The Neighborly Thing to Do: US Communities Reach Out to Japanese Sister Cities


This spring, for the first time in twenty-four years, students from Kanegasaki (Iwate Prefecture) did not visit their sister city of Amherst, Massachusetts. Rather than hosting a farewell dinner for their Japanese guests as planned, the Kanegaski Sister City Committee is holding a pot-luck supper to raise money for the Japanese Consulate of Boston’s earthquake relief fund.

According to the Japan Matters for America data, Amherst and Kanegasaki are just one of nearly 400 sister and friendship city relationships between the United States and Japan. America has more sister city relationships with Japan than any other country. As Japan copes with the recent natural disasters, these local linkages are becoming even more active as communities across the country are reaching out to support their sister cities.

For communities with particularly close ties to the most devastated areas, the news of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami has hit home for some residents. Mark Berry, the chairman of the Dallas/Sendai Committee, is intimately acquainted with the hard-hit city of Sendai and has visited the Texas city’s sister community nine times. “It’s just like I feel what they’re feeling… I see that wave coming through, throwing around their cars – that hurts me almost as if I was there.” The Dallas Symphony orchestra is donating a portion of the proceeds from its performances to Sendai while the local Japan America Society of Dallas is hosting a telethon to raise money for the relief effort.

Sendai’s other American sister city of Riverside, California is directly seeking to support its partner. It is the goal of municipal leaders to raise $1 million dollars for Sendai; city officials have already pledged $500,000 from the general fund, which they hope will be matched by the community. Further north in Fort Bragg, California, the city’s flags are flying at half-staff in mourning for their sister city of Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, which was decimated by the tsunami. Of a population of 17,000 people, 10,000 remain missing. Fort Bragg has started a fund to directly assist the survivors.

The well-spring of support has not been limited to communities with sister cities located within the disaster area. Matsumoto, Nagano, sister city to Salt-Lake City, Utah, was far from the earthquake’s epicenter and suffered little damage. Nevertheless the Utah city’s officials have set up a relief fund that will donate money directly to Matsumoto to distribute to where it is needed most. In addition to bolstering a 50-year bond between the two cities, it is an effort to partially return the financial generosity that their Japanese friends showed them in the past. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Salt Lake City received $36,530 raised by the citizens of Matsumoto, which was then given to New York City. The relief fund set up by the sister cities association of Springfield, Illinois, was launched under similar auspices. While its sister city of Ashikaga, Tochigi, sustained only collateral damage and blackouts from the earthquake, city leaders see this as an opportunity to help the Japanese city that sent aid after 9/11 and damaging tornados in 2006. “We want to step up to the plate and help them,” Springfield Mayor Frank Edwards said. “It’s only fitting and appropriate that we return the favor.”

While President Obama was speaking for the nation when he pledged support to our “friends in Japan,” those words have special meaning for American and Japanese sister cities as years of interaction and exchanges have forged close personal ties. As Mary Nielson, the coordinator of the sister cities program between Hotsprings, Arkansas, and Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, told the New York Times: “If it weren’t for our sister city program,” Ms. Neilson said, “I’m not sure people here would care as much and as deeply about what is happening in Japan.”