Most families have heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation to signify connections between past and present: Nanna’s wedding ring, old photo albums, Dad’s purple heart. A DC documentary team wants to give one heirloom back to its rightful owners — an unknown family in Japan.
Paul Ufema, owner of Ufema Productions, a Virginia-based company which specializes in production of not-for-profit films, was given a sword by his father who received swords from his father. Now, he and producer Brad Bennett want to learn the sword’s story and turn it into a documentary about Japanese and U.S. relations called “Forgive, Don’t Forget.”
The project is on Kickstarter, a crowd-sourced funding site, and needs about $10,000 more dollars from backers in two days to receive any funding.
“It’s just gotten to the point on both sides of the fence where I think people have forgiven [World War II],” Ufema said. “With anything in life, it’s important to forgive, but not forget because when we forget, we don’t learn.”
The Japanese Samurai sword was one of the one million swords turned over to American solders after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the end of World War II. Ufema’s grandfather, who was stationed on the island of Kwajalein Atoll, brought three swords back to the United States, which was common for officers stationed in the Pacific.
When he died, the swords were passed to Ufema’s father and then distributed among Ufema and his two brothers.
Because the ancient swords — which are hundreds of years old — have been gathering dust in the brothers’ basements, Ufema got the idea of returning the symbols of honor to the families in Japan. He teamed up with Producer Brad Bennett of Shaking Hands Production and Sound editor Jonah Guelzo to make the project a reality.
Brad has family in Japan and recruited his Japanese grandmother to help with research and to read the name on the sword.
“The Samurai sword represents a lot more to [the Japanese] than it does to us,” Ufema said.
After researching, the team found one of the swords had a handmade blade, which means it can reenter Japan. Machine-made blades are regarded as purely weapons and may not enter the country. The handmade swords, considered an art form in Japan, were often passed down from generation to generation.
“If it wasn’t [handmade], our project would stop right there,” Bennett said. “It’s amazing how it all came together, how it all molded.”
The sword also has a surrender tag with the officer’s name and military rank, a rare find. The team sees the care taken to identify the sword as a sign that the family wanted it back.
“It’s obvious that the officer that had this sword had it handed down,” Ufema said. “The blade wasn’t made for him.”
As the group continued researching, they drew more attention to their cause and more people to the project’s inner circle. Ufema said when he originally got the idea, he didn’t think it would become so big and have so much support.
“It’s been amazing how everyone wants to see this project completed,” he said. “People have been really stepping up and no one’s asked for anything in return.”
The group has talked to families of WWII veterans and interviewed Japanese students. They have also been connected with Japanese army officials who were able to match the name on the sword to a masking in an official military record.
The team adopted the theme of forgiveness for the project after interviews with Japanese citizens. They found that many of the Japanese do not want to be reminded of the failed war and many young students know very little about World War II.
“It’s kind of taboo to talk about the war,” Bennett said. “They kind of want to erase it. It’s an open wound.”
The group is one-third of the way to their funding goal with only two days left in the project, but they say they will see the project through regardless.
With the funds, the team will travel to Japan to return the sword and interview Japanese citizens on the ground to tell the story of U.S. and Japanese relations in a neutral way.
“If more people knew about what we are doing, it would have been funded by now,” Bennett said. “I’ve never really had the opportunity to participate in something world changing.”
Interested in supporting this project? You may donate online here.