Maihama station in Urayasu, Chiba prefecture lies ten minutes away from Tokyo Station, but the sight of a fairytale castle rising up over swaying palm trees and crowds of ecstatic children mingling with pre-teen girls in Mickey Mouse hats makes one wonder if they just disembarked at the Magic Kingdom. It would not be far from the truth: Urayasu is the home of Tokyo Disneyland, and sister cities with Orlando, Florida.
It is easy to think that the famous cartoon mouse was what brought the two cities together, but instead it was the result of an exhaustive search by a committee of citizens appointed by the Mayor of Urayasu in 1987. “Many locals consider Disney as the reason, but they don’t know the history.” explained Dr. Hachiro “Hatch” Tokuda, former chair of the Urayasu International Friendship Association (UIFA), and the coordinator of the sister city selection committee.
This was fairly unique at the time. It was typical for sister cities to come from Japanese “VIPs” befriending American counterparts at conferences or business forums and establishing sister ties between their hometowns. The communities tended to appreciate their sister partners, but complained about the arbitrary selection.
It was important to the UIFA committee to build a relationship based on common ground, so they sought to find a city that was similar to Urayasu. “Waterfront,” “Commuter Town,” and “Resort Destination” were all “keywords” for the search, explained Tokuda, “Disney was not.”
Over time, the committee narrowed the options down to Alexandria, Virginia, and Orlando, Florida. Alexandria met a lot of the committee’s criteria, but its long history as one of the oldest cities in the U.S. was a bit of a disconnect with Urayasu, which had only become a city a few years prior. Orlando, on the other hand, “was a special city like Tokyo, with many small satellite cities” in its metropolitan area, and was also a “newcomer city” with a short history. Ultimately the committee recommended Orlando to the mayor and, after a period of negotiations between the cities, the sister relationship was established in 1989.
In addition to regular citizen’s delegations, and an exchange between local road running clubs, the core of the sister partnership is formed by annual exchanges of high school students through Dr. Philips High School’s Center for International Study (CIS), a special Orange County program designed to develop international understanding. There, the hosting of students from their sister city and study trips to Urayasu form a key part of the school’s Japanese program. The sister partnership and week-long exchanges are “a great opportunity for us to learn about Japan!” said Rodger Barrows, director of CIS. “The exchange is great for the families and siblings that host (students) and the whole school.”
The value to the community is not limited to hosting Urayasu students in Orlando. Barrows explained “Japan is the most popular destination of all of the schools for the international program… When our students go over there they really bond with the host family. (There are) literally rivers of tears at the end of the experience.”
The Orlando-Urayasu sister relationship will celebrate 30 years in 2019. Looking ahead, Tokuda wants to see the robust student and runners programs continue, but for the sistercities to also expand their exchanges to include more programs in areas such as sports, music, and communication. As for the longevity of the partnership, he points to the origins of the sister relationship and a Japanese expression: ichinen no kei wa gantan ni ari. “Preparation and planning are the foundations of success.”
Grace Ruch Clegg is a former Projects and Outreach Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.