japanese soldier, died when he was 20 years old Feb. 6, 1945, carrying a flag with hand-written messages of good luck from loved ones.
In March 2004, Bill and Joyce Laya gave Akira Sakai a Japanese flag, the flag that once belonged to Yamamoto. Joyce and Bill Laya hoped Sakai could return it to Yamamoto’s family. Akira Sakai was 20 years old in 1973 when Joyce and Bill Laya hosted him in an exchange program designed to promote friendship between Japanese and Americans post-World War II.
Valerie Spanos, Karen Turner, Kathleen Laya and Thomas Laya, four of six of Joyce and Bill Laya’s children, remember making a strong impression on Sakai back then.
They remember that he brought ramen with him from Japan before it was popular, he made lots of origami and thought Spanish rice looked like worms.
Sakai recently returned to Sheridan, his fifth trip since his initial visit, to pay his respects to Joyce and Bill Laya. Bill Laya passed away in June 2014 and Joyce Laya passed away in April 2019.
He wept for them as he said a farewell prayer at their graves Aug. 18. Sakai’s self-published book, “Bill and Joyce’s Reminiscence Photograph Collection,” includes an excerpt from what he read in a eulogy to Joyce and Bill:
“Hello Bill and Joyce, I hope you are resting peacefully. I came to visit you here at your grave from Japan although it is a late visit…At the site of your grave, I cannot help but remembering your smile and kind manners. I couldn’t be happier when I think about you two…I cannot appreciate you enough for teaching me how to love people regardless of citizenship or where they are from…I hope you two will forever be happy together in heaven.”
Sakai hopes veterans of WWII and their families can also find peace.
It was common during WWII for American soldiers to take hinomaru yosegaki, or “good luck flags” as trophies from deceased Japanese soldiers, Sakai said in his book.
The flags were carried by Japanese soldiers and sailors into battle, with words of encouragement, love, honor and perseverance written by loved ones.
Family members sometimes honor the flags during funeral ceremonies in place of remains that could not be found.
Joyce Laya and Valerie Spanos discovered the flag at an auction of an American WWII veteran’s memorabilia in Buffalo in 1993. The flag sat protected in a drawer in the family house until Joyce and Bill Laya gave it to Sakai.
Valerie Spanos said her mother purchased the flag and gave it to Sakai years later because she wanted to offer a peaceful gesture toward such a dark time in Japanese and American history.
Through his own research, the American OBON Society and the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, Sakai discovered Yamamoto’s family and returned the flag to them in a ceremony with the Shiga Prefectural Governor in Japan Aug. 8, 2019.
He was nervous to connect with the family because he didn’t know how they would react. But the flag represents a way to overcome the negative feelings, horror and fear of the war, Sakai said.
Reports from Japanese media included in Sakai’s book said Kenichi Yamamoto, Toshio Yamamoto’s nephew, was pleased and grateful during the ceremony.
“…it seems to be a dream,” Kenichi Yamamoto said in an english translation.
Sakai received a second flag from the Laya family during his most recent trip to Sheridan Aug. 17-22, which features the name of another Japanese soldier, his home town, and a spatter-pattern of blood across the red sun in the center.
Family members who have not found the remains of their loved ones from WWII are automatically placed in a Japan War-Bereaved Families database, Sakai said.
The first flag did not have a family name or city name written on it, which made his search difficult. Sakai said about 20 soldiers with the name Toshio Yamamoto, from the same region, died during WWII so it took time to find the right family.
When Kenichi Yamamoto inquired about his uncle’s remains, Sakai had already started his search. Sakai said it was a coincidence, a stroke of good luck, that they found each other.
“I wanted the whole family to be happy,” he said.
Sakai said it is unfortunate that the sad history of the war produces hatred. Returning the flags can be a hurtful reminder to Americans as well as Japanese people, he said.
Sakai was recognized by Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon Aug. 14 with a Wyoming state flag for his efforts to preserve peace, goodwill and friendship between the U.S. and Japan by returning Yamamoto’s flag to his family.
He was surprised and delighted by the honor and hopes Joyce and Bill Laya were honored as well, as the people who started the journey to connect generations of people together.