2011-03-30 | Sister Cities Reach Around the World to Help Japan
Sister Cities Reach Around the World to Help Japan
30 Mar 2011
By Kathryn McConnell
Washington — In the wake of disasters, families pull together, even if the family members are half a planet apart. As Japan’s cities struggle with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, their sister cities in America look for ways to help.
After terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, residents of Tsuruoka, Japan, raised $15,000 and sent a group of civic leaders to sister city New Brunswick, New Jersey. They presented the money to Mayor Jim Cahill, who turned it over to a local group assisting victims of the attack. Many of New Brunswick’s residents commute to New York for work, including several firefighters who responded to the attacks.
Now residents of New Brunswick, population 52,000, are reaching out to Tsuruoka, raising funds to send to that city’s mayor to aid survivors of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, said Bill Bray, New Brunswick’s communications director.
Located in the northwest corner of Japan, Tsuruoka itself was not heavily damaged by the disaster but is aiding communities that were.
New Brunswick and Tsuruoka, with about 100,000 residents, have been sister cities since 1960, but their relationship has much deeper historical roots. In 1869 Tsuruoka sent a student to Rutgers College in New Brunswick, the first of many Tsuruoka residents who would attend the university. Tsuruoka students travel to New Brunswick each year, and New Brunswick reciprocates.
Across the United States, many cities, large and small, are reaching out to their sister cities in Japan, sending money and extending words of solidarity. Some 600 U.S. communities have sister-city ties with cities in Japan. In times of crisis, those ties become lifelines.
In 2005, when residents of Hanamaki, Japan, learned that people in Hot Springs, Arkansas, were housing evacuees after Hurricane Katrina engulfed southern Louisiana, the Japanese residents sent more than $3,500 for clothes and other essentials. Hot Springs and Hanamaki, both mountain vacation destinations with natural thermal waters, established a sister-city relationship in 1993. Since then, the cities have strengthened their ties though citizen and student exchanges.
Now Hot Springs, a city of about 40,000 people, is returning Hanamaki’s expression of support for disaster survivors. So far, the Americans have raised more than $14,000 to send to Hanamaki, a city of 106,000 people in Iwate prefecture. “Our experiences after Katrina and with the exchanges made us think about the kids in Japan affected by the disaster,” said Mary Neilson, Hot Springs’ sister city program coordinator.
Even though American and Japanese cities are separated by thousands of kilometers, “when you get to know someone, you develop a strong bond with them,” Neilson said. On March 17, just days after the tsunami, students of Hot Springs who had visited Hanamaki a few months earlier marched in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade carrying flags with symbols of the two communities’ relationship.
Riverside, California, population 304,000, and Sendai, Japan, population 1 million, became sister cities in 1957, the year after U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower created the program as a way to build international cooperation in the aftermath of World War II.
The Riverside City Council already has approved $100,000 for Sendai, and Riverside County has donated $50,000. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge hopes to raise $500,000 more from area citizens and businesses and to personally deliver the funds to Sendai Mayor Emiko Okuyama. “The relationship with Riverside is invaluable,” Okuyama wrote to Loveridge.
Far to the north of Riverside is Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska, with 68,000 residents. Since 1996, it has been a sister city of Akita, a city of about 1 million people in northwestern Japan. Akita was not directly affected by the disaster but did send a fire department team to the area to assist in search-and-rescue efforts.
Kenai residents gathered together and called Akita’s mayor to ask how they could help. “It is devastating for a community,” said Dave Carey, Kenai’s mayor. The Alaskans were particularly concerned about the children in Japan who had lost relatives and homes and are missing school. Kenai officials set up a nonprofit organization to collect donations from residents. They will send the money to Akita’s mayor, who will transfer it to emergency workers in the tsunami-affected area. “They know where they need help,” Carey said.
Kenai residents know firsthand the challenges that follow a natural disaster. A 1964 earthquake isolated the peninsula from the state’s capital city, Anchorage.
“When people are undergoing huge amounts of distress, it’s appropriate to show a huge amount of compassion,” Carey said.