Friendly Competition as Japan’s Shinagawa and Portland, ME host Youth Sports Exchange

Asia Japan

While the Olympic Games will not arrive in Tokyo for another two years, for the girls’ basketball teams from Shinagawa Ward that will travel to Portland, Maine this summer, the spirit of exchange through sport is already present.

With a population of over 300,000, the Shinagawa Ward of Tokyo is not unlike a city within a city. So much so, that it has four sister city relationships around the world, the oldest of which is with Portland, Maine. The connection between the two cities goes back to 1877, when American zoologist and Portland-native Professor Edward S. Morse made a discovery of prehistoric shell-mounds in present-day, Shinagawa; a find that formed the basis of archeology in Japan. It was through this special linkage that the Portland-Shinagawa sister relationship was established in 1984.

While Shinagawa has many student exchange programs, and sends and receives delegations on anniversary years with all of its sisters, the youth sports exchange is unique to its relationship with Portland. It began in 1988 when the Maine city sent a little league baseball team to play in Shinagawa. From there it evolved into a program that occurs every four years, on the model of the Olympics (though unusual circumstances, such as the H1N1 flu outbreak, have delayed it in the past.)

While baseball was the first, subsequent exchanges focused on different sports including soccer, softball, tennis, and of course basketball. This year’s girls’ basketball program will be the seventh in the series.

In each sports exchange, Portland players travel to Shinagawa to play friendly games against local teams, with the Shinagawa teams traveling to Portland afterward. Players from both cities stay with host families to experience each other’s culture and lifestyle first-hand.

According to Harumi Komatsubara of the Shinagawa International Friendship Association (SIFA), which manages the sister city activities on the Japan side, through sports the young people “deepen mutual friendship and understanding… going beyond the language barrier to develop a circle of friendship.”

Yaeko Collier of the Friends of Shinagawa organization in Portland agrees. When it comes to the city’s relationship with Shinagawa, “people appreciate the fact that the children are exposed (to another culture), and are able to go to the other side of the world,” in addition to “the eye-opening experience of having (Japanese) guests.”

When the girls of Portland and Shinagawa face-off this summer, it will be one of the last big exchanges before the sister cities’ 35th anniversary in 2019. Looking ahead, Komatsubara’s “hope is to continue these wonderful programs, and that young people are inspired to go abroad and become international people.” Indeed, a dream worth running, jumping, and shooting for.

Grace Ruch Clegg is a former Projects and Outreach Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington, DC.