The Pivotal Role the UH Professor Played in the Recovery of the Ehime Maru
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at
George Joji Tanabe Jr. likens himself to a salmon that traveled from a river to the open ocean and then returned home to spawn.
Tanabe grew up in Waialua on O‘ahu’s north shore, where his family ran the town’s only furniture and hardware store. He attended Willamette University in Oregon, where he earned a history degree, and then studied Christian theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He then earned his doctorate in medieval Japanese Buddhism at Columbia University.
Returning to Hawai‘i was always Tanabe’s goal. In 1977, he landed a teaching position in UH-Mänoa’s Religion Department. His wife, Willa, was hired to teach in the Asian Studies Department. Over the next 30 years, Tanabe carved out an illustrious career as a scholar and professor of Japanese Buddhism. Despite the long commute, he and Willa chose to make their home in Waialua.
It was fortuitous that Tanabe chose this path and returned to Hawai‘i. In 2001, he would play a pivotal role in recovering the bodies of nine Japanese citizens who died in a tragic collision at sea of the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries training vessel, and a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine. Tanabe’s knowledge of Japanese cultural and religious practices would make him an invaluable consultant to the U.S. Navy. It would be a defining moment in his life, as he was able to apply his academic knowledge to a critical real-life situation.
Tanabe’s efforts did not go unrecognized. In 2013, the Government of Japan honored him with an imperial decoration — The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon — in recognition of his “contributions to the strengthening of academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and Japan.”
The Ehime Maru Incident
On Feb. 9, 2001, the Ehime Maru, an Uwajima Fisheries High School training vessel from Ehime Prefecture, was performing routine training exercises about nine miles off of Diamond Head when the USS Greeneville unknowingly slammed into it. The Greeneville was demonstrating an emergency surfacing drill called a “ballast-blowing surfacing maneuver” for civilian visitors aboard the sub. As the submarine shot to the surface, it struck the Ehime Maru, slicing right through the steel-hulled trawler.
The Ehime Maru sank to the ocean floor within minutes. Nine of the 35 people on-board were killed, including four high school students, two teachers and three crewmembers.
In Hawai‘i, Tanabe and the rest of the world watched the tragedy unfold in the news. “We saw the photo of the Ehime Maru damaged and going down and the USS Greeneville just sitting there, not offering any assistance,” he said.
Tanabe also realized that the ocean was rough and that the sub was not equipped with smaller boats that could aid in the rescue. Footage of that sight outraged the people of Japan, conjuring up images of the uncaring “Ugly American” who could stand by and watch as others died so tragically. Tensions mounted between Japan and the United States in the ensuing days.
The Greeneville’s commander, Scott Waddle, was charged with gross negligence. The Japanese media questioned how the submarine crew could not have known that there was a ship right above them. Why were they doing this maneuver, which is supposed to be performed only in an emergency, they asked. They wanted to know the identities of the civilian visitors on board the submarine and whether they were wealthy donors that the Navy was trying to impress.
The situation grew even graver when Cmdr. Waddle showed up for a televised hearing. “Commander Waddle was filmed coming out of the car. He had this unfortunate habit of holding his face in such a way that you thought he had a smirk on his face,” recalled Tanabe. “The Japanese media went ballistic.”
The Japanese wanted a public apology from Waddle, but his legal counsel advised against it. They felt that an apology before the trial would be an admission of guilt. (Waddle later issued a public apology.)
The incident exploded into an international debacle with the Japanese government demanding that the United States recover the bodies of the nine victims from the sunken ship. The U.S., in turn, felt it was an unreasonable demand. The trawler had sunk to a depth of 6,000 to 7,000 feet. At the time, the deepest ocean recoveries had been to depths of about 200 feet, not thousands of feet.
As Tanabe watched the situation unfold, he decided to write an opinion piece, which was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. In it, he explained why the Japanese families were so insistent that the remains of their loved ones be retrieved. In his commentary, he focused on the Japanese people’s belief in the importance of an afterlife.
Tanabe explained this concept of death as being one in which “the dead are still alive and they still have their bodies and they still need to eat . . . that if you just leave the dead in the bottom of the ocean, they are going to suffer.”
In order to bring closure and peace to their souls, Tanabe said that the families wished to cremate their loved one’s remains as a form of purification. There could be no closure until the bodies of the dead were returned to them.
Tanabe’s op-ed piece made an impact. The Navy decided to try to recover the bodies from the Ehime Maru. Several weeks later, Willa Tanabe, head of the UH Asian Studies Department, received a request from the Navy to have cultural experts join their recovery effort to ensure that “they did not make any cultural mistakes.” George Tanabe and several language specialists were recruited.
The first step was the Navy’s preparation of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, which the UH team examined carefully. Once approved, the recovery work began.
Raising the Ship and Training the Divers
Raising the Ehime Maru from those depths was no small feat. The Navy brought in a special recovery ship and dispatched robots that could burrow under the hull of the ship and set cables. Very, very slowly, they planned to tow the Ehime Maru to about 100 feet deep so that divers could then search the ship for the nine people. Tanabe recalled that the arduous process took several months. It was the first time a ship had been retrieved from such depths.
George Tanabe’s role took on special importance. He had to train the 60-or-so divers in the proper protocol for retrieving the victims from the ship.
Which part of the body should they touch first? Tanabe had written about funeral traditions in Japan and instructed the divers to start with the feet.
“When a body is cremated in Japan, family members gather to pick the bones with long chopsticks. They are advised to do the feet first so that the person will be right-side-up.”
Throughout the ensuing weeks, the divers rotated shifts underwater. Tanabe continued to answer questions and dealt directly with the divers, many of whom were in their late teens and early 20s. He emphasized the importance of handling the remains with respect and reverence. The families of the victims were flown to Hawai‘i and witnessed every step of the recovery effort, as the entire process was videotaped.
Tanabe advised the young divers: “You’re on the barge. You’re waiting your turn. Don’t horse around or don’t joke or don’t laugh. Think of the people you are recovering as your relatives. Stand at attention.” They listened and heeded Tanabe’s advice.
He recalled that each day when the recovery barge returned to shore and the divers disembarked, the grieving families bowed and thanked them. The divers responded in kind, remembered Tanabe.
“Some of them actually turned and bowed back, as well. There was this real sense of respect that both sides felt.”
When the operation finally came to an end after more than 400 dives, all but one of the victims — a 17-year-old student — were recovered and returned to their families.
For his role in helping to create this special bond, “They made me an honorary member of that salvage unit,” chuckled Tanabe.
The Imperial Decoration
When George Tanabe was presented the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Star with Neck Ribbon, from the Government of Japan for his contributions to the successful operation, Tanabe insisted that his involvement was but a small part of the total operation.
“The whole story needs to be told, because it was really quite amazing what they did,” said Tanabe. “The team they put together, the speed with which they worked. The sensitivity that they finally realized they had to have because of the mistakes they had made at the beginning.”
Perhaps this piece is a first step in the telling of that story