Historic Moments: Rotary in Japan
Japanese Rotarians gave decorative fans like this one, with a map of then-District 70 (Japan and Manchoukuo), to attendees at the 1938 RI Convention in San Francisco. Rotary Images/Monika Lozinska
The first Rotary club in Japan grew out of a meeting, in the United States, between two Japanese businessmen, Kisaji Fukushima and Umekichi Yoneyama.
The Rotary Club of Tokyo was chartered on 1 April 1921, a few years after their meeting.
Fukushima was working in Dallas and had joined the Rotary club there. Yoneyama, who was managing director of Mitsio Bank Ltd., was in the United States periodically during 1917-18 as part of a special financial delegation organized by the Japanese government to explore economic and industrial opportunities between the two countries. During one of those trips, Fukushima introduced him to Rotary.
By early 1920, Fukushima had returned to Japan, and the two men joined 22 others in organizing the Tokyo club. Fukushima was the club’s first secretary and Yoneyama its president.
A second club was chartered, in Osaka, in1923, under the direction of Fukushima. Three more followed in 1925 -- Nagoya, Kobe, and Kyoto -- largely through Yoneyama’s efforts as special commissioner for Japan. When Rotary founder Paul Harris and his wife, Jean, visited Japan in 1935, the number of clubs had grown to more than a dozen.
There were 48 clubs in 1940 when the advisory committee for Japan’s districts notified the Secretariat that the clubs could no longer function in an organized way because of the political situation. With great regret, the Board terminated the clubs and disbanded the districts.
However, the Rotary spirit remained strong in Japan, and during World War II, many former Rotarians continued to meet in “day of the week” clubs, including the Wednesday Club in Tokyo and the Friday Club in Osaka. In 1948, when RI Assistant Secretary George Means went to Japan to investigate the possibility of reestablishing Rotary clubs there, he found the office of the Wednesday Club stocked with copies of The Rotarian and other Rotary literature. Club members sang Rotary songs and wore name badges that bore a striking resemblance to those used by the former Rotary Club of Tokyo.
When Means returned to Chicago and shared his findings in January 1949, the Board decided to reintroduce Rotary to Japan as soon as possible. Means headed back to complete the task, and the Tokyo club received its charter on 29 March.
The Rotary clubs of Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kobe were chartered by the end of April. By the start of Rotary International’s golden anniversary year, 1954-55, the number of clubs in Japan had reached 140. In July 2012, when Sakuji Tanaka of the Rotary Club of Yashio began his term as Rotary president, there were more than 2,200 clubs and 89,000 Rotarians in Japan.