The mystery of the second world war ‘trophy’ and the founder of the Royal Court

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When George Decine’s family discovered a Japanese war flag among his belongings, it sparked a three-year search for answers.

The Japanese flag inscribed with good luck messages that was found in Devine’s suitcase. Photograph: Backchat Productions

I am quite good at a very small role, I am not a man for military service. But there is nothing that makes me happy and hurts me… In its broadest sense, it is a violation of morality and a waste of human time and effort.”

These words were written by George Devine, actor and founding artistic director of the Royal Court theater, in a letter to his wife from Burma, where he served in the Second World War. The views he expressed reflected what his family – and many in the art world – saw as his essential humanity and compassion.

George Devine instructing actors in using ‘comedian’s tricks’ at the Royal Court, during a summer course in London in 1963. Photograph: Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd./Getty Images

So, half a century after his death, they were shocked when they discovered among his belongings an item that looked like a decapitated loot taken from the body of a Japanese soldier. His great-grandson, George Pritchard, said there were medals, chess pieces, glasses glasses – “pieces of him” – in a battered suitcase found in a disrepair cupboard. But it also included “something completely out of place: someone else’s piece”.

The item was a Japanese flag on which messages of good luck were written by the soldier’s relatives, neighbors and community figures. Yosegaki hinomaru was taken to battle by his recipients and was believed to carry the soul of its owner. Who did this flag belong to and how did it get into Devine’s suitcase?

The documentary Hinomaru: Homecoming of a Flag, made by Pritchard and which won the best short documentary award at the Tokyo International Short Film Festival last month, is the subject of a three-year search for answers to these questions.

“We didn’t really know what it was when we found it, but when we started researching we started to understand its significance,” Pritchard, 26, told the Observer. “He was shocked. It had nothing to do with his character. He definitely threw something out for us the way we saw him. So I had to get to the bottom of it and figure out what really happened.”

A flag captured from Japanese troops. Photograph: CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy

During the war Devine was a captain in the Burma-based Royal Artillery and was mentioned twice in despatches. in 1954, he became a co-founder of the English Stage Company, a radical theater company that began staging new plays at the Royal Court.

His first major success came in 1956 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Devine later wrote that his goal was to “bring writers with serious allegations back to the theater. he died after a heart attack in 1966 at the age of 55.

in 2017, when family members unfurled the newly discovered flag, they found hand-written messages emanating from the national symbol of a red circle representing the sun. This was a typical yosegaki hinomaru given by their community to young men going to war.

There are numerous accounts that Allied soldiers received such flags as souvenirs from the corpses of dead Japanese troops. According to one memoir, “the guys had a lot of fun, compared and often exchanged their prizes. It was a cruel, terrible ritual, similar to which has occurred on the battlefields since ancient times, when the antagonists had a deep mutual hatred”.

In recent years, hundreds of yosegaki hinomaru have been returned to their families, often in extremely emotional conditions, through the work of the Obon Association, a charitable organization dedicated to peace and reconciliation.

Pritchard wanted to find the owner of the flag, but “I didn’t know where to start”. He spent hours studying the war records in the national archives to plan the movements of Devine’s regiment, and eventually, in a “giant breakthrough” helped by a Japanese academic, he determined the soldier’s name and hometown.

The young filmmaker wrote letters to people of the same name in the town, local authorities and a nearby mausoleum. Finally, after many months of painstaking research, the soldier’s family was contacted. But the mystery of how Devine got the flag had still not been solved, and a few more twists had not come. In the end, both families – Devine’s and the Japanese soldier’s – had learned more about the past and their loved ones.

the 25-minute film has the distinction of being the first film Pritchard made after graduating from the University of the Arts in London. “I financed it completely myself, it was a passion project. People from the university helped me. I lived in [my parents’] house the whole time he was taking it, worked in a bar kitchen and saved up enough money to go there,” she said.

He always knew that his great-grandfather was a “pretty big deal in terms of theater history,” but I hadn’t really researched it until this flag came up. I definitely appreciate him more now,” he said.

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