One can find a few great strokes of fate that shaped Lana White’s life.
First, she lived after World War II thanks to what the Japanese people call “Luck of Kokura.”
Then, the American serviceman she married in post-war Japan hailed from the same town as the president who OK’d the atomic bombs.
Finally, years after she established herself in Independence, a chance meeting with an educator from her home country led to an enduring connection.
White, who helped forge Independence’s Japanese sister city connection with Higashimurayama, died Monday at the age of 88.
“Our entire community has benefited from Lana's love and devotion to this program,” said Kathy Vest, a longtime friend of White and fellow Japanese Sister City Commission member. The Sister City program, she said, made Independence, the jumping off point for the three trails, into a city of “Four Trails” with one between Japan. The program has lasted more than 40 years and includes regular visitor exchanges.
Vest and Jeannae Segura Brown, another longtime friend and commission member, remember White as a great peace ambassador whose giant heart and “huge amount of energy and love for others” contrasted her petite stature.
White (maiden name Setsuko) was a 14-year-old living in Kokura, Japan, when the United States dropped the second atomic bomb over Nagasaki in August 1945. Cloud and smoke cover prevented a clean view to drop on the initial target of Kokura, and the city had also been the secondary target of the Hiroshima bomb three days earlier.
In an interview with The Examiner for the 70th anniversary of that event, White said her family had no knowledge of war’s progress.
“In Japan, the government controlled everything,” she said. “You obeyed them.”
Before the atomic bombs, White remembered U.S. planes dropped leaflets to civilians across Japan, warning of great damage from bombs if Japan did not surrender. She took a leaflet to the police, who dismissed it. The city’s being passed over led to the Japanese using the phrase “Luck of Kokura” to describe instances of unknowingly escaping bad fortune.
White said she remembers listening to the emperor’s announcement of surrender over the radio.
“He was crying, I could tell,” she said. “We all cried; we didn’t expect it.”
When White was 8, she said, her father had arranged a marriage for her, and by the time she reached 18 she had no desire to comply – holding no affection for the man of choice. A friend whose father was an English professor said if White worked at the U.S. military base, her father could not reach her. By that time, White had learned a good deal of English in school, and she decided to go work at the postal exchange in the Tokyo base.
There, she met Bob White, a William Chrisman graduate who served in the Navy and Air Force. He learned photography and became Gen. Matthew Ridgway’s personal photographer during the Korean War. Lana didn’t want to marry a military man, and Bob eventually left the armed forces. While her mother liked him, her father disowned her – a conflict that led her parents’ separation, she said.
The Whites moved to the United States in 1956, staying in San Francisco for two years before settling in Independence. Whatever fears she might’ve had living in the same town as someone she’d been taught was a war monger, they disappeared through assimilation and research.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “When I came here, I started reading” about the war.
The sister city idea came about after Hajimei Ishizu traveled from Japan to meet a local educator whom he’d met at a convention in Japan and kept in contact. Ishizu couldn’t locate his friend, but Kansas City Police remembered White as a translator from an international convention and put the two in touch. They never found the intended contact, but White gave him a city tour, including the Truman sites, and invited him to stay with her family.
The two maintained correspondence, and each pitched the sister city idea to their respective mayors – in Independence, Dick King.
“She asked if we would be interested in being a sister city in Japan,” said Carolyn Weeks, then the executive assistant to the mayor. “She told him about the similarities and thought it would be a good match.
“He said if we could get a group together, he’d love to meet with them – so we did.”
The first Japanese delegation visited in the last week of January 1978, and White helped sign the Sister City Charter. Delegations visit each other every five years, Glendale Elementary maintains a sister school relationship with a school in Higashimurayama. and the two cities have an annual student exchange.
Another longtime Sister City program member was Chiyoko “Rosie” Smith, who lived in northern Japan during the war, also married an American serviceman, eventually settled in Independence and died in 2018 at age 89.
Vest said White’s leadership and devotion for the Sister City program “provided tremendous opportunities for adults and students from both countries to learn about our two cultures.”
She felt lucky to have survived the war, Brown added, and because of that she wanted to give back and make a difference in the world.
“She taught us all how to make friends in Japan,” Brown said. “How to behave in the home. How to make a good first impression. How to present ourselves as friends from Harry Truman's hometown. The home is where cultural differences really make or break a relationship.”
Many people left White’s home with a token of her generosity, Vest said.
“When you visited her you could not leave without taking home a jar of homemade salsa or jam,” she said.
Bob and Lana White had three children and became grandparents. She worked at the Kansas City Board of Education and then many years at area banks, including Blue Ridge Bank.
Reflecting near the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, White said she had a hard time imagining life anywhere else.
“I’m a very lucky citizen in Independence,” she said.
Services for White will be 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Speaks Legacy Chapel on 39th Street.