I was a Rotarian from 2007 to 2018, chairing several committees, as well as Secretary and President of the Rotary Club of Pearl Harbor (RCPH). I now routinely attend RCPH meetings as a guest on Zoom from South Carolina. My realtor first invited me to attend a Rotary meeting in Hawaii. Rotary’s motto of “Service Above Self” is still attractive to me. Groups often can accomplish things that individuals cannot, and Rotary is project-oriented both locally and internationally.
On alternating years, the Pearl Harbor Club and the Hiroshima Tonan Club visit the other’s club in their city. The visits are usually 4 days long, with social activities and meetings, including a tree planting and a social call on the mayor. In 2012, while Secretary of RCPH, I had attended the joint meeting of Rotarians with the Hiroshima mayor in his conference room. At that time, I merely shook hands with him, as did each of the Rotarians from the U.S.
In 2014, I was the Pearl Harbor Club President when we were scheduled to visit Hiroshima. As the leader, by custom I sat with the Hiroshima mayor in front of both clubs’ members to exchange pleasantries. The mayor always presented a cloth rendition of the remains of the Genbaku Dome bombed on August 6, 1945 – called the Peace Memorial – which is Hiroshima’s most notable icon.
While sitting with the mayor, I noticed about a dozen additional folks standing behind the seated Rotarians from both Clubs. Because these meetings had always been pro forma exchanges of pleasantries, I was not concerned about the extra attendees. However, the mayor ambushed me with the following question: “Do you think that President Obama should apologize for the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima?” It was only later that I learned that those standing in the room were members of the Japanese press, apparently invited by the mayor to catch my extemporaneous answer to his planned question.
I assume he was unaware that the RCPH President he was addressing was a West Point graduate who had studied the war in the Pacific, and who had both read and watched many recountings of battles, strategies, and Japanese atrocities during the war. Images of the Bataan Death March, Japanese soldiers throwing their own family members over cliffs on Guam, and the attack on Pearl Harbor all flashed in my mind with revulsion. However, I did not feel that this was the time or the place to “relitigate” the war. Rather, I tried to take a straight-forward, peace-keeping approach even though he chose to ask this question of someone who was not an official representative of the American government.
I said three things to the mayor and audience. “First, I am not a politician. Second, as I look around the room, I do not see anyone who was likely old enough to have been in Hiroshima that day. Finally, there was much animus in each club toward ‘the other side’ when the idea of a sister club relationship between these two clubs was proposed in the early 80’s. It took until 1984 for the Rotarians of each Club to decide to look forward, not backward, as the strategy to form this now well-established relationship. So, I suggest we all look forward, not backward.”
So much for a strictly social visit with the mayor! The Americans in the room, many of them veterans were proud of my reply; the Japanese did not discuss the question or my reply, so I don’t know what they thought of the exchange. While there were articles printed in Japanese newspapers the next day, I did not obtain a translation.
Notably, there is a substantial amount of “revisionist” history taught in Japanese schools and presented in the Peace Memorial Museum. Younger generations appear to be unaware that the attack on Pearl Harbor was without warning, and that Japan was the aggressor in the Pacific war.
Two years later, in May 2016, President Obama went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park where he delivered a speech expressing concern about nuclear weapons but did not apologize for bombing Hiroshima.
Then in December 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Abe went to Pearl Harbor and delivered a speech expressing condolences but not apologizing for the attack on Pearl Harbor. I read an article in a Japanese publication translated into English with the opinion that: “The overwhelming sense is that the Japanese leader [Abe] would very much like the two visits to mark the end of an era in which, in his opinion, too much time was spent looking back on history and too little time invested in building on a relationship that is critically important to the shared security and economic futures of the two nations.”
That was what I tried to say in 2014: “Look forward, not backwards.” Not too bad for an amateur!
(As a footnote, when the sister club relationship was being developed, RCPH had several WW2 veteran Rotarians, some who previously had been about to deploy for the invasion of Japan, and one Rotarian (CAPT Jim Daniels) who was one of the few US pilots able to get in the air from the USS Enterprise on December 6, 1941 to look for the retreating Japanese fleet. Six of those planes were directed to land at Ford Island at Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, all six of the planes were shot at by anxious Navy seamen. CAPT Daniels’ plane was the only one not shot down, and he was one of only three survivors. Fittingly, he was also in the air over Tokyo Bay during Japan’s signing of their surrender to GEN MacArthur on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.)
Phil Clark says
Great story, Les. You were more tactful and diplomatic than could be expected at an “ambush” like that. Well done!
Ray Dupere says
I agree with Phil above, Les … I doubt that I would have been able to be even remotely diplomatic under the circumstances you described. Thanks for the story as well … although it has now been nine years since your Hiroshima visit, it is interesting to see that even as we age we still have the capacity to make a difference in this world.
Jim O'Toole says
Very nicely done Les .. in fact, my wife Gail & I are on a Tauck-tour here in Japan [Osaka] which – by ship – will soon take us to Hiroshima .. again, ‘Good-Show’ old friend !
William J. Bahr says
Dear Les: Thank you. Nice story!
親愛なるレス: ありがとう。 ナイスストーリー！
William J. Bahr says
And my compliments as well on your Rotary service! I’ve been a Rotarian off and mostly on since 1985.
And thanks, Suzanne, as well for updating me in your intro piece on the second Rotary motto: “One profits most who serves the best.” Dating myself, it used to be “He profits most who serves the best.” 🙂
Peter James Skells says
Les, I think you have the makings for a song here, maybe tilted “Look Forward.” Your “Barbershop” group could make a recording!
Well done, and great seeing you last week
John A Lucas says
Great story, Les. As I read it and tried to put myself in your shoes, the response that cane to my mind was “Amerian school children learn about Hiroshima in school. I think an apology from the U.S. should not be considered until Japan apologizes for the Rape of Nanking and agrees to teach about it in Japanese schools.
But, as feel-good as that response might be, under the circumstances, yours was much better.
Pete Grimm says
You were taught well to be extemporaneous, perform under fire, and managed to do it well when put on the spot to be a statesman. Great story! Keep them coming.