55 years ago, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania resident Reverend Kenneth Heim accepted a transfer to Tokyo, Japan and befriended a resident of Tondabayashi. They visited each other’s cities and recruited friends and family to do the same.
In 1964, the friendship between the cities began to flourish when Tondabayashi created a Sister City association and appointed a city official to collaborate with Bethlehem’s mayor and related committee, cementing the sister city relationship. Six years later, Japanese landscape architect Yoshinaga Sakon gave the City of Bethlehem a tea house and garden, following a Tondabayashi visit made by members of the Bethlehem committee. It was named the “Garden of Serenity,” and remains an important landmark in Bethlehem to this day.
In 1972, the Bethlehem City Council officially established the Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission to “promote friendship and understanding between Bethlehem and Tondabayashi, to exchange cultural interests, to promote trade interests and tourism, and to oversee a Student Exchange Program between Bethlehem and its Japanese sister city of Tondabayashi.”
The Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission oversees many activities that bridge the unique cultural heritage of the two cities including the Student Exchange Program, tea ceremonies, a crafts day, language classes, and trips to New York City, Philadelphia, Lancaster and Washington, D.C for the visiting students from Japan. The Commission is currently developing a traveling exhibit for area schools and international cultural programs to educate people on the economic, political, and cultural connections between the two cities.
In June of 2013, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan visited Tondabayashi, meeting with Mayor Toshiki Tada to celebrate the five-decade long friendship between the cities. Ellen Bearn, chairwoman of the Bethlehem-Tondabayashi Sister City Commission, travelled with Callahan and students from the exchange program. Bearn stated, “Here in Bethlehem, the Garden of Serenity, the tea house, and the cherry trees -- all gifts of Tondabayashi -- are a beautiful reminder of the family ties that bind our two sister cities.”
Beyond the significant cultural ties, Japan continues to influence the Bethlehem area and the larger Pennsylvania 15th Congressional District in other ways. In 2011, the most recent year of compiled data on export services made publicly available by the US Department of Commerce, PA-15 exported $56 million in services to Japan, encompassing 8% of the district’s service exports. In 2012, the district exported $98 million in goods to Japan, representing 4% of the district’s total goods exports and making Japan the 5th largest goods export destination. As the sister city relationship between Bethlehem and Tondabyashi proceeds, the cultural, economic, and political connections will all continue to prosper.
Kevin Lair is a summer research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and will be a senior at Washington College this fall.