Hanamaki, Japan: A Tale of Two Sister Cities


Hanamaki is a city situated in a valley in the rugged Iwate prefecture in Tohoku, Japan’s northeast region. The Arkansas city of Hot Springs was a natural partner for a sister relationship with Hanamaki, which is famous throughout Japan for its onsen hot springs. The two cities established formal sister ties in 1993 after several years of reciprocal visits and meetings. The relationship took off between these two tourism-focused communities, as exchanges of student and citizen groups became routine, including an annual delegation of teachers from Hot Springs.

Meanwhile, in a smaller community less than 7 miles to the north, the town of Ishidoriya had an American sister city of its own in Rutland, Vermont. The relationship began when the mayor of the town, Kojiro Seki, was visiting Earlham College in Indiana, and expressed his interest in looking for sister city candidates for his community to expand their horizons beyond their mountain valley. A professor had students living in Vermont, and thinking it had a lot in common with Ishidoriya, suggested that Mayor Seki visit. The story goes that when he arrived, the views were so similar to his home; he made his decision on the spot. Rutland and Ishidoriya signed a sister agreement the following year in 1985, and maintained student delegations and anniversary celebrations every five years.

This continued until 2006 when Ishidoriya and two other nearby towns were consolidated into the city of Hanamaki. This was part of the Japanese government’s policy of municipal mergers, intended to promote more effective administration and service provision in response to declining demographics and local government decentralization. The policy reduced the number of municipal governments in Japan from over 3,000 in 1999 to 1,800 by 2010, impacting the sister partners of numerous U.S. communities.

For Hanamaki, this meant not only expanding to include these new communities, but new sister relationships as well. Suddenly it had two very different American Sisters! As Natsue Sasaki of the Hanamaki City International Relations Office recalled, “when merging we had to decide the best way to continue the exchanges.” Should they keep it the same? Or mix it up and start new ones? They needed to go over the details for all of them. While this affected the Hanamaki-Hot Springs partnership less as they were originally sisters, because Hanamaki as an entity changed so drastically, each of the sister relationships had to be renegotiated.

For Rutland, a major plank of their negotiations was that things should continue unchanged from how their relationship had been with Ishidoriya. Both cities ultimately reaffirmed their sister city agreements, and while the Hot Springs and Rutland relationships are now both managed by Hanamaki, they maintain their unique characteristics. When delegations from Rutland come, for instance, their visits are localized to Ishidoriya. Likewise it is residents from the Ishidoriya area that make the trek to Rutland.

For Hanamaki Mayor Toichi Ueda, having a variety of active sister cities is just fine. He was born and raised in the city, but then moved to New York for a career in law before returning to his hometown. He wants the youth of his city to have the same chance to live and work in other countries, but “hopes they do come back to Hanamaki though, some day.”

Grace Ruch Clegg is a former Projects and Outreach Coordinator with the East-West Center in Washington