History of Conflict Brings US & Japanese Cities Together in Peace

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by Nate Schlabach
The mayor of Nagaoka, Japan, Tamio Mori, and Kirk Caldwell, mayor of Honolulu along with members of the US Navy commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII at the Peace Floral Tribute and Wreath Presentation at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Image: Johans Chavarro/US Navy.

The first US sister city relationship with Japan, also its first with any community in Asia, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. St. Paul, Minnesota and Nagasaki, Japan established their relationship in 1955, marking the ten year anniversary of the end World War II. Since then, both cities have spent six decades engaging in numerous types of cultural exchanges and celebrations. Most recently, St. Paul held the Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival on the grounds of the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory as a way to celebrate Japan and its annual Obon holiday.

The origins of the relationship come from Louis W. Hill Jr, a state legislator and businessman who became interested in Asian art, particularly in Japanese wood-block prints. Having visited Nagasaki before the war along with his interest in art, Hill pushed St. Paul into developing a relationship with the city. They officially did so on December 7, 1955, 14 years to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, the United States has more sister relationships with Japan than any other country in the world with over 400 partnerships and state relationships existing between the countries. The Twin Cities also continue to have a strong collection of Japanese and other Asian art, in part thanks to the legacy of Mr. Hill.

The Second World War also provided the basis for the sister city relationship between Honolulu and Nagaoka, Japan, which established a partnership in 2012. Officials from both Honolulu and Nagaoka gathered in Hawai‘i last month to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the conflict’s end. Honolulu was the site of the attack on Pearl Harbor, while Nagaoka suffered its own bombing during the war and was the birthplace of the late Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Many of Hawai‘i’s other sister relationships were established because of its ties to the events of WWII. This includes the state’s relationship with Hiroshima Prefecture, which was established in 1997. The Hiroshima-Hawai‘i relationship also took inspiration from the fact that many early Japanese immigrants settling in the state were also from Hiroshima Prefecture. Hawai‘i now has 23 such sister relationships, the fifth most of any US state.

Many other cities in the US and Japan also found purely civilian reasons for partnership. The connection between Milan, Ohio and Yawata City, established in 1986, is based on Thomas Edison and the lightbulb. Yawata City had an essential component Edison needed and Milan, Ohio was his birthplace. Riverside, California and Sendai, Japan agreed to become sister cities in 1957 because the cities are straight across the Pacific Ocean from one another. California currently has more sister relationships with Japan than any other state, at 100 in total.

Washington has the second most with 35 and the connection between the state and Hyogo Prefecture is the first sister state relationship in either country. Michigan ranks third with 28 and the Detroit-Toyota sister relationship, which is the oldest in the state, is based on the fact that the two communities are both motor cities.

In total, the US and Japan share 441 sister city relationships and 23 sister state relationships. In the US, 45 states have at least one sister connection and all but one of Japan’s 47 prefectures has a sister relationship with a community in the US.

Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.