NORMAN — Rotary International President Sakuji Tanaka learned many valuable things during his youth.
“I come from a large family, he said. “I am one of eight children. One of the things you learn is that you have to eat fast.”
Tanaka joked that this quality served him well as Rotary President because he can quickly eat his meals before he speaks at events like the Bi-district Rotary Foundation Banquet in Norman Friday night.
Tanaka, whose slogan during his year in office is “Peace Through Service,” is dedicated to helping the poor and the hungry of the world — children who eat fast because they are starving.
“We do not think about the ground beneath our feet,” Tanaka told the packed house of Oklahoma Rotarians gathered at the NCED Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. “We do not think twice about the walls that hold up our house.”
But almost two years ago come March, many Japanese did think about those things. The tsunami and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima killed 15,000 people and injured nearly 6,000 people. Four thousand are still missing.
“There are no numbers to measure what happened to so many people in a number of hours,” he said.
“Our building standards are the highest in the world,” he said. “We thought we were ready for anything.”
But Japan was not ready. Life for many changed dramatically. Those traumatic events made Tanaka take note. He realized that he is no different than the people he helps through Rotary.
“We do not know what it is like to have no water, no sanitation, no education,” he said.
Often, Rotarians like himself are benefactors from far away, seeing people in poverty from a distance. The tsunami brought home to him that human suffering is human suffering. That those in poverty feel hunger, pain and loss as acutely as those who were flourishing before the disaster wiped it all away.
“There is nothing at all separating us from the people we help,” he said. “We are all the same.”
One time in the Philippines Tanaka and his wife were asked to help pass out soup at a school Rotary built for the street children there.
“Suddenly, the street was full of hungry children,” he said. “Their hands reached out for the soup.”
The small soup bowls were the size of coffee cups. Soon all of the soup was gone. One boy licked every bit of soup out of the cup.
Tanaka said the boy wanted more soup, needed more soup, but it was gone.
“Through our Rotary Foundation, we all have the power to do what I wanted to do that day — call the boy back” and feed him.
Tanaka said we can feed the world — together.
Rotary is a humanitarian network that tackles hunger, poverty, and the need for education at home and abroad through a network of empowering giving that helps people be a part of the solution in many cases.
Friday night, Tanaka and Rotary International President-elect Ron Burton were both in Norman, both at the foundation dinner. It was a rare and special event.
“We don’t travel together,” Burton said during his introduction of his friend, Tanaka. He said the President and President-elect would normally only be together at an international event. The two have known each other for years, however, and have served together on boards and event committees.
“This guy only talks when he has something to say,” Burton said of Tanaka. “When he does talk, you’d better listen. This is a gentleman dedicated to peace.”
Burton will take the presidential reins in July. His 2013-14 slogan will be, “Engage Rotary, Change Lives.”