〈160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship〉
Helping a President Come to Terms with the Past
-My Father-in-Law’s Curious Connection to President Bush Sr-
160 Years of the US-Japan Relationship: Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present
Last year, Japan and the United States of America marked the 160th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1860. At this historical milestone, KaFSA is pleased to introduce four articles focusing on Early Encounters, Wartime and the Present, hoping for an ever deepening and enduring friendly relations between our countries for the future.(KaFSA, March 31, 2021)
When President George Bush Sr passed away in November 2019, he was mourned by millions of people from a wide range of backgrounds that cut across political, ethnic and social lines. It seemed that he had touched the hearts of many individuals, but my family had a special connection to the late President.
Shortly after the President’s death, a number of special programs were broadcast to honor his memory and celebrate his life, and most of these included the incident when his aircraft was shot down by Japanese forces off the coast of Chichi Island during the Pacific War. Bush had been miraculously rescued by a US submarine, which was navigating in the vicinity, but two other crewmen aboard his aircraft could not be found. The fate of these two men haunted George Bush Sr for the rest of his life, not only on a personal level but also politically. His opponents did not fail to take advantage of the incident, accusing him of being a coward who had abandoned his comrades.
However, this could not have been further from the truth. My father-in-law, Warren Nobuaki Iwatake, was watching the whole incident unfold from the top of a nearby hill, and clearly remembered, years later, that the pilot did not bail out until the last possible moment before the plane crashed into the ocean. In other words, Bush had acted extremely bravely and did not abandon his comrades.
But how did a young Warren Iwatake find himself on that hill in the first place? Warren was a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American born in Maui, Hawaii. He stayed there until he graduated from high school, but then went back to Japan for family reasons shortly before the war broke out. As a result, he was drafted into the Japanese military and posted on Chichi Island to monitor US radio communications, which put him in the perfect position to witness Bush’s crash and subsequent rescue.
It was not until many years later, in 2002, that Warren was able to tell President Bush what he had seen that day. By that time, I had myself been given the chance to observe the President on several occasions while serving as Japanese Prime Minister Kaifu’s English interpreter. The first such occasion was just after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when Kaifu had an urgent telephone conversation with Bush on the issue. This was the beginning of many such conversations which became rather frequent and were jokingly referred to by the media as “Bush phones.” This phrase was not only a pun on the “push [button] phones” that were replacing old-fashioned dial models, but also had connotations of the US placing undue pressure on Japan to do more to support multilateral efforts to drive back the Iraqi invasion. In reality, however, the President was always courteous, never deviating from his kind, warm tone.
In the summer of 1991, months after Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi occupation, President Bush invited Prime Minister Kaifu to his family villa in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Despite the presence of honored guests, the President did not change his daily routine, and his conversation with family members remained the same. I distinctly recall him asking about the well-being of his 90-year old mother, who lived in the same compound, and how he looked reassured when someone told him she was fine. “What a kind man,” I thought to myself on hearing this simple exchange, many of which must have taken place in the Bush household every day.
Returning to my father-in-law’s story, I was convinced that Warren should tell Bush what he had seen that day off Chichi Island if the opportunity ever presented itself. This almost happened when the President visited Japan in January 1992. At that time, Warren was working in the Press Section of the US embassy in Tokyo and Bush’s schedule included a get-together with embassy staff there. It seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the two men to meet, so I even asked then deputy chief of the embassy, Mr. Breer, to ensure the conversation took place. Unfortunately, the President fell ill and collapsed during the Japanese prime minister’s banquet, and consequently the get-together with embassy staff was cancelled.
My father-in-law had to wait another decade before the next chance came around. Mr James Bradley, who wrote a book on the battle of Iwo Jima, introduced him to President Bush. And when Bush revisited Chichi Island with Ambassador Howard Baker in the summer of 2002, Warren Nobuaki Iwatake accompanied them and was finally able to share what he had seen more than fifty-seven years before. After finally hearing Warren’s story, President Bush felt vindicated.
Some people dismissed President Bush’s trip to Chichi Island as the sentimental journey of a retired politician. For him, however, the trip had great personal significance because he was finally able to come to terms with his own past and mourn the death of his two comrades. I sincerely hope it gave him the peace of mind that he deserved.
Matsunaga Daisuke served as Japan’s Ambassador to Ethiopia (2018-2020), Consul General in Edinburgh (2016-2018) and Dubai (2012-2014) and Assistant Press Secretary for the Foreign Ministry (2001-2002).