Despatch from Tokyo | International

A WWII artefact finds its rightful owner


How a descendent of the Diwan of Multan traced the journey of a Japanese family’s photo album

In late November, Ayabe, a small city tucked away in the mountains north of Kyoto, became the unlikely setting for the coming together of a series of moments in history spanning the globe, from India, the Philippines, Singapore, and Japan to the United States. On November 24, Jarat Chopra, a descendant of the 19th-century Diwans of Multan, handed over a photograph album to Tamotsu Shikata, an 89-year-old former carpenter.

The album had once belonged to Hideo Shikata, Mr. Shikata’s older brother, who had died fighting at Leyte in the Philippines towards the end of the Second World War. In the album, Hideo, in picture, is shown in a variety of settings but always carefully formal in his expression. In most, he is in uniform though there is one almost impossibly tender image of the young soldier cradling a dog. The images provoke heartbreaking questions: what had Hideo’s thoughts been as he fought a bloody war thousands of kilometres away from his family? Was the dog his pet? Whom had he held in his heart when he died? Mr. Shikata received the photo album, an unexpected ghost from almost 75 years earlier, choking back tears. “The first thing I want to say is to my older brother: Welcome home. You have made it, at last,” he said.

From Leyte to Ayabe

Parts of the album’s journey from Leyte to Ayabe remain obscure. For Mr. Chopra, a former senior United Nations official, it was initially just one more of the many war-related artefacts that he had been collecting for years. Mr. Chopra’s interest in the War was sparked by the mystery of his great uncle’s death, “a much-loved, dashing figure,” who had been a medical officer in the (British) Indian Army. The uncle had gone missing in action in 1942, leaving the Chopra family with a sense of unresolved trauma.

By the 1990s, Mr. Chopra had begun to feel uncomfortable about his stash of war memorabilia, which included photographs, letters, swords, and Japanese flags. These war trophies were commonly taken by Allied soldiers on the battlefield and eventually ended up in trunks or flea markets in Australia, Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere. Mr. Chopra realised that by collecting these, he was denying the closure to others that he himself so wanted in the context of his great uncle. “There is something unsettling in being with objects from violent origins. You begin to feel the need to release that object to its proper resting place,” he explained. Starting in the 1990s, Mr. Chopra made several attempts to return artefacts to families in Japan, but with little success. Then, earlier this year, he heard of the Obon Society.

Founded by U.S.-based couple Rex and Keiko Ziak in 2009, the Obon Society traces the next of kin of people linked to some of the millions of war trophies floating around the world. The hope is that the return of these artefacts will bring a measure of reconciliation, if not peace, to the families concerned.

Fading newspaper clipping

Mr. Chopra sent the photo album to the Ziaks, who managed to trace the Shikata family via a fading newspaper clipping preserved amid the pictures. It was about how Mr. Shikata’s parents had received a letter from then-Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. Tojo had apparently met Hideo during an inspection of Japanese troops in the Philippines and written to his parents to congratulate them for raising such a fine young man. The letter had caused enough of a frisson in Ayabe to make it to the local news.

When the Obon Society first contacted Tamotsu Shikata, he was more confused than excited. It was only after they mentioned the newspaper clipping that he seemed to understand what they were trying to tell him. “The clipping was something he clearly remembered from his childhood. It made the re-emergence of the album real to him,” said Mr. Ziak.

It took decades but when Mr. Chopra finally handed over the album to Mr. Shikata, he felt profoundly unburdened. “It is as if life generally and war particularly, can shatter things into lots of jigsaw puzzle pieces, and this is like putting one jigsaw puzzle piece in its proper place,” he said. And while Mr. Chopra plans to continue trying to trace the owners of the remaining war trophies in his possession, he is also trying to reclaim one for himself. A sword that belonged to the former Diwan of Multan, Mulraj Chopra, was kept as booty by British commander General William Whish. Mr. Chopra is currently negotiating with the Royal Artillery regiment to have it returned to his family.

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author based in Tokyo

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 1:29:00 AM |

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