Flag Days: Good Luck, True South

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Let me be the first to wish you a happy Flag Day. I assume I’m the first and probably the only person to wish you were happy Flag Day. For those of you beautiful nerds who weren’t aware, Flag Day is June 14th, so consider this your advance notice. If you haven’t hoisted your favorite flag on your halyard up to the truck or finial of your flagpole to admire its field and canton and watch the fly end wave in the wind. Well… you still have time.

Anyone who’s listened to 99% Invisible regularly, or seen my TED Talk about flags, knows that we here at 99PI, we have a thing for flags. Our stories have helped inspire people around the world to design and submit dozens of new flags to local and state governments. Flags can be beautiful things that give communities something symbolic to rally around. They can also be divisive and horrible, but since the beginning of this show, I’ve always liked using them as a way to talk about our lives as humans. And this year we decided to get the flag day celebration started early and then keep the party going with two whole weeks of flag-related stories.

Before we dive in though, let’s take a brief look at the history of the most popular flag in the country, which is of course the flag of the country. The flag of the United States of America is everywhere in this country, but the US stars and stripes haven’t always held such a lofty position in popular culture. For much of American history, flags were more utilitarian, used to signal federal or military locations. It wasn’t until the civil war that everyday flag usage really got off the ground. In 1861, when Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, Union Flags began showing up all over the North. In the wake of the war, flags were increasingly incorporated into products too — going mainstream in an unprecedented way. All of this patriotism helped lead to the establishment of an official flag day in 1916.

So in my TED Talk and in past episodes, we’ve talked a lot about the design principles of flags, like what makes a good and bad city, state and country flag. But for Flag Day this year and over the next couple of episodes, we’re going to talk about a few flags, they’re not tied directly to nation-states and municipalities, they’re both bigger in scope than a country, but also more personal too. So without further ado, up first is producer Joe Rosenberg. So Joe, I hear you have a really good flag story for me.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, I do. And it’s a flag story which is one I came across really accidentally, I was not trying to do work for 99PI.

Roman Mars:
But the work finds you.

Joe Rosenberg:
But the work finds me, it really does. But no, what this story is, is a few years ago, a couple of friends and I in the Bay Area, ended up checking out this little museum, actually that far from the 99PI offices called the Alameda Naval Air Museum. And the Alameda Naval Air Museum is… how to put this? It’s one of those museums that is just made with love, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, it’s literally my favorite kind of museum, a little museum devoted to one thing that you can take in all at once, I love museums like this.

Joe Rosenberg:
Absolutely. And so it is a museum devoted to naval aviation history, and so it has display cases with medals and ship models and mannequins with uniforms, there’s a DVD playing in a loop in one room. So when my friends and I visited, we were, I admit, not planning to stay long. But then just as we were about to leave, we came across this flag and it wasn’t even on display yet, but on that day it was kind of like in a frame on the floor, leaning against another display. But the second we saw it, we were all just riveted and what it was, was a Japanese flag, but not your normal Japanese flag.

Roman Mars:
Was it the rising sun flag with the rays coming out of it?

Joe Rosenberg:
No, that’s the Japanese military flag, of course, which is a whole other story. No, this one was the regular Japanese national flag also known as the Hinomaru.

Roman Mars:
This one the red sun in the middle and the white field, it’s what you think of is the flag of Japan.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly. Except on this Hinomaru, the white part of the flag was just covered in writing. And so I did what any person would do, which is I took a picture, and here, let me show you that.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Okay. So all these phrases written in what looks like Kanji that radiating out from the sun, it’s really lovely.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And for the listeners who can’t see it, this is not a produced flag.

Roman Mars:
Right, it’s handwritten, yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly. Handwritten calligraphy, consisting of many different messages in all different hands written directly on the fabric. It seems as if maybe there’s 50 or so people, maybe more, and they all have something written on it.

Roman Mars:
And do you know what it says?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, yeah, because it just so happens that one of the friends I was with, she was Japanese.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s really fortuitous, did she know what this was? I mean, could she tell you more about this flag?

Joe Rosenberg:
No, she didn’t know what it was, but she started reading the flag aloud for us.

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool. So what did it say?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. So along one side in the biggest characters was the name of a Japanese soldier from World War II, to whom the flag presumably belonged, and who had appeared must’ve been going off to war because the messages around the sun were from people the flag bearer seemed to know, who were giving him this big sendoff. And I’m not going to lie, some of them wrote rather strong statements. So the most explicit was –We have to kill British and Americans. But then there were also lines that were just sad, knowing what this soldier and others were about to go through. So there was — We hope you will protect our country. We have the strength to win. I hope we win this year. And one person also wrote — I’m going too.

Joe Rosenberg:
But honestly, the most common phrase was just good luck. Probably that was a quarter to a third of the messages were just good luck or good luck this year.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and it turns out that what we were looking at was something called in Japanese, Yosegaki Hinomaru, which means a collection of writing around the sun, but in English is known as a good luck flag. And it was part of a tradition very popular in Japan, in the late thirties and early forties of having people write personal messages on flags to servicemen about to go off overseas. And then they would actually carry this flag folded up on their person into battle.

Roman Mars:
Wow, good luck flag. I’ve never heard of that.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, neither had I.

Roman Mars:
And so do we know exactly how this tradition of the good luck flag emerged?

Joe Rosenberg:
That is an excellent question. No.

Rex Ziak:
Boy, Joe, I have spent years and years trying to find that out.

Joe Rosenberg:
So this is Rex Ziak, he is a founder of an organization called Obon Society, which is involved with good luck flags, more on that in a second. And he says most scholars chart the rise of these flags to the 1930s when a lot of Japanese men were getting shipped off to fight in China. But exactly how the tradition started, no one knows.

Rex Ziak:
As far as I can tell, at some point somebody got out a brush and some ink, and they looked at their national flag and saw all that tempting white field all around that red area, and this became a fashion or a tradition, or it became instantly a thing and everybody started doing it.

Joe Rosenberg:
But one thing Rex really stressed and I think this is very important to point out, is that most of these flags weren’t nearly as militant as the one I saw in the museum. A lot of them do have messages about victory and country and being brave, but most of them were filled in with either just people’s signatures and well-wishes or else these very intimate messages from loved ones and friends and neighbors, because you have to understand, you really could write almost anything.

Keiko Ziak:
So there is no rules and regulation or there’s no guideline. And anybody might think this is the last time to see this man, you may not ever see him again. So it is very personal.

Joe Rosenberg:
Keiko Ziak is Rex’s partner and the co-founder of Obon Society. And she says people might sometimes put poetry on the flag, others put inside jokes, priests from the local temple might write a favorite mantra.

Rex Ziak:
I remember one entry where it was saying something like, I’ll look after the farm until you get home. Or I’ll look after the animals till you get home.

Keiko Ziak:
Yes, so the soldier doesn’t worry about at home while he’s away.

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s amazing, I love that it can be anything.

Joe Rosenberg:
Absolutely. And by the way, when Rex said everybody started doing it, he meant that more or less literally.

Rex Ziak:
We estimate that between 1935 and 1945, the people of Japan created somewhere between nine and 12 million of these flags.

Roman Mars:
Whoa!

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And one of the reasons there are so many of them is, not only did virtually every soldier get a flag, he often got multiple flags from multiple institutions on multiple occasions.

Rex Ziak:
And so he might go to war and leave home with one from his parents, one from the bank where he worked and one from his baseball team.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So, if there’s millions of these flags, what happened to all of them? Where are they now?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, most of them are gone at least in Japan. And that’s because many of those soldiers never came home. So a lot of the flags were just lost forever, and many of the flags that did make it back to Japan might’ve been actually deliberately gotten rid of, because after the war, during the American occupation, certain Japanese symbols were temporarily banned, and that included the Hinomaru.

Roman Mars:
And so those soldiers who survived who had these and went home, whether those flags would have been buried or burned or destroyed or kept, we really can’t get a gauge on that.

Joe Rosenberg:
But Keiko says that the result is that it was such a final ending to this tradition, that most people in Japan today, if you show them one of these flags, they don’t know what it is.

Keiko Ziak:
Yeah, they have no idea about Yosegaki Hinomaru and anything.

Joe Rosenberg:
But it turns out there is at least one country where you can still find a lot of good luck flags, and that’s the United States.

Roman Mars:
Huh. Okay. Well, tell me why that is.

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, it’s for an unsavory reason, but basically, in World War II, a ton of American soldiers were shipped off to the Pacific and fought in battles against a ton of Japanese soldiers. And when the Americans took personal items off of dead Japanese soldiers on the battlefield, you have to understand the Americans all grew up reading books and watching movies where capturing an enemy flag was a big deal.

Rex Ziak:
But unbeknownst to them, there was this tradition in Japan, and so everybody on the battlefield had a flag somewhere underneath them.

Roman Mars:
That’s really fascinating, grimly fascinating.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and so all these US servicemen just take all these flags back to the States, but crucially in the US, these good luck flags are not destroyed.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, because they would just keep them and then they would end up in your grandparent’s attic or basement and Scranton or whatever.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly. But this is where Rex and Keiko’s Obon Society comes in because what they do, is they work with families in the US who have come into possession of one of these good luck flags. And often as a form of post-war healing and reconciliation, they help them return the flag to the family of the original flag bearer in Japan.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so if you’re the grandson of a World War II veteran, like me, and find one of these flags in your grandfather’s attic, the Obon Society will actually find the grandchildren of the Japanese veteran that they belong to, and then they will match-make and send them that flag?

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly. And after starting out on their own more than a decade ago, Rex and Keiko say that today they have a team of about 14 people that specialize in sending back these flags.

Rex Ziak:
And it took us I think four years to do the first one, and now we’re doing two each week on the average.

Roman Mars:
Wow, two a week. I mean, so then how many have they successfully returned at this point?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, at this point they gave me a rough estimate of about 400 total returns. And they say their success rate is, again, roughly speaking, maybe around 50%, their fastest find was a few days, their longest was seven years. And then there are obviously ones that might take even longer, but they just don’t know yet.

Roman Mars:
So you had mentioned that the biggest thing written on the flag was the name of the flag’s owner. Is that enough to find the descendants?

Joe Rosenberg:
And return the flag? No, not even close. There are a lot of names that are the equivalent of John Smith. And so the only way to figure out which John Smith it belongs to is to figure out where it came from.

Rex Ziak:
But something that is rarely seen on these flags is any geographical mention as to where it was created, which drives us nuts.

Keiko Ziak:
Yes, it’s so personal, everybody knows each other, so if they write, they don’t write the hometown’s name.

Rex Ziak:
And then that’s what we spend so many hours trying to figure out is where did this come from?

Roman Mars:
This is a fascinating mystery, so what are the techniques for figuring where they come from?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, they actually asked me not to divulge too much of their process, because they don’t want people who aren’t experts when they find these flags to try to do this themselves.

Roman Mars:
I guess that makes sense, yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
And another thing I should add is that Rex and Keiko will never urge anyone to hand over a flag, you have to come to them. And if instead, you choose to keep it, they’ll respect your decision no matter what it is.

Roman Mars:
I think that this flag return process sounds really heartfelt and great, but it’s also these flags are part of military campaigns that are extremely violent and not the best chapter in Japan’s history. Are they ever used politically to harken back in a bad way to this period of time where Japan’s Imperial strength was at its height?

Joe Rosenberg:
So I asked Rex and Keiko about that, and they really stress that when it comes to these good luck flags, they’ve never found that. What they’ve found is that the people they’ve worked with and return these flags to in Japan, really connect with them on a personal level, because these are festooned basically with these messages and the names of these family members. So much more than anything else, what it becomes is a memento from one single person’s life. And this is what Keiko really stressed, that was her big point.

Keiko Ziak:
When you read everything they’ve written, it is amazing, so many story you can learn and you can feel it from this spiritual object because this is only one of the kind in the world.

Roman Mars:
So did they end up connecting you with someone who either found or received a flag?

Joe Rosenberg:
They did.

Noriko Koishi:
My name is Koishi Noriko. Noriko Koishi desu.

Joe Rosenberg:
So I got a hold of Noriko Koishi via a translator just outside the town of Kobe in Kyoto Prefecture. Noriko is in her mid-eighties, which means she really grew up during the war. And back then it was just her and her mother and her father Noriatsu Yamaguchi. And Noriatsu was an executive at a local ceramics factory, but Noriko says that her memories of him are very faint.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
So her dad was a busy salaryman who worked very long hours, so by the time she wakes up, he’ll be already gone to work, and then come back after she fell asleep. Obviously, because of war there is not much of a memory aside from that.

Joe Rosenberg:
So instead, what she actually remembers most vividly about her father is him leaving for the war, because when she was about nine years old, Noriatsu was drafted to go fight in the Philippines, and that was in 1944. And Noriko says he did not want to go.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
Because, of course by 1944, the whole country of Japan sort of knew that there will be a victory, but obviously nobody is going to say that out loud.

Joe Rosenberg:
But the general thinking was that getting drafted at this point was basically a death sentence. So Noriko actually remembers that her mother began frantically suggesting that they all maybe run away to the countryside so that her father could dodge the draft.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
So, her grandfather slapped her in the face, saying the consequences of you doing that will result to, they won’t be able to get any food from the government, Noriko won’t be able to go to school, it will be a disgrace to the family. And she remembers that scene where her grandfather hit her mother.

Roman Mars:
That is an incredibly intense thing to remember.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And also just remembering the way they were kind of locked in to this reality, which was that he had to go. And so her other vivid memory from that time is this distilled image of the last moment she saw him.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
So she sent him off at the train station, and her dad was sort of on the deck of the train, and he was wearing this white glove and waving at her until the train made that curve and she couldn’t see him anymore. And to this day, she still remembers that white glove in the distance waving at her.

Joe Rosenberg:
And then he just never came home. And when Noriko was already 12 or 13, so well after the war ended, her mother finally received a letter in the mail from the government just saying, we can confirm he died in the war. And that’s it, and they never received any remains.

Roman Mars:
And so since you’re telling his story during this other story of good luck flags, presumably he was given a good luck flag, did they know anything about that, the family?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. So Noriko says that there had in fact been a sending-off ceremony for her father, which she had attended in which she put her handprint actually on a good luck flag that he took with him.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. But when I asked her if that ceremony meant anything to her at the time, or if she yearned to see the flag afterwards as the years went by, she was like, no.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
Obviously, they do so many flags when her uncles also went to war, so this was the ninth, 10th flag, so it became sort of a monotonous routine. So the answer is no, she did not even think for a second about these flags.

Roman Mars:
Wow, I mean, I guess it makes sense when we talked about them being made over and over again for various people. Like you do it and life moves on, even if you face tragedy.

Joe Rosenberg:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
So what I would like to hear at this point is that Noriko’s good luck flag was found, and we have her little handprint on it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, kind of, a flag was found, and who first found it, and how is itself a bit of a mystery?

Dionne Blazing:
Well, I actually didn’t know anything. I really didn’t know anything about his war experience.

Joe Rosenberg:
So this is Dionne Blazing. I got a hold of her where she lives in Florida and the person she is talking about here is her late uncle Neil Heward.

Dionne Blazing:
Otherwise known as Uncle Bud.

Roman Mars:
Uncle Bud. Okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And Dionne as a child growing up spent vacations with her uncle and aunt in Michigan.

Dionne Blazing:
And the two of them, they didn’t have children, so they doted all over us and they had a house that was on a lake, and he always had a boat ready for us, I mean, he just wanted to play.

Joe Rosenberg:
But she also knew that he had served in the war in the Pacific, and although she saw a lot of photos of him in uniform, what actually went on in the war was kind of a no-go area.

Dionne Blazing:
So we have pictures of him in his uniform, there’s pictures of him before he left, we have pictures of him as they were training to leave, yadda, yadda. So I knew from pictures something about it, but they never talked about it. This was not a discussion that you had at the house.

Joe Rosenberg:
The only thing Dionne ever really learned, and even this was much later, was that uncle Bud had actually been found very badly wounded and in a coma on a battlefield before returning to the States, and that battlefield had been in the Philippines. So fast forward to the year 2016, when Uncle Bud at the age of 95 passes away. And Dionne and the other family members are clearing out his things, including this crate of just like old stuff that no one else wants-

Dionne Blazing:
So, I opened it up and I pulled out this box.

Joe Rosenberg:
And when she got back home and opened the box-

Dionne Blazing:
There was this white bag with this silk material in it, and I was like, what the heck is this? And out comes the flag.

Joe Rosenberg:
And although she didn’t know it at the time what it was, was a good luck flag, and here, let me show it to you.

Roman Mars:
Wow. It’s pristine, it’s not faded at all.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly, it’s like time travel.

Roman Mars:
So as you set this up, I’m expecting this to be Noriko’s father’s flag, but there’s no hand print on it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, a-ha! Here is where there is a tiny little twist in the story, because Dionne, after doing some Googling, figured out what kind of flag it was, she found Obon Society, and she decided that she wanted to find the flag’s original family. And so she sent it to Rex and Keiko and they started analyzing. And so I’m looking back at the flag, do you see the characters along the right-hand edge? The second to the right?

Roman Mars:
Yes.

Joe Rosenberg:
So that is the name of a ceramics factory in the town of Kobe in Kyoga, Prefecture, Japan.

Roman Mars:
So this was from his factory where he worked, this is a flag from his coworkers sending him off.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, he had a second flag and this was it. So after telling Dionne, “hey, could take years,” Rex and Keiko called her two months later.

Dionne Blazing:
And said, “We found the family.” And I was like, “You’re kidding.” And they said, “No, we’re not, we found it, are you still willing to allow us to send it back?” And I said, “Okay, I really now have to think about this.”

Roman Mars:
Because she has this one last chance to decide whether or not she views this as her property or theirs, really.

Joe Rosenberg:
That’s right. And at this point, she says she did actually hesitate.

Dionne Blazing:
And part of the reason was, is I really wasn’t sure what the rest of my family would think about this, right? I was making this executive decision.

Joe Rosenberg:
“Is that because you didn’t tell anyone else in your family, or did you check with them? What was the conversation-”

Dionne Blazing:
“No, I didn’t check with them. I didn’t check with them.”

Joe Rosenberg:
“Why not?”

Dionne Blazing:
“Uh. Because I was afraid they’d say no.”

Joe Rosenberg:
This is another thing Rex and Keiko run into sometimes, people feel that the flag is more a memento of their loved one now than of this person back in Japan. And they want to keep it, but Dionne said, that wasn’t so much her concern as it was that she thought her family might get upset about the idea of sending this flag back to the country that had caused Uncle Bud just so much pain and suffering.

Dionne Blazing:
But my thing is, I don’t believe that individual soldiers should be held accountable for what their governments did, or what they did on behalf of their governments. So I just decided I wasn’t going to have that discussion. That’s what it was, I just figured I would do it. I guess I thought it needed to go back to that family. And if I got in trouble for it, I got in trouble for it.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so, off the flag went, after 75 years, to Noriko Koishi. And although Obon Society did contact her ahead of time to let her know that this was happening, once again, just like her father’s death notice, it just came in the mail.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
The postperson brought it to her in an envelope, so nobody actually presented it to her. And her mother passed away 20 years ago. She’s the only child, so she had no choice but to open it by herself.

Noriko Koishi:
[Japanese]

Megumi Yamamoto (Translator):
She worried if her dad’s blood would be on it or is it ripped or is it soiled? So there was happy and worried at the same time.

Joe Rosenberg:
And so when she did open it and it was just in this perfect condition, she said she was just so, so thankful. So Noriko wrote Dionne a thank you letter. And the letter honestly just describes in this incredible way, what she, Noriko, did next and her thoughts and feelings — far better than I could. And so I’ll just let Dionne read the letter, which I’ve abridged and edited a bit, but here it is.

Dionne Blazing:
“Dear Mrs. Dionne M. Blazing. I have unexpectedly received the flag of my father, by virtue of your thoughtful offer in support of Obon Society. I felt this proved his strong desire to come home, because his flag returned home just before his birthday on October 26th. However, my mother and his brothers, as well as his parents all passed away. Now, I’m the only person who keeps my father’s memory.

I think it was very lucky your uncle found my father’s flag in the middle of war and brought it to Michigan. I truly appreciate he preserved it very carefully, even though it must’ve been carried through the battlefield. I look at my father having returned home and wonder if he finds me acceptable to be his daughter.

On the night his flag returned, almost as if my father rubbed his cheek against my cheek after a long time. I held the flag in the chest and fell into a shallow sleep, trying to control my emotion. Such reunion with my father would never have happened without your uncle’s thoughtfulness at your arrangement. I announced the return of the flag to my late mother at the family grave. With your generous help, my father finally can rest in peace after 75 years long journey. Under COVID pandemic, please take care of yourself. With sincere gratitude, Noriko Koishi.”

Roman Mars:
Now, that’s remarkable. That letter, I mean, it just shows what a fantastic person Noriko is, that she has the generosity of spirit to thank her uncle for preserving it and getting it back to her somehow, even though…

Joe Rosenberg:
They fought on opposite sides of this war.

Roman Mars:
Exactly, exactly. That’s just a… that’s a great thing. And I think she got back so much more in that letter than she would ever had keeping that flag.

Joe Rosenberg:
Dionne said more or less the same thing, and not only was Noriko incredibly gracious, it turns out so was Dionne’s own family, because when she finally did tell them what she had done, she says they weren’t angry at all. Not with Dionne and not with Noriko’s father, they were just happy to see his flag return home.

Roman Mars:
Coming up. Finding the perfect flag for a whole continent. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Antarctica is a strange and wonderful place. It doesn’t have a permanent human population, but it’s the temporary home to a coterie of research scientists and weird tourists, and the Thing came a couple of times, it’s this huge landmass that doesn’t have an independent government, which makes its history of flags particularly interesting. And 99PI’s own Kurt Kohlstedt. is here to tell us about it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So, at any given time, there are tons of different flags circling the South Pole, in part because of Antarctica’s unique political history. So over the centuries, various countries have made a range of claims to specific regions or even the whole continent. But this place is extremely cold and remote and it doesn’t really lend itself to full-time imperialist occupation, so instead people rotate in and out and they stay there for a while, and then they returned to their home countries.

Roman Mars:
That makes sense that they would return to their home country because it is truly inhospitable. I mean, so given that they’re visitors that come from all over, I would imagine that if you walk around different bases and research facilities, that you would see different countries’ flags all over the place.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Absolutely, there are tons of flags for all these different nations. And in some cases are even territory-specific designs, created to make political claims, to specific areas, seem more official.

Roman Mars:
So, explain that to me more, so flags that are designed by specific countries that are trying to gain or maintain a foothold, they make a variation of their flag that’s Antarctica like?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly, they take their flag and then they turn it into a hybrid and they add some elements to make it really clear, this is our flag, but this is also our flag specifically for the Antarctic or for the section of it.

Roman Mars:
I see, I see.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And to confuse things even more, some of these historically claimed areas overlap or have been contested, so the result is you’ve got this profusion of flags reflecting the continent’s history and all these layers of political complexity and dispute.

Roman Mars:
I mean, that all sounds really messy that there would be these official national flags and also these weird regional flags tied to different countries, but I know that I’ve seen an actual flag of an Antarctica at some point that’s basically the shape of the continent – a sort of icy white shape of the continent – and then it’s like in this field of dark, watery blue. I know that I’ve seen that flag.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes, you definitely have. There are actually two designs along those lines, and neither of them is official, but they both have been used in a variety of contexts. So the older one is really just the emblem of the Antarctic treaty, which is an international agreement signed by a dozen nations back in the fifties. And it’s a lot like the United Nations flag with land shown in white against this field of blue.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I see the resemblance, okay, so the UN flag is a globe from… You see it from the North Pole axis and you see the whole globe and the latitude and longitude lines, and then it has those branches, I don’t know what those things are-

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Those Caesar’s Crown branches wrapping around it, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Around it. And the Antarctic flag that is modeled after this one is basically the continent of Antarctica, and you see the latitude and longitude lines and it looks pretty cool, but you can totally see that it was based off of the UN flag and the treaty.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s because the UN was really integral to establishing this treaty, which in turn established Antarctica as this peaceful and shared place for exploration and discovery rather than a territory to be conquered and divided up. And so initially the treaty included countries that already had research stations, and then over time, other UN members were invited to join too.

Roman Mars:
What about those countries that wanted bits and pieces all to themselves? I mean we did a whole story about a Russian research station that had a bust of Lenin on it. So did the treaty address that?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, so no, it didn’t, it sort of skirted the issue and what it did was it put a stop to new claims. It said, okay, there are going to be no new territorial claims, but it didn’t really resolve the existing ones. And in the midst of all this, this emblem that was made in association with the treaty became a de facto flag for it to start with, not technically official, but a baseline design to work with in the absence of something more official.

Roman Mars:
Right. I mean, I’m still sort of confused as what would make an official flag of Antarctica to begin with, but you’d mentioned there was a second flag that was like this one too. So which one is that one?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So this is an evolution of the first one, where in the 1990s this vexillologist named Graham Bartram simplified the emblem. He essentially removed those lines and curves that represented latitude and longitude and created this more streamlined version, which is really just an outline of the continent in white, surrounded by blue.

Roman Mars:
So this is the one I’ve seen more, this is the one I’m familiar with. And it looks like a really lovely flag, it’s the shape of the continent, it represents a thing. I kind of like map flags. I tend to like them a little more abstract than this one, but I do like ones that have some sort of geographical basis in them. So why isn’t this one the official flag?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, so you already hinted at this, but it’s kind of more specific than a lot of map flags, and that specificity is part of the problem because this geographic outline is complex and it’s also not totally accurate because Antarctica’s shape continues to shift as it’s icy and just melt. And so as a flag, it’s not really future proof, because of this literally changing landscape. And this isn’t just a nit-picky critique, because climate change poses really serious threats to the continent.

Roman Mars:
Right. So it’s a bigger problem than a flag design, but it’s pointing out a real practical issue that you cannot rely on an aerial photograph of this piece of geography for your permanent symbolism if it’s going to constantly change, especially with Antarctica, especially because the icy edges make it so that it really does constantly change, I mean, Ernest Shackleton learned this the hard way. So is there any other designs that are not relying on the outward geography of the continent?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, so there’s this one flag that’s fairly recent and somewhat official. And in my opinion, the best-looking flag so far, and it’s really different from these other two, it was made by the founder of a nonpolitical group called True South, and here it is.

Roman Mars:
Oh, this is beautiful, it’s really simple and elegant. There’s a bar of blue on the top and a bar of white at the bottom. And then there’s like a diamond shape and it’s sort of a pyramid, but you can see it from both dimensions, kind of like the thing that is above your head when you play the Sims, that sort of green, sort of crystal thing. So the top of the diamond is white, in that contrast, the bar of blue on the top, and then the bottom of the diamond is blue, and in contrast the bar of white at the bottom. I mean, it’s really, really lovely, I like it a lot.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I do too, and it gets so far with just these two colors and the simple geometry, but what I like most about it is that it was actually made in Antarctica. Yeah. So it’s called the True South Flag and it was created by this guy named Evan Townsend, who at the time was living and working at McMurdo, which is the largest station on the continent. And while he was there, you can imagine, there’s not a lot to do. He sat down, thought out and sketched out this design. And then he started literally gathering up scraps of canvas and tents and actually made his own physical prototype of it.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love it. It really is– you have some time on your hands, so that’s what you do.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Long nights, very long nights.

Roman Mars:
So, aside from following good vexillological principles around simplicity and clarity, does the diamond have deeper meaning or symbolism?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It does. And honestly, I would be doing it an injustice if I tried to paraphrase this, so I’m just going to give you this excerpt from Townsend to read about the design.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So here’s a quote. “Horizontal stripes of navy and white represent the long days and nights at Antarctica’s extreme latitude. In the center, a lone white peak erupts from a field of snow and ice, echoing those of the ‘bergs, mountains, and pressure ridges that define the Antarctic horizon. The long shadow it casts forms an unmistakable shape of a compass arrow pointed south, an homage to the continent’s legacy of exploration. Together the two center shapes create a diamond, symbolizing the hope that Antarctica will continue to be a center of peace, discovery, and cooperation for generations to come.”

Roman Mars:
That’s great. That’s really compelling, evocative symbolism clearly thought out. The core of it is really powerful too. I mean, this is not a nation or a collection of territories. I mean, this is a peaceful and distinctive place that we share and protect and work on together.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. I love all of that, and I also love his attention to detail. He includes these really subtle elements too, like he went out of his way to make sure that the blue he was using on the flag was different from any other blue found on any other national flag in the world.

Roman Mars:
Huh. So no one could have greater claim to the flag. That’s so good. Okay, that’s so good. So I guess the true test of a flag like this is, are people using it? Do you see it around stations?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes, you do. It was actually really quickly adopted by various Antarctic nonprofits and expedition teams. So it’s already been flown in camps and research stations, and by fans around the world who’ve never even been to Antarctica. And it remains to be seen whether this will become fully official, but it’s gaining traction. And it’s also non-commercial, it’s a free-to-use creation, so anybody can adopt it or fly it or even change it if they want to.

Roman Mars:
I mean, that’s the thing I love about flags, the whole point is that we all own them and nobody owns them. I mean, that’s the greatest thing about them. So if it all goes well, what would it take to make it official? I’m just confused as to what would make things in Antarctica real? I feel like it’s a lawless land.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It is a very strange place, but according to Townsend, either the Antarctic treaty system or the UN could theoretically just decide to adopt it, which might actually happen if it gets enough of this kind of grassroots support that it’s been building, right?

Roman Mars:
And what about the old claim to territories made by different countries? Won’t some nations pick some issue with the use of a single flag for a whole continent?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, maybe, but Townsend maintains that this design is not meant to be divisive or to settle any of these kinds of legacy political disputes, it’s supposed to be something that people who want to protect the continent can rally behind, regardless of different vested interests that they might have, or that their countries might have. So while it’s made for Antarctica, he hopes that people will just continue to fly it around the world and see it as this unifying icon, something that helps everybody become more interested and invested in the conservation of this really unique place.

Roman Mars:
Well, this is such a good story, and the result is a really good flag, which is my favorite part of the whole story.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Of course. Of course, it is.

Roman Mars:
Well, thanks for bringing this to us and, you know, happy flag day.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, happy flag day to you too, Roman.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt and Joe Rosenberg. Music by our director of sound Sean Real. Mix by Carolina Rodriguez. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Kaite Mingle, Emmett FitzGerald, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks today to our translator Megumi Yamamoto, as well as Larry Pirack at the Alameda Naval Air Museum and Christopher Harding at the University of Edinburgh, who we spoke with for Joe’s story but whose voice we didn’t get to include. His book, “A History of Modern Japan: In Search of A Nation” provides great context for further understanding the history of the Hinomaru and good luck flags. You’ll find a link to that as well to the Alameda Naval Air Museum and, of course, Obon Society on our website 99pi.org

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north — in the Pandora building in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find other shows I love from Stitcher on our website 99pi.org, including “Science Rules with Bill Nye” which featured our episode about vantablack so thank you to that team. If you want to listen to any other 99PI episodes that you might have missed, look no further than 99pi.org.

  1. Andrew H.

    I’m going to be “that guy” here, but I noticed that Joe twice referred to Kobe as a “town” and I found it kind of embarrassing. It’s the seat of Hyogo Prefecture and home to about 1.5 million people. I guess if Oakland is a village, then Kobe can be a town.

    1. Darcy G

      Great episode! I was inspired to look up the True South flag and learned that Townsend was inspired to create a flag for Antarctica after a photo of himself and coworkers flying the Pride flag in Antarctica went viral online. I was surprised this didn’t get a mention in the 99pi story! It adds another layer to the idea of a universal flag whose symbolism goes beyond nation-state borders. https://oceanwide-expeditions.com/blog/true-south-a-new-flag-for-a-global-antarctica

  2. J. Smith

    Love this episode. Flag day is my birthday, which I was really happy about for my whole life, until 2016 when I found out the same person I share a bday with was also a horrible president who kind of ruined my life. But thats a very long story.

  3. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good old cry. Although I am bit of a cry baby, the letter read aloud by Deone (I hope this is the right spelling) awoke something in me, it touched some loose string or exposed nerve of my soul and filled me with emotions. This is particularly crazy because, who the flying f*** can a topic thought as boring as flags can make a person cry? This is a remarkable example of 99pi and why more people should listen to their episodes. Sorry for the rant, after a silent sob here in my office while I am having my tear-topped pizza lunch I felt the necessity of vent and somehow praise the show. Thank you so much for opening our eyes of the beauty of mundane stuff.

  4. Jorge Miguel McCormack

    Looks like the Antarctic flag was inspired by the Greenlandic flag 🇬🇱

  5. Robert Miller

    Just so you know, the thing that floats over the head of a Sim is called a plumbob

  6. JB Segal

    I’d call the shapes a Kite and a Dart – Google:’penrose tiles’

    (The angles may not be exact, and Penrose is a bit of an ass about them, but still…)

  7. Joey

    The story about the good luck flags hit close to home for me. While my family doesn’t have a good luck flag, my grandfather brought back a sword from a Japanese solider that I have always been curious about. He died several years before I was born, and my dad has it now, but I’m next in line to possess it. I’ve always been curious about its history, who it belonged to, and if there was a way to return it back to the family, so I’m grateful this episode has prompted me to finally research if (and how) that is possible.

  8. Anupa George

    This episode made me cry so much! 😭 Especially when Rex and Keiko were talking about the message about someone taking care of the farm/animals while the solider was away. I find messages that travel through time just absolutely fantastic! But what killed me was the letter Nuriko wrote Dion, waterworks for days! What a wonderful story, than you for sharing it!

    Also, Roman, those are olive branches on the UN flag.

  9. Mark

    Not all Good Luck Flags are in the United States. In the 1990’s I found one in the closet of my rental apartment in Moscow. The landlady, a very young woman named Yana, said her grandfather served with the Red Army in Siberia when they invaded Manchuria. He took the flag off a soldier. Yana gave me the flag, and ever since I’ve wondered what to do with it. It’s good to know about the Oban Society.

  10. Simon Sutherland

    Wow the True South flag is absolutely the sharpest flag I have ever seen. A vexillological triumph

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