Screening of the Documentary Paper Lanterns and a Talk by Ambassador John Roos

 In Culture Exchange

The Japan Society of Northern California’s screened the documentary, Paper Lanterns, on February 16 at the offices of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati to a sell-out crowd. As explained by JSNC Board member Nobuko Saito Cleary, who also produced the film, the documentary directed by Barry Frechette tells the little-known story of Shigeaki Mori, a Hiroshima bombing survivor who dedicated 40 years of his life to uncovering the identities of the 12 American POWs who died in the bombing and then contacting their families in the US to help them bring closure to their loss decades later.

The film focused on two of the POWs, the last two families that Mr. Mori tracked down who also happened to be the last two Americans to die when they succumbed the following day to severe radiation poisoning. The niece of Normand Brissette and nephew of Ralph Neal came to Japan to meet Mr. Mori and trace the final steps of their long-lost relatives, in a moving tale of loss, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Following the movie, former US Ambassador to Japan John Roos talked about the decision to send him as the first American Ambassador since the bombing to represent the US at the annual Hiroshima Memorial Ceremony in 2010. Ambassador Roos, the only native San Franciscan to ever serve as US Ambassador to Japan, explained his strong desire to have then-President Obama attend the annual ceremony. When he discovered that no US Ambassador had gone before knew he had to break that precedent first, paving the way for a later Presidential visit.

The Ambassador drove that decision through the Washington bureaucracy. Though he noted that he did not receive much substantive pushback, breaking 60 years of precedent nonetheless require a very skilled argument. The most sensitive issue was the question of whether the US would apologize for the bombing, which would have been politically impossible. However, that problem became moot as neither the central government in Tokyo or the city Government in Hiroshima asked for an apology. In the end what both sides wanted was a powerful symbol of mutual reconciliation, compassion for those who had suffered from the attack and a mutual commitment to one day rid the world of nuclear weapons, an objective that President Obama articulated early in his tenure.

Ambassador Roos’ participation at the Hiroshima ceremony in August 2010 was a huge international media event (even Fox carried it, he noted with a smile) and the crush of media and spectators, all focused on him, combined with the extreme heat, was forbidding. He related how his interpreter put an icepack in his collar to keep him cooler, but to no avail! Fortunately, he made it through the ceremony slightly dehydrated but in one piece.
Having broken the 60-year precedent, he and his successor Caroline Kennedy attended most of the subsequent memorial ceremonies at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the following years. In the meantime, President Obama had pledged to go to Hiroshima before the end of his Administration and kept that pledge when he visited Hiroshima for the ceremony in the summer of 2016 where he gave a deeply moving speech. During that visit, with virtually the entire world watching, he famously hugged Shigeaki Mori who broke down in tears, an emotional scene captured in one of the last frames of Paper Lanterns.

Special thanks to Nobuko Saito Cleary for producing the film and allowing the Society to screen it.

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