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Bill Forrest - An Unlikely Friendship and the Start of Youth Exchange

An interview with William John Forrest, otherwise known as Bill Forrest, on 22nd of November 2020. I'm Jim Booth, and we're sitting at Bill's house, located in Tamworth, NSW, Australia. Bill, welcome. Tell me, how far back does your original interest in the country of Japan go?

Bill Forrest

It started in 1968. When the district that I was in, I was in Rotary from about 1963, I think it was, and the district governor at the time, rang me and said, "I want you to start an exchange student program in this district". And I said, "What the hell's that?" And he said, "Well, it's up to you to find out; that's your job now". So I looked into it, and I found a fellow committee chief named Bill Hornage. From Dubbo, a very well-known man, and an excellent companion he was, and we organized a program, we organized a set of rules, and we called on all the district, all the clubs in the district. And we got eight young teenagers, we collected them together to tell them what we thought we should they should do. And we sent them to Ohio, and Pennsylvania, in America.

And it didn't take long for me to realize that the Americans were our friends, they were allies during the war, we should be spending more time trying to make friends with those who weren't our friends. So I wonder whether there are any Rotary clubs in Japan, we just had a war with them. So I looked up the Rotary directories and I found that there were two clubs in Japan that had started an exchange student program, one of them was in the north, northeast corner in the state of Aomori. And the man's name was Ichibay Matsuo. And I wrote a letter to him, I wrote two letters, one to another fellow in the south, he didn't reply, but Ichibay was very prompt, and he sent back with yes we will accept exchange students.

So it didn't take long - ‘68, ‘69 around about 1970 - when they sent a teenager named Kyoko Iwama out to our club, and we sent, in three years, we sent three girls up to Sannohe. And they all came back with loud praises of the town. And by about 1974, I think it was, our eldest son said, "Gee, I wouldn't mind going to Japan as an exchange student". So I wrote to Ichibay, because the girls had all told us how wonderful a time they had when they were there. So I wrote to Ichibay and said "How'd you like to take our eldest son for an exchange student?" He said, he wrote back very promptly. He said, "Yep, we can. He can be my son too", he said, so Allan went to Sannohe. And he had a marvellous time. Some very interesting experiences he had while he was there, but before Allan (was due to) come back home, the whole Rotary Club there invited Ruth and me up to visit them. As far as the exchange student program is concerned, you don't go and visit your children because it only makes them upset. But it didn't make Allan upset. So then we went up there and we got on very well with them, had parties and lots of sake every night.

Ichibay was very kind to us. He spent a lot of time discussing old times, the war, what happened after the war or before it, that was very, very interesting. We came back from Japan, and Peter our second son then went up in 1977. Peter went to Japan and went to a place called Muroran on Hokkaido. He got on very well with them too. So when Peter came back, Colin applied but he didn't want to go to Japan, Colin went to Germany instead. And he had a marvellous time, we went to Germany and visited the host parents, they called him on the phone, and I was in the kitchen while his two host parents were crying. Puts a lump in my throat too but they were crying because they were talking to their boy Colin, he did very well there.

Then in 1982 our second son Peter married a Japanese girl, Aki, she's a very bright young lady. And we went to Japan and some good friends from Tamworth went with us  to Japan for the wedding. So we were well represented. Peter and Aki have two daughters, both of whom are quite delightfully beautiful girls.

Jim Booth

What I was thinking is the link between the Forrest family and Japan came about because Mr. Matsuo replied to a letter.

Bill Forrest

He was very good. Matsuo did a wonderful job. Then, in 1990, I wrote to him and I said, 'Gee, I'm about to retire. I wouldn't mind going and living in Japan for a year to see what it's like, see what the kids...how the kids behaved, and see what exchange students can do". And he said, "Don't worry, we'll fix that when you get here". So we, Ruth and I, went up in 1990. And they had an apartment, full of furniture, furnishings, television set, radio, refrigerator full of food, and two motor cars, one for the winter, one for the summer. We looked after them, gave them back when we finished of course.

For the time we were there, in 1990, Ruth and I were involved in everything that went on in the town. Everything, taught English at schools, taught music at schools, helped with their festivals. And one day, the mayor came to me and said, "Would you like to participate in the judging of the Miss Sannohe Contest?" "Aw, would I what?" I said.  So we got to do that. We picked three girls. And I said to the mayor, at a quiet time, "What do you do with these girls, what sort of a prize do they get?" "Well, we send them to Hawaii for a holiday". I said, "That's a bit silly, isn't it?" And he looked at me as if I'd insulted him. And he said, "Why? What do you mean?" I said, "Well, you shouldn't send them to Hawaii, it's full of Japanese tourists, how about sending them to Australia, to the country music festival. And he looked at me for a good long time. He said, "You can guide us, that's a good idea. Good idea". So, for the next 10 years or more, we received in Tamworth three Miss Sannohe’s.. They usually had an escort. The first escort who came out with the first group is now the mayor of Sannohe. His name's Matsuo too.

So we've been back too, with invitations; we've been back for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Sannohe Rotary Club. I was involved in music while I was there. I played first clarinet in the Hachinohe Symphony Orchestra for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That was another experience. Everything we've done there's been a wonderful experience. No, didn't get into trouble, never had a fight with anybody. It was very good.

Jim Booth

So you, you started this less than 25 years after the war. And it's now 70 or more years.

Bill Forrest

It was 1968 that we first started, in ‘68. And the war finished in ‘45.

Jim Booth

We've just seen the Prime Minister of Australia, in Japan signing various deals. So the relationship in your eyes has just continued to grow and grow.

Bill Forrest

I think so, I think so. Sannohe had decided they were going to call Tamworth their sister city. They did. We did not ask them, they asked us. And they sent a delegation out and they signed all the papers. So Tamworth and Sannohe are officially Sister cities.

So the next thing that happened was that Ichibay died. Ichibay - I used to rouse on him every time I got near him - he was a chain smoker, and I think that probably contributed to his illness. Allan, Peter and I went to his funeral. Apparently, that impressed the people in Sannohe greatly when we went to the funeral. And it was after that, we went back for the Rotary Club’s 50th anniversary. We don't think we'll be able to go again, because I'm now ancient, Ruth's not in the mood for traveling now, but our children do.

Our son goes... two sons. Peter is an accountant. And his wife's a very good accountant. She's a university medallist. They do a lot of work in Japan. Peter was a trade commissioner, the Australian Foreign Affairs and Trade, and they had a daughter Erina who's about to give birth to a child of her own.

But we've been in contact with them, with Matsuo, the mayor, the fellow who was the first escort for the girls. Oh, that's right. The girls don't come out anymore, for two rather interesting reasons. One was the economic downturn in Japan in the 90’s, when the recession was quite bad. But the second reason was that the competition became so popular, that for the last two or three groups that came out, the girls all came from places other than Sannohe.

Jim Booth

So how important is the work that Rotary does for these sort of international relationships?

Bill Forrest

I've been a very great supporter of the exchange student program. And I believe that if it wasn't for the exchange student program, there would be a lot less harmony around the world. There's a lot of ex-exchange students who have come to me and said, "I will never fight in a war against Germany or Japan or Indonesia. Because I love them so much". They say, "They treated me like, like their own children", no matter where they went - Mexico and South America, Japan, nobody went to China. No, no. But there were some students who went to Indonesia and they were treated very well. France, Germany, Scandinavia.

So there's thousands and thousands of Australian kids who've been overseas. And they think highly of the country from which they where they lived for a year, including Pam McKnight. Pam McKnight was an Australian, a Tamworth High School girl. When she was 16, I said to her one day, I happened to meet her in the street, "Have you ever thought of becoming an exchange student?" "What's that?" she said. Pam went to Japan as an exchange student, lived there for a year, in a place called Towada in Aomori ...Anyway, she came back, went to university, studied Japanese and joined the Department of Foreign Affairs. And she finished, part of her career was being Australian ambassador to ASEAN, and then Germany.

The Japanese coming out now, they come out to Tamworth. And we alternate, every two years a group from Tamworth goes to Sannohe, and then they all come out in the following year. I think that's what it is.

(Image: A sister city visit to Tamworth in 2019, with Mayors Matsuo and Murray)

Jim Booth

So obviously, the people who go on exchange seem to be people who later in life become very successful Australians. 

Bill Forrest

I think so, yes, most of them that I've known have been successful. We’ve had a small number of failures but generally speaking, they were very good, very good.

Jim Booth

We're just coming out of COVID-19 - or hope we are - a world pandemic, and travel has stopped, and international barriers have gone up. Is now a good time to look at what Rotary has done, to look at international exchange and to try to regenerate?

Bill Forrest

Oh, I think so. There are former exchange students all over Sydney and the north coast. And if anybody was interested, we could dig them out. That's another failing of the Rotary Club. There’re not many failings but we have failed to keep a record of all the students who came back. I've got a whole book full of them, but it's only a small proportion of the ones that came back. They would all be very interested in being spoken to about the nations that they lived in. And they could probably be sent back as an ambassador for the case to the country, that they speak very highly of them. They all say, every one of them, "I couldn't fight another battle against my host family".

Jim Booth

Do most Australians tend to want to go to English speaking countries?

Bill Forrest

Yes that’s true. I've been trying, believe it or not, over the last few years, to persuade exchange students to go to Siberia. Now they say "Siberia, no, I wouldn't, it's too cold". I say, “It's alright, it's cold but there's a lot of people live there and they put up with it.” But the beauty of it is that there's about 48 Rotary Clubs there in Siberia. And there’s  the chance to learn the Russian language  I'm still very, still very strongly supportive of the exchange student program.

Jim Booth

Bill, thank you very much. And let's hope that the movement and the good work that you've built, keeps going.

Bill Forrest

I hope so, thanks. Thanks, Jim.

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