Sakuji Tanaka joined the Rotary Club of Yashio, Japan, as a charter member in 1975. He served as 1994-95 district governor, 2003-05 RI director, and 2006-10 Rotary Foundation trustee, and will be RI president in 2012-13.
Tanaka was chair of the Daika Company and president of the National Household Papers Distribution Association of Japan. He also has served as vice president of the Yashio City Chamber of Commerce.
He has received the RI Service Above Self Award and the Foundation’s Citation for Meritorious Service and Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Kyoko, are Paul Harris Fellows, Benefactors of the Permanent Fund, and Major Donors, and are members of the Arch C. Klumph Society. Tanaka also has established an endowed Rotary Peace Fellowship.
Tanaka and Kyoko, who have been married since 1963, have three children and six grandchildren and live in Yashio.
Editor in Chief John Rezek talked with Tanaka in his office in Evanston, Ill., USA. Rezek reports: “We met in November, along with Eiko Terao, of the RI Language Services Division, who served as interpreter. Tanaka is a compact man who seems to have slightly more energy than he is able to contain. He is thoughtful and quick to smile, and was eager to understand each question precisely. One of the pleasures of being with him is witnessing the vigorous exchanges between Terao and Tanaka as they hammer out a common understanding. He is both polite and passionate. I got the impression that he may not be fully aware of how inspiring he can be.”
The Rotarian: What was your reaction upon hearing the news of your nomination?
Tanaka: I was surprised, overjoyed. I felt it was kind of a miracle, because I never thought this would happen, especially for someone of my modest background. But it was a mixed feeling, because I immediately realized that I now had a tremendous amount of work and responsibility. I resolved right away to make it the best year I could, and to work as hard as I could.
TR: Can you retrace for us the steps in your journey to the RI presidency?
Tanaka: About three years ago, I was encouraged to run for president by what we call in Japanese senpai – senior leaders. At first I said no, but they kept encouraging me. In Japanese there is a word shikataganai – it’s out of my hands, I can’t control it. So I ran, and I was elected. Now all I can do is to do my best.
Being from a humble background, and being someone who is not necessarily very intellectual or highly educated, I hope that I may be a good example for others who may wish to run but think they are lacking in qualifications.
TR: If you could have a conversation with each Rotarian, what message would you convey?
Tanaka: I would let each Rotarian know that there is no higher or lower position in Rotary. Everybody is equal. I also would ask each person why he or she is a Rotarian, because I would like to find the commonality among Rotarians and what Rotary has brought to them. And I would ask what Rotary should become and in which direction Rotary should go.
TR: What do you hope to accomplish during your term?
Tanaka: Rotary, for all the wonderful work we do, is not well known enough, and we need to change that. Rotary may be effective in promoting its public image on an organizational level, but there may be lacking in some individual Rotarians a strong commitment to promoting why they are Rotarians. I hope I may be able to provide some kind of a template – maybe a short speech – that Rotarians can adapt to their own circumstances, to tell other people what Rotary is all about.
TR: Is a one-year term too short for the RI presidency, or are there greater challenges?
Tanaka: I think one year is enough. As president-elect, you start to work right away, so in effect, you’re working for two years, not just one. A bigger challenge may be cultural. Each president comes from a different cultural background, so what is ingrained in his or her thinking or values won’t necessarily be the same for other people. For example, a president from one country may bring the attitude of wanting to change the world in a year. From the Japanese point of view, a slower, gradual change is more appropriate.
TR: Can you describe the process of coming up with the theme for your year, Peace Through Service?
Tanaka: The Rotary Peace Centers were established as part of The Rotary Foundation in 2002, and I was involved in setting up that program from the beginning, four years earlier. So I’ve had a strong association with the word peace, which I think is a very important thing to promote in the world.
TR: Peace is often described by what it is not – for example, the absence of conflict. How do you define peace?
Tanaka: Peace, in my mind, is very abstract. It’s difficult to define peace. The definition probably depends on where one lives – the region or even the community. In some areas, having water to drink can lead to peace, or literacy can lead to peace. Just the idea of a family being safe can give a sense of peace. The concept of peace includes being satisfied, being content, being happy. So peace is very much a matter of individual perception. When I reflect, postwar Japan was very, very poor, and life was very hard, but some were satisfied simply with the feeling that they had returned to a more normal life. Currently, particularly in Japan, although there is no war, no conflicts, people are rather unsatisfied.
Every community should be able to provide its youngsters with the possibility of having dreams. When I travel around the world, or around Japan, one of the first questions I ask young people is, what is your dream? Not everyone can come up with an answer. I would hope that everybody would have some kind of dream for the future – to become a teacher or president.
TR: What must each of us be willing to do to promote and achieve peace?
Tanaka: I believe we all must think about why we are born into this world. Each individual has his or her own mission. During my year, I would encourage every Rotary club to have at least one meeting to discuss what peace means to the members. If people become more aware of what peace means to one other, each individual in the club will work harder to achieve it.
I think each Rotary club must work to identify the needs of its community and then work hard on meeting those needs. The strength of Rotary comes from having 34,000 communities. If 34,000 clubs are working hard locally for peace, working together will bring us closer to the goal of achieving world peace.
TR: Do you believe it is a strength of Rotary that we have no political, economic, or ideological tenets?
Tanaka: Yes, definitely. Although Rotarians represent different religions and ethnicities, we do not put an emphasis on our differences. I think it is a strength that we respect and tolerate diverse backgrounds and thinking.
TR: In terms of achieving peace, are there some situations that are simply hopeless – failed states in Africa, for example, or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
Tanaka: There are situations that may indeed be hopeless, but we still have to work hard to find ways to help, such as supporting the United Nations in its efforts. The sad thing is that the people in those kinds of situations are not able to have the simple things in their daily lives that most take for granted.
In poor countries, many people are not educated, and they cannot find a way to resolve the situation they are in. That’s why it is so important for Rotary to help in any way possible – to provide a literacy or educational program so people in need can earn their own living. You try to teach people how to fish rather than give them the fish.
TR: Would it be helpful if UN personnel who carry weapons in conflict situations were not called peacekeepers?
Tanaka: Ideally, it would be better if they didn’t carry weapons, but they have to be able to protect themselves.
TR: If peace breaks out, how will we know?
Tanaka: I think this goes back to different regions having different definitions of peace. In areas where people cannot go to work without fear, if they could be relieved of that fear, that could be peace. In areas where children cannot go to school without being threatened, if they could be free of that threat, that will be peace. For some people, reading a newspaper is impossible, because they are not literate. If one day they are able to read a newspaper, that may be peace as well.
If every individual can achieve a feeling of personal satisfaction, that will be the ultimate peace. Even if a person is very wealthy, if that person does not have a sense of self-fulfillment or self-contentment, there is no peace for that person.