FLORENCE — Two generations removed from World War II, Naoki Yasue wasn’t privy to its poignancy while growing up in Japan.
“I’m boring because I’m so young,” he protested Thursday morning.
It took a special set of circumstances to land the 29-year-old Yasue where he was sitting, swapping stories in searching English with Marvin Strombo, 94, in the sunny living room of Strombo’s daughter on a bank of the Bitterroot River.
Yasue was at home last year in Mukata, on the far western shore of Japan, when Strombo made a historic visit to the mountain village Higashishirakawa, 550 miles to the east.
There Strombo became the first American soldier to return in person a Hinomaru national flag, or flag of good-luck, to Japan.
Rex and Keiko Ziak of the Obon Society in Oregon orchestrated the trip and accompanied Strombo and family to the elaborate and touching ceremony after tracking down the family of Sadao Yasue. Strombo, as a young Marine, took a saber and the flag covered with signatures from family and friends off Sadao’s body during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.
“I knew the only way I could take the flag was I made a promise to your brother that I would return it and you would get it back,” he told Sadao’s surviving brother and sisters.
The August event, at the height of Japan's Obon Festival, was widely covered by television networks, the Tokyo Times, National Public Radio and Stars and Stripes. A YouTube video has generated more than 330,000 views, including one from Naoki Yasue, the fallen warrior's grand-nephew.
“The ceremony, I couldn’t come there because I don’t (have) time,” Yasue told Strombo on Thursday. “I’m so sorry. My father and my big brother came there and saw the ceremony. I’m so excited I’m meeting you.”
Strombo was clearly excited, too. He’s had a few problems with his legs, he said, but he was up for the ride up the golden Bitterroot from his Missoula home.
A while after he arrived, Yasue followed Strombo’s daughter Sandra Williamson past fruit orchards and into the yard of the “earthship,” the unique riverside home of another Strombo daughter, Noemi, and her husband David Bassler.
Over hand-pressed apple cider and homemade pumpkin cookies, Strombo showed the young visitor a collection of articles and photos he brought back from Japan last year. The Tokyo Times, printed in inscrutable Japanese, featured a front-page photo of Marvin and Noemi in Noemi's home last year.
His father and brother were at the August 2017 ceremony, Yasue said, sitting behind 89-year-old Tatsuya Yasue, Sadao’s youngest brother and a farmer in Higashishirakawa.
Naoki joked Thursday that as he watched the YouTube video, he could see his father holding up his phone to record the hour-long ceremony.
“I met two of your (great) aunts,” Strombo told him. “That one took it pretty hard. I handed her the flag and she sobbed into it. Then when we said goodbye she just told me ‘Arigatou, aritgatou’ (thank you, thank you).”
Naoki never knew his grandfather. Iko Yasue was a middle brother in the family who survived the U.S. invasion of Okinawa but died before Naoki was born.
He said that from the little he could learn from his father, Iko was proud of his part in the war but didn’t talk much about either it or the unknown fate of his older brother. No one in the family did.
But Naoki Yasue has a percolating love of the Americas and Americans, spawned in 2015 by a six-month bicycle ride from Alaska to Dallas, Texas. He drove to Missoula this week to meet Strombo from Banff, Alberta, where he has worked as a hotel housekeeper since February.
On his bike ride three years ago, he “met some people,” Yasue said.
“Some of them experienced World War II and talk about it to me,” he said. “I’m so surprised.”
He grasped for words to express how that, along with viewing the video of Strombo from his ancestors’ home town last year, opened his eyes.
“The point is everything connected then,” he said. “When I heard the news (of Strombo’s visit to Japan) I had already decided to come to Canada. I’m so very surprised. So I said it’s a good time to meet Mr. Strombo.”
Once again, the Ziaks were instrumental in the unprecedented meeting on American soil.
The seeds of the Obon Society were sown in 2007, when Keiko Ziak’s family in Kyoto received from an American collector the Hinomaru flag that had belonged to her grandfather, who was believed to have gone missing in Burma during the war.
The society was founded two years later. The Ziaks’ success in returning flags in recent years has led to an increasing number being sent their way. Last year, in the months after Strombo’s well-publicized trip, they delivered 31 flags to their rightful families.
They’ve returned more than 200 flags and have 900 more waiting to go home. But the effort has taken its toll, Rex Ziak recently told the Japan Times.
“We have run out of resources to continue at this rate — the money, the support,” he said. “After working toward this for nine years and having this system set up that’s so efficient, it’s just heartbreaking for us. But we have no other recourse.”
Still, the visit by a Yasue to Montana marked another groundbreaking moment.
“The Obon Society has never had that happen,” Ziak said. “(Yasue) contacted us and said would it be possible for him to meet this Marine and talk to him?
”We contacted Marvin — he’s still very healthy — and explained it to him. He said, ‘Sure, he can come. I’d be happy to see him.’ So we were kind of the pivot point between them.”
Yasue told the Ziaks “he’s gotten an awakening.”
“When he rode his bike from Alaska to Texas three years ago he stumbled on some people along the way and he heard from the different perspective of Americans about the war," Rex Ziak said. "After Marvin’s visit last year it hit him, and he said this has a lot of meaning to me. I really have to see Marvin.”