A Buddhist monk’s long-ago secret ceremony to honor American airmen in downed planes has become a solemn staple of annual Pearl Harbor commemorations in Hawaii. This year marked the 46th enactment of the Blackened Canteen ritual to bring healing between two former enemies, the United States and Japan.
“Everyone here knows about the ceremony,” says Richard Rovsek, who spoke to PEOPLE from aboard a ferry while attending Friday’s Pearl Harbor events. “It has a very deep meaning.”
As part of the ritual, American and Japanese delegates pour whiskey from a fire-charred World War II canteen into the waters surrounding the USS Arizona memorial.
The ceremony represents “conciliation at its finest,” retired Lt. Col. Gary Meyers, of the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, told a U.S. Navy interviewer.
The ritual is rooted in tragedy for both nations.
In June 1945, American B-29 Superfortress aircraft conducted bombing runs over Shizuoka, Japan, as part of the response to the December 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the raids over Shizuoka, more than 2,000 Japanese died. Additionally, two B-29’s collided in mid-air, killing the aircrews, according to U.S. Air Force and Navy reports.
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A local citizen, Fukumatsu Itoh, scoured the wreckage of the crashed planes. He pulled two badly injured crewmen from the rubble. They later died, bringing the tally to 23 aircrews killed following the collision. A devout Buddhist, who later became a monk, Itoh buried people who died as a result of the raids – including the American airmen.
While combing through the plane wreckage, Itoh found something else: a blackened canteen. The small metal flask was partially crushed, and deformed by heat. It appeared to bear the seared-in imprints from a human hand. Itoh kept the canteen.
Meanwhile, to honor the Americans, Itoh secretly erected a cross. Each year, on the June 20 crash anniversary, he poured whiskey from the blackened canteen onto the cross.
In 1972, Itoh invited Americans from the nearby Yokota Air Base to attend the ceremony. The aging Itoh gave the canteen to a helper, a local man who had stumbled upon the memorial cross while hiking.
That man, Dr. Hiroya Sugano, was only 12 during the Shizuoka bombing raids. Sugano reportedly remembered the actions of his doctor grandfather, who treated wounded soldiers from both sides of the second Russo-Japanese War. Inspired by his grandfather, Sugano wanted to honor warriors from both sides of the conflict.
In 1992, Sugano brought the canteen to Pearl Harbor. He has performed the ritual there every year since.
The ceremony includes pouring whiskey from the canteen, and sprinkling flower petals into the water. While simple, the ritual resonates.
“The Blackened Canteen ceremony is more than appropriate,” says Rovsek. “Our two countries need to be role models during these difficult times in this turbulent and even dangerous world.”